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A Bernstein Discovery x2

The young Leonard Bernstein, composing.
Courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office
The young Leonard Bernstein, composing.

In November 2021, music by Leonard Bernstein, previously heard only in private reading sessions decades ago, was given its world premiere performance at Tanglewood. The rediscovery of any work by a composer of Bernstein’s impact and legacy would be enough to warrant a major story. But there were certain factors that made this event even more remarkable.

First, it was a string quartet. No one, even those who worked with Bernstein and those who have researched his career and compositions, was aware that he had ever written for that specific kind of ensemble. And the reason no one knew about the piece takes us to the second factor: Bernstein was only 18 years old, and a student at Harvard, when he wrote it in 1936.

Now Bernstein’s Music for String Quartet has been released on the Navona label, available for download purchase and streaming. And to add to what’s already an amazing story, the original single movement that was premiered in 2021 is joined on this recording by a second movement that was discovered at the Library of Congress. Rounding out the release is another rarely-heard piece of music, Elegies, for violin and viola, by Bernstein’s teacher, friend, and mentor, Aaron Copland.

The story of the rediscovery of the first movement of Music for String Quartet is best related through notes that John Perkel, who facilitated the premiere and the recording, wrote for this release:

"I first heard about the piece from my friend Lisa Benson Pickett, daughter of former Boston Symphony Orchestra violinist Stanley Benson, who told me about its fascinating backstory. According to Lisa and her brother, Peter W. Benson:

Our father, Stanley Benson, was a member of the New England String Quartet in the 1930s. The group was looking for a pianist to join their group to play quintets, and invited a young Leonard Bernstein to play with them for a series of concerts. During a rehearsal, Bernstein asked the group to play through his new string quartet. He eventually gifted the original handwritten manuscript to our father, and it remained in our family for decades. Our mother, Clara Stagliano Benson, was also a violinist and occasionally played it at home with her quartet. Our parents and Bernstein remained friends throughout their lives and would see each other in Boston, New York, and at Tanglewood.

Our mother kept the manuscript in the family music cabinet for decades, and after she told us about its existence we wanted the world to know about it as well. With the help of John Perkel, the Bernstein family, and The Leonard Bernstein Office, we are so pleased Music for String Quartet is having its moment to shine."

To hear more of the story, listen to Arun Rath’s 2021 interview with Perkel. And to hear from two of the performers, recorded in conjunction with WCRB’s broadcast of the world premiere, listen to my interview with them. Michael Brodeur wrote about a subsequent performance in Maryland for the Washington Post.

Discoveries of this sort do tend to bring with them terrific stories. To me, this one is exceptional for its interplay of personal connections and friendships, as well as the sheer astonishment so many people who knew Bernstein personally felt upon hearing about it. But what about the music itself?

As you can hear in my interview with cellist Ronald Feldman and violinist Natalie Rose Kress, personal experiences with Bernstein and years of playing his music brought valuable context to the initial rehearsals and performance. Feldman says that as a conductor, Bernstein was never shy about taking unconventional approaches to given interpretations, even if they were counter to the musicians' instincts or different from what the composer notated in the music. So, with that in the background, there’s an added layer of artistic confidence the ensemble of Feldman, Kress, violinist Lucia Lin, and violist Danny Kim brings to their interpretation of Music for String Quartet. In short, it’s the Bernstein approach to Bernstein’s music.

What’s truly fascinating about this new recording, though, is to hear the evolution of that interpretation. After living with the music for months after the 2021 premiere, the musicians arrived at an even more cohesive and exciting interpretation. What’s most obvious is a faster tempo. Here is a short part of that world premiere performance:

Leonard Bernstein's Music for String Quartet, world premiere concert recording

And here is that same passage from the new recording:

Leonard Bernstein's Music for String Quartet, commercial recording

Along with that ramped-up intensity and incisiveness, the musicians deliver even more clearly in the recording what Bernstein built into the structure of the piece. The relationships between passages in the beginning and the end of the movement are crystallized, not unlike that phenomenon of an old oil painting being cleaned and restored to reveal even greater depths of the artist’s intentions and execution.

The more recently-discovered second movement only adds to what this piece says about Bernstein, as he takes lines, fragments, and harmonies from the first movement and transforms them in a more introspective sonic landscape. Without any additional movements, it leaves, perhaps, a feeling of incompleteness. But, while there may be a third movement that emerges at some point in the future, for now, the ending of Bernstein’s Music for String Quartet proves to be a fascinating prelude to the final piece on the recording.

Aaron Copland wrote Elegies, the other piece on this recording, a few years before Bernstein penned his quartet. The older composer, though, decided to withdraw it. Nevertheless, he returned to the piece to orchestrate and revise it as a part of his six-movement work Statements. It later formed the basis for a part of Copland’s Third Symphony. In this original duet version, performed by Kress and Kim, the intimacy of the original version of Elegies offers something like the experience of Bernstein’s quartet: a window into a not-often-visited time, place, and voice of an iconic composer.

This new recording is available from Navona and through several streaming services, and the first movement of Music for String Quartet can be heard on YouTube:

Brian McCreath is the Director of Production for CRB.