Richard Bratby

Talking down to God

Sincerity often is embarrassing. But Marin Alsop overcame the cringe factor in her performances of Bernstein’s Third and First symphonies

‘There is something enviable about the utter lack of inhibition with which Leonard Bernstein carries on,’ wrote the critic of the Boston Globe after the US première of Bernstein’s Third Symphony, Kaddish, in February 1964 — and looking at the forces arrayed at the Barbican, he had a point. In addition to the full LSO there was the London Symphony Chorus, a narrator, a solo soprano and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir. It barely fitted on stage. And if you thought the set-up was extravagant, a glance at Bernstein’s self-written text would probably have sent you screaming from the hall. ‘Lenny’ was classical music’s original bleeding-heart superstar: the man for whom Tom Wolfe coined the phrase ‘radical chic’. Ostensibly a choral setting of Jewish prayers for the dead, Kaddish is framed by spoken narrations in which Bernstein repeatedly, and in language that veers from debating-society bombast to toe-curling tweeness, talks down to God.

And the effect, in this performance under Bernstein’s former protégée Marin Alsop? Electrifying. It had to be, really: there’s no way that lines like ‘I am creating this dream!/ Now will You believe?’ can fly without total conviction. ‘I have a deep suspicion that every work I write, for whatever medium, is really theatre music in some way,’ said Bernstein, and never a truer word. The chorus jumped to its feet seconds before its entries, soprano Laura Claycomb boogied lightly along to the finale, and a crop of assistant conductors popped up from within the chorus, semaphoring their way through the cross-rhythms of an unaccompanied choral cadenza — one of Bernstein’s most brilliant inventions, superbly realised here.

Throughout it all, Claire Bloom spoke the narration with rueful calm; and if she didn’t quite have the shattering impact that Bernstein possibly intended when his text switches into SHOUTY CAPITALS (‘SANCTIFIED BE THE GREAT NAME OF MAN!’), her understatement probably served him better overall.

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