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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Broadway to Hollywood
Candide - Overture (1956) [4:52]
On the Waterfront - Symphonic Suite (1954) [21:20]
Fancy Free (1943-44) [20:05]
West Side Story - Symphonic Dances (1957) [23:44]
On the Town - 2 Dance Episodes (1944) [5:19]
Hannover Philharmonie/Iain Sutherland
rec. Studios of the NDR Radiophilharmonie, Hanover, 1993
SOMM ARIADNE 5002 [75:20]

With this release SOMM have departed somewhat from their usual – and highly successful – release formula of specialist performers of unusual repertoire, engineered and produced by their own expert team in studio conditions. Here we are given a 25-year-old analogue recorded/edited concert performance of near-standard repertoire. Good to see light-music specialist Iain Sutherland on the podium. He has been a stalwart performer of light orchestral repertoire for many years, but all too rarely have his performances been enshrined on disc. Here he conducts the Hannover Philharmonie – one of Germany’s radio orchestras I think – in a pretty standard collection of Leonard Bernstein’s most famous/accessible concert scores.

But here is the rub, this release goes toe-to-toe with a substantial number of recordings by various orchestras and conductors from around the world of near identical – or indeed identical – programmes. Heading that list has to be the seminal performances of these works from an animated Bernstein himself on the stick and a clearly engaged New York Philharmonic on CBS/Sony. This presents an identical programme and throws in the third of the On the Town ‘Dance Episodes’ which for some reason is missing from the SOMM disc – a shame since this Times Square section gives balance and variety to the Episodes. A couple of other differences: Bernstein’s West Side Story Symphonic Dances never included the shout of “Mambo” (which it did in the DG/Los Angeles remake) and likewise Fancy Free in New York does not open with the piano/vocal ‘Big Stuff’ - which again appears on the DG remake this time with the Israel PO, albeit unusually with a male singer. Sutherland in Hannover includes the shout and ‘Big Stuff’ but in a piano solo version only which is the only time I have heard this section included but not sung, a slightly odd choice, neither one thing or the other. I prefer their inclusion, but such is the sheer energy and commitment of the old NYPO performances that their absence is a small price to pay. Also, something for completists to note: apparently Sutherland uses a cut version of the score which is the one Bernstein used in his own/first recording of the work on 78s in the 1940's. I guess the abbreviations were - as so often - due to the limitations of side-lengths. So, while the liner lists this as the "complete" ballet it patently is not. Bernstein/New York, without ‘Big Stuff’ and faster in every section is over four minutes longer than Sutherland in Hanover. Without access to a score, it seems that, although referred to in the liner, the ‘Pas de Deux’ section is cut completely in Hanover and also two of the three dance variations (‘Galop’ and ‘Waltz’) seem to be missing. But the reality is, cut or not, this is such a laboured and scrappy performance that it is no match for just about any other in the catalogue.

The West Side Story Symphonic Dances receive a more secure performance. Tempi are still rather ‘safe’ and the curious highlighting of some instruments remains. ‘Somewhere’ is given an effective performance and I rather like the light and airy treatment of ‘Maria’ with Sutherland choosing a tempo that is more flowing than the norm. Conversely, ‘Cool’ suffers from being just that – too cool. The jittery explosions over the insistent hi-hat ride figure need to reveal a pent-up energy that will explode into the murderous ‘Rumble’. Here it stays resolutely straight even with the kit’s bass drum given undue prominence in the mix. Throughout, listen to the lead brass in New York or Liverpool (for Davis) to hear what this music can be like. That said, a nicely poetic flute solo leads into the ‘Finale’ which in turn is affectingly played – it is a great ending to a great show and as Matthew-Walker says, Bernstei’'s enduring masterpiece – whether he wanted it to be or not.

The two On the Town dance episodes are competent but, as with all of this programme, better done elsewhere by others. The sound is slightly different too, there’s a fractionally more edgy sound in the strings and close-miking of the wind. I assumed this was taken from a single concert so perhaps I am imagining this! I do miss the third episode; in presenting just two the order is reversed with ‘Lonely Town’ first and ‘The Great Lover’ second. In the suite of three and in the original order there is a more logical fast-slow-fast sequence. Again, in ‘The Great Lover’ neither interpretation or execution come close to the best alternative versions with tempo and the absence of a jaunty energy seriously undermining the essence of the music.

Engineering-wise between this ‘new’ recording and the old there is not as big a difference as one might expect. In its latest remastering, the old Sony/CBS recording has brushed up very well while the live (uncredited) engineering in Hanover is adequate without being in any way demonstration worthy; I assume the tapes were originally for radio broadcast. Occasional details do appear interestingly while others, the climactic tubular bell in On the Waterfront for instance, are all but absent in the recorded mix. Another major factor is the quality of the actual playing. The Hanover orchestra circa 1993 is perfectly good but nowhere near the élan and sparky virtuosity of the New Yorkers or indeed any other orchestra broaching this music. It is quite clear that the standard of playing of regional German orchestras has improved substantially in the last twenty-five years. Too often, Bernstein’s slippery rhythms and jolting accents catch the players out, not by much but enough to blur detail and destroy any of that sense of arrogant precision that this music needs. Labels that use such ensembles today for their recordings are pretty much guaranteed playing of high quality, but this live performance with its occasional wobbles of ensemble and execution makes one remember that that was not always a given. Some audience noise is occasional audible and applause is retained.

When comparing like with like, Sutherland simply is not able to generate the same levels of visceral excitement as Bernstein or indeed other conductors did. By the stopwatch alone, Sutherland is slower in every piece and every section. It might not be much at times, the Candide Overture is 4:52 in Hanover and 4:13 in New York, On the Waterfront 21:20 to 19:30 but it’s not simply a case of velocity. Instead, there is an absence of the coiled spring of energy, the potential for something thrilling (or dangerous) to happen in this youthful exuberant music that is simply absent with Sutherland. It pains me to write this as I am admirer of Sutherland’s work and also of SOMM’s excellent catalogue. As mentioned, there are numerous similar re-couplings of this music from a variety of labels and orchestras. A close comparison - and in excellent DDD sound - is from the defunct Tring/RPO label recording with Carl Davis (these recordings can be found in various reincarnations and recouplings elsewhere). The trade here is gaining the 3rd Dance Episode but losing a substantial chunk of Fancy Free with only the Three Dance Variations retained (A recent BIS disc from the Royal Liverpool PO with Christian Lindberg duplicates the Tring programme and has been well-reviewed although I have not heard it). But that significant loss is mitigated by blisteringly dynamic performances against which the Hanover traversals simply pale. Davis directed another/earlier stunning set of the West Side dances, again in Liverpool, for EMI/Warner. Elsewhere, Slatkin in St. Louis on RCA and Zinman in Baltimore on Argo add Bernstein’s other ballet score Facsimile at the expense of On the Waterfront while shuffling other parts of the musical pack. So you really do pay your money and take your choice. The SOMM disc features an excellent liner from Robert Matthew-Walker with a couple of evocative photographs of Bernstein and useful biographies but conversely the CD itself does not divide either Fancy Free, the West Side dances or On the Waterfront into individual tracks which is a minor oversight but a production mistake in such sectionalised music.

This is wonderful music which is played and engineered solidly – too solidly? – without being in any way exceptional either in technical execution or musical insight; the unexpected cuts are a disappointment too. Certainly not the ‘remarkable’ performances that the SOMM publicity material references. As a concert in 1993 this would have been an enjoyable evening, as a library performance to return to repeatedly this simply cannot compete.

Nick Barnard




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