Judge Leonard Bernstein solely by his orchestral works, and you might come away with the impression that Bernstein was a somber, almost humorless man, concerned, like Hamlet, with “enterprises of great pith and moment.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. A man of high intelligence and dazzling wit, Bernstein delighted people around him with his infectious good humor and warm, endearing friendship.
Excerpt from Bernstein’s Arias and Barcarolles (II. “Love Duet”)
London Symphony Orchestra / Michael Tilson Thomas, Conductor; Frederica von Stade, Mezzo-Soprano; Thomas Hampson, Baritone. Universal Classics Group.
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Nowhere is Bernstein’s sense of humor more on display than in his last major work, the song cycle Arias and Barcarolles for soprano, baritone, and piano for four hands. A collection of personal, intimate, often humorous love letters, Arias and Barcarolles draws on the kind of purposely prosaic dialogue that Bernstein employed in works like Trouble in Tahiti and A Quiet Place, yet contains the same larger-than-life ebullience and emotional range found in his conducting and personality. The eight numbers in the score are varied in manner and substance, containing tributes to Bernstein’s mother, a wedding present for his daughter, a children’s bedtime story, and a warm tribute to Indiana University’s dean and his wife.
Bernstein’s large-scale orchestral works—from the monumental Mass to the symphonies—are preoccupied with weighty topics such as man’s loss of faith and search for God, but with Arias and Barcarolles he let the sunny side of his musical personality shine. It is almost as though, weighed down by the direction in which the world seemed to be heading, Bernstein chose to set his concerns aside and compose this set of charming valentines.
Paul Myers, a classical record producer for more than 40 years, is the author of several books, including a biography of Leonard Bernstein (Phaidon).