As part of the Proms celebration of the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, this concert with the ever-popular Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, making its Proms debut, featured two of his works rarely played in the concert hall. And perhaps for good reason. A brilliant conductor and pianist, his composing career had many more peaks and troughs. From the heights of musicals such as West Side Story and On the Town, many of his “serious” concert works have struggled to find a place in the repertoire.

Marin Alsop conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Marin Alsop conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Slava! A Political Overture, written for Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich is one of his weakest concert works. At four minutes it outstayed its welcome after thirty seconds, despite perky and enthusiastic playing from the BSO. Even the taped inclusion of snippets of political speeches didn’t raise it beyond compositional sleepwalking. However, for completeness sake, it was only right that it had its Proms debut this centenary weekend.  

The composer's Second Symphony, The Age of Anxiety also demonstrates some of Bernstein’s shortcomings as a composer. Written for large orchestra and with a brilliant piano solo part, it is a concerto in all but name. Divided into two parts with linking material between the movements, it fails to coalesce. The first part, which is a rather plain Prologue followed by a theme and fourteen variations, lacks thematic interest and a logical structural flow. At times Bernstein seems to come to a halt, waiting for inspiration. Only the final passage leading to the lively conclusion has any real sense of purpose and drive.

The second part starts more promisingly with a resonant Dirge progressing, not completely convincingly, to an energetic Masque. It is only in this passage that you feel the personality of composer shining through. Jazzy, brilliant, quixotic and irascible by turns, its edgy charms seem to paint a portrait of this most publicly private of men. However, the final Epilogue, with its piano cadenza added in a 1965 revision, returns to the unconvincing serious mood and the work ends with Mahlerian grandiosity that doesn’t ring true. Whatever the shortcomings of the piece, the performance with Jean-Yves Thibaudet as a most brilliant soloist and Alsop directing to the manner born, was as authentic and musically polished as it could be.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

It was with some relief that we moved onto the overplayed, but genuinely symphonic Stalinist world of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Everything about the performance was entertaining and musically satisfying. In the long first movement, fairly brisk tempi kept the drama tight and the central climax was expertly graded. The dreamlike final passage of the movement, felt naturally arrived at and came with beautiful playing from the woodwind. The waltz-like Allegretto had a heavy gait to it. These weren’t Soviet workers merrymaking but somehow the enforced jollity of the oppressed – as perhaps the composer intended. The Baltimore were particularly rhythmically alert and crisp here.  

The Largo, perhaps the most purely beautiful of the composer’s symphonic movements, was exquisitely delicate and passionate in turns here. The finale successfully avoided bombast, with its more fraught moments emphasised and when the triumphant major key coda arrived, it felt well deserved. This much discussed work of reconciliation sounded here like a personal battle won and not an apologetic compromise enforced by the State as it is often characterised. Two lively encores, including an arrangement of music from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, sent the appreciative audience away buzzing. 

****1