Bernstein: Symphony No 2 (The Age of Anxiety)

Reviewed on Wed 10 Oct, 2018

This new Berlin version with Zimerman and Simon Rattle, which is treated to a strikingly realistic recording, spins the illusion that the music has been around for generations, part of our symphonic DNA.

This performance is the result of a long-held promise: that Krystian Zimerman would perform The Age of Anxiety when Leonard Bernstein turned 100. That was at the composer’s suggestion, and, within a couple of years of these centenary celebrations, Zimerman started working towards his goal. The booklet for this wonderful issue includes a tiny reprint of Edward Hopper’s haunting canvas ‘Nighthawks’, which perfectly encapsulates the feeling of nightlife loaners downing liquor and whiling away the time in meaningful dialogue. In a brief snatch of recorded interview with Humphrey Burton included on this CD Bernstein identifies the painting with the Symphony’s ‘Prologue’, but of course the music that follows opens up entirely new vistas, variation leading to contrasting variation, with ‘The Dirge’, a technically treacherous scherzo ‘The Masque’, and a closing ‘Epilogue’ that ultimately suggests some sort of faith – at least after a fashion. Bernstein’s own recordings (with Lukas Foss and Philippe Entremont) nail these filmic evocations with unerring accuracy, but this new Berlin version with Zimerman and Simon Rattle, which is treated to a strikingly realistic recording, has one virtue that even Bernstein’s own doesn’t have: it spins the illusion that the music has been around for generations, part of our symphonic DNA. Swathed in atmosphere, dramatic, playful, tragic and superbly played, it tells it as it is, or at least as it was in the late Nineteen Forties, like a great old movie that has been lovingly restored. You live the score as you’ve never lived it before. Antonio Pappano’s recent version with Beatrice Rana for Warner Classics was good, but this is a genuinely great reading.
–Rob Cowan