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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Wonderful Town (1953) - Concert Version
Danielle de Niese - Eileen; Alysha Umphress - Ruth; Nathan Gunn - Bob Baker;
Duncan Rock - Second Editor/Wreck; David Butt Philip - Lonigan; Ashley Riches - Guide/First Editor/Frank; Michael Baxter - Fourth Cop; Kevin Brewis - Third Cop/First Man/Cadet/Villager; Stephen John Davis - First Cop; Flora Dawson – Violet; Soophia Foroughi - Second Woman; Andrew Keelan - Second Cop/Second Man; Jane Quinn - First Woman.
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live 16 & 21 December 2017, Barbican Hall, London. DSD
LSO LIVE LSO0813 SACD [70:19]

Leonard Bernstein made his debut with the LSO in 1966 and made several appearances with them subsequently, including the famous 1973 live recording in Ely Cathedral of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony. The relationship grew particularly close in the last years of his life and in 1987 Lenny was invited to become President of the LSO – only the fourth time such a title had been bestowed; he held that title until his death. So, it was fitting that the orchestra paid tribute to him right at the start of the Bernstein centenary year (which officially began on what would have been his 99th birthday in August 2017.) They did so with a pair of concerts at the Barbican which included a concert performance of Wonderful Town. My Seen and Heard colleague, Claire Seymour, attended the first of those concerts (review).

Wonderful Town renewed the collaboration between Bernstein and the lyricists, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, which had flowered so irresistibly in another show about New York, On the Town (1944). The successor show was written in the amazingly short period of just five weeks! This seemingly impossible deadline came about because Comden and Green, who recommended Bernstein as the composer, had been drafted in at the eleventh hour by the show’s producer, George Abbott when a previous attempt at a score – by other hands – had been rejected by the producers and the Hollywood star, Rosalind Russell. The show was to be based on a 1940 play, My Sister Eileen by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov. It was designed as a vehicle for Miss Russell and the rejection of the original score had put the producers in a bind: if they didn’t come with a revised show in short order they risked losing their star to other commitments. Bernstein, not long back from his honeymoon, accepted the challenge and five weeks of hectic lyric writing and musical composition ensued. Perhaps this tight timescale is one reason why Wonderful Town has such fizz and breathless pace. Incidentally, much of the fizz comes from the instrumental scoring. I’m unsure to what extent, if any, Bernstein did the orchestrations himself – he probably didn’t have time. The booklet for the 1998 EMI disc credits Don Walker with the orchestrations and in his comprehensive 1994 biography of Bernstein, Humphrey Burton also mentions Sid Ramin as a collaborator. The LSO Live documentation is completely silent on this matter – and on much else – but I presume the same orchestrations were used in 1998 and 2017.
 
The story, a flimsy one, doesn’t take long to summarise. In 1935, sisters Ruth and Eileen arrive in New York – or, to be precise, in Greenwich Village – from Columbus, Ohio to seek their fortunes. Initially, it’s hard going and they pine for home (‘Why, oh why, oh why, oh/ why did I ever leave Ohio?’) but gradually they gain a foothold in the Village, Ruth as a fledgling reporter and Eileen as a singer at The Village Vortex night club. Both are smitten by Bob Baker, the editor who employs Ruth at The Manhatter (a thin disguise for The New Yorker), but Eileen, the gentler of the two, touchingly gives way to her more streetwise sibling who is united with Baker in the show’s closing scene.
 
Rattle has history with Wonderful Town and clearly loves the show. He set it down under studio conditions for EMI in 1998 (review). I bought that disc when it came out and enjoyed it greatly. I see that there’s also a film of a live 2002 performance in Berlin (review) but I’ve not seen that. At least four of his leading soloists from 1998 also took part in the later Berlin performance. The 1998 recording is still available from Warner Classics (9029573987); whether it’s now as well documented as on the original release I’m unable to say; as we shall see, that’s an important consideration.
 
In 1998 Rattle had a stellar cast, including Kim Criswell as Ruth, Audra McDonald as Eileen and Thomas Hampson as Bob Baker. The band consisted of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (augmented, I suspect) with the chorus provided by London Voices, trained by Simon Halsey, who also prepped the London Symphony Chorus for this 2017 assignment. You might argue that the London Symphony Chorus is a rather bigger ensemble than one would encounter in a stage production. That’s true, and in that respect the smaller-sized London Voices is probably more authentic. However, the LSC do a great job, not least as excited revelling Villagers in ‘Swing!’

The LSO benefit from the presence of some necessary guests, among them Matthew Skelton playing the drum kit and no less than seven saxophonists. The orchestrations are feisty and colourful and the LSO delivers them with zest and zing. You can tell we’re in for a great evening when the Overture strikes up and within a minute or so those fantastic reeds are smooching through the melody of ‘Ohio’. I checked back the 1998 recording; here too the Overture is very good but I fancy that the LSO, perhaps inspired by the presence of a live audience, invests the music with fractionally more snap and energy. By contrast, the BCMG, excellent though they are, may seem just a fraction inhibited, though the margins are fine ones. The LSO really delivers throughout the performance. They are stylish and, where required, edgy in the vocal numbers and come into their own in such numbers as the Overture and the Entr’acte (both of which are pots-pourri of the best tunes). The playing in ‘Conquering New York’, with its self-quotations from Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (1949) is taut and vital. In the Jazz Age tribute, ‘Swing!’ the players really sound to be having a ball, while ‘Ballet at the Village Vortex’ features some wonderful bluesy clarinet playing from Andrew Marriner and his colleagues.

