WITH A SONG IN MY HEART - THE SONGS OF RODGERS AND HART
I was remarking in connection with the Enchanté volume in this series that in the world of light music the name of the composer often counts for little. But sometimes a name stands out, and not only a name but a partnership. Richard Rodgers has entered history with two such partnerships. The wider public perhaps knows him through his post-war Hammerstein II collaborations, box-office successes in their film versions and now recommended family viewing at the video-rental store. But the cognoscenti, ever suspicious of too much success, look back to the spunkier pre-war Rodgers, long-time collaborator with Lorenz Hart.
Mind you, either way we hear the music through the filter of arrangers and interpreters to a greater degree than we perhaps realise. No intention to denigrate, that's the way things were done in the light music field, where the composer was principally a tune-smith and thereafter handed over to the orchestrator. Nevertheless, a lot of these versions were made when the ink was barely dry on the songs, and they give us a sound that Rodgers surely recognised as his. The lesson for later interpreters is that this music has an easy lilt, not so hectic as to lose its gaiety in the faster numbers, and not too sticky and sentimental in the slower ones. Though only a few years had passed, the post-war recordings here take the songs off the Broadway stage and into the smoke-filled hotel lounge. Compare Mary Martin's laboured My Funny Valentine with the zippy creator's record of Johnny One Note or Sophie Tucker's up-tempo The Lady is a Tramp. I'm afraid the Sinatra recordings (well done as they are from their own point of view) point up this lesson all too well, but a word of praise is due for Doris Day's most touching handling of Bewitched.
Not everything is pure gold, since the items are chosen to illustrate the composer rather than the performers, but the pre-war recordings preserve a special atmosphere and all the items illustrate the high professional standards of the day. Special highlights are Ruth Etting's Ten Cents a Dance and Paul Whiteman's subtle rhythmic handling of Lover. The female singers, unlike most of those on the French Chanson disc and many of their contemporaries not included here, sing in their soprano range, so the chesty tones of Sophie Tucker seemed so manly as to induce me to send a panic-stricken e-mail to ASV querying whether the version here was wrongly labelled. Not so (and they pointed out that "the last of the red-hot mamas" was 53 in 1937) and on re-hearing there is a feminine side to her gutsy delivery too. I regret having enjoyed least the two items recorded in London. Tastes change, but I doubt if Jessie Matthews's school-mistressy tones will encourage modern imitation and Hutch, though a nifty pianist, is vocally rather limited.
The transfers are fine and the booklet gives full documentation. Care should be taken over proof-reading: Falling in love with love is correctly labelled on the cover and in the notes, but in the contents-list it appears tritely as Falling in love with you.
All in all a fascinating collection, documenting an essential moment in Broadway history. But when all's said and done, the Rodgers and Hammerstein II songs tend to be the ones that stay in your head.