Album review: Bernstein’s Candide revisited with love by the LSO and a splendid cast under Marin Alsop

The connections between Leonard Bernstein’s comic operetta Candide (1956/1989) and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chours go back thirty two years. On 12 and 13 December 1989, the composer made his last public appearance with his beloved LSO, conducting two concert performances of Candide at the Barbican Centre.

Preserved on video, the live performances were carried out by flu-ridden cast and Maestro, something unthinkable under our pandemic realities. Some days later, on 15-18 December 1989, the team was reassembled in Abbey Road Studio Number One, for an audio recording of the score, released by Deutsche Grammophon and subsequently awarded with the Grammy for best classical recording in 1991.

Twenty nine years later, almost to the date, the LSO and Chorus were back at Candide, to celebrate the composer’s centenary. On 8 and 9 December 2018, lead by Marin Alsop, the orchestra and chorus were joined by tenor Leonardo Capalbo (Candide), soprano Jane Archibald (Cunégonde), mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter (The Old Lady), baritone Sir Thomas Allen (Dr Pangloss, Narrator), tenor Thomas Atkins, baritone Marcus Farnsworth and Guildhall School Young Artists, Bernstein’s riotous Voltairean satire made its return to the Barbican stage for another concertante run.

Released on the orchestra’s house label LSO Live, the new two-SACD presentation of Candide provides the listener with a dedicated take on the score, one awash with biting wit and inspired music-making. Beautifully recorded by the LSO Live team, the album is certainly one of the most substantial sounding documents of the composer’s centenary year.

Speaking of the score, there are 479 pages of music written for Candide. Cast in two acts and eighteen scenes, Bernstein’s score includes 28 musical numbers; brilliant settings for various permutations of solo voices, contemplative choruses as well as brief instrumental lead-ins and interludes. Like the composer’s own recording, Alsop’s 2018 version does not aim to present each and every note jotted down by Bernstein. Instead, there are some cuts and amendments involved, with the new version complementing the 1989 recording in an appealing manner.

Unlike Bernstein himself, Alsop treats the audience with several orchestral cues from the staged version, enhancing the musical narrative with those all-important transitory gems. On the other hand, there are some regrettable omissions involved, most notably the absense of Quiet and its satirical use of twelve-tone row, as well as Words, Words, Words, a musical self-parody of the The Best of All Possible Worlds from the opening scene.

Win some, lose some, perhaps, but the new recording nevertheless makes a worthy companion to the composer’s own. There is a good share of comedy embedded, both musical and verbal, dressed in splendid vocal and orchestral garb, yielding to a loving tribute to one of Bernstein’s most wonderful scores.

The recording launches with a vivid take on the flamboyant Overture, setting the stage for the ever-poignant re-imagination of Voltaire’s novella. Bound together by Sir Thomas Allen’s narration, Bernstein’s musical setting of the picturesque story is unveiled with sublime wit and aptly biting irony. In Act One, several musical treats are served, including Cunégonde’s gorgeous Glitter and Be Gay, marvellously sung by Jane Archibald, Old Lady’s Tango I Am Easily Assimilated, nailed by Anne Sofie von Otter and the splendid Quartet Finale for the whole ensemble.

The grotesque ritual of Auto-da-fé is brought to life with cinematic whirl and acuteness, framed by Candide’s reflective musings, beautifully sung by Leonardo Capalbo.

In Bernstein’s score, various eighteenth century allusions are fused with several strata of twentieth century idioms, highbrow and lowbrow, giving rise to musical scenery perfectly suited to depict Candide’s travels in Europe and South America, from his native Westphalia to Lisbon, and all the way to the mythic Eldorado, finally homing at a mundane farmhouse near Venice.

The South American sequence opening Act Two is perhaps the most cinematic part of the score, thanks to its evocative orchestral passages and choral numbers, marvellously conveyed by the LSO and Chorus. All ends finally meet in the Venetian scenes, highlighting with the splendid take on What’s the Use, depicting the futility of profit-seeking lifestyles.

To bring Candide to its cathartic conclusion, the whole ensemble is joined in Bernstein’s Mahler-tinged Make Our Garden Grow finale, heralding the newly-found, humble way of life. A terrific performance from the cast, chorus and orchestra, Make our Garden Grow rounds the show off with a powerhouse musical statement.

Complementing the main cast, Thomas Atkins, Marcus Farnsworth, Carmen Artaza, Liam Bonthrone, Jonathan Eyers, Frederick Jones, Lucy McAuley and Katherine McIndoe appear in multitude of roles, to their credit. Prepared by Simon Halsey,the London Symphony Chorus is once again at the top of the game, taking great care of its many roles in Bernstein’s score, from refined chorale settings to riotous mob numbers.

With Alsop on the podium, the LSO delivers a magnificent performance, abundant with apt comedy and dramatic intensity. Beautifully aligned with the voices, the orchestra serves the soloists and chorus well throughout, yielding to the most enjoyable take on the score, one to be recommended far and wide.

London Symphony Orchestra

Marin Alsop, conductor

London Symphony Chorus

Simon Halsey, chorus director

Leonardo Capalbo, tenor (Candide)

Jane Archibald, soprano (Cunégonde)

Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano (The Old Lady)

Sir Thomas Allen, baritone (Dr Pangloss, Narrator)

Thomas Atkins, tenor

Marcus Farnsworth, baritone

Guildhall School Young Artists

Recorded at the Barbican Centre, on 8 and 9 December 2018

LSO Live LSO0834 (2021), 2 SACD

© Jari Kallio

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