C1247. LEONARD BERNSTEIN Cond. Israel Phil., w. Hanna Rovina (Narrator) & Jennie Tourel (MS): Kaddish Symphony #3, to the memory of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (Cond. by the Composer), Live Performance, 10 Dec., 1963 (World Première Performance). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL 78-200 (from rare acetates from the Robert Shaw Collection [sent to Shaw in preparation for the forthcoming American premiere]). Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“Leonard Bernstein’s much-criticized ‘Kaddish’ Symphony acquires a remarkable new identity in this extremely rare release. Never previously issued, the tape of the work’s premiere in Tel Aviv on December 10, 1963 has a visceral power and strength of expression not surpassed even in Bernstein’s official recording with the New York Philharmonic. Something close to a radical transformation has taken place now that we can hear the composer’s intentions expressed, not in English, but in Hebrew, which for more than one reason feels like the language the symphony was destined for.
Readers familiar with the history of Bernstein’s Third Symphony, dedicated to the memory of John F. Kennedy mere weeks after the assassination, will be aware that its central narration, which delivers Bernstein’s personal problem with God, suffered derision almost immediately. The funeral service of Kaddish is for God, in fact, recalling the famous TIME magazine cover that proclaimed ‘God Is Dead’, although it didn’t appear until 1966. Sixties disillusionment didn’t spare religion, and the mask of postwar conformity and runaway prosperity in the U.S. couldn’t conceal the shock and horror of the Holocaust. This alone would give the use of Hebrew a powerful justification.
The reason the English text fell short is that Bernstein’s argument with God felt overweening and self-indulgent. One squirmed at the suggestion that Bernstein had found an equal to talk to. In addition there was an uneasy juxtaposition of the high-minded and the colloquial that was jarring, and finally the declamation by Felicia Montealegre, Bernstein’s wife, was histrionic on the verge of campiness. In the aftermath of the Symphony’s failure, there were various attempts over the years to improve the text and rid it of embarrassment, but each new version felt anemic without the chutzpah of the original (this was true even of the revised version with the Israel Philharmonic that Bernstein later recorded for DG).
There are other examples where hearing the words in a language you don’t understand is the best way (Wagner’s RING cycle immediately comes to mind; apparently its rhymes sound like doggerel to a native German speaker). But that’s only a fraction of the transformation that occurs here. Again with a woman narrating, the presence of the prominent Israeli actress Hanna Rovina is decisive. Born in Minsk in 1888, she had been acting from a young age in the Russian Jewish theater before immigrating to Palestine in 1928. This history, along with Rovina’s powerful voice and age (she was 75 at the time), gives her narration rabbinical authority. If this seems too extreme, there’s no doubt that every trace of self-preening is absent here. This is no conversation but a painful, angry harangue against the Almighty, combined with a tone of Old Testament lamentation.
Bernstein’s performances of his own music are peerless, needless to say, but on this occasion there’s a palpable electricity. Rovina’s urgency is matched by the Israel Philharmonic and the excellent chorus trained by Abraham Kaplan, considered the best chorus master in New York. At times the passion of the performance, especially from the narrator, is overwhelming. In her solo mezzo Jennie Tourel sings affectingly, even though her tone is mature rather than fresh. (Both she and Kaplan’s Camerata Singers appear on the studio recording.)
This is the second redemptive recording that the ‘Kaddish’ Symphony has received, the other being in English using the original text, narrated by soprano Josephine Barstow with Antonio Pappano conducting (Warner). It was a highlight of the Bernstein centennial year and riveting for Barstow’s performance, which proved that the original words were not nearly as embarrassing as Montealegre made them out to be.
The music itself didn’t need redemption. Bernstein’s idiom was not much changed from the ‘Jeremiah’ Symphony #1 of 1942, itself a lamentation featuring a mezzo soloist. What I said about that music applies here, too: ‘Some composers hide their personalities in their music, but not Bernstein. The ‘Jeremiah’ Symphony is as much a people pleaser as he was himself. Warm, giving, sentimental, extravagant, it’s a symphony that wants to embrace you without embarrassment’. (FANFARE 42:3)
To give a balanced picture, a few other things need noting. The narrator is miked very closely here, to the point that the orchestra takes second place. Therefore, it is mandatory to follow with the English text, which isn’t supplied. I imagine most purchasers will already own at least one previous recording with text. Producer Yves St-Laurent notes that many improvements had to be meticulously made from the original source. Despite some light surface crackle, I found the sound full and more than listenable, despite the too-distant orchestra.
