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Leonard Bernstein: Fancy Free; Dybbuk
07 Apr 2007

BERNSTEIN: Fancy Free; Dybbuk

This excellent disc brings together two ballet scores from the far ends of Leonard Bernstein’s compositional career.

Leonard Bernstein: Fancy Free; Dybbuk

Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Mogrelia (cond.)

Naxos 8.559280 [CD]

$7.99  Click to buy

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 displaced.

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

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