Bernstein's Candide recording

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John F
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Bernstein's Candide recording

Post by John F » Sat Jun 15, 2019 6:35 am

“Don’t make me go out there alone!” — Leonard Bernstein’s last tango with ‘Candide’
June 13, 2019
by David Patrick Stearns

By the time he made his way to the podium, Leonard Bernstein was clearly in trouble. Well after the entrance applause died down, he needed to compose himself, and he aggressively massaged his forehead just for a minute. But in stage-time, it seemed more like ten. He was about to begin a concert performance of "Candide" with the London Symphony Orchestra and an all-star cast. Would he make it through the next three hours? Given the uncertain delivery of his spoken introduction, would he make it through the next sentence?

This wasn’t just any "Candide." The Voltaire-inspired 1956 musical had failed on Broadway but, like its picaresque hero who is batted around the globe by one calamity after another, the show kept reappearing in numerous revisions. For a few years, more music was written and added. By the early ’70s, Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim had cut the politically-barbed satire into a sexy, farcical romp that Bernstein didn’t hesitate to describe as “a sliver” of "Candide." At least that version kept the property alive — thanks also to the 1956 original cast album starring Barbara Cook that continually left listeners charmed, and also baffled that such a great score could’ve failed on Broadway. Of course, there had to be some mistake. (Barbara Cook told me the final performances had had people hanging from the rafters.) Was "Candide" kicked out of its theater because something more promising was on the way? (The culprit was said to be Lillian Hellman’s libretto. And it was. Having hunted it down, I found that it’s not only too clunky for the sparkling music, it’s downright pedestrian.)

Bernstein’s December 1989 concert performances starring June Anderson, Jerry Hadley, Christa Ludwig, Nicolai Gedda and Kurt Ollmann — none of whom are still singing today — were his answer to the surprisingly numerous Candide-ologists, who had even analyzed the differences between stereo and mono “takes” on the original cast album. Bernstein incorporated pretty much everything he had written for the show over the years, as far as it made sense. That included both the songs Sondheim and Prince cannibalized for their versions and the songs that had been cannibalized. Spoken dialogue was replaced by narration. Those two live performances, at the Barbican in London, were videotaped, and in the first of those two, Bernstein looks healthier and more composed. A separate studio recording was made at Abbey Road. From there, Bernstein was to go on to a celebratory Beethoven 9th at the newly-fallen Berlin Wall that would be telecast around the world.

All of that happened, but just barely.

"Candide" was, and remains, a tall order, with its episodic narrative and cartoon-like characters that embody far more social and political significance than first meets the eye. In the forthcoming semi-staged performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra (June 20-22), Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducts what the publishers call the “2004 New York Philharmonic Edition,” which will be co-narrated by film and stage stars Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan. So you still don’t quite know what music you’re going to get in any given "Candide" performance. But in 1989, the show existed in a much greater state of flux.

I arrived in London, on assignment from USA Today, in time for the second Barbican performance amid one of London’s worst flu epidemics in years. Key cast members had fallen sick. Replacements were flown in from Germany. In the video that edited together the two performances, you can see cast members changing from shot to shot. Leading lady June Anderson later told me that she had wanted to cancel but, in a phone conversation, Bernstein (also sick, and getting sicker) pleaded with her, saying “Don’t make me go out there alone!”

As usual, Bernstein rose to the occasion, drawing energy from the people around him, not to mention the effervescence of his own music. The performance wasn’t “another Bernstein triumph,” but it was more than respectable. At the later recording sessions, Bernstein seemed even less well. He turned up late, maybe by 15 minutes or so, but was still wasting what he knew was expense studio time. Key members of the cast, including Jerry Hadley and Christa Ludwig, were down for the count and overdubbed their parts months later. That was a red flag among those who knew Bernstein well. He was strictly against the artificiality of overdubbing. But he allowed it this time. Was something more than the flu going on?

It was often said that Bernstein was in a life-and-death race with himself, crossing the finish line with any given concert, piece, project or day, with life winning over death by a hair or two. He chain-smoked despite having emphysema for most of his adult life. He took uppers and downers, and drank seemingly constantly near the end. And he did so with complete awareness of what he was doing. “I smoke, I drink, I screw around,” he once told me. And shrugged.

Bernstein would lose that race some ten months later. A pleural tumor, diagnosed a few months after the Candide project, so deprived his brain of oxygen that, at his last concert, in late August of 1990 at Tanglewood, he couldn’t apprehend his piece "Arias and Barcarolles" well enough to conduct it himself, according to Jamie Bernstein in her book "Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Grown Up Bernstein." Bernstein wasn’t in anything close to that state for the "Candide" recording, but the fact that it was finished at all remains a minor miracle. Released after his death, it won a best-classical-album Grammy Award.

Still, listeners regard it with puzzlement. This sparkling operetta was treated to authoritatively slow tempos that accommodate large-voiced opera singers (as opposed to the more agile Broadway voices that had sung it before), often seeming so heavy-handed as to kill the show’s wit , or at least make it so arch as to lose its purpose.

Bernstein’s 1984 recording sessions of "West Side Story" with Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras revealed the pitfalls of casting international opera stars in Broadway roles. But just because operatic casting hadn’t worked didn’t mean it couldn’t work. "Candide" was more like European operetta than Broadway. June Anderson had dipped her toes into musical theater. Ditto for Jerry Hadley. Christa Ludwig had brought down the house with “I Am Easily Assimilated” in a Bernstein gala at Tanglewood. Lyricist and comic performer Adolph Green — Bernstein’s long-ago summer camp buddy — was Dr. Pangloss. Veteran tenor Nicolai Gedda was the South American governor. And, even in the face of a flu epidemic, how could such as cast be re-assembled anytime in the next three years?.. ... h-candide/
John Francis

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