A Complete(r) View Of Bernstein For Solo Piano

Leonard Bernstein composed many works for the instrument he knew best – piano. (Music Museum of New England)

Leonard Bernstein: Complete Solo Works for Piano. Andrew Cooperstock, piano. Bridge 9485A/B, 2 CDs.

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW — Leonard Bernstein’s first instrument was the piano, and he maintained his love for the keyboard throughout his life. But his ambitions grew much wider than a mere 88 keys could accommodate, so his output for the piano is relatively small. Nevertheless, it has become larger than was once thought, as various bits and pieces of obscure or unpublished material have come to light since his death in 1990.

Over the last four decades, there have been several discs containing selections of Bernstein’s piano music, at least two of which claimed to be complete. But Andrew Cooperstock’s valuable collection is the first that indeed seems to be genuinely complete — barring the posthumous publication of any further scraps that turn up. It has been released just in time to lead the charge for the Bernstein centennial, which officially begins on his 99th birthday, Aug. 25.

The most extensive collection of material is Bernstein’s 29 so-called Anniversaries — economically-sketched little musical portraits of friends, relatives, and colleagues Bernstein knew and loved, divided into groups of seven, four, five, and thirteen pieces. The Anniversaries span almost his entire career, and they are important wellsprings for some of the most memorable ideas that wound up in his larger compositions.

Ever the resourceful pack rat, Lenny often raided his trunk for material to recycle, and though Cooperstock’s booklet notes don’t elaborate upon all these borrowings, for Bernstein fans who have never heard the Anniversaries, it will be like discovering the mother lode. The theme from an early “Anniversary” dedicated to Nathalie Koussevitzky can be heard near the end of the Jeremiah Symphony, and passages in the four pieces dedicated to Elizabeth Rudolf, Lukas Foss, Elizabeth B. Ehrman, and Sandy Gellhorn were imported intact into the first, second, and fifth movements of Serenade. (The Foss piece is a particularly endearing gem.) The Thirteen Anniversaries yielded material for most of Bernstein’s major late works — Mass, Dybbuk, A Quiet Place, Concerto For Orchestra, and Arias and Barcarolles.

Cooperstock’s performances are, for the most part, gentler and softer in focus than most renditions, a pattern that recurs through much of this album. The composer’s own recordings of the first seven Anniversaries on 78s (now on Sony) tend to be faster than Cooperstock’s in the quick ones and slower in the slow ones.

There is a small collection of piano music that Bernstein wrote as a teenager — a dissonant, imposing, earnest Piano Sonata, a Non troppo presto, and three short movements under the title Music for the Dance, No. II (where’s No. I?). The latter two weren’t published until 2010 and not recorded until 2014. These otherwise sturdy pieces contain nothing of the distinctive Bernstein harmonic flavor that would only emerge in his 20s.

Andrew Cooperstock

The Four Sabras, brief portraits of native-born Israelis who may have been imaginary, dates from probably around 1950, the most melodically inspired one being “Ilana, The Dreamer,” which a few years later became “Candide’s Lament” (Cooperstock does mention this). Three decades on, Touches, a set of variations on a chorale written for the 1981 Van Cliburn Competition, is introspective, at times hard as nails, though never showy, seemingly a belated response to the Piano Variations of his friend and mentor, Aaron Copland. And speaking of Copland, Cooperstock includes Bernstein’s piano transcription of his friend’s El Salón México — Bernstein’s first publication of anything — in a somewhat understated rendition.

Having run out of solo piano material, but not space on the two discs, Cooperstock plays both parts in a 1960 piano-four-hands wedding present to Bernstein’s friend and lyricist-collaborator Adolph Green and singer Phyllis Newman, Bridal Suite — recorded in its entirety (timing: 10:42) for the first time. It opens with the famous C Major Prelude from Book I of J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier where Bernstein pulls a Gounod and superimposes a tune with a snarky ending (“Just In Time”; music by Jule Style set to here-unheard lyrics by Green and Betty Comden) upon the arpeggios. There follow 10 brief, sometimes droll sets of variations, dances, musical arguments, and reconciliations. We seem to be eavesdropping on Lenny entertaining at the wedding reception, full of life and verve — and that makes us miss him even more.


Update: Wouldn’t you know it, the Andrew Cooperstock “complete” collection has been quickly joined by another set of Bernstein’s piano music that also purports to be “complete.” (Steinway and Sons 30076, 2 CDs). As it turns out, pianist Leann Osterkamp has one-upped Cooperstock, having been granted access to about ten-and-a-half minutes of more unrecorded, unpublished chips from Bernstein’s workbench.

The new pieces – “Valse Lente,” “Valse Lente for GAEA,” “Mixolydian Mixup,” “One Minute For Charlie,” “35,” “For Nicky Slonimsky,” and “Meditations Before A Wedding” – are mostly tiny, with the latter being the most expansive at three-and-a-quarter minutes. Although none are scintillating finds, several have their meanings and enigmas. The Slonimsky piece is a birthday greeting with subtle jokes within (like a few notes from Tristan); the Meditations found their way into Arias and Barcarolles. The proto-minimalist “Mixolydian Mixup” (Sept. 1966) could have been inspired by Bernstein’s work on his “What Is A Mode?” Young People’s Concert from November of that year; in any case, the “Mixup” turned up again in Jubilee Games two decades after its composition.

Osterkamp’s renditions are sometimes strikingly different in tempo from Cooperstock’s, and they are usually more expressive. Although the El Salón México transcription is missing from the Ostercamp set, overall I would give it a slight edge over Cooperstock.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.