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The Age of Anxiety 'Symphony No 2'

'Bernstein: The Age of Anxiety; Bolcom: Piano Concerto' (CDA67170)
Bernstein: The Age of Anxiety; Bolcom: Piano Concerto
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67170 
Part 1 A. The Prologue: Lento moderato
Part 1 B. The Seven Ages. Variation 1: L'istesso tempo
Part 1 B. The Seven Ages. Variation 2: Poco più mosso
Part 1 B. The Seven Ages. Variation 3: Largamente, ma mosso
Part 1 B. The Seven Ages. Variation 4: Più mosso
Part 1 B. The Seven Ages. Variation 5: Agitato
Part 1 B. The Seven Ages. Variation 6: Poco meno mosso
Part 1 B. The Seven Ages. Variation 7: L'istesso tempo
Part 1 C. The Seven Stages. Variation 08: Molto moderato, ma movendo
Part 1 C. The Seven Stages. Variation 09: Più mosso. Tempo di Valse
Part 1 C. The Seven Stages. Variation 10: Più mosso
Part 1 C. The Seven Stages. Variation 11: L'istesso tempo
Part 1 C. The Seven Stages. Variation 12: Poco più vivace
Part 1 C. The Seven Stages. Variation 13: L'istesso tempo
Part 1 C. The Seven Stages. Variation 14: Poco più vivace
Part 2 A. The Dirge: Largo
Part 2 B. The Masque: Extremely fast
Part 2 C. The Epilogue: L'istesso tempo – Adagio/Andante – quasi cadenza – Lento molto

The Age of Anxiety 'Symphony No 2'
Leonard Bernstein rocketed to fame overnight when he stood in for Bruno Walter at the last minute and made his debut with the New York Philharmonic in a nationally broadcast concert on 14 November 1943. Of course he never looked back and soon after that he was conducting the major orchestras although he was composing too. In 1948 he became obsessed with ‘The Age of Anxiety: a Baroque Eclogue’ a long poem published that year by W H Auden (1907-1973), who had settled in New York in 1939. In 1948 Bernstein was in Israel conducting the Israel Philharmonic during the war of independence. The Dirge from Part Two of this symphony was completed there amidst historic events and premiered at Tel Aviv by the Israel Philharmonic under George Singer with Bernstein as soloist on 28 November. The whole work was dedicated to Serge Koussevitzky who gave the premiere with Bernstein and the Boston Symphony on 8 April 1949 at Symphony Hall, Boston, during his final season with the orchestra. Because Bernstein identified so passionately with the poem, seeing himself as pianist and ‘autobiographical protagonist’ in his symphonic realization, it is worth tracing the shadowy events within the poem.

Part One
A: The Prologue – four mixed-up characters in a Third Avenue bar try to sort themselves out: Quant, son of an Irish immigrant; Malin, a medical intelligence officer in the Canadian Air Force; Rosetta, a buyer for a big department store; and Emble, who is in the Navy. A very soft duet for clarinets is followed by a scalic descent on the flute acting as a ‘bridge into the realms of the unconscious’.

B: The Seven Ages – a four-fold discussion, ‘reasonable and didactic in tone’.

The seven variations, without a common theme, arise from aspects of previous sections.

1: A lyrical piano solo ending with the scalic descent on the harp.
2: Interactions between piano and orchestra.
3: Cantabile strings without piano.
4: A miniature scherzo in five-time (3/8 + 2/8).
5: A clarinet initiates a restless agitato.
6: A wistful piano solo.
7: Woodwinds lead into a long scalic descent from the piano.

C: The Seven Stages – seven more variations representing a dream-odyssey which symbolizes the inner journey of the four characters in various relationships leading to a ‘hectic but indecisive close’.

8: A heavy passacaglia – a regular six-note figure in the bass.
9: A waltz related to the passacaglia theme, which increasingly dominates.
10: The piano leads off into rapid seven-beat figures (4/4 + 3/4).
11: The piano leads in a fugato.
12: A light moto perpetuo, mostly piano.
13: The piano retires and the passacaglia theme enters like a chorale.
14: The piano returns to dominate the ending.

Part Two
A: The Dirge – expressing the feelings of the four as they take a taxi together to Rosetta’s apartment and lament the lack of a father-figure to disentangle their problems. The piano introduces the dirge with a rising Bergian twelve-note row. Bernstein described the middle section (mostly piano solo) of this ‘strangely pompous lamentation’ as of ‘almost Brahmsian romanticism’.

B: The Masque – now the group at the apartment is ‘weary, guilty, determined to have a party, each one afraid of spoiling the others’ fun by admitting he should be home in bed’. This is a brilliant jazz-derived scherzo with an enchanting accompaniment of harp, celesta and percussion.

C: The Epilogue – the party has purged the four characters of their past and they now look towards faith as ‘something pure’, symbolized by the sound of a solo trumpet preceded by a distant piano in the orchestra playing echoes of the jazz masque. Then the tone becomes serious: a kind of chorale with interpolations, a piano cadenza recalling earlier themes, more distant piano, followed by a slow affirmation. Originally the piano was left out of the epilogue, apart from the one solo chord at the end. But in 1965 Bernstein revised this section to keep the piano involved. The opening duet for clarinets, the third variation and the main theme of the Epilogue all come from earlier works (see Leonard Bernstein by Humphrey Burton, 1994), but the overall conception behind this symphony about the individual desperately trying to make sense of his/her own destiny is a recurring theme in Bernstein’s life and work. Here, in tandem with Auden, he embodies the dilemma in a unique way.

from notes by Peter Dickinson © 2000

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Details for CDA67170 track 15
Part 1C The Seven Stages Variation 14: Poco più vivace
Recording date
17 January 2000
Recording venue
Ulster Hall, Belfast, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Tony Faulkner
Hyperion usage
  1. Bernstein: The Age of Anxiety; Bolcom: Piano Concerto (CDA67170)
    Disc 1 Track 15
    Release date: September 2000
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