BERNSTEIN: Fancy Free; Dybbuk

The 1944 score, Fancy Free, has retained a place as one of Bernstein’s most popular scores, probably because it is from the composer in
his popular vein, brash and melodic. Dybbuk, from 1974, depicts a “battle
between good and evil…represented by the conflict between tonality and
atonality” (quoted from the blurb on the CD case back). In Bernstein’s work, and
world, tonality dominates, with acerbic harmonies providing more of a
heightening contrast than a dark threat.

Naxos places Dybbuk first, and the
dramatic reading by the Nashville Symphony, led by Andrew Mogrelia, establishes
a firm grip on the work’s propulsive, clashing rhythms right from the start and
maintains it through to the end some 45 minutes later. Interspersed in the
ballet’s story line, based on the classic Hebrew tale of possession and
exorcism, are sung passages of excerpts from key Hebrew texts. Baritone Mel
Ulrich and bass Stephen Kummer are both strong, their dark tones well-suited to
the score’s drama. In his later years the easy melodicism that Bernstein had
once enjoyed seemed to elude him, but in material such as
Dybbuk, snappy tunes would have been out
of place anyway. This score repays attention.

Fancy Free gets attention to this day,
and understandably so, as the performance here displays Bernstein’s rare ability
to infuse jazz textures into a more sophisticated score without the clumsiness
or even condescension heard in other attempts by “serious” composers. Beginning
with a first-class song, “Big Stuff,” the dance score that ensues makes for a
suite of a little less than 30 minutes, never flagging in its energy and
inventiveness. Abby Burke’s vocal in the song has an affecting simplicity, but
anyone who has ever heard Billie Holiday’s version will not have that memory

With sharp sound quality and a first-class booklet essay from Richard
Whitehouse, this Naxos release does well by both scores. Of course a search
should produce the composer’s own recordings of both scores, but at Naxos
prices, this thoughtfully assembled recording should be given consideration.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Leonard Bernstein: Fancy Free; Dybbuk
product_title=Leonard Bernstein: Fancy Free; Dybbuk
product_by=Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Mogrelia (cond.)
product_id=Naxos 8.559280 [CD]