I have always been aware of the work of Stephen Sondheim, and of how highly he is regarded, and
was virtually raised on the musicals "Gypsy" and "West Side Story", for which he provided the lyrics.
But other than seeing the film version of "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum", for
which the producers apparently excised most of Sondheim's songs, and watching television broadcasts
of the Broadway productions of "Sunday In the Park With George" and "Into The Woods", I have
shamefully never attended the theatre or spun the discs for the wealth of musicals for which Stephen
Sondheim has provided both the words and the music. I don't know how I could have been so remiss
as to have avoided "Sweeney Todd", A Little Night Music", "Merrily We Roll Along", "Pacific Overtures"
and "Follies" among others.
So in reviewing this album I am very much like a virgin, touched by Sondheim for the very first time.
And not only virginal, but wistful too, as I must have been in melancholy mood when listening to
these wonderful songs because I was genuinely moved – despite my renowned heart of stone - and
it's not only Sondheim's brilliance of invention, but the extraordinarily effective performances
gathered together here which I found so touching. I was familiar with Glynis John's affecting original
rendition of "Send In the Clowns", but Cleo Lane's performance here is so warm, so winning – and
what price the nostalgic "I Remember", sung by David Kernan, whose intimate delivery is perfection –
or the similarly toned "Liaisons", immaculately sung by Hermione Gingold. In truth all the
performances here – gathered from recordings made between 1975 and 1993 – are impeccable,
perhaps not surprising given the magical and illusive nature of the composer's muse. Of course this
album is designed to represent the soulful side of Sondheim - the romantic, the sad and the nostalgic
– so an air of longing endures. But although this is an album of collected ballads there are few "big
tunes" of the sort we might associate with, say, Richard Rodgers, yet nevertheless the listener gains
an enviable canon of Sondheim lyrics, infused with introspection and melancholy, and touching on
many universal truths, perfectly served by his melodic lines.
This is a disc surely to be snapped-up by Sondheim completists … but it is a wonderfully endearing
album in itself … and recommended to all who have romance in their soul or nostalgia in their hearts.