BERNSTEIN in the 1940s Volume 1: Blitzstein, Gillis, Ravel (1946) - PASC526

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BERNSTEIN in the 1940s Volume 1: Blitzstein, Gillis, Ravel (1946) - PASC526

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BLITZSTEIN Airborne Symphony
GILLIS Motor Perpetuo
RAVEL Piano Concerto in G

Live broadcast performances, 1946
Total duration: 74:20

Charles Holland, tenor
Walter Scheff,
Marc Blitzstein,
The Monitor (narrator)
Leonard Bernstein,

NBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
conducted by Leonard Bernstein

This set contains the following albums:

This is the first of two volumes of previously unreleased broadcast performances by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) from the 1940s. In this volume we find him as guest conductor in two broadcasts from the late spring of 1946 with the NBC Symphony Orchestra and a male chorus which might be assumed to be drawn from the Robert Shaw Chorale, though I cannot yet confirm this.

The first concert broadcast took place on 27 May and consisted solely of the Airborne Symphony by Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964). As our sleevenotes explain, Blitzstein originally wrote the work as an airman stationed in the UK during the Second World War, and rewrote it at the insistence of Leonard Bernstein having lost it at the end of the war. This was its second performance - Bernstein went to record it twice, with Orson Welles providing narration in both instances. Here we hear the composer himself as"The Monitor" alongside the same soloists, Charles Holland and Walter Scheff, who had premièred the work and would go on to make the first recording with Bernstein shortly afterwards.

The recording was preserved well on acetate discs, with a relatively broad frequency range and quiet surfaces, though there is some tendency to mild high frequency distortion at peaks during the music, which I've attempted to subdue whilst retaining as much of the upper "air" as possible. Comparison with the 1960s recording of the Airborne Symphony indicates that either some revision of the piece took place after the earlier performance or a handful of minor cuts were made for broadcast purposes.

(Further information on the Airborne Symphony can be found here:

Bernstein's concert of 2 June 1946 featured three works, of which time permits us here to include only two. The missing work was a performance of Haydn's Symphony No. 102, and it is to be hoped we can find a home for this at some point during this Bernstein centenary year.

What we can hear is a unique recording of a short piece by prolific composer and radio producer Don Gillis entitled Motor Perpetuo, something of a play on words as it's based on an old popular tune In My Merry Oldsmobile. We have struggled in vain to find any other reference to a performance of this piece, let alone a recording, though we know from the radio announcement that this was its world première. One might tentatively suggest that Mr. Gillis might have had a number of short works like this up his sleeve for moments when a short orchestral work was needed to pad out a radio broadcast.

In both this and the final piece, Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, a certain amount of gain riding was taking place in the radio control room, leading to variations in volume which I've attempted to reverse. However there are moments, especially at the beginning of the second movement in the Ravel, where Bernstein's piano almost seems to vanish into the background. I've done what I can to counter this but listeners should be aware that there are a few notes which are particularly faint. That said, the overall sound quality is once again good, with perhaps a little less of the distortion present in the previous week's broadcast.

Andrew Rose

BLITZSTEIN  Airborne Symphony
1. Part One - The Theory of Flight  (4:36)
2. Ballad of History and Mythology  (4:24)
3. Kittyhawk  (2:44)
4. The Airborne  (1:40)
5. Part Two - The Enemy  (4:17)
6. Threat and Approach  (2:20)
7. Ballad of the Cities  (7:10)
8. Morning Poem  (1:17)
9. Part Three - Air Force: Ballad of Hurry-Up  (6:44)
10. Night Music: Ballad of the Bombardier  (4:53)
11. Recitative: Chorus of the Rendezvous  (2:08)
12. The Open Sky (Finale)  (7:14)
Charles Holland, tenor
Walter Scheff, baritone
Marc Blitzstein, The Monitor (narrator)

13. GILLIS Motor Perpetuo  (4:42)

RAVEL  Piano Concerto in G major
14. 1st mvt. - Allegramente  (7:32)
15. 2nd mvt. - Adagio assai  (9:01)
16. 3rd mvt. - Presto  (3:38)
Leonard Bernstein   piano

NBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus    
Leonard Bernstein,

XR remastering by Andrew Rose
Cover artwork based on a photograph of Leonard Bernstein

Blitzstein Airborne Symphony
Broadcast of 27 May, 1946

Gillis Motor Perpetuo
Ravel Piano Concerto
Broadcast of 2 June, 1946

Total duration:  74:20

2018 marks the centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, who remains well known as both a conductor and a composer. Some famous conductors composed a little (Furtwängler or Walter for example) but their works are rarely performed. Some prolific composers had glittering conducting careers (Mahler and Richard Strauss spring to mind) but were not well served by recordings. Bernstein made a large number of commercial recordings, preserving his legacy as a conductor, and his most popular works such as West Side Story and Candide continue to be regularly performed.

Bernstein was one of the most influential American musicians of the twentieth century. He had a long association with the New York Philharmonic, including a spell as musical director in the 1960s, making his conducting debut as a last minute replacement for Bruno Walter in 1943. Throughout his conducting career, and perhaps because he himself was a composer, Bernstein programmed a large amount of contemporary American music. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that this release includes two such pieces, followed by a third showcasing Bernstein as performer.

Marc Blitzstein wrote much of his Airborne Symphony while on active service in London during World War II. This largely choral work charts the history of human flight, and was closely associated with Bernstein from the beginning. Much of the original score was lost when Blitzstein returned to the USA after the war and it was Bernstein who persuaded the young composer to write it out again. Bernstein premièred the work with the New York City Symphony on 1 April 1946, broadcast on the local WNYC station. These forces would record the symphony commercially later the same year, but before doing so Bernstein conducted it with the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

The work is in three movements. The first movement contains a brief history of flight, the second explores the impact of German air power during WWII, and the third depicts the Allied Air Force as ultimately triumphant. While obviously a product of its times, and reflecting its composer’s personal experiences, the work is actually not that jingoistic. The terrible destructiveness of airpower is not something to used lightly, Blitzstein warns, but only in the most severe times.

Don Gillis is perhaps best known as the producer of the NBC symphony broadcasts between 1944 and 1954, but he was also a prolific composer. His best known, and most often performed work, is the unusually titled Symphony No 5½ but several of his other compositions were performed by the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony and the NBC Symphony during the 1940s and 50s. ‘Motor Perpetuo’ was based on a popular tune ‘In my merry Oldsmobile’ written by Gus Edwards in 1905. It is a tribute to America’s love affair with the automobile, something that has not changed in the seventy years since it was written. This broadcast with the NBC Symphony is the single known performance of this short work, and there is some slight confusion over the title. Mortimer Frank’s book on the NBC Symphony lists the title as ‘ Moto Perpetuo’ or perpetual motion, but the original manuscript copy, in the library of the University of North Texas, confirms that the actual title is the more amusing ‘Motor Perpetuo’.

Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, although by a French composer, should perhaps be considered as an American work. Written between 1929 and 1931 following Ravel’s visit to the United States, it is clearly influenced by the contemporary American music he heard (most obviously Gershwin), but also by jazz. Bernstein plays the piano as well as leading the orchestra, at the time a relatively unusual thing for a conductor to do. Bernstein recorded the work several times during his career, the first of which would be just a few weeks after this live broadcast but with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London.