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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
West Side Story (orch. Leonard Bernstein; Sid Ramin; Irwin Kostal)
Concept: Jerome Robbins; Book: Arthur Laurents; Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Kiri Te Kanawa - Maria; José Carreras - Tony; Tatiana Troyanos - Anita; Kurt Ollman - Riff; Marilyn Horne (singing Somewhere).
chorus; orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
rec. 1984
The Making of West Side Story - documentary (1984)
Director: Christopher Swann; Director of Photography: John Else
BBCTV production NTSC; 4:3; Code: 0; PCM stereo; English; subtitles: German, French, Spanish, Chinese 
rec. on location, New York, September 1984.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4777101 [CD: 76:36; DVD: 88:00]

 

Experience Classicsonline


You either love this version or you hate it. I love it; a lot of people hate it. It doesn’t take long to find newsgroup commentary that excoriates the whole project. Most criticism centres on the mature voices of Te Kanawa and Carreras. Bear this in mind because I might just be alone in being so enthusiastic about the CD and the documentary. Normally I would be siding with the critics. After all the warring murderous gangs are teenagers. On the other hand we have lived for years with the suspension of disbelief required in the opera world. True, Bernstein said that this was not to be played as opera – and yet he chose operatic voices and this was a project that he micro-managed. Had he lost his grip. I think not. He may have been a sentimentalist but he was a tough sentimentalist. He knew what he wanted and he got it. And this version has such zest, such pizzazz, such spark-arcing voltage that the moment I start listening I am swept along by the action. Some of the gang talk makes you wince with embarrassment (try out your tolerance in Cool, Daddio!) but it's not as if the singers put it across with anything less than conviction.
 

The music is a strange unabashed amalgam of styles - drawing on Vaudeville, Satie, Latin-American big band commercial, Copland-style Americana (Scherzo tr. 20) and Bernstein, Bernstein, Bernstein. 

What about the delights of this version? Listen to how the music in tr. 8 moves from an oh-so-delicate balletic pointillism to a kitschy music-hall echo of the same material. Carreras manages his coffee-cacao accent like a master yet looses off erotic climactic moments one after another with technique and artistry to spare. Listen to him in Maria. There's wit too - as in America where the second support team of singers are put through their paces. This is a glorious triumph of timing, fast pacing, yelping-yawping brass and especially scouring and howling trumpets and leaping percussion. The brass play with real gusto and the bird cries of the singing ensemble at 4:23 mixed with ringing percussion is but one gem among a torrent. Different but broadly humorous is the Officer Krupke song with its mix of social comment, knockabout Prokofiev and Vaudeville. 

There are some miscalculations. For me the One Hand One Heart suffers a fatal overdose of gooey syrup. Tonight, on the other hand, plays out the Bernstein magic running from gang-conflict to quick-paced romantic ballad. Carreras with his thick accent registers like the king of character tenors that he is. The (2.50) counter-pointing of gang machismo lines and romantic duet works in all the grateful complexity of its operatic weave. There's not a trace of miscalculation in A Boy Like That with its virtuoso rapped-out anger blend-faded into I Have a Love. The interplay between Anita and Maria is extraordinarily effective and moving. I am not a Te Kanawa fan but for me this is one of her high points to contrast with awful incongruities like her Songs of the Auvergne where Canteloube's delicate pastoral blooms suffer operatic suffocation. Here however she excels as she did so many many years ago when she sang the ersatz Salammbo aria on the Gerhardt/Herrmann Classic Film Scores LP – when will that series be reissued wholesale. Try also The Balcony Scene in which Carreras’s singing of the words ‘always you ....’ at 2'20 rises effortlessly right up to those ringing pure notes. Every orchestral detail is there in weighted equipoise. In the recap listen also to the wondrous acceleration from the words ‘shooting sparks into space’.

The DVD of the documentary is even more moving and well worth more than a single play-through. 

This is a de luxe production in the format of a CD-sized thick hardback book. The CD is in a pocket inside the front cover; the DVD at the back. 

The notes are in English, French and German. The full sung libretto is in English only. 

This version has all the rawness, rasp and romance you could ask for and an out-and-out blast of an orchestral performance.

Rob Barnett


 


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