BERNSTEIN Candide: Overture. Fancy Free: 3 Dance Variations. West Side Story: Symphonic Dances. On the Town: 3 Dances. On the Waterfront: Suite • Carl Davis, cond; Royal PO • ROYAL PHILHARMONIC MASTERWORKS 28780 (63:54)
This album belongsRead more to a series of CDs the Royal Philharmonic recorded in the mid 1990s under a variety of conductors. I have collected most of these discs, and have yet to hear a disappointing one. They were released originally on Tring in the U.K., and subsequently on Intersound in the U.S. This new release differs from the two earlier ones in not including the orchestra’s personnel roster for the sessions. The Tring version also credited Sony’s Super Bit Mastering system, a citation not included on subsequent releases. This CD advertises audiophile sonics. Indeed, the sound engineering is rich, detailed, and tonally opulent. Conductor Carl Davis first came to my attention for his lovely music on Thames Television’s marvelous series Hollywood, a documentary about the silent film era. Davis perhaps is best known in the classical field as Sir Paul McCartney’s collaborator on his Liverpool Oratorio. With film, TV, and classical credits, Davis brings a perspective to Bernstein’s music that the composer would have appreciated.
With Bernstein’s music available on CD in his own interpretations, why should you bother with any other conductor’s? The answer, I think, is that Bernstein’s finest music benefits from a variety of approaches. Elgar conducted much of his music for recordings, yet who would be without the interpretations of Barbirolli, Boult, and so many others? Granted, Bernstein’s renditions, unlike Elgar’s, feature modern sound. But orchestras seem to continue to enjoy playing Bernstein’s music. Not one of the currently prominent American tonal composers matches Bernstein in his sheer ability to craft a melody. Besides, Bernstein himself did not regard his performances always as the last word. When Leonard Slatkin asked Bernstein what piece of his he would like Slatkin to record in St. Louis, the composer recommended Songfest. Slatkin replied that Bernstein already had recorded it, but the great man said he was dissatisfied with his own version.
Carl Davis opens his program with a warm and suave reading of the Candide Overture, featuring beautiful orchestral balance. The Fancy Free music has lots of snap, with a feel for Bernstein’s occasionally camp humor. The Symphonic Dances from West Side Story receives a cogent interpretation, one that is never episodic. The prolog seems more measured in tempo that we are used to hearing. “Somewhere” is played beautifully, with breathtaking English string tone. The brass go to town in the mambo, with a particularly demented percussion response. (I once heard a performance featuring members of Raymond Des Roches’s New Jersey Percussion Ensemble, who reveled in the possibilities of the music.) The “cool” fugue comes across as a miniature concerto for orchestra, with splendid contributions from the first chairs. The dances from On the Town sound very deft rhythmically. Carl Davis was an assistant conductor at New York City Opera, and demonstrates here the craft of a skilled theater conductor. The principal clarinet is superb in the Times Square section. Davis ends his program with a dramatic and richly evocative version of the suite from On the Waterfront, one that will have you recalling scenes from that great movie. This was the first time I noticed how the opening horn solo was inspired by Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings.
There have been other audiophile versions of the Symphonic Dances. Azica recorded the Florida Orchestra under the splendid Jahja Ling live to two tracks, with no mixing. The sound is warm and well balanced, if perhaps lacking in impact. Ling studied with Bernstein, and his performance is idiomatic and passionate. Gene Pope III engineered a two-microphone recording for his now defunct Pope Music label, featuring Misha Rachlevsky and the Symphony Orchestra Kremlin. To spotlight certain instruments, Pope asked the musicians to change positions on stage for each of the dances. The results are highly satisfying, both as a recording and a performance. The sound has better instrument placement and air around the orchestra than on Davis’s CD. Lastly, London Phase 4 issued an LP in 1970 by Eric Rogers and the Royal Philharmonic. Phase 4 featured an aggressively multitrack audio aesthetic. The subsequent CD on London Weekend Classics is very in-your-face sonically, making much of a pretty good performance. I believe that the Ling and Rachlevsky CDs, along with Carl Davis’s, prove how much is to be gained from new versions of Bernstein’s scores.
Finally, to add a personal note, I roomed with Bernstein’s godson for a year in college, the son of Adolph Green and Phyllis Newman. If I gained any insight into Bernstein from that year, it is how many-textured his life experiences were. As Michael Tilson Thomas has written, the whole man is there in his music.
always perfectOctober 22, 2014By Margarethe Kircher (Petaluma, CA)See All My Reviews"I bought the CDs as a original American product to be taken to Germany as a gift. Thank you"Report Abuse
Excellent - key music of our time.May 7, 2014By Dr. Mitchell Gurk (Spencer, MA)See All My Reviews"Bernstein's best stage music played with precision and rich color. 'Waterfront' is like a Dvorak or Debussy tone poem."Report Abuse
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