BERNSTEIN: Symphony No. 2 The Age of Anxiety. Candide Overture. West Side Story (Symphonic Dances)
Jean Louis Steuerman, pianist; Florida Philharmonic Orch/James Judd, cond.
NAXOS 8.559099 (B) (DDD) TT: 63:30

Naxos issued the “original version” of West Side Story less than two years ago in a Nashville performance conducted by Kenneth Schermerhorn. Steve Schwartz’s review is essential reading for WSS fans and foes alike. Now, from even further south, comes this first installment by conductor James Judd “in a projected complete recording of the music of Leonard Bernstein... beginning with The Age of Anxiety” (the co-title of Lenny-B’s 1948 Symphony No. 2). I recently lambasted a Hyperion recording from Belfast, solely redeemed—in truth, saved from abortion—by pianist Marc-André Hamelin, the while lamenting the absence of Bernstein’s own 1965 version with Philippe Entremont and the NYPhil from Sony’s lists. If you want it, however, Arkiv has that performance packaged in two different Sony collections. And you do want it.

Bernstein’s first version in 1950-mono had Lukas Foss as soloist (L.B. himself played the Boston Symphony premiere under Serge Koussevitzky, just weeks before his venerable mentor relinquished the podium in Symphony Hall after a 25-year reign). L.B. conducted a third recording in 1977, this time for D.G., again with Foss as soloist, but with the Israel Phil which sounded as disoriented as L.B. sounded Mahlerei (although almost a minute faster than the Entremont/NYP version on Sony!). I’ve just finished rehearing the Naxos—made in the Au-René Theater of Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Centre—and now have a superb cassette dub of the 1965 performance playing as I write. Just a third of the way into the work’s “Seven Ages and Seven Stages,” Bernstein, Entremont and the NYP have already outpointed James Judd, his Brazilian-born pianist Jean Louis Steuerman, and Florida’s willing but not-New-York Philharmonic, currently in dire financial peril despite venues in Miami’s Dade as well as Broward counties. If you’re interested in the origin of the work’s title and inspiration—W. H. Auden’s Baroque Eclogue—see my review of Hyperion’s version.

It isn’t that British-born Judd, who left the other-Bush-son’s state last year to become music director of the New Zealand Symphony, has departed radically in overall timing (just 9 seconds longer than the composer’s version with Entremont). Rather, it seems a problem of divergent vocabularies and cultural heritages. Sorry, but I don’t think he’s the maestro to carry out a Bernstein sämtliche although the NZSO is a crack orchestra, impressively employed by Naxos in the past. That feeling is reinforced by a perfunctory dash through the Candide Overture, and a stiff-upper-reading of West Side Story Symphonic Dances. The orchestra snaps its fingers roguishly on cue, and gives forth a hearty pre-rumble shout, but elsewhere they follow their East- Side-type leader all too obediently. Naxos’ producer, Andrew Walton, gets a bright sound from three engineers but the bass is a little underbalanced for a midrange and upper treble that shine like neon. If this sounds rough, sorry, but after Bernstein’s own version of the WSS Symphonic Dances, the next in line for me is Seiji Ozawa’s for DG with the San Francisco Symphony from the early ‘70s, which had the overside bonus of Bill Russo’s ingratiating Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra with the Siegal-Schwall Band as soloists. As for the Candide Overture, there are plenty of alternatives, almost everyone of them more idiomatic.

R.D. (August 2003)