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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
West Side Story (1956) [82:37]
Tony - Cheyenne Jackson
Maria - Alexandra Silber
Anita - Jessica Vosk
Riff - Kevin Vortman
Rosalia - Juliana Hansen
Consuelo - Louise Cornillez
Francisca - Cassie Simone
Action - Justin Keyes
Diesel - Zach Ford
A-rab - Louis Pardo
Bernardo - Kelly Markgraf
A Girl - Julia Bullock
San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. 26 June-2 July 2013, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
SFS MEDIA SFS0059 SACD [52:05 + 30:32]

This is the first recording of the complete score for West Side Story, played by a full symphony orchestra, since the composer himself conducted it for the 1985 Deutsche Grammophon CD. Bernstein then wanted to capture for posterity the music he heard in his head- not the Broadway voices and pared-down instrumentation of the original cast recording, and not the amped-up, rearranged, revised score and lyrics of the popular 1961 film.
 
That 1985 orchestra, peopled by a mixture of symphonic and Broadway regulars, brought sheen and splendour to this iconic music, especially the more operatic parts. He insisted on a cast with the voice qualities he wanted, and if you listen only to the sound of the voices, it's magical to hear. American-born Tatyana Troyanos (as Anita) and Marilyn Horne (who sings "Somewhere") were great. In the lead roles José Carreras' Spanish accent sounds incongruous as Tony, the leader of the Jets (the white gang), and Kiri Te Kanawa's New Zealand accent is off the mark as Maria, the Puerto Rican bridal shop girl. She is Juliet to Tony's Romeo in this loose adaptation of Shakespeare's story set in New York with the Jets and Sharks standing in for the Montagues and Capulets.
 
It seemed as if those shortcomings might be rectified when it was announced that Michael Tilson Thomas would conclude the 2012-2013 season of the San Francisco Symphony, where he is music director, with semi-staged performances of the musical. The complete original score, with its full instrumentation, would be used for the first time in concert. The performances would be captured live in digital audio, with a cast of Broadway singers, some with operatic backgrounds.
 
Alexandra Silber (Maria) has starred on London's West End in Carousel and New York's Broadway in Master Class. Cheyenne Jackson (Tony), a regular on TV's "30 Rock", has worked On and Off Broadway. Jessica Vosk (Anita) is currently in Bridges of Madison County on Broadway, and Kevin Vortmann (Riff) appeared in the recent revival of A Little Night Music on Broadway. Jessica Vosk (Anita) won the Naumburg Vocal Competition this year.
 
Tilson Thomas is no stranger to Bernstein's music, which he has championed with every orchestra he has led. Once a Bernstein conducting protégé, Tilson Thomas had already put together excellent semi-staged performances with the San Francisco Symphony of the composer's On The Town in 1996. In 2008 he and the orchestra opened Carnegie Hall's season with an all-Bernstein programme.
 
In the first performance of five, heard live in June 2013, the singing was idiomatically right, and some of it was special. Most of the orchestra's work was fine, but it all seemed cautious. I chalked it up to trying to get a good "take" down first before letting the music take flight in later performances. The resulting recording, an amalgam of the five performances plus "cleanup" sessions, is a mixed bag, much of it brilliant, interspersed with moments that don't quite click, because they don't let it fly.
 
As Maria, Silber accounts for several highlights on this recording. Her gleaming, peach-pure soprano lends sweetness and sexiness to the romantic duets of the Balcony Scene- Only You (in which we hear the first full statement of Tonight) and One Hand, One Heart - and the dramatic duets in Act Two A Boy Like That and I Have a Love. She infuses the few stretches of spoken dialogue, especially in the Balcony Scene, with real passion without overdoing it.
 
Jackson, as Tony, is overmatched by Silber and the demands of Bernstein's music, however. He's idiomatically right and he has the musicality to sing it more or less like the original Tony (Larry Kert). That said, he simply doesn't show the chops to articulate notes above the staff like an operatically trained tenor. He holds his own in Something's Coming, showing a nice feel for the rhythms and words, but sustained notes, not so much.
 
That's too bad, because Tilson Thomas and the orchestra bring a wonderful clarity and pulsing sense of lushness to these songs and scenes. The underscoring for dialogue and scene changes is deftly done, with lovely nuances. The percussion section covers itself in glory, punching up rhythms and deftly spicing things up throughout, the SACD sound capturing every nuance cleanly. The extended dance sequences - the raw materials for the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, which has become standard repertoire for symphony orchestras - are especially well wrought. The jazzy sections swing better than the brassiness of the original cast recording or the precise work of Bernstein's orchestra. If the Latin pieces, such as Mambo and Cha Cha, don't quite have the abandon we might want, they still have energy.
 
In too many spots, however, Tilson Thomas chooses a relatively slow tempo, and the music misses some of its energy. Ensembles, especially, often err on the side of cautiousness, perhaps to make lyricist Stephen Sondheim's words come through more clearly. America, for example, in which Anita and the Shark Girls playfully compare life in Puerto Rico and New York, clocks in 22 seconds longer than on the Bernstein recording and 47 seconds longer than the original cast. Vosk compares favourably with Troyanos on this track - although neither is quite as hot as Chita Rivera from the original cast - but the ensemble never whips up enough zip.
 
Although Cool, the jazzy finger-snapping ensemble of the Jets, comes off well, the tempo on the full-ensemble reprise of Tonight is just a hair slow to convey the fierceness of the gangs' rivalry. I Feel Pretty, Maria's signature moment, which opens Act Two, also feels more stately than giddy. Much better are the operatic "scenas" including A Boy Like That, in which Anita confronts Maria about her future with Tony.
 
The final scenes finish well. There's pure operatic emotion in the Taunting Scene, the underscore for the savage dance that ends up with Tony being shot, and the short Finale, in which Tony and Maria briefly reprise lines from Somewhere before hushed and limpid final chords bring the emotions home with bittersweet finesse.

Harvey Steiman