Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Wonderful Town (1953)
Ruth Sherwood - Kim Criswell (mezzo)
Eileen Sherwood - Audra McDonald (soprano)
Bob Baker - Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Guide/Editor/Frank - Rodney Gilfry (baritone)
Lonigan - Timothy Robinson (tenor)
London Voices; Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, June 1998
EMI CLASSICS AMERICAN CLASSICS 9671362 [66:44]
This splendid musical is here reissued as part of EMI’s American Classics series. In its latest incarnation it is even less expensive than it was before, which makes this famous performance all the more appealing.
The story concerns a pair of sisters who leave Ohio to escape the Depression of the 1930s and try to make their way in New York City. After lots of knock-backs they find both success and love. It’s classic musical territory, but what really distinguished it is Bernstein’s score, written in lightning-quick time in four weeks in 1953 when another team had failed to deliver the goods. Bernstein’s melodic gift is apparent everywhere, from the quirky opening song which accompanies the tourists visiting Greenwich Village to the charming It’s love which seals the relationship between the two lead characters. He also shows his characteristic affinity with all sorts of genres outside the regular classical fold, such as a highly engaging Conga and the jazzy slurs of Ruth’s anti-love song One hundred easy ways to lose a man. The culmination is a very stylish swing number which drums up business for the local night club, and it isn’t hard to see why in the story it is so successful in its aim. It’s all tremendous fun and even if the cod Irish number is rather bizarre it is saved by quite lovely tenor singing from Timothy Robinson.
Here as elsewhere the key to this recording’s success is the enthusiasm of the performers. The two sisters, sung by Criswell and McDonald, are well contrasted, their voices blending effectively in their homesick duet, Ohio. The reckless Eileen lives it up brilliantly while the poignancy of Ruth’s self-awareness is well caught by Criswell. Thomas Hampson hams it up brilliantly as the dislikeable newspaper editor, Bob Baker, but he melts away in the love song numbers, especially A Quiet Girl, which is a proper aria and he sings it with fitting intensity. There are no texts or translations provided but enunciation is so good from everyone that this is never an issue.
The small forces of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group live inside this music as if it were made for them, and their size means that you can pick out every single texture, not least in the razzamatazz of the overture. The excellent recording quality helps, but the finest element of the set is undoubtedly Rattle himself who clearly loves this music and does it the great honour of taking it seriously. The rewards will be obvious to any listener, though there is no dialogue to connect the numbers and the documentation isn’t really adequate to follow the story in detail. Still, if you give it a chance then I’m sure you’ll want to come back to it.