As a pianist, orchestra conductor, composer, and educator, Leonard Bernstein led a very full life. A key figure of American music, the composer of West Side Story brought together a diverse range of influences, including bel canto, Mahler’s romanticism (of which he was considered the best performer), and his direct teachers Walter Piston and Aaron Copland, without ever forgetting the rhythms of jazz and the eccentricities of Broadway.

Bernstein, eclectic? Unquestionably. But his music is much more than that; in fact, it changed the meaning of the term, dismissing the slightly derogatory tone used by Europeans who denounced what they considered, from an artistic perspective, to be an overabundance of styles. This was never questioned in the Americas, from Gershwin to John Adams, which explains why Bernstein never broke through to the other side of the Atlantic, other than with his stage productions that have only recently been met with success in France, from Trouble in Tahiti (Île-de-France, 1999-2000) to Candide, as well as On the Town and West Side Story – the last three thanks to an effort made by the Châtelet theatre in Paris since 2006. Yet concerts too often neglect his three Symphonies, or other works such as Serenade, Songfest, Divertimento, Aria and Barcarolles, and Jubilee Games, let alone Chichester Psalms, Dybbuk and Mass, all of which cut through the existential question of faith…and are transcended by the power of the music. And apart from a number of his own students, who plays the breakneck jazz of Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs? His piano work isn’t done enough justice, either, in spite of the finesse that can be found in his invaluable writing for Anniversaries, at first played only for select audiences at dinner parties, as pianist Jay Gottlieb recounts: “Like sketches, portraits meant for his wife Felicia, his friends, his family… Several have been edited, and even performed in public, but Bernstein wanted to preserve their intimate nature.”

Like all the greats, Bernstein loved to appropriate any kind of style and capture its essence, turning it into something else entirely. It would be futile to try to isolate in his work what had originally come from one tradition or another…as soon as one may perceive a snippet of Jewish folkloric music, a Latin American rhythm sweeps away this first impression. Further on, Mahler is tormented by a jazz riff, and Berg finds himself projected on a Broadway stage: Bernstein is mindblowing. Those with a view to protect certain musicological traditions can understandably find themselves tearing their hair out trying to distinguish and identify the colours of this technicolor dreamcoat. From the end of the 30s, he was a member of The Revuers, a troupe created by legendary couple of cinema lyricists Adolph Green and Betty Comden, whose songs include “Singing in the Rain”, “The Band Wagon”, and “Bells Are Ringing”. Before he had even finished his studies at Harvard, and while Serge Koussevitsky was teaching him the fundamentals of orchestra direction at Tanglewood, he had already begun working on the music for a stage production in Greenwich Village, The Girl with the Two Left Feet. In any event, the spirit of Broadway was already present – in addition, singing alongside Alvin Hammer and John Frank in the group, was the dazzling Judith Tuvim who would later become known by the name Judy Holliday – making this an impressive relic of 1940, fortunately available as a recording! (*)