Sunday, December 07, 2008

A musical puzzle: Can you guess who conducts our mystery recording of the Overture to Candide?


Leonard Bernstein conducts the London Symphony Orchestra
in his Candide Overture at London's Barbican Centre.

"Once one dismisses
The rest of all possible worlds,
One finds that this is
The best of all possible worlds."

-- Dr. Pangloss and his pupils ("Lesson 11, paragraph 2, axiom 7"), from Act I of Leonard Bernstein's Candide (these lyrics by John LaTouche)

by Ken

I'm not sure there's any 4 1/2 minutes' worth of music I treasure more than the Overture to Candide. I don't know if you're given to musical monomania -- by which I mean listening to a piece of music over and over (and over) -- but I am, and there's hardly any piece more likely to set me to trying to figure out how the "repeat 1" mode of the particular CD player I'm using works, or (usually) just manually replaying the track, over and over (and over). I've been known to listen to it half a dozen, or even a dozen times. More often than I dare count.

Now, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) did an awful lot of things in his long career, as composer, conductor, and educator-explicator (we should probably include as pianist as well) -- way too much for us to even begin to reckon with here. Let me just venture that if he'd left behind nothing but these 4 1/2 minutes of music, with its unsurpassable celebration of the joys of the here and now, he would be immortal. (Even if you think you've never heard the piece, I bet you'll recognize the romp, the final section of Cunegonde's astonishing "aria" "Glitter and be gay," that cuts loose at 3:23 of the Bernstein-LSO recording, or 3:36 of our mystery version -- see below.)

Let's try not to get bogged down in the history of this musical rendering of Voltaire's gloriously satiric novella, which tells the story of the supremely naive hero, Candide, who carries the inspirational philosophy of his tutor, the philosopher Dr. Pangloss -- that this is "the best of all possible worlds" -- into a world that dishes out a steady diet of disaster mixed with catastrophe. The show's history is a nightmare, though it all started off innocently enough when the playwright Lillian Hellman and Lenny B tossed around the idea of making a musical of Candide. The poet Richard Wilbur was enlisted to contribute lyrics, and many other hands chipped in. Already by the time it reached the Broadway stage in 1956 this poor "comic operetta" had a complicated history.

The poor thing was pretty much a flop, with hardly anybody knowing quite what to make of it. It lasted only two months, 73 performances. Whereupon Lenny, with heavy heart, turned his attention to another long-simmering theater project, a modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet originally proposed by the choreographer-director Jerome Robbins. It was being developed with playwright Arthur Laurents and a fledgling lyricist named Stephen Sondheim, and reached Broadway in 1957. For all its formal originality (youth gangs depicted in stylized dance?), nobody had any difficulty knowing what to make of West Side Story.

Candide wouldn't die, though. Over the years productions popped up all over the place, and seemingly each created a new "edition" of its own. Increasingly, at least some of the creators were dragged into the process. I doubt that it would be possible to count the number of versions that were concocted, with varying degrees of official sanction.

The composer got into the act, and by the time of his live concert performances and studio recording in December 1989, he had given his official blessing to what someone (an individual with a deadpan sense of humor?) thought to call "The Final Revised Version." Ha! Even Lenny's death the following year didn't slow the pace of the creation of new, further "improved" performing versions.

Getting Candide into some kind of final form was one of the composer's last creative projects. And judging by the video recording of the second of two concert performances he conducted in London, on Dec. 12 and 13, 1989, with a starry cast and the London Symphony Orchestra (at the same time, Lenny's recording company of his last couple of decades, Deutsche Grammophon, made a studio audio recording with these same forces), he had a chance to see this most troubled of his creations achieve riotous public acclaim. On the evidence of the video recording (available on DVD), it was a joyous event for all concerned. Certainly the composer seems to be having the time of his life. I don't think you would guess that he was dying. (It seems to have been mostly lung problems, which continued to worsen, until the end came with an assist from pneumonia on Oct. 14, 1990.)

While everything in the perennially crowd-pleasing Candide Overture comes from the show, the Overture has taken on a life of its own, a concert staple at pops concerts and not-so-pops concerts. There have been lots of recordings, including some pretty good ones, and including at least two by the composer before the complete recording of Candide in 1989.

And then there's this performance, not quite like any other I've heard, which I stumbled across recently in the $3.99 bin of my CD emporium. The question I'm putting to you is whether anyone can guess whose recording this is. (From the fact that I only "recently" stumbled across it in the $3.99 bin, you may guess correctly that it's not exactly brand-new. There, that's a hint.)

[One technical note: Be prepared to really crank up the volume. Perhaps because the performance was squeezed onto a CD that contains more than 80 minutes' worth of music, it's mastered at a quite low level. Hmm, could there be a hint there too? Perhaps not, unless you happen to know the recording in question.]

I don't say this is the definitive recording, or my favorite. This orchestra, unlike the London Symphony, which shouted the piece out with such swagger for Lenny in 1989, clearly doesn't have the piece in its bones. (Aha, another hint!) Yet there's something touching about hearing the players getting into the spirit of the thing.

I suspect, though, that the less rambunctious, more nuanced approach is in good part the conductor's choice. For one thing, at 4:51 this is the longest performance of the piece I've heard.

The composer's history with the piece is interesting. His 1960 recording with the New York Philharmonic ran 4:09, a mere second longer than Samuel Krachmalnick's snappy performance in the Original Broadway Cast recording (still indispensable, if only for the electrifying performance of the young Barbara Cook as Cunegonde). This broadened to 4:18 when he recorded it with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1982, then to 4:30 by the time of the 1989 LSO recording.

