"WEST SIDE STORY" WEEK (NOVEMBER 10-16, 2013)
Note: this release was originally purchased as a 2 LP set, later replaced by a 2 CD set.
In the early '80s, classical recording label Deutsche Grammophon had the idea of having composer Leonard Bernstein (who had a contract with DG) conduct his music from West Side Story using a pick-up orchestra and vocalists from DG's stable of opera singers. By this time, the music was more than 25 years old and had became an American institution, yet nobody had ever allowed Bernstein to conduct it? This idea was long overdue and I always enjoy hearing a composer conduct his own works. The tempi are perfect and orchestra sounds fantastic.
The problem here is the casting. Wonderfully talented singers that don't have the right sound for show tunes and more than a little nepotism used in casting the speaking parts (two of Bernstein's three children, woefully over-matched by the dialogue). The part of Maria should be of Puerto Rican descent, but is sung by Kiri Te Kanawa, who hails from New Zealand. Likewise, the lead male role of Tony is Polish-America, but Spanish tenor José Carreras is cast. In other words, the accents just don't match. Faring much better are Tatiana Troyanos, Kurt Ollmann, and in an inspired cameo, Marilyn Horne. But in the end, none of that really matters because the music is so good. As it stands, this remains the definitive recorded version of WSS.
This album sold well enough to have Te Kanawa and Carreras attempt a similar recording of the musical South Pacific. It flopped. A documentary of the making of this WSS recording is available. I've watched it several times including once this week. It's an interesting look at the rehearsal and recording process of the time, but it also contains a few entertaining scenes where spoiled musicians throw hissy fits:
Peak on the US Billboard Top 200 chart: Did not chart
Tracks: I can't pick a favorite, but today I was really drawn to America and the entire Ballet Sequence. They might have put all the WSS music on one CD, but there's not as much money to be made doing that, so DG tacked on a 1982 recording of Bernstein conducting his Symphonic Suite from the film 'On The Waterfront' with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. As you might expect, it's wonderful.
Personal Memory Associated with this CD: My LP version of this recording got a lot of playing time in college. I liked the compositions, but my professors never really took it very seriously, I guess because of its Broadway origins. Music is one of the few art forms in which the academy almost completely ignores the last fifty years. They'd rather study 1750-1799 than 1950-1999. It makes me scratch my head.
Previously revisited for the blog:
Leonard Bernstein's New York
Chichester Psalms, Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2
New York Philharmonic Debut
On The Town - Studio Cast Recording