I hardly need to add that this is a ‘must-listen’ for anyone who like me has been following Bernstein’s achievements since youth. He remains the transcendent American conductor, who shaped a generation’s love of classical music. His strongly felt Jewish identity wasn’t emphasized in his public image, but it comes out with tremendous force and sincerity here.”
- Huntley Dent, FANFARE
“KADDISH is Leonard Bernstein's third symphony. The 1963 symphony is a dramatic work written for a large orchestra, a full choir, a boys' choir, a soprano soloist and a narrator. The name of the piece, KADDISH, refers to the Jewish prayer that is chanted at every synagogue service for the dead but never mentions ‘death’. The symphony is dedicated to the memory of John F. Kennedy who was assassinated on 22 November, 1963, just weeks before the first performance of the symphony.
The symphony was first performed in Tel Aviv, Israel, on 10 December, 1963, with Bernstein conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Jennie Tourel (mezzo soprano), Hanna Rovina (narrator) and the choruses under Abraham Kaplan. In this original version of the KADDISH Symphony, Bernstein specified that the narrator be female. The work was generally received with great enthusiasm in Israel.
The American premiere of the work took place soon afterwards on 10 January, 1964 in Boston with Charles Münch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New England Conservatory Chorus and the Columbus Boychoir, again with Ms. Tourel, but now with Felicia Montealegre (narrator).”
- Yves St Laurent
“Bernstein gave a credibility to American musicianship that hadn’t existed before, easing our sense of inferiority. He came along and did what seemed impossible: bringing Mahler back to Vienna!
He loved storytelling, and music for him was just a vehicle for telling stories. Often his stories had important morals as well: There was always a lesson to be learned. For me that was a big takeaway. He was so many things: a great conductor, great composer, great pianist. But he was also a TV star, he was a thinker, he was a philosopher, he was a political activist. How many people could wear all of those hats at once? It’s a rare thing.”
-Marin Alsop, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 23 Aug., 2018
“Bernstein was ‘one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history’. He is quite possibly the conductor whose name is best known to the public in general, especially the American public. His fame derived from his long tenure as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, from his conducting of concerts with most of the world's leading orchestras, and from his music for WEST SIDE STORY, as well as CANDIDE, WONDERFUL TOWN, ON THE TOWN and his own MASS. Bernstein was also the first conductor to give numerous television lectures on classical music, starting in 1954 and continuing until his death. In addition, he was a skilled pianist, often conducting piano concertos from the keyboard.
In 1960 Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic held a Mahler Festival to mark the centenary of the composer's birth. Bernstein, Walter and Mitropoulos conducted performances. The composer's widow, Alma, attended some of Bernstein's rehearsals. The success of [Bernstein’s Mahler] recordings, along with Bernstein's concert performances and television talks, was an important part of the revival of interest in Mahler in the 1960s, especially in the US.
In 1964 Bernstein conducted Franco Zeffirelli's production of Verdi's FALSTAFF at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In 1966 he made his début at the Vienna State Opera conducting Luchino Visconti's production of the same opera with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Falstaff. He returned to the State Opera in 1968 for a production of DER ROSENKAVALIER and in 1970 for Otto Schenk's production of Beethoven's FIDELIO. Sixteen years later, at the State Opera, Bernstein conducted his sequel to TROUBLE IN TAHITI, A QUIET PLACE, with the ORF orchestra."
- Donal Henahan, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 15 Oct., 1990
"Jennie Tourel, like Erna Berger, was able to retain her voice in remarkable condition at an age when other singers have long since retired (or should have)....Tourel at age 70 sounds better than many women half her age – or at any point in their careers, for that matter."
- John Boyer, AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE, Jan./Feb., 2004
“Each of these disks, from Canadian engineer Yves St Laurent… [feature] St Laurent's natural transfer – made without filtering, like all his dubbings – it is easy to listen to, despite the surface noise.”
- Tully Potter, CLASSICAL RECORD QUARTERLY, Summer, 2011