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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
West Side Story ( 1957)
Lyrics (Stephen Sondheim); Story (Arthur Laurents)
Barbara Bonney (Maria)
Michael Ball (Tony)
La Verne Williams (Anita)
Christopher Howard (Riff)
Mary Carewe (Rosalia)
Jenny O’Grady (Francisca)
Lee Gibson (Consuela)
Derek Chessor (Action)
Lindsay Benson (Diesel)
James Graeme (A-Rab)
Andrew Busher (Baby John)
Michael Pearn (Bernardo)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth
Recorded at Angel Studios, London, Jan 1993, DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 60423-2 [71:48]


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Influential music writer Mark Morris holds the view that Leonard Bernstein wrote several interesting works but West Side Story was his only masterpiece. For me Bernstein is undoubtedly a genius and I agree that West Side Story is a masterpiece. A classical music masterpiece maybe not, as many classical music commentators refuse to include the piece under the composer’s list of classical works, owing to its classification as a ‘Musical’. A modernisation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Bernstein composed West Side Story as a theatrical venture for the Broadway stage, therefore it seems pointless to argue that it is not a Musical.

I recall reading that Bernstein wanted to be remembered as a composer of serious works such as the symphonies Jeremiah, Kaddish and The Age of Anxiety, not as simply the composer of West Side Story. This shows that not even a highly influential, revered figure like Bernstein could always get what he wanted as West Side Story is generally considered his masterwork and in my view deservedly so.

The first and only recording in my collection was the now notorious 1985 digital version on Deutsche Grammophon from the composer’s own baton. Contentiously Bernstein cast opera singers notably Jose Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa in the title roles of Tony and Maria. Despite exceptionally mixed reviews I grew particularly fond of the composer’s own reading, mainly owing to the often screened television documentary filmed at the recording sessions.

This Warner Classics CD was originally released in 1993 on IMG Records and is also a controversial recording. The casting of world famous opera singer and recitalist Barbara Bonney as Maria and cabaret star Michael Ball as Tony raised more than a few eyebrows at the time. I certainly do not mind listening to a top cabaret singer and likewise an opera singer but to place the two styles together seems to be a most unlikely combination, that doesn’t really work too well. I’m not implying that one style of singer is superior to another, the main reason why I feel that their partnership struggles to work as well as it might have done is down to the vastly contrasting strength of their respective voices, as heard in their duet Tonight. An opera singer of Barbara Bonney’s distinction against the lighter cabaret style of Michael Ball is an unfair match. Having said all that it is the amazing quality of the music from Bernstein and the superior storyline and lyrics that surmount all else; with the singers being an important enhancement. After all I’m sure that many of us will have paid to see amateur and school performances, coming away with a wonderful sense of enjoyment with those astonishing tunes going through our heads for many hours afterwards.

To be fair Barbara Bonney doesn’t really sound like a Puerto Rican and neither does Michael Ball pass as an American, yet they sing with an enthusiasm and commitment that almost makes up for the characterisation defects. Bonney’s performance is as impeccable as we have come to expect from a singer of such impressive credentials. She is girl-like and coquettish in I feel pretty and provides some extremely convincing singing with great beauty in Somewhere. Michael Ball seems to radiate having a great time in his role as Tony and certainly gives his all with a typically exuberant performance in his big numbers Something’s Coming and Maria. Ball does have a most distinctive vibrato in his higher registers, a tendency to slide from one note to another and there are one or two flat notes but none of this spoils the entertainment in what comes across like he is playing to an enthusiastic audience in a cabaret performance, More! More!

The Royal Philharmonic under conductor Barry Wordsworth are undoubtedly a most proficient and versatile orchestra and have few problems adapting to Bernstein’s score, which requires a wide spectrum of emotions and contrasting styles. I must single out their playing in the dance sequence The Dance at the Gym and The Rumble for special praise. The boy and girl choruses give wonderful performances of their main featured numbers America and Gee, Officer Krupke. The singing from the chorus is so good that I have no problem imagining them as ‘Sharks’ and ‘Jets’ gang members from the West Side of New York City. I challenge any listener not to jig, tap or dance along to the rhythms.

The sound quality of this Warner Classics release is very fine and is certainly on a par with the Deutsche Grammophon version under the composer. The booklet notes are brief and informative yet have no libretto included which is quite unforgivable as a companion to a Musical.

Bernstein’s score to West Side Story is just perfect but plainly both interpretations mentioned could be improved upon. On balance I would just choose the composer’s own version with Jose Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa on Deutsche Grammophon but this recording is growing on me all the time. Thoroughly committed and enjoyable performances from all concerned in Bernstein’s masterwork.

Michael Cookson

 



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