BERNSTEIN: Divertimento. Three Meditations from Mass. Five Songs. Overture and Suite from Candide.
Minnesota Orchestra, Eiji Oue/cond. Beth Clayton, mezzo-soprano (Songs); Anthony Ross, cello (Meditations).
Reference Recordings RR-87  [F] [DDD]  TT: 65:03

As a ballet and Broadway composer, Bernstein worked with orchestrators—Hershy Kay, Sid Ramin, Irwin Kostal, and later on Charlie Harmon, who became Lenny-B's personal assistant in 1982, his archivist in 1985, his music editor in 1988, and since LB's death in 1990 the editor of a critical edition of his music. Harmon has annotated this new Ref/Rec collection, conducted by Bernstein's last protégé from the Orient, Eiji Oue. (The first one, for those too young to remember, was Seiji Ozawa.)  He also "arranged" the 18-minute Suite from Candide for this recording, having "worked directly with the composer....prepared a score and a set of orchestral parts... reviewed the score with the composer (as he prepared to conduct it for the first time, in 1989), and seen to it that his revisions were incorporated into the orchestra material."

Ramin, one of the co-orchestrators of Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, scored five songs spanning a 30-year period from 1949 to 1979, which Beth Clayton sings charmingly and characterfully in this first recording. LB arranged the excerpts from his controversial Mass of 1971 for Mstislav Rostropovich to play with piano. Harmon is a little vague about the orchestrations, although Bernstein "in his preface to the orchestral version acknowledges the assistance of John Mauceri and Jack Gottlieb in preparing the orchestral score." Here the Minnesota Orchestra's first cellist, Anthony Ross, plays them persuasively; how pleasurable to be spared "Slava's" showboating.

The Candide Overture was originally orchestrated by Kay back in 1956 for that best of Bernstein's Broadway scores. Therefore, on this 24-bit, HDCD recording from Symphony Hall in Minneapolis, we have only the 15-minute Divertimento from Bernstein's own hand without acknowledgement of help, commissioned for the Boston Symphony Orchestra's centenary in 1981. Although it comes last on the disc, I've listed it first because it receives the best performance, certainly superior to Bernstein's own with the slapdash Bavarian Radio Orchestra of bygone years on a Hungaroton CD. The premiere raised plenty of Boston eyebrows: Brahmans were heard to grumble "Pops" music. But the work's eight movements continue to impress me as intentionally trivial, in a couple of cases banal; Bernstein had been bypassed, after all, in 1948 despite the advocacy of his mentor, Serge Koussevitzky. For the third successive time, BSO trustees imported a new conductor from Paris—Charles Munch. Not only was Lenny a "home-town boy," he was Jewish (so was Koussevitzky, but he'd converted to Greek Orthodoxy before leaving Russia for Paris).

The Candide Overture here is spirited enough, yet in a vastly crowded field simply does not stand out. Harmon's suite is given to swooning, whereas the original, despite its initial failure, was as saucy, slyly parodic and abundantly tuneful as anything in the musical theater of its time. The fault was not Bernstein's score but politically angry Lillian Hellman's leaden, misshapen book, and Tyrone Guthrie's production, neither fish nor fowl nor good red meat. If you want to hear Candide as it deserves to be heard, there is Columbia/Sony's original cast recording, as well as the complete recording of an off-Broadway revival in the '70s, with a new book by Hugh Wheeler that Hal Prince directed prankishly, as much in the aisles as on a small stage. Finally, there's Bernsteinās own opulent concert version of 1989 in the Royal Festival Hall, London, preserved on DGG for a grateful posterity.

You want the best of Bernstein? Go back to Wonderful Town (on CD), a musical version of My Sister Eileen almost as fine as Candide. And his earlier On the Town, plus its companion ballet Fancy Free. I'm a fan of The Age of Anxiety, his Second Symphony-cum-piano concerto; Serenade after Plato's "Symposium" for violin and orchestra; parts of a polyglot Symphony No. 3 called Kaddish, and parts of "Mass" when he remembered the gift to be simple. Bernstein's best manages to sound not too much like Aaron Copland. But his poorest, I continue to maintain, is West Side Story, bogusly sentimental when not manneristic, without ever suspending our disbelief—but then I never saw or heard 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which hit an iceberg in Lenny-B's twilight years, despite (or perhaps because of) a book by Alan Jay Lerner. It never got out of Washington, DC, much less onto Broadway.

R.D. (Oct. 2000)