This reminds us how tricky it can be to try to realize "the composer's intention." What was this composer's intention? The 1960 version, the 1982, or the 1989? My feeling is that Lenny was only one of many conductors who came to realize that there was more depth in his little gem of an overture than anyone, even the composer, was hearing in the early days of those four-minute performances. With a little more breathing room, this little treasure opens up.

Now here's our mystery conductor stretching all the way to 4:51! In addition, there's some treasurable textural detail, and also an innocent sweetness and delicacy I've never head anyone else coax from what we might call the "main theme," the lyrical central section (at 1:28 in this performance) taken from the Candide-Cunegonde duet "Oh, Happy We." (We'll be talking about that duet more when we reveal the answer to our musical mystery.) This could be a hint too.

One final hint: Part of what makes the mystery performance special to me is the identify of the conductor. And one suggestion: What I would probably do is listen to it, oh, 19 or 20 times. No, this probably wouldn't help me identify the performance. It's just probably what I would do.

[Note: The answer tomorrow, along with the promised further musings on Candide -- with still-further musings to follow, probably the week after next.]


You'll find the answer here.


Both the 1960 N.Y. Phil and the 1982 L.A. Phil versions are readily available, and the CD editions I'm familiar with I can recommend unhesitatingly. They're both filled with terrific performances of terrific music, beautifully recorded and mastered, and relatively cheap.

The earlier recording appears in a generous (78:27!) Sony Masterworks CD gathering LB's 1960-63 N.Y. Phil accounts of his theater-based music: the indispensable Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" (which, at least to these old ears, sound as grippingly fresh as ever after 50 years), the Symphonic Suite arranged from his score for the Elia Kazan film On the Waterfront, the Fancy Free ballet, and the Three Dance Episodes from "On the Town," his first Broadway musical.

The L.A. Phil version appears on a lovely DG CD that also includes the maestro's early-'80s remake of the West Side Story and On the Town music, filled out with some other choice American music: Samuel Barber's haunting Adagio (aka that music from Platoon) and a piece he all but owned, George Gershwin's eternally vital, throbbing Rhapsody in Blue, in which, naturally, he also plays the solo piano part. He'd been playing the solo-piano version of the Rhapsody essentially all his life.

The LB of 1980 was a very different conductor from the LB of 1960. His performances of most music, emphatically including his own, tended to become more spacious and reflective. That got him into trouble at times, but happily there's no loss of high-voltage excitement in the performances gathered on this DG CD. I don't plan to do without either version.

For that matter, I would hate to be without LB's 1958 Rhapsody in Blue. The LP on which it originally appeared, coupled with his equally joyful and rousing 1959 recording of Gershwin's infectious An American in Paris, has always struck me as one of his happiest records. Now they appear on a Sony Masterworks CD along with Ferde Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite, one of the first classical pieces I fell in love with, and one I still adore. (By the way, if you're familiar with the American composer John Corigliano, you may know that his father was a longtime concertmaster of the New York Philarmonic. In that capacity, John Corigliano Sr. played the important violin solos in this 1963 recording of the Grand Canyon Suite.)

Note that at the time I searched out the CD links, Amazon was selling the Sony Bernstein CD for $7.99, the Sony Gershwin CD for $10.99, and the DG disc for $11.99. Buy all three for $31, and you're over the $25 minimum for free shipping.

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At 10:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No guesses though that is a very spritely version! but you've brought back lovely memories of Candide which I saw in the "Chelsea" version when it was on Broadway - what fun!

At 7:10 AM, Blogger the cajun said...

You have confessed to something I have done since childhood - repeating the same piece - though not always Candide - until anyone within hearing distance begged me to stop!
Every time I hear that overture I feel alive again. It's impossible to remain in a blue funk upon hearing that blasting beginning, then the real ride takes off with the wind blowing through your hair (if I had any) and by the time it's over you're out of breath.
Many thanks for sharing this; somehow I feel vindicated.
Oh, and Grand Canyon Suite was my introduction to classical music as a child growing up in New Orleans.

At 7:29 AM, Blogger VG said...

I'm not going to embarrass myself with a public guess, but fun piece to read (and to listen to), Ken.

At 8:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Frank Zappa, who I miss a lot. Roll those boys in the bathtub men.

KenI, since you have vinyl too, do you hear a big difference between the Vinyl LB's 1958 Rhapsody in Blue and CD's? MP3's? I know I am still vinyl biased AND could get into the space saving of moving this lovely vinyl on and the 1970's Natural Sound Yamaha Receiver etc etc. Thanks in advance.

THANKS for something lovely-different while surfing for the newz.

At 10:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this great article and amazing music. DWT is one of my favorite reads everyday.The effort that goes into this site is very much appreciated. The endless political stuff and then a great musical interlude is very refreshing.
After ten listens I still don't recognize the conductor so I'll be working on it some more, thank you.

At 12:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Public embarrassment no problema KenI.
2nd guess, since I'm pretty sure Zappa didn't do it but COULD have.

Aaron Copland, much better guess but I love Zappa.

If I win, can I choose between vinyl, cd and/or some of Adams REALLY scary original art drafts? or um, you know, the usual glory and recognition here...

At 12:37 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Sorry, everyone, I"m just catching up with the comments.

Zappa is a GREAT guess, Bil!

On the vinyl issue I'm totally with you too. I have a "6 eyes" (i.e., early) pressing of the LP, which sounds really fabulous. I wouldn't expect a CD to be able to duplicate that sound, so I don't even hope for it. The Sony CD reissue sounds pretty darned good, though -- for a CD.



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