The composer is familiar, the music is not
By Peter Alexander June 16 at 7:40 p.m.
Now is a great time to explore music you don’t know.
The last time I wrote on this topic, I suggested several unfamiliar composers whose music had been recorded by Boulder musicians. This time, the composer is very familiar—Leonard Bernstein—but the music is not—recordings of his solo piano and chamber music, including pieces written when he was an undergraduate student at Harvard. Contained in two albums and three discs, they all have been recorded by Andrew Cooperstock, professor of piano at CU, either alone or as part of the Opus Two duo with violinist William Terwilliger.
Leonard Bernstein: Violin Sonata • Piano Trio • New Transcriptions. Opus Two violin-piano duo ( William Terwilliger, violin and Andrew Cooperstock, piano) with Charles Bernard, cello, and Marin Mazzie, soprano. Naxos American Classics 8.559643
The chamber music disc features three large-scale works, all early: the Trio for violin, cello and piano of 1937; the Sonata for violin and piano of 1939; and the Sonata for Clarinet and piano of 1941–42, Bernstein’s first published piece, arranged for violin and piano by Terwilliger. The Trio and Violin Sonata were both written when Bernstein was a Harvard undergraduate. Both are student works, of historical interest but limited accomplishment.
The Clarinet Sonata is another matter. Written after Bernstein had left Harvard and begun studies at the Boston Symphony’s Tanglewood summer institute, it was written for clarinetist David Oppenheim who was later director of Columbia Records’ Masterworks Division. This is an accomplished piece, marked by Bernstein’s ability to write attractive melodies without descending into triviality or cliché, and jazzy touches that anticipate Bernstein’s later style.
“I love that Sonata,” Cooperstock says. “I’ve played it a lot with clarinet, and we were looking for another piece to fill out the CD, and I thought this would be perfect. [The arrangement] was my idea, and I like it just as well on the violin as the clarinet.”
All three works are played with polish and expression. In the Clarinet Sonata particularly, Terwilliger displays a sweetness of tone that almost (disclosure here) allows clarinetists like myself to enjoy a borrowing from our limited repertoire. Violinists don’t have enough great music to play?
The arrangements mentioned in the disc title are from some of Bernstein’s musical theater works, as adapted by Eric Stern. In “Two House Songs,” Broadway veteran Marin Mazzie joins Cooperstock and Terwilliger. She brings a simple sincerity and clean diction to her gently affecting performances of songs from Peter Pan and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Four pieces from Candide have been arranged for violin and piano alone. This must be a great set for the performers, and all are fun to hear. In “I am Easily Assimilated,” one of the great show stoppers of Bernstein’s Broadway career, Cooperstock and Terwilliger enjoy themselves with the song’s raunchy sensuality, and they capture well the ironic tenderness of “You were Dead, you Know.”
The other two songs fare less well in the arrangement. “Glitter and be Gay,” another great showpiece, sounds too easy for violin for us to be dazzled as we are by a coloratura soprano, and “Make Our Garden Grow” can’t build the way that the vocal version, taken up by one singer after another, is able to do.
Leonard Bernstein: Complete Solo Works for piano. Andrew Cooperstock, piano. Leonard Bernstein at 100, Bridge 9485A/B
The two-disc set of Bernstein’s piano music includes works both long and short, major concert works and occasional pieces. One disc is given over entirely to the latter, 29 “anniversaries” that Bernstein wrote for friends and family. These are extremely brief, ranging in length from 27 seconds (pianist William Kapell) to two minutes, 24 seconds (Felicia Montealegre, Bernstein’s wife).
The first of the two discs is devoted to the anniversaries, which Cooperstock compares to Romantic character pieces of the 19th century. “The anniversaries are my favorite pieces out of everything [Bernstein] wrote for piano solo,” he says. “They’re imaginative, they’re idiomatic, they’re well written.
“I like to compare them to Chopin Preludes.”
Each piece contains at least the germ of an individual idea and character, which Cooperstock’s performances capture well. I wish that some of them had developed the musical ideas further, since in their brevity some seem tossed off.
“Maybe there’s something to be said for less is more,” Cooperstock says. “I like that he’s composing them for friends and family, and that they have this extra meaning. They span most of his compositional output, so you see earlier pieces and later pieces.”
Some of the subjects are well known—composers, including Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss ad Stephen Sondheim—but others are not familiar to most of us—Elizabeth B. Ehrman, Craig Urquhart, and Helen Coates, Bernstein’s first piano teacher. The music has more depth and impact if you know something about the subject and their relationship with the composer—Cooperstock’s “extra meaning”—but they are all fun to hear in these eloquent performances.
The second disc is an eclectic collection of pieces. It includes another large piece from Bernstein’s college years, his Sonata for Piano, composed in 1938. The Sonata is taken seriously, befitting an undergraduate work, and is filled with both hints of the composer to come, and academic touches, including a fugue, to make the result as weighty as possible. There are also arid patches, where the young composer seems to run out of ideas.
“If he weren’t Leonard Bernstein, I’m not sure we would play that piece very much,” Cooperstock confesses. “What’s interesting for me is that you can get a foreshadowing of what’s going to happen next. You can hear a little bit of West Side Story to come. And he’s experimenting with different sounds. It’s interesting putting context, knowing that it was hist first major piece for piano.”
The greatest point of interest on the second disc may be the “Bridal Suite” for piano, four hands, written for the wedding of two of Bernstein’s friends, Broadway lyricist/song writer Adolph Green and actress Phyllis Newman. “I love the Bridal Suite,” Cooperstock says.
In fact, he loves it enough to play both parts. “I just thought it would be fun to do both parts,” he says. “It’s not that there are not fabulous pianists in the area, but I thought, I want to do this by myself. I overdubbed myself for the recording, [which] I never did before.”
This is clearly one of Bernstein’s most clever pieces of work. It opens with a Prelude that is an adaptation of the famous Gounod Ave Maria—itself based on Bach’s Prelude to Book One of the Well Tempered Klavier—with Green’s “Just in Time” from Bells Are Ringing. There are wedding dances, including a cha-cha and a hora, and other delightful small character pieces. It ends with a tender “Magyar Lullaby,” too short for any baby to fall asleep and another piece that I wish were longer.
In summary, the music on both albums is uneven in quality, but the performances are not. And it is music that opens a door into one of the great figures of American music and culture of the 20th century. Bernstein had a profound influence on American musical life, and here you have the opportunity to see and hear more of his creativity. If you love West Side Story or any of his other works, or admire his work as conductor and educator to the American public, you should take the time to explore these works.
They are off the beaten path, but so are all the most rewarding adventures.