Bernstein West Side Story

Author: 
Edward Greenfield

Bernstein West Side Story

  • West Side Story
  • On the Waterfront

If the job of a 'crossover' record is to shatter preconceptions on both sides of any musical fence, then this is the greatest ever. Not all the aficionados of Broadway musicals are going to warm to de facto operatic treatment of West Side Story: not all opera-lovers or devotees of Leonard Bernstein as star conductor are going to rate West Side Story as an equivalent to opera. But any listener on whichever side of the fence who keeps any sort of open mind, forgetting the constriction of barriers, must recognize this historic set as superb entertainment and great music-making on every level, with an emotional impact closely akin to that of a Puccini opera and an intensity of excitement to match anything from disco to The Rite of Spring.
That of course is the doing of Leonard Bernstein as conductor as well as composer. It is astonishing that before this recording he had never conducted his most famous work. He has conducted many times and twice recorded the Symphonic Dances which in 1961, four years after the first appearance of the Broadway musical, he drew from the theatre score. But what appears on record here is indeed the theatre score (orchestrated by Bernstein with Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal) but without the potpourri overture which was originally used and which Bernstein himself did not write. That allows the very opening with its bare twitching rhythms, matching angular ballet movements, to have its full effect as the first of Bernstein's intensely original coups. That at once illustrates how the precision of ensemble from the selected band of New York musicians (from both sides of the fence, 'on and off Broadway') is far keener than you would evern get in a theatre performance. Some theatre traditionalists might even find that precision disconcerting, but in fact the balance of priorities has been shrewdly judged. Though the clarity and precision may make the result sound 'different', it is always spontaneous-sounding, involvingly so when the big set-piece dance numbers really get going. With John McClure, Bernstein's regular recording manager in charge, the sessions took place in the RCA Studio in New York last summer, and the relative dryness of sound is welcome when it keeps the sound-picture within an apt scale without losing necessary bloom on instruments and voices. Interestingly, compared with Bernstein's live recording of the Symphonic Dances made with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1982 (DG 2532 082, 7/83), the new performance is sharper and clearer on its syncopations.
Interviewed by John Rockwell of the New York Times during the sessions, Bernstein noted how difficult it is to cast West Side Story, and explained that in a recording ''I decided to go for sound''.
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa may not be a soprano one would ever cast as Maria on stage, yet the beauty of the voice, its combination of richness, delicacy and purity, consistently brings out the musical strengths of Bernstein's inspiration. The sympathy in every phrase bears out what Dame Kiri herself said: ''This was music I'd grown up with, music I'd always wanted to sing.'' If the kittenish number ''I feel pretty'' at the start of Act 2 may initially seem to present a problem, what emerges from Dame Kiri's sparkling performance is the way that the girlishly coy lines suddenly explode in each stanza into a rich romantic line for the pay-off: ''For I'm loved by a pretty wonderful boy!''.
Similarly with Jose Carreras as Tony it is self-evident to point out how such a voice brings out the pure beauty of the big melodies like ''Maria'' or ''Tonight'', but even a sharp number like his first solo, ''Something's coming'', with floated pianissimos and subtly-graded crescendos allied to sharp rhythms, makes it more clearly a question-mark song, full of expectation, more than just a point number. If West Side Story set the pattern for a whole generation of Broadway musicals in combining the toughest of exteriors with the softest of centres, the refining process represented in this recording enhances that contrast. It is not just that the sweet numbers are made even more romantic (if with less sentimentalizing than usual) and the tough ones musically even sharper, but that the Puccinian tugs of emotion, directly related to the original Romeo and Juliet situations, are the more affecting. The isolation of Tony and Maria is brought home the more intensely, when with a degree of distancing it is an unnamed character who sings the accompanying song, the haunting ''Somewhere'' with its yearning opening line ''There's a place for us''. Marilyn Horne is in glorious voice for it, while Tatiana Troyanos took me by surprise as Anita with the way that she could switch her naturally beautiful operatic voice into a New York throaty snarl, rather like an Italian mezzo switching into a chest voice. Troyanos, it appears, was brought up in exactly the area of the West Side, where the story is supposed to be set, which makes her natural affinity with the idiom less surprising. Kurt Ollmann, American too, as Riff equally finds a very confident balance between the traditions of opera and those of the musical. Any question-mark, as I see it, lies not in the solo numbers but in the two overtly comic numbers, ''America'' for Anita and the girls' chorus and ''Ghee, Officer Krupke'' for the boys (not including Riff). My first feeling was that ''America'' worked, while the Krupke number sounded out of place, but the sheer high spirits of the latter have more and more captivated me, making its humour just as effective as the girls' number in the over-all scheme of sharp contrasts.
I hardly need recapitulate the merits of the big orchestral numbers, which are well known to a classical audience from the Symphonic Dances. Enough to say that hearing them in context makes me appreciate their musical originality the more, not least the ''Cool'' fugue with its disturbing augmented fourths. With dialogue reduced to an absolute minimum—limited almost entirely to the exchanges of Tony and Maria well spoken in a stylized way by Bernstein's son and daughter, not by Dame Kiri and Carreras—it is necessary to follow the libretto fully to appreciate the development of the story in many places and obviously in the keenly dramatic ballet sequences. In songs diction may not always be so clear as with less rich-toned singers, but after coaching Carreras has managed a very passable american accent and Dame Kiri a creditable Spanish-American one. The speed with which the whole piece moves is astounding, not just as a superb entertainment but as a Shakespearean tragedy modernized and intensified. I only hope this encourages a Bernstein recording of Candide as follow-up.
I have heard only one of the two CDs, but in the new medium the sound is if anything even clearer and better defined. As makeweight, on CD only, you get the recording of the suite drawn from the On the Waterfront film-music, which Bernstein recorded with the Israel Philharmonic, an apt coupling. As I said in my original July 1982 review, this is music which finds ''the young Bernstein glorying in his virtuosity'', in its style leading directly to West Side Story three years later.
The 12 inch single 45rpm issued as a sampler contains four favourite numbers, all of them very enjoyable but not quite perfectly chosen to represent the set. Starting with ''America'' brings the disadvantage that words are not crystal clear in a number that depends on the Sondheim lyrics more than any, and as I have said ''I feel pretty'' is the number least suited by nature to Dame Kiri, charmingly as she does it. But ''Maria'' presents Carreras very convincingly (the American pronunciation bringing ''r'' as a semi-vowel and an easy ''bewderful'' for beautiful) and the Dance at the gym gives a splendid example of orchestral zing in the authentic Bernstein manner.'

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