Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Mammoth, Deliriously Funny, Searingly Relevant New Recording of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide

Once one dismisses
The rest of all possible worlds
One finds that this is
The best of all possible worlds

So sings Sir Thomas Allen in his role as Dr. Pangloss, in the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus’ epic new recording of Leonard Bernstein’s satirical opera Candide, streaming at Spotify.

When Lillian Hellman enlisted Bernstein and what would become a rapidly expanding cast of lyricists in this ridiculously funny parable of McCarthyite witch hunting, little did anyone involved with the project know how much greater relevance it would have in the months after March of 2020. Marin Alsop leads the orchestra and a boisterous allstar cast of opera talent in a massive double album culled from concert performances in the fall of 2018.

Tenor Leonardo Capalbo plays the title role. Soprano Jane Archibald is Cunegonde and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter plays the Old Lady, with a supporting cast of Thomas Adkins, Marcus Farnsworth, Katherine McIndoe, Carmen Artaza, Lucy McAuley, Liam Bonthrone, Frederick Jones and Jonathan Ayers in raucous multiple roles. Simon Halsey directs the choir.

Alsop and the orchestra have just as much fun as the singers. Bernstein’s score comes across as almost as satirical as the text. As a parody of centuries of European opera, it’s not quite Scaramouche doing the fandango, but it’s close. The coda of act one is priceless.

For the most part, the plot is consistent with Voltaire’s novel. As you would expect in an operatic context, the characters are infinitely more over-the-top. We learn early on what a horrible pair the credulous Candide and the bling-worshipping Cunegonde make. Innuendo flies fast and furious, and some of the jokes are pretty outrageous for a production first staged in the late 50s. The lyric book by itself is a riot – although it only has the songs, not the expository passages. Listen closely for maximum laughs.

Alsop perfectly nails Bernstein’s tongue-in-cheek seriousness and good-natured melodic appropriation, through one stoically marching, bombastic interlude after another. There’s phony pageantry to rival Shostakovich. Swoony string passages and hand-wrenching arias alternate with the occasional moment where Bernstein drops the humor and lets the sinister subtext waft in. The most amusingly grisly part of the story is set to a parody of the climactic scene in the Mozart Requiem. Brecht/Weill’s Threepenny Opera and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherezade are recurrent reference points.

The most spectacular display of solo vocal pyrotechnics belongs to Archibald – in response to a hanging, appropriately enough. For the choir, it’s the Handel spoof early in the second act. Music this comedic seldom inspires as much repeated listening. And the political content, in an age of divide-and-conquer, speaks truth to what at this moment seems to be rapidly unraveling power.

Advertisement

January 6, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A World War II Symphony Offers Solace and Hope For These Times

It was 1943, and the Allies were battling the Nazis and their collaborators on several fronts. In bomb-cratered England, Ralph Vaughan Williams stepped in on short notice for his one and only performance as conductor for the world premiere of one of his symphonies. Desperate times, desperate measures.

Considering the conditions under which it was written, it’s no surprise that his Symphony No. 5 is the most smallscale in his notoriously lavish cycle. Contemporary accounts called the premiere a success. There’s a new recording with Martyn Brabbins leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra, whose often transcendent performance resonates just as strongly in our even more troubled era.

The ensemble open with a familiar Vaughan Williams trope, a constant, increasingly turbulent round-robin of windswept counterpoint. Led by the brass in its most somber moments of foreshadowing, this is the pinnacle of British Romanticism. If you wonder where the towering angst of the art-rock bands of the 1970s, particularly the Moody Blues, came from, the source material doesn’t get richer than this. How absolutely heartbreaking it is to hear these panoramas, knowing that the citizens of the countryside that so profoundly influenced this music are now under siege and largely unable to see those landscapes in person. Where is this era’s Martin Niemoller?

The orchestra execute the swirls and leaping riffs of the second movement with a poinpoint precision across the spectrum, drawing equally on Sibelius and a series of themes the composer had written around the same time for a broadcast of John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress. The distantly disquieted, nocturnal vastness and aching lustre of the third movement packs a wallop in this era: when will this be over, Vaughan Williams seems to be asking. Bringing the circling intensity of the introduction full circle, the orchestra offer hope with the mighty, prayerful fourth movement.

To put the symphony in even more resonant context, the album also contains a series of short themes from Vaughan Williams’ postwar operatic epic Pilgrim’s Progress. The excerpts here were recorded in 2019 (a year after the symphony) with a considerably different cast of musicians. Vocal soloists Emily Portman, Kitty Whately and Marcus Farnsworth are bolstered by the BBC Chorus and BBC Singers Quartet in these thirteen selections, ranging from fleeting set pieces to folksy dances and more expansive songs, many of them echoing themes recycled in the symphony.

January 3, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment