Bernstein: West Side Story (SACD review)

Alexandra Silber, Cheyenne Jackson, Jessica Vosk, Kevin Vortmann, Julia Bullock. Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony. SFS Media 821936-0059-2 (2-disc set).

With music by Leonard Bernstein, book by Arthur Laurentis, choreography by Jerome Robbins, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and inspiration by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957 and has been a staple of the American musical stage ever since. The question is how many recordings of it one needs. We already have the original Broadway and original motion-picture recordings on Sony, Bernstein's 1