Album Review: Bernstein’s Wonderful Town – London Symphony Orchestra

In Albums, Audio, Musicals, Opinion, Reviews by Edward SeckersonLeave a Comment

I’ve always been slightly puzzled as to why Simon Rattle (and subsequently Mark Elder) chose to anoint this particular show amongst Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway canon – not because I don’t love it as dearly as the others but because for all its brilliance it was a rush job (two months) replacing another’s score (Leroy Anderson) and with the best will in the world its level of innovation is hardly comparable for those which preceded and followed it.

So this is the second recording to have Rattle at the helm, the by-product of two live concerts rather awkwardly mounted as part of the LSO’s contribution to Bernstein 100, though not, it has to be said, in the same league as his first featuring Audra McDonald and Kim Criswell as the Sherwood sisters whose efforts to take a big bite out off the Big Apple bring much jollity and, of course, the obligatory romance.

This repertoire is anyway not natural territory for Rattle. For anyone steeped in its flair and flavour the style doesn’t feel in-bred. It’s the earnestness that doesn’t ring true, the way in which that which should come naturally simply sounds overworked. This has little or nothing to do with the LSO whose prowess in this repertoire traces a line of succession through Michael Tilson Thomas to the composer himself (not that he was always the best advocate of his own stuff). Clearly, though, the band here is way too big for those tight corners (especially the large body of strings) and one misses that easy laid-back fluidity that comes from a deep and abiding familiarity with ‘the way it goes’. The string intro into ‘My Darlin’ Eileen’ sounds like Traviata.

I can see why Danielle de Niese was cast. As one who burst into our awareness putting the showbiz into Handel’s Cleopatra, she’s a natural stage animal and a big personality whatever the repertoire. But Eileen Sherwood isn’t a big personality and there’s something wrong with the balance of the casting if she totally overshadows her bolshy big sister Ruth. For sure Eileen requires a legit soprano but De Niese resides in opera and try as she may to lighten the style and the sound it all sounds awkwardly over-cooked. ‘A Little Bit in Love’ – with its sexy sigh of contentment so deftly written into the melodic line – is way too knowing. It feels self-consciously ‘fruity’.

Paradoxically the Ruth of Alysha Umphress (who does come from the right side of the tracks) is so understated and throw-away that she kind of disappears in De Niese’s wake. ‘100 Easy Ways’ is too laid back where it needs to be feisty. Her preparation for each punchline is slow and laboured like she’s worried she’ll trip herself up with the quick-fire delivery.

The love interest goes for nothing. Nathan Gunn, as Bob Baker, is sounding oddly woolly now and the operatic ‘production’ of the voice jars somewhat. ‘A Quiet Girl’ is so flat (and so slow) that it actually makes a beautiful song into a complete downer.

Worst of all, though, is the deployment of the entire LSO Chorus. One needs a specialist group (like the Maida Vale Singers or indeed a drama college ensemble) for a piece like this. You get the message quite early with the final sung line of dance episode ‘Conquering New York’ (with its Prelude, Fugue and Riffs self-quotation) – ‘Maybe I’ll never go home’ – but ‘Conga’ and worse still ‘Swing’ (where Umphress mutters her way through the ‘hip’ jive-talking) are just embarrassing – the LSO Chorus sounding like, well, the LSO Chorus.

Go for Rattle’s first version (Warner Classics) if you must – Criswell and McDonald are wonderful on it. Me, I’d go back to the Original Broadway Cast. But I would, wouldn’t I?

Edward Seckerson on Twitter
Edward Seckerson
A prolific broadcaster, writer and journalist as well as a self-confessed ‘musical theatre obsessive’, Edward has interviewed everyone from Bernstein to Liza Minnelli, Paul McCartney to Pavarotti, Julie Andrews to Andrew Lloyd Webber. He wrote and presented the long-running BBC Radio 3 series Stage & Screen. He also regularly produces podcast interviews with notable theatrical artists and makes regular appearances on the BBC Radio 2 Arts Show, BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4, where he presented the 2007 series of the music quiz Counterpoint. He has published books on Gustav Mahler and the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, is a regular critic for Gramophone Magazine and Opern Welt and a founder member of The Arts Desk. He also blogs independently at www.edwardseckerson.biz and tweets at @seckerson.
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Edward Seckerson on Twitter
Edward Seckerson
A prolific broadcaster, writer and journalist as well as a self-confessed ‘musical theatre obsessive’, Edward has interviewed everyone from Bernstein to Liza Minnelli, Paul McCartney to Pavarotti, Julie Andrews to Andrew Lloyd Webber. He wrote and presented the long-running BBC Radio 3 series Stage & Screen. He also regularly produces podcast interviews with notable theatrical artists and makes regular appearances on the BBC Radio 2 Arts Show, BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4, where he presented the 2007 series of the music quiz Counterpoint. He has published books on Gustav Mahler and the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, is a regular critic for Gramophone Magazine and Opern Welt and a founder member of The Arts Desk. He also blogs independently at www.edwardseckerson.biz and tweets at @seckerson.