Leonard Bernstein Conducts West Side Story
1985: Deutsche Grammophon/Polydor 415 253-2
West Side Story
Symphonic Suite from the film On the Waterfront
I was introduced to this album and the video of the recording sessions in the mid-80s, shortly after both came out, by a good friend of mine who was the daughter of a Seattle voice teacher, and one of these days I really must ask her about her take on this album now and how she remembers it, because for myself its plenty complicated to assess.
What we have here is Bernstein himself conducting an off-season, hodge-podge pickup orchestra and (perhaps unexpectedly) capturing the fire and magic of his own composition mightily with them. At the other end of the spectrum we have Bernstein indulging in an apparently-long-held desire to have the principal vocal roles sung by proper opera singers, with often-ghastly results. Somewhere between those extremes, definitely nearer the former, we have the performances of the supporting characters and chorus, who on the whole are nearly as solid as the pastiche orchestra.
Although I didnt follow the whole Three Tenors thing in the 1990s, I was aware that José Carreras was the most genuine of the three, but when in this recording I first encountered him I winced almost constantly: he simply couldnt get into the fluid/hip rhythmic pacing Bernstein wrote, nor could he adopt even an American accent (let alone a New York Italian one), and consequently most of Carrerass appearances here are cringeworthy. Unquestionably the worst is Somethings Coming, which even though I had never heard before (my parents werent into musicals, and my home town wasnt exactly worldly in its tastes either) I recognized as having been massacred by someone incapable of syncopation.
Two of the opera singers (two and a half, if you count Kiri te Kanawas performances, which range from Ecchh to Aahh) do mostly buck that impression: Kurt Ollmann and Tatiana Troyanos, but in opposite ways. Ollmann for the most part sounds like an actor who can actually sing, but on his biggest notes he vibratos himself out of credibility in that sense, while Troyanos seems to be a warbling diva but actually delivers some emotionally arresting and human singing (on America and A Boy Like That in particular). I suppose these two were what Bernstein was striving for, and the actual lead roles performances were just unfortunate reinforcements of the stereotype (too often also the true case) of operatic singing being a bombastic and inaccessibly inappropriate overkill of virtuostic singing.
As for the rest of the album (leaving aside the On the Waterfront suite, which Im not prepared to assess), this is magnificent stuff for the most part. It was, as I intimated above, my introduction to much of West Side Story, and although its unfortunate that I didnt already have the visualization of the musicals action in my mind when I first heard (and subsequently saw) this, my appreciation of the music and lyrics certainly got a high starting point here. I get the impression that in most stagings of the show Bernsteins orchestrations get stripped down to whatever the local theatres capable ofindividual orchestral parts being less crucial to the audience than individual stage roles, after alland therefore what most people hear of the score for West Side Story is but an echo of the work as written. Here, we get what was written, and we get it brought to life by its composer as he expressly demands specific levels of performance from the musicians, and the effect of this is often amazing.
In that context, the most brilliant tracks (in my book) are the Dance At the Gym sequence (but especially the Mambo, which is absolutely blisteringly hot and dazzlingly virtuostic), America (which runs a gamut of volume and ferocity that keeps my hand at the ready with the volume control if Im not the only listener), Cool (ditto), the Prologue and The Jet Song, and A Boy Like That. There are many other excellent parts of other tracks, but these are the ones that stun or electrify me from start to finish. That there are so many that do so is a testament to this recordings heft.
Comments © 2005 Mark Ellis Walker, except as noted, and no claim is made to the images and quoted lyrics.