Something's Gotta Give
Simon Keenlyside, Scarlett Strallen
BBC Concert Orchestra/David Charles Abell
rec. Watford Colosseum, England, 2014 CHANDOS CHAN10838 [75:38]
This is an extremely carefully and lovingly produced album of classic Musical Theatre songs for - primarily - baritone. It has been made under the auspices of the Peter Moores Foundation, renowned for their support of recordings of opera in English. This is something of a departure therefore for the Foundation but features one of their stalwart singers Simon Keenlyside as the principal. He is supported by something of a dream team. On the stick is David Charles Abell who is one of the very few specialist Musical Theatre conductors who is a proper conductor too with a crystal-clear stick technique and a profound knowledge of the genre. The BBC Concert Orchestra provide idiomatic support throughout as befits the only contract orchestra in the UK that can be said to be specialists in the genre. Finally, the performing team is completed by the ever-excellent Scarlett Strallen who has a hugely impressive CV covering just about every major West End production of recent years.
Keenlyside has built a reputation as a dramatic baritone of considerable quality - his Billy Budd on Chandos to name but one recorded role is superb. Many straight singers have floundered on the rocks of what is sometimes thought of as 'easy' musical theatre songs - Keenlyside is most certainly not part of the 'crash and burn' fraternity. Look no further than the disaster that was Josť Carreras' attempt at either Bernstein or Rodgers and Hammerstein to know that it can go horribly wrong. Conversely, many musical theatre scores - especially those from the earlier years can suffer from what might be termed "The Madama Butterfly paradox". In other words by the time a performer has the training, experience and voice to sing a role properly they are too old to act it effectively.
Before he sings a note Keenlyside writes an extended and revealing liner-note explaining the music choices, his own fascination with the genre and even why he chose the album title as "Something's Gotta Give." It reveals a real delight and pleasure in the music he sings and this carries over palpably into the performances. By his own admission, the something that had to give was not being able to perform this music as much or as often as he would have liked. Ask any performer and they will tell you - especially for staged work - that an interpretation will deepen and become more nuanced as a result of a run of performances. Glorious though Keenlyside's voice is there are key moments when his acting choices within a song are the obvious less interesting ones. Take the opening song - "On the Street where you live" from My Fair Lady. This is prime Butterfly paradox material. One of the show-stopping songs in a show packed with them. Originally a front-cloth song interpolated to facilitate a scene-change, it is sung by Freddie who is essentially an amiable upper-class-twit; Freddie-nice-but-dim if you will. Unfortunately when you take a voice as full and rich and confident as Keenlyside's it is nigh on impossible to impart that character into the song without simply sounding arch. Bryn Terfel had much the same trouble in his excellent and impressive recital of Allan Jay Lerner songs "If ever I would leave You" on DG recorded as long ago as 1998. Terfel falls back on overly-pointed word-painting whereas Keenlyside keeps things sensibly simple. I find the basic speed a fraction steady - not that much youthful ardour here. To my ear the most successful songs on this disc are where the character's age most closely match Keenlyside's voice. Hence Fred in Kiss Me Kate/So in Love, Curly in Oklahoma!/Oh What a Beautiful Mornin' and the like. I know it can be argued that these can be performed by young men but there is also a performing tradition with the likes of Howard Keel for one who bring a more mature voice to the roles.
To that might be added the two most overtly 'character' songs here; "Reviewing the situation" from Oliver! and "If I were a Rich man" from Fiddler on the roof. I have to admit to having a complete blank regarding the former show which I find irredeemably cod in its faux cock-er-knee-ness replete with guv'nors and jolly towns-folk. I cannot imagine a finer performance than here, complete with a stunning gypsy fiddle solo from orchestra leader Charles Mutter but I do rather baulk at Keenlyside's very self-conscious Yiddish/Cockney accent. Likewise, in Fiddler he combines Yiddish with New York - fair enough as a tribute to the role's originator Zero Mostel - but it sounds contrived and palls to my ear on repeated listening.
"All the things you are" is another song which benefits from the sheer luxury quality of Keenlyside's voice although here no version has yet supplanted the performance by Bruce Hubbard on his debut album - which sadly was also his memorial - "For You For Me" on Angel. Hubbard matches the calibre of Keenlyside's voice but has that extra degree of sheer charisma in this repertoire which makes that one of the great show recital discs. I was curious to see how the Fred Astaire song which gives the album its title would fare. Keenlyside rightly points to this song as being the most historically interesting on the disc. His voice could hardly be more different than the rather light unvarnished baritone of Astaire but it works very well indeed. All the more so because it goes into an extended dance break which allows the BBC Concert Orchestra off the leash. Abell's pacing of this is perfect - cranking up the tempo and excitement with brilliant precision. There's a curious and surprising upper string ensemble slip - track 9 3:50 - which unusually has sneaked past the usually excellent Chandos production team — an open string caught followed by a stray violin holding on after a phrase end. One of the other songs I found most interesting to hear in its original Broadway form was "Night & Day" from Gay Divorce. Without doubt this is one of Cole Porter's greatest and most deeply felt songs. Over the years various arrangements have weighed it down ever more with 'meaning' so it is rather refreshing - and not a little surprising - to hear it in the original quite upbeat version with lovely long-breathed phrases from Keenlyside. Gay Divorce was Astaire's last Broadway show - when it transferred to the silver screen as the Gay Divorcee Porter added The Continental which went on to win Best Song at the Oscars.
Mention here too again for Scarlett Strallen who is very good indeed. Her two solo numbers are highlights - particularly "When did I fall in love?" In the operetta-ish Kismet she does not have quite the bell-like purity that is my preferred sound but she knows how to 'work' the role. One curiosity here; enormous care has been taken to produce the performing editions for this disc. One might almost say that a historically authentic/urtext approach has been adopted. That being the case it seems curious to include "Stranger in Paradise" here sung by a baritone since the role was conceived for a tenor - very well though it is sung by Keenlyside. This especially since there are great baritone songs in the same show - think Alfred Drake singing "The Olive Tree" for one. In this new disc they omit the dialogue from the scene - which is a good thing given it is some of the most cringingly embarrassing spoken text in any song.
The disc contains two of the great extended scenes from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel - surely their most consistently inspired and technically demanding score. First is Billy Bigelow's dramatic scena; "Soliloquy" which contrary to the usual all-singing all-dancing sequence forms the finale to Act I. At around eight minutes long, for Billy alone on the stage, this is a hugely demanding passage requiring a wide range of emotion, realistically emoted and based on the bedrock of an excellent singing voice. It goes without saying that Keenlyside has the latter. In pure tonal allure terms he is outgunned by Terfel on his earlier Rodger and Hammerstein disc also on DG. This is still an impressive sing ... but, and sadly for me this is a big but - this is the song on the disc which suffers most from Keenlyside not having lived the role in performance and sounding too old to be the young impulsive Billy. Compare the role as sung by Michael Hayden on the 1994 Broadway revival album. Hayden was part of the National Theatre company who recorded the same production in London the previous year. If you ever want to hear how playing a role impacts on performing a role compare London to Broadway. Hayden does not have a fraction of the vocal resource of Keenlyside or Terfel but the dramatic arc of the passage is so much more compellingly conveyed. The crucial turning-point is the realisation that Bill junior - the imagined yet to be born baby - might just be a girl. As an aside - there is a bridge into "my little girl, pink and white..." that I had not heard before. From here to the end of the Act Billy determines that he will do anything at all to provide for his imagined daughter - a decision that will lead to him losing his life and ultimate redemption. Hayden cranks up the emotional pressure cooker in a compelling way even at the expense of any kind of vocal beauty. Keenlyside and Abell feel slightly measured in comparison. Also, Keenlyside comes off the climactic final note a fraction before the orchestra - shame there was not time for one more take. Here Terfel - with similar acting shortcomings to Keenlyside - is vocally stunning - holding the final note with astonishing power and focus. In isolation, this new version will not disappoint in any respect - but it can be better.
Much the same can be said of the other Carousel sequence; the bench scene which leads into "If I loved You". That song would easily be on my Desert Island. Again reference to the 1994 Broadway album is revealing. I wonder why the sequence recorded here was not rolled back by another two minutes? By doing so the listener is given more context as well as being aware of just how skilfully Rodgers in particular integrates text with music with thematic references back to earlier songs - "You're a queer one Julie Jordan" as well as forward into the song proper. Hayden is partnered by Sally Murphy who I never saw perform this role but on disc is as close to my ideal Julie as I have ever heard. The two together find an incredibly touching balance between youth, insecurity, bravado and raw emotion. So that when they sing/say "If I loved you" - to which the answer - too quickly is "But you don't" "No I don't" there is a lifetime of naive and idealised love stretching ahead of them. Even Strallen isn't able to find this blend of vulnerability and hope and Keenlyside sounds simply rather plain. For me this is where Musical Theatre adds a quality that opera cannot compete with - the combination of the spoken and sung word allows each to reinforce the emotional impact of the other. The danger is that the words can teeter on the banal so the difference between affecting and inane is next to nothing. Keelyside and Strallen stay firmly on the side of neutral - with a song/scene as strong as this it still makes for enjoyable listening but other versions offer much much more. Interestingly, Terfel sings this as a solo and it becomes what it patently is - a great tune but without the extra emotional impact the context of the duet gives it. Also, Terfel's phrasing/breath control opts for longer lines - it's a technical marvel in itself and does make for wonderfully extended lyrical lines. Keenlyside breaks the first phrase with a breath but sings through the second for reasons that are not clear from a dramatic point of view; "If I loved you, [breath], time and again I would try to say [breath] all I'd want you to know [breath], If I loved you words wouldn't come in an easy way [breath], round in circles I'd go. [breath] Longing to tell you but afraid and shy..." Terfel phrases through "go " to "longing" but then breathes before "but" which allows him to colour "afraid and shy" as a withdrawn phrase. It's an interesting choice - probably not very true to the acted character of Billy - but one that certainly gives much greater light and shade to the overall lyrical line than Keenlyside achieves.
The range of song choices on the disc is very good. A selection like this will include some favourites and miss out others. I would happily trade Fiddler and Oliver! for Showboat and some Irving Berlin - Keenlyside and Strallen singing an up-tempo duet such as "You're not in Love" from "Call me Madam" could have been a clear winner. There are enough fine bass/baritone songs from this period - surprising that Keenlyside mentions Ezio Pinza in his liner-note but does not sing anything from South Pacific. Keenlyside singing "This nearly was mine" could have been something rather special. "Lonely Town" from On the Town is another song that would have been glorious, I am sure - Thomas Hampson in the live performance from Michael Tilson Thomas and the LSO on DG shows what a stunning song/scene this can be.
The Chandos engineering is predictably fine. The recording is detailed and full making good use of the resonant warmth of the Watford Colosseum. I particularly like the wide cinemascope spread they have given the orchestra with harp hard over in one channel and tuned percussion opposite. The contribution of the BBC Concert orchestra is absolutely excellent and David Charles Abell's direction masterly. I do find the use of original and reconstructed editions fascinating although Musical Theatre is a business and a money-driven pragmatic one at that so I am not entirely sure that any version can truly be called authentic or original. Look no further than the songs included that were reworked from their original versions into the ones we have here. To this day orchestrations are driven more by budgets than any kind of musical concern. Composers will ditch songs, verses, orchestrations as the situation demands - hence the phrase 'Lost in Boston' and the concept of the trunk song. It was ever thus and will remain ever so. The average listener hearing this disc will engage with it because of the songs and the singing not the authenticity of the edition used. The Terfel discs make no claims to authenticity - in fact most of the time no editions/arrangers are mentioned at all. What it does underline is the care and effort that has gone into preparing this disc and that can only be a good thing.
What Terfel and Keenlyside both share is a deep affection for this repertoire and a real engagement with it. DG place the English Northern Philharmonia further back into another warm acoustic - Chandos are more upfront and suitably cinematic with the sound. Two last curios about the current disc - in the substantial 94 page booklet there are no song lyrics. We get the usual tri-lingual notes which as well as Keenlyside's excellent contribution includes a detailed listing of the songs and their respective versions but not a lyric in sight. I can only imagine this was down to some copyright issue. The other oddity is just how awful the cover artwork of this CD is. It looks as if someone on work experience for their GCSE Art has been let loose with some clip art pulling together as many theatrical/musical theatre references as possible and then sticking a photo of Keenlyside in there too, hunched over like Quasimodo from Notre Dame. The back cover is a depressing chocolate brown with the album title rendered in a rather naff "broadway-style" font.
Albums of musical theatre songs by 'classical' singers are a relative rarity and successful ones such as this rarer still. Recent offerings from Jonas Kaufmann and Josef Calleja, fine though they are stick firmly to the operetta side of the tracks. This disc can be considered a fine achievement if one that proves that singing musical theatre is much more than just singing the notes as beautifully as possible.
Contents Frederick LOEWE (1901-1988) and Alan Jay LERNER (1918-1986)
On the Street Where You Live from My Fair Lady(1956) [3:17] Cole PORTER (1891-1964)
So in Love from Kiss Me, Kate(1948) [2:32]
Night and Day from Gay Divorce(1932) [4:00] Richard RODGERS (1902-1979) and Oscar HAMMERSTEIN II (1895-1960)
People Will Say We're in Love from Oklahoma!(1943) [4:13] Jerry BOCK (1928-2010) and Sheldon HARNICK (b. 1924)
When Did I Fall in Love? from Fiorello!(1959) 4:01] Lionel BART (1930-1999)
Reviewing the Situation from Oliver!(1960) [6:06] Jerome KERN (1885-1945) and Oscar HAMMERSTEIN II (1895-1960)
All the Things You Are from Very Warm for May(1939) [3:33] Richard RODGERS (1902-1979) and Oscar HAMMERSTEIN II (1895-1960)
Soliloquy from Carousel(1945) [8:04] Johnny MERCER (1909-1976)
Something's Gotta Give from Daddy Long Legs(1955) [7:05] George FORREST (1915-1999) and Robert WRIGHT (1914-2005)
Stranger in Paradise from Kismet(1953) [4:20] Richard RODGERS (1902-1979) and Oscar HAMMERSTEIN II (1895-1960)
It Might as Well Be Spring from State Fair(1945) [3:57] Hugh MARTIN (1914-2011) and Ralph BLANE (1914-1995)
The Girl Next Door from Athena (1954)/Meet Me in St. Louis(1944) [3:37] Jule STYNE (1905-1994) and Sammy CAHN (1913-1993)
It's Magic from Romance on the High Seas(1948) [2:51] Richard RODGERS (1902-1979) and Oscar HAMMERSTEIN II (1895-1960)
Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' from Oklahoma! [2:45] Jerry BOCK (1928-2010) and Sheldon HARNICK (b. 1924)
If I Were a Rich Man from Fiddler on the Roof (1964) [5:37] Richard RODGERS (1902-1979) and Oscar HAMMERSTEIN II (1895-1960)
If I Loved You (Bench Scene) from Carousel(1945) [8:38]
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