Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (CD review)

Also, Gershwin: Cuban Overture; Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2; Wagner: Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Daniel Barenboim, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Warner Classics 2564 69816-5.

This 2010 release collects together four recordings Daniel Barenboim made with the Chicago Symphony during his tenure there as Music Director in the 1990's and early 2000's. Interestingly, they come originally from three different record labels--Erato, Teldec, and Warner Classics--so, if anything, the listener gets a chance to hear and compare the different sounds these companies and their audio engineers afforded the players.

The program begins with the Cuban Overture (1932) of American composer George Gershwin (1898-1937). This is a colorful piece of music, with plenty of vitality, so it's hard for anyone to go wrong with it. Barenboim brings out most of the work's forward drive and is never too hectic about doing it, providing the slow middle section a commendable serenity. It makes an enjoyable curtain-raiser.

Next is the centerpiece of the album, the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1980). Many of us tend to remember Bernstein mainly as a conductor of the New York and Vienna Philharmonic orchestras and maybe forget that he was also a prolific composer of works like Fancy Free, On the Town, Wonderful Town, Candide, On the Waterfront, several symphonies, numerous smaller pieces, and, of course, the monumental Broadway success, West Side Story (1957). Here, we get the ten-movement suite of orchestral music from the show, his Symphonic Dances (1961). Almost any listener will recognize the tunes, with Bernstein's familiar Latin rhythms and streetwise jazz style. Although Barenboim lingers a bit too long in the slower Adagio sections like "Somewhere," tending to over sentimentalize them, this is a musical of high emotions, after all, so we can probably excuse his few indulgences.

After all the energy of the jazz-inflected American selections, the concluding Ravel and Wagner tracks seem oddly out of place, even disconcerting. However, Barenboim is moderately effective in them, so all is not lost. He presents Maurice Ravel's little Suite No. 2 from Daphne et Chloe (1912) with subtle charm, building appropriately to an exuberant finale. Then we get Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde Prelude and Liebestod, the music about as far removed from Gershwin's Cuban Overture as you can get. Wagner's music is possibly the most-romantic material ever written, and while Barenboim's approach doesn't seem as totally impassioned as it might be, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays it exceptionally well, which goes a long way toward making it worth our attention.

Warner Classics recorded the Gershwin and Bernstein tracks in Medinah Temple, Chicago, in 1997. The sound exhibits a wonderful sense of hall space and orchestral depth but also a rather edgy high end and a somewhat thin bass. Erato recorded the Ravel piece in Orchestra Hall, Chicago, in 1991, and Teldec recorded the Wagner in Orchestra Hall in 1993. These latter works sound altogether warmer and smoother, even though they're not as dimensional. They make up for their comparative lack of sparkle by being more suave, more refined, the acoustic a touch softer and more resonant.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa