Leonard Bernstein yearned to be taken seriously as a composer. His early works suggest he would have been, but he was side-tracked by his conducting career. His ego also got in the way: his mid-period compositions have awkward 12-tone rows crammed into them, and some are built around self-aggrandising concepts that at worst are truly cringeworthy. The glaring example of this is Symphony No 3, Kaddish. Written in 1963, it sets the Kaddish prayer for the dead for soprano and choir but contains a controversial narration in the form of a dialogue over faith between man (Bernstein) and God, with lines like “You know who I am!… We can still be immortal” that presuppose equal status. Pappano scores points by casting Dame Josephine Barstow as the speaker: she is a fine actress, a woman, and clearly old, all of which turn the diatribe into a character study where it is more convincing. For once there is not a hint of pomposity. Young soprano Nadine Sierra sings the solo beautifully; if I prefer the great Montserrat Caballé or Jennie Tourel on Bernstein’s recordings, the narration makes those performances untenable.

His earlier symphonies are genuine masterpieces. No 1, Jeremiah has Mahlerian aspirations that it almost meets. Marie-Nicole Lemieux, the mezzo-soprano who made a splash in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, is commanding in her solo. Rising star pianist Beatrice Rana is sensitive in the Second Symphony, The Age of Anxiety, her closest competition being the suavely jazzy Jean-Yves Thibaudet on Naxos.

The real stars here are Pappano and the St. Cecilia orchestra. This is the most alive, idiomatic Bernstein conducting on record since the maestro himself. Who would have thought Pappano, master of Puccini and Verdi, would swing so sexily in the Prelude, Fugue and Riffs? (He is a jazz buff, apparently.) A terrific set.

Composer: Bernstein
Composition: Complete symphonies
Performer: Lemieux ms, Sierra s, Rana p, Barstow spkr, St. Cecilia Orchestra & Chorus/Antonio Pappano
Catalogue Number: WARNER CLASSICS 0190295661588 (2CD)

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