With a much-anticipated international production of West Side Story coming to the Civic next month, it's good to be reminded that its composer Leonard Bernstein was once a symphonist.

Check out this recent Naxos CD with Marin Alsop conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to hear and enjoy the American's Jeremiah Symphony from 1942 and its follow-up, The Age of Anxiety, written seven years later.

The first is the fervent response of a 24-year-old Jewish composer to the Old Testament prophet who gives the score its title. The prophecies of the first movement are delivered by passionate Baltimore strings, the destruction of Jerusalem caught in an impulsive, jagged scherzo.

The third movement, a setting of Jeremiah's celebrated Lamentations, provides the symphony with its emotional release, superbly sung here by mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano. Even in this unflinchingly serious work, there are hints of a West Side Story yet to come, with more to be heard in Bernstein's ambitious second symphony.


The composer praised W.H. Auden's book-length poem The Age of Anxiety as "the most shattering example of pure virtuosity in the history of English poetry," and then promptly proceeded to emulate the poet's brilliance in musical terms.

Auden's original characters and dialogues are heightened by having a piano soloist (the dashing Jean-Yves Thibaudet on this recording) and you can almost sense the waves of excitement in Baltimore's Symphony Hall when Bernstein evokes the sardonic
Shostakovich or, during a runaway ragtime piano solo, we might expect Riff and the Jets to be waiting in the wings, clicking their fingers.

Bernstein, Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 (Naxos)
Verdict: Powerful portrait of a symphonist who also made it on Broadway