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ClassicsOnline Home » BERNSTEIN, L.: Violin Sonata / Piano Trio / New Transcriptions (Opus Two, Mazzie, Bernard)
This disc collects three of Leonard Bernstein’s very few examples of chamber music. Although written at the onset of his career, the Piano Trio and the Violin Sonata (both student works) and the Clarinet Sonata (here arranged for violin by William Terwilliger) confirm his prowess in a genre to which he simply never had time to return. Rounding out the disc are songs from three of his theatre works, including ‘My House’ from Peter Pan, ‘Take Care of this House’ from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and four songs from the acclaimed madcap operetta Candide, all idiomatically arranged by Eric Stern.
By James Manheim
Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990)
Violin Sonata • Piano Trio • New Transcriptions
A true Renaissance man of music, Leonard Bernstein is renowned as a great American conductor, composer, author, music lecturer, and pianist. Among the first conductors born and educated in the United States to rise to international celebrity, he is best known for his direction of the New York Philharmonic and his popular televised Young People’s Concerts, broadcast to millions from 1958 to 1973. A protégé of Aaron Copland, he is equally recognized as a composer of concert and stage works, but he is best known for his popular musicals West Side Story, On the Town, and Candide. Bernstein has left his mark as one of the most influential musical figures of the twentieth century, and his name has become synonymous with American music.
The Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1941–42), Bernstein’s first published piece, was written for clarinetist David Oppenheim, whom he had met at Tanglewood and who was to become a record and television producer and renowned dean of the New York University School of the Arts. Although an early work, its lyrical and jazzy qualities both foreshadow Bernstein’s mature style, even hinting at West Side Story, and it has become a staple of the repertoire. Following the lead of Yo-Yo Ma and Jeffrey Kahane, who recorded a version for cello and piano, we are happy to offer our own adaptation.
The early Sonata for Violin and Piano (1939), Bernstein’s only original work for this combination, was composed for Raphael Hillyer, fellow Harvard student and founding violist of the Juilliard Quartet. The two movements are highly unified, the second consisting of variations on the first. Several of the themes were reworked and re-used in Bernstein’s ballet Facsimile as well as in his Symphony No. 2, ‘The Age of Anxiety’.
While still a nineteen-year-old student at Harvard, Bernstein composed his Piano Trio during 1937. The work is imbued with both intensity and humor, and the pizzicato movement is particularly lighthearted. It was finally published in 1979.
To fill out this recording we became interested in commissioning the arrangements of songs taken from some of Bernstein’s expressive and colorful stage music. We were especially drawn to his extraordinary 1956 operetta Candide. Eric Stern enthusiastically and expertly took on this challenging task, producing Four Moments from Candide. We so loved these transcriptions that we asked him to arrange two additional songs from other shows, beautifully sung by Broadway favorite Marin Mazzie.
– Andrew Cooperstock and William Terwilliger
Although Bernstein’s music had been a major influence on my musical thinking for as long as I can remember, I first met him in the 1980s. Our paths crossed socially a few times, me the wide-eyed admirer and he the legend: passionate, enthusiastic, insightful, intelligent and mesmerizing. He was always encouraging when he saw performances I led, and although I subsequently made a living conducting his music, from On The Town to Age of Anxiety, I never had the opportunity to perform his music for him.
Naturally I was delighted when Bill and Andrew called me about doing the arrangements. With a few Candides under my belt as well as a lifetime of Bernstein’s music in my head, I felt equipped to ‘translate’ these songs from voice and orchestra to violin and piano without doing much damage. That, at least, was my aim. The two ‘House’ songs, however, posed a different challenge, since we were essentially adding an element: what once were duets are now trios, and this seemed to warrant an expansion of the ideas. It was intriguing, incidentally, to pair these songs, one from the composer’s earlier theatre writing, the other written in his undisputed prime. Although they represent different ends of his career, they both have the hallmark beauty and breadth that characterize his songs. My thanks to Bill, Andrew and Marin for bringing them to life so expressively.
– Eric Stern
Although he may have intended otherwise, Leonard Bernstein left very few examples of chamber music. This disc collates the three such pieces that he wrote at the outset of his career (the earlier two of which remained unknown until just before his death), confirming his prowess in a genre to which he simply never had time to return. Added to these are arrangements by Eric Stern of songs from one of the music-theatre works by which the composer is best known. Although Candide proved highly controversial at its 1956 première and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, written to mark the bicentenary of American independence, was a failure when staged exactly two decades later, both works contain many delightful and ingenious numbers that confirm Bernstein as master of his craft and which the present arrangements do much to accentuate.
The first movement of the Clarinet Sonata (heard here in William Terwilliger’s arrangement) centres on an expressive theme for violin that attracts a good deal of comment from piano. A central section brings more animated interplay, before the main theme is varied a little on its reappearance. An inward coda dwells on the lyrical essence of the theme to telling effect. The second movement is more quixotic in manner, the violin unfolding a thoughtful melodic line that is suddenly cut short by the piano’s tensile rhythmic interjection. This duly incites the violin to greater activity, but the initial mood is at length re-established and a soulful discourse pursued almost through to the end of the movement, which concludes with a return to the livelier music.
The first movement of the Violin Sonata commences with a lyrical theme that soon touches on more intense expression, the piano injecting a rhetorical element into the discourse. A passage that resembles an accompanied cadenza serves as the understated coda. The second movement is a set of variations on a forceful theme derived from the preceding movement and announced by piano, to which the violin responds with due purpose. The first variation is an often virtuosic workout for both instruments, tellingly complemented by the plaintive manner of the second. The third variation makes out of the theme a soulful new melody, while the fourth is a lively study in pizzicato and syncopation. The fifth variation ends the work on an unexpectedly though not inappropriately introspective note.
The first movement of the Piano Trio starts with thoughtful interplay between the instruments, though a greater activity soon comes to the fore and an intensive discourse ensues, building to a powerfully wrought climax which presages a return to the initial mood. The second movement is a lively and resourceful scherzo, whose underlying march rhythm is constantly undercut by ironic pizzicato writing in the strings and capricious runs by the piano. The third movement comes in complete contrast, though its restrained opening section is met with a vigorous, folk-inflected idea that rapidly takes hold of the trio. This sees the music through to a forceful climax in which elements of both themes are freely combined, before the music drives forward to an effervescent conclusion.
‘My House’ (from a 1950 musical staging of J.M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan) is a soulful number in Bernstein’s most expressive vein and responds well to the understated arrangement. ‘Take Care of this House’ (from the musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue) is more speculative in its mood, reflected here by the concertante writing for violin and piano.
As to the Candide numbers, ‘I Am Easily Assimilated’ is one of Bernstein’s wittiest numbers; something which the present arrangement recognizes with its trenchant interplay between instruments, though taking on a suavity and swagger where appropriate. As the title suggests, ‘You Were Dead, You Know’ leavens its pathos with a decidedly dry humour that is amply reflected here. ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ is the undoubted showstopper of the work, its alternation between soulfulness and display being fully conveyed in this virtuoso arrangement. By contrast, ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ is the apotheosis to which the whole work has been leading; hence this arrangement, which builds to a climax of real emotional intensity.
– Richard Whitehouse
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