November 17, 2005


Bernstein: Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion; Facsimile—Choreographic Essay for Orchestra; Divertimento for Orchestra. Philippe Quint, violin; Marin Alsop conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Naxos. $7.99.

Bolcom: Music for Two Pianos. Elizabeth and Marcel Bergmann, pianos. Naxos. $7.99.

     Leonard Bernstein and William Bolcom were exposed to many of the same musical influences, but they managed those influences and integrated them into their own works very differently.  Both expressed themselves in multiple musical forms – and Bolcom, who is only 67, continues to do so – but they used those forms in different ways.

     Bernstein’s concert music is less well known than his show tunes, but Marin Alsop, herself a Bernstein protégé, makes a strong case for it.  Bernstein (1918-1990) had a way of ingesting the musical trends of his time and making them his own; he also managed to create programmatic music that can often be enjoyed even if you do not know what it is about.  That is the case with the Serenade for Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion, which is nothing less than a musical interpretation of Plato’s Symposium.  Relate the ins and outs of the arguments among Phaedrus, Pausanias, Aristophanes, Erixymachos, Agathon, Socrates and Alcibiades if you like, but you don’t have to.  You can simply listen to the well-designed orchestral color and to such highlights as the violin themes foreshadowing Candide and the song “Maria” from West Side Story, the lyrical and flowing Allegretto, and the brief and intense Presto.  The fourth movement, an Adagio representing Agathon, is the work’s heart, sweetly transforming the Presto’s theme on a violin kept muted until its cadenza.  The extended finale, which includes a broad start, a violin-cello duet and then an angular, swaggering section intended to represent the drunken Alcibiades, succeeds simply as highly listenable music.  Alsop’s attentiveness to detail, always a strength of her conducting, is impressive here.

     It serves Facsimile and Divertimento for Orchestra well, too.  The former is a ballet of post-World War II malaise in interpersonal relationships, alternating between lush and spare passages and offering some bright and rhythmic dance music that evaporates at the end.  It speaks not quite of despair but of ennui.  The Divertimento, in eight short movements, is a delight.  Created for the centennial of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it is based on the notes B-C, for Boston Centenary.  The work is filled with puckish humor: a waltz that wanders into 7/8 time, a quotation of the oboe tune from the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a “Turkey Trot” à la Copland, a jazzy slow movement called Blues, and a finale that quotes the Radetzky March and Bernstein’s own Mass, that sounds Ivesian, and that still has Bernstein’s own personal stamp on it.  Alsop brings tremendous verve and spirit to this music.  (She seems to have a thing about orchestras with the initials BSO: the Boston Symphony’s piece is played by the Bournemouth Symphony, and Alsop will soon become music director of the Baltimore Symphony.  Hmm.)

     Little of Bolcom’s two-piano music has the raucous splendor of Bernstein’s work: this composer absorbs and adapts his influences differently.  Recuerdos melds ragtime with South American music to fine effect: a bright and bouncy first movement is followed by a slower, sinuous one, and then a rather bangy finale with tonal and rhythmic wanderings.  Equally enjoyable are two movements from the four-movement suite, The Garden of Eden: “The Serpent’s Kiss” is dramatic, bouncy ragtime that includes tongue clicks, foot stomps and knocking on the wood of the pianos; “Through Eden’s Gates” is a quiet and gentle cakewalk in major key – there is no sense of doom, worry or fear here, but only calm and a slight wistful feeling as Adam and Eve leave the Garden together.

     Highly effective, in a different way, is Bolcom’s Sonata for Two Pianos in One Movement.  This musically integrated atonal work has strong rhythmic drive, drama, and good interplay of the instruments.

     The other works here, though, are less worthwhile, no matter how well Elizabeth and Marcel Bergmann play them – which is very well indeed.  Interlude features disconnected notes, bits of phrases, and repeated stops and starts, sounding like a parody of modern (or modernistic) music.  And Frescoes for Two Pianos, Harmonium and Harpsichord, in which the players switch among instruments, is both pretentious and banal.  Written in 1971, it is one of those pieces of the late 1960s/early 1970s that claim to stretch the bounds of music by incorporating chance, tone clusters and plucked piano strings.  Its two movements, “War in Heaven” and “The Caves of Orcus,” last nearly half an hour and seem interminable.  The first alternates great bursts of sound with near-silence.  The second features a lengthy, almost inaudible harmonium passage punctuated by occasional piano notes – and, later, more quiet harmonium sounds with loud chords played over them.  There is no mystery or majesty here, though there is a sense that this work may be more fun to play – or to watch others play – than it is to hear in recorded form.  As well as Bolcom made ragtime and other influences his own, in this case he tried too hard to adopt and adapt some self-consciously esoteric gestures that already sounded dated three decades ago.

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