January 11, 2007


Bernstein: Fancy Free; Dybbuk (complete ballets). Nashville Symphony conducted by Andrew Mogrelia; with Mel Ulrich, baritone, and Mark Risinger, bass. Naxos. $8.99.

Dowland: Lute Music, Volume 2. Nigel North, lute. Naxos. $8.99.

      Leonard Bernstein’s reputation as a ballet composer rests largely on the wonderful ballet scenes in West Side Story (1957), choreographed by Jerome Robbins. But that was actually Bernstein’s third collaboration with Robbins – and there were to be a total of four. Andrew Mogrelia and the Nashville Symphony offer top-notch performances of the first and fourth Bernstein-Robbins ballets: Fancy Free from 1944 and Dybbuk from1974. (The other Bernstein-Robbins collaboration was Facsimile in 1946.) Fancy Free is the better known of the two works here, and Mogrelia’s bouncy performance shows why. The ballet’s structure is symphonic, the action is easily understandable (three sailors on shore leave looking for women), and the music’s jauntiness and extensive piano parts lend it immediate attractiveness even for listeners who do not know the plot. Dybbuk is another matter. It is a dark story that combines a Jewish legend with a broken promise of marriage, and has a peculiar ending in which the heroine decides to die rather than marry someone other than the now-dead lover who had possessed her demonically. The music is more complex structurally and orchestrally than that of Fancy Free, with well-developed contrasts between tonality and atonality and impressive use of percussion. And the inclusion of baritone and bass voices intoning Jewish rituals as part of a plot that revolves around misuse of the mystical Kabbalah lends the work a sense of exoticism. But this is music that is interesting rather than compelling: individual numbers may be poignant and lovely (“Leah—Maiden’s Dance”) or intense and dramatic (“Exorcism”), but the work as a whole is choppy. Even Mogrelia’s fine performance does not lend the ballet a must-hear quality. Bernstein made two separate suites from Dybbuk, and the music does seem to work better in smaller doses.

      Smaller doses of dance music were the norm in John Dowland’s time, which was also Shakespeare’s time (the composer lived from 1563 to 1626, the playwright from 1564 to 1616). About five hours of Dowland’s music have survived, and lutenist Nigel North offers one-fifth of it – mostly in the form of paired pavans and galliards – in the second volume of Naxos’ planned series of all Dowland’s works. This CD is entitled “Dowland’s Tears,” and that is quite an apt description, since the dance forms that Dowland used were so often turned by him toward the melancholy side. Dowland’s music very often reflects his personal motto, Semper Dowland Semper Dolens – “Ever Dowland, ever doleful,” or simply “Dowland is always doleful.” The motto itself is the title of the final work on this CD, and “Dowland’s Tears” is the title of another piece here (in North’s own arrangement). The best-known work on this CD is the “Lachrimae Pavan” (“Tearful Pavan”), which was Dowland’s most popular composition in his own time. North’s playing is sensitive and expressive throughout, and the lutenist does not make the mistake of trying to turn these brief pieces toward tragedy: even at their quietest and darkest, they are fuller of melancholy than of pathos. North does a good job of juxtaposing works of contrasting or complementary character, and his booklet notes offer a clear explanation for the thematic similarity that listeners will hear again and again. But playing this CD straight through is a bit unfair to Dowland, whose works were not written to be heard at such length – with Dowland as with the Bernstein of Dybbuk, listening to less music at a time will likely provide more enjoyment.

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