IT HAS BEEN said that by the age of 60 Leonard Bernstein has expended enough talent to build major careers for three or four lesser persons. There is Bernstein the personality, Bernstein the conductor, Bernstein the pianist, Bernstein the educator, Bernstein the toast of Broadway and Bernstein the composer of symphonic music.
Bernstein is probably the most widely known of classical musicians - least of all, however, for his concert music. It has sort of ridden piggyback on his spectacular career, and when it has attracted attention at all, it has attracted almost as much controversy as acclaim.
This is because Bernstein the composer has gone against the post-World War II musical grain and never joined the movement to kill tonality and invent a new musical language. His goal is to find new ways to use the existing vocabulary. For this he has been decided in the halls of musical academe as "eclectic," "derivative" and so on. This might just as easily have been said in their times of Bach or Mozart, though Bernstein has not been so immodest as to say so.
To make his point, he describes taking 1965 off from the New York Philharmonic for composing. "I was writing 12-tone music and even more experimental stuff. I was happy that all these new sounds were coming out; but after about 6 months of work I threw it all away. I just wasn't my music, it wasn't honest."
This quotation appears in the exhaustive notes that accompany the newly released set of his three Symphonies and his joyous "Chichester Psalms" on Deutsche Grammophon (2709 077-3 discs). Bernstein conducts the Israel Philharmonic and the recordings were made in Germany, of all places, during a tour there last summer. Bernstein, of course, has recorded them all before, but never with such elan or in such sonic splendor. And I have never heard the orchestra sound so virtuosic either live or on records. A large number of its members are of German descent, and it sounds like they went to the country from which their families had fled with an "I'll show you" spirit.
These recordings give those of us who admired the works, but had not had a chance to hear them in some time, an opportunity to test our instincts about their durability. And, for at least one listener, they stand up very well indeed. I think this is music we're going to hear more and more with passing time.
Eclectic that he may be, there is a very individual character to Bernstein's mucic, it is just as true of the symphonies as of "West Side Story." Whether in his musicals or in his concert works, Bernstein sticks to the same basic language. It is just that with the symphony orchestra he makes it more complex harmonically, rhythmically and contrapuntally.
Bernstein himself unintentionally pinpoints this special quality when discussing his second Symphony, based on W.H. Auden's poem "The Age of Anxiety." "I came upon this facinating and hair-raising poem . . . and it began to affect me lyrically when I first read it in the summer of 1947." It is that adherence to lyricism that is perhaps Bernstein's most dominant characteristic. Bernstein is basically a lyric composer in a non-lyric age. The lullaby version of the Jewish prayer of sanctification, Kaddish, in his 3rd Symphony (subtitled "Kaddish") could easily be moved to the musical stage, and the reverse is true of many Bernstein show songs. The lullaby, by the way, is ravishingly sung here by Monserrat Caballe.
It should be noted that "Kaddish", in this version, has undergone considerable tightening and alteration.
Bernstein is the first to admit that all his major music is based on literary or dramatic sources. "I have a deep suspicion that evey work I write, for whatever medium, is really theater music in some way," says Bernstein. The principal sources are English-language poetry and the Old Testament or Hebraic liturgy. The recurring theme in most of it is the loss of faith by modern man, and his efforts to regain faith. Thus Bernstein also stands apart from the most of his contemporaries in that he writes music with a social message.
In this set of recordings, the first remarkable high point comes in the last movement of the 1st Symphony (subtitled "Jeremiah"), as the celebrated soprano Christa Ludwig sings the cry of Jeremiah as he mourns the runin, pillage and dishonor inflicted upon his beloved Jerusalem.
The next one, "The Age of Anxiety," is a triumph from beginning to end. It is my favorite of the symphonies and I have never heard the piano part played with such bite and virtuosity as here, by Lukas Foss. Curiously, despite its poetic origin, this is the only nonvocal work on the set.
"Kaddish" is the most recent and problematic of Bernstein's large works, a complex intermingling of use orchestra, spoken monologue, also singing and a chorus. The subject is the estrangement of man and God. Some have regarded the spoken lines as blasphemous. Even I have little trouble with the point at which the word "man" is substituted for "God" in the opening of Kaddish, "Magnified and sanctified be the great name of God".
Bernstein's rather extensive revisions have helped enormously. He says, "I was not satisfied with the original. There was too much talk. The piece is essentially the same, only better."
Then there are the "Chichester Psalms," which are in Hebrew, even though commissioned for a British cathedral. This wonderful composition for boy's choir and orchestra is bernstein at his most extroverted and radiant. And this performance, with the Vienna Boy's Choir, eclipses his earlier one. The rhythms are electric and the orchestral attacks are positively brilliant. His solo setting of the 23rd Psalm for boy soprano, by the way, is one of the most glowing songs ever penned by our finest songwriter now active.
An added benefit of the Bernstein 60th birthday celebration is Columbia's reissue on its bargain Odyssey label (Y 34633-mono only) of the Bernstein "Serenade." The composer conducts the much-missed Symphony of the Air (Toscanini's former NBC Symphony) and the violin soloist is Isaac Stern, for whom the work was written. Do not assume from the title that this is a merry little romp. Instead, it is a 5-movement symphonic length piece. The energy and virtuosity of the whole performance - just listen to Stern's triplet scales and his assured high notes - more than compensate for the dated sound. Stern and pianist Alexander Zakin play Bartok's 1ast sonata on the other side.
For all the contempt that the avant-garde has held for Bernstein's music, it just might be that he will win in the long run - just as his hero Mahler did after decades of neglect (this is not to suggest that Bernstein is another Mahler, nor would he suggest it). Clasical music is moving back in Bernstein's direction.In a recent article in High Fidelity, Dallas Morning News critic John Ardoin commends Bernstein for his "courageious . . . defense of tonality during the decades when it was unfashionable to do so, when everybody from Stravinsky down was writing serial music." Then Ardoin notes that "by staying true to his ears and beliefs, Bernstein now finds himself - to his amazement and gratification - at the very center of American compositional life." What better 60th birthday present?