Danielle de Niese represents slightly surprising casting as Eileen but the choice pays off. In ‘A Little Bit in Love’ she comes across really well as the love-struck girl, and here I think she sounds more convincing as a slightly naïve provincial girl than the richer-voiced Audra McDonald on the 1998 set. She is good value, too, in the zany patter of ‘Wrong Note Rag’ while earlier on her contribution to ‘Ohio’ is genuinely touching.

The character of Ruth – a part designed for Rosalind Russell – is the dominant one and the Broadway star Alysha Umphress is an ideal choice for this role. She’s sassy and ironic in ‘One Hundred Easy Ways’; I bet this brought the house down at the Barbican. In many ways she’s an excellent match for Kim Criswell in the 1998 version but I think that even without an audience to energise her Criswell is even more characterful in this number. Similarly, Umphress does an exuberant, lively Conga with the Brazilian Navy cadets though I have the impression that Criswell is even sharper. On balance, I think that if you have the 1998 recording you may well feel that Kim Creswell has the edge but if you come to the score through this new recording you’ll be well satisfied with Alysha Umphress as Ruth.

In 1998 Rattle had Thomas Hampson as Bob Baker; luxury casting indeed. He sings Baker’s two big set pieces, ‘A Quiet Girl’ and ‘It’s love’ with rich, honeyed tone. However, I wonder if he’s just a bit formal? Nathan Gunn has a slightly lighter voice but he sings that memorable musing song, ‘A Quiet Girl’ marvellously and in ‘It’s love’ he’s every inch the Leading Man. I really enjoyed Gunn’s performance.

The smaller roles are all excellently taken in the new set. David Butt Philip does what he can with the role of Lonigan – he sings really well but I find the deliberately exaggerated Irishness of the scene involving New York’s Finest a bit hard to take. The revelation for me is Ashley Riches. I’ve heard him a few times in Elgar oratorios and other “conventional” concert roles and I’ve regularly been impressed. I wasn’t prepared, though, for how convincing he’d sound as our Guide to Christopher Street, nor for his idiomatic portrayal of the First Editor in ‘What a Waste’ – where Duncan Rock (Second Editor) and Nathan Gunn also deliver the goods. Riches manages to sound like an authentic New Yorker, which is no mean feat. Duncan Rock gets his chief moment in the sun as Wreck in ‘Pass the Football’ and he’s does this number really convincingly.

Presiding over this musical party is Sir Simon Rattle and he does a fine job, keeping the performance taut, while judging expertly the moments when he needs to loosen the reins in order to let everyone have their head. The fact that this is the third time he’s recorded this show speaks volumes. He obviously loves the score and he ensures it’s put across with energy and pizzazz.

I like the sound that Classic Sound have produced for this recording. It’s close enough to let the music – and the performance – have a proper impact but there’s also sufficient sense of the span of the Barbican stage, I think, especially in the big numbers. Revisiting the EMI recording now, it seems just a bit too close for comfort. I listened to this new recording in its 2.0 Stereo incarnation. The SACD also has a 5.1 multi-channel layer. I bet the audience applauded many of the numbers vociferously on the night but all that has been expertly edited out.

Anyone who reads Claire Seymour’s review of the concert performance will get a fine sense of the liveliness of the occasion. I can’t help thinking that LSO Live has missed a trick here by not releasing this performance in video format. There was clearly quite a bit of “stage business” and that doesn’t entirely come across in sound only. A number like ‘Conversation Piece’, though musically and theatrically clever, doesn’t really work without a visual element. Claire relates that at the end of the performance there was an encore: Danielle de Niese led a mass Conga round the auditorium. Bizarrely, the encore is included on the download version of this recording, I believe, but not on the SACD. I wonder why: there would have been room.

I’m afraid LSO Live let themselves down over the documentation, which is provided in English, French and German. The libretto isn’t included, perhaps for copyright reasons, and if that’s the reason then that’s fair enough. However, the content of the booklet is dreadfully unbalanced. There are no less than 13 pages devoted to artist biographies and a list of the members of the chorus and orchestra. By contrast, only 7 pages are devoted to the notes (in three languages). Worse still, the notes and synopsis by Edward Bhesania are no better than adequate – the synopsis stops at the point of the ‘Wrong Note Rag’ and so misses the small matter of the dénouement where, with Eileen’s blessing, Ruth and Baker realise they’re meant for each other. The track listing doesn’t even tell you which characters are involved in each number. By contrast, the original EMI release included the full libretto and two really informative essays about the show, one of them by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. That’s how to present a recording like this.

That cavil apart, however, this is a cracking release from Simon Rattle and the LSO. Wonderful Town is, if I may borrow and adapt words from the earlier Bernstein/Comden/Green collaboration, a helluva show about a helluva town. And it gets a helluva performance here. I shall retain my copy of the 1998 recording, not least for Kim Criswell’s terrific portrayal of Ruth, but overall this new recording has the edge. It’s a significant centenary tribute to Lenny.

John Quinn

 

 




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