BERNSTEIN:  Symphony No. 2 "The Age of Anxiety."  BOLCOM:  Concerto for Piano and Large Orchestra.
Marc-AndrČ Hamlin, pianist/The Ulster Orch/Dmitry Sitkovetsky, cond.

HYPERION 67170 (F) (DDD) TT:  59:30
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Ponder this one: Bernstein's kinetic 1965 stereo recording of his Second Symphony with the NYP and pianist Philippe Entremont is missing from Sony's catalog, but a mono version from 1950 with Lukas Foss (made eight years before LB became the orchestra's music director) continues to be listed. That the 1965 Age of Anxiety will be back seems fair to predict in this unending 20th anniversary season of Lennie-B's death. Until then, however, there's the double jeopardy that someone wanting a stereo version will settle for his and Foss' flabby remake on DGG, with the Israel rather than the New York Philharmonic -- or for this non-competitive new one by a superb solo pianist but a conductor of wondrous clumsiness, apart from a failure to parse Bernstein's polyglot musical syntax. The Ulster Orchestra is hardly more idiomatic than the Israel Phil used to be, although probably younger, player for player, with a consequent community standard surpassing the IPO's, celebrated for string playing but inconsistent elsewhere.

A dryish, cramped-sounding venue in Belfast poses a further problem, at least as  captured on digital tape by the usually admirable Tony Faulkner, whose long-time colleague Andrew Keener produced the disc. The fastidious and fleet-fingered (one is tempted to write fourteen-fingered) pianism of Marc-AndrČ Hamelin is more recessed than one might have wished, since his artistry is the prime attraction in The Age of Anxiety as well as in William Bolcom's kitschy bicentennial concerto.

No one could accuse Bernstein's ghost of seamless construction in his multi-sectional grab-bag of styles from 1948, inspired by Wystan Auden's poem, "The Age of Anxiety" -- that's poetic for postwar Angst -- but it can be made to hang together, and periodically transcend obeisance to Aaron Copland (who by then had delivered himself of the helium-filled Third Symphony -- his own private Hindenburg). What startles is that Hamelin and conductor Sitkovetsky shave almost a minute off Bernstein and Entremont's timing of 36:39, since  the conductor's pauses between sections are so prolonged you keep feeling that Bolcom surely will follow.

The latter piece was designed as a cynical commentary on the hoopla rampant before, during and after July 4, 1976 -- "bitter" was his adjective. At the same time he claimed to be mocking the structural seams in Gershwin's Concerto in F (nothing like dissing your dead betters). The result is ongoingly moony and discursive, with a nice tune in the slow movement although it doesn't stick in the ear. This segues into a finale that Hyperion's Brit annotator labels "a menagerie of Americana,"  but is merely Ives reheated -- as if Ives hadn't written his Second Symphony in 1900-10, or for that matter hadn't even lived. Bolcom's has its funny and cheeky moments, but is essentially trivial, redeemed a little by brevity and polished as if it were gold instead of pewter by Hamelin, whose sense of humor is as helpful here as it is in Bernstein's Age.

But Dmitry Sitkovetsky manhandles this piece, too, making Neeme J”rvi, say, seem like George Szell. Meanwhile, if you want Bolcom, and some will, there is no alternative. But if you want The Age of Anxiety, be patient -- or better yet, annoy Sony with e-mails until they make restitution.

R.D. (Aug. 2001)