Various Artists

The Music of America: Leonard Bernstein

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Sony's Music of America series has given that conglomerate a chance to reassemble selections from its catalog of Columbia-label recordings, some of them of considerable antiquity, into budget three-disc sets devoted to a single composer. There are no booklet notes, but both the trifold (four-panel) jacket and the booklet are packed with vintage photos. In the case of Leonard Bernstein, the label is in the position of being able to present "authentic" performances, for the prime interpreter of Bernstein's music in the 1960s was Bernstein himself, and it's interesting to listen to the 1961 Symphonic Dances from West Side Story on Disc 1 and realize how much the New York Philharmonic during this period was Bernstein's band; it seems naturally attuned to the textures of these familiar tunes as orchestrated by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal. The "Bernstein sound" has so influenced the reception of this music that even much later recordings, such as the Hilary Hahn/David Zinman reading of the Serenade for solo violin, strings, harp, and percussion (1988), fit well with the Bernstein originals, which go back as far as 1956. The early recordings of Bernstein's theater music also feature a nice selection of vocal numbers by Broadway stars of the time, such as Rosalind Russell, Barbara Cook, and Carol Lawrence. These are mostly contained on Disc 3, with the West Side Story dances spilling over onto Disc 1; the chief objection to this release might be that Bernstein's musicals are somewhat overrepresented, with the three symphonies completely omitted and the Mass, which remains an underrated piece of synthesis that surely influenced such later genre-mixers as William Bolcom, represented only with a short excerpt. Leaving out "why oh why oh why-o, why did I ever leave Ohio" and a few other dubious musical selections would have allowed for a fuller picture of Bernstein the composer. But buyers are unlikely to be dissatisfied as a result with what they do get here.

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