April 2002 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

index page/ monthly listings / April /


DVD: Leonard Bernstein conducts West Side Story
  Kiri Te Kanawa, José Carreras, Tatiana Troyanos, Kurt Ollmann * Leonard Bernstein * pick-up orchestra
  DG DVD 073 017-9 * PCM Stereo * 4:3 - full-frame conventional TV ratio * region 0   [89 minutes]

Bernstein Making WSS

As Leonard Bernstein explains early on in this 89 minute television film, DG asked him to record a new studio version of West Side Story, Christopher Swann filmed the week long recording sessions for the BBC, and this DVD contains the results. Previous recordings of West Side Story had been limited to the original Broadway cast album and the film soundtrack album, both reduced to the length of a vinyl LP. This 1984 recording was the first to present the score complete, with the added bonus of a suite from Bernstein's only film score, On The Waterfront.

The programme does exactly what the title says. Apart from a short sequence of rehearsals in Bernstein's apartment, the entire film takes place in a New York recording studio. The cast is the conductor/composer, a pick-up orchestra, many of whom have worked with Bernstein over the years, the album producer, session singers, and star cast of Kiri Te Kanawa, José Carreras, Tatiana Troyanos and Kurt Ollmann. What we see is a mixture of rehearsal and complete final performances of all the major numbers from the show interspersed with a relatively small amount of to-camera commentary from the key players. Te Kanawa explains just how much the music means to her, Troyanos notes that she was born and lived much of her life in the very area the story is set, and Carreras walks out at the end of one session in a stone cold temper. Bernstein himself is a mixture of enthusiasm, weariness and stern authority. For those particularly interested in this classic musical, or in the composer himself, this is well worth seeing. It also gives a good insight into the actual process of studio recording, of the practicalities, technicalities and compromises. What it doesn't do is explain anything beyond the barest outline about the show itself, its origins, history, reputation, its creation place in Bernstein's career. Nor does it tell us anything much about Bernstein himself, or even anything about the background to this particular recording - how the cast was chosen, the score prepared, or a myriad other matters.

The DVD presents the programme exactly as shown on television. Unless you consider optional German, French, Spanish and Chinese extras, there are no extras. Not even a text history of the show or a poster gallery. Over a week of filming there must have been masses of extra material, perhaps more detailed interviews, which could have been included. But there's nothing. Further sign that DG have put minimal effort into this release is that they have decided to issue a single region free disc for the entire world. In some respects this is a good thing, except that the BBC film, surely shot for the PAL TV system, has been issued on an NTSC DVD. This means first that one must have a TV capable of processing NTSC signals. Second, that the picture quality is markedly inferior to that of a proper UK specific PAL transfer, looking pale, washed out and lacking in detail. The sound may have been restored, but no one has done a thing to the picture. While the disc sounds good it looks worse than many video tapes. It makes nothing of the DVD format and adds nothing to the experience of watching the material off-air or a VCR. As such full DVD price seems an awful lot to ask for an hour and a half fly-on-the-wall documentary.

Gary S. Dalkin

*** - programme quality
* - DVD quality

Return to Index

Reviews from previous months

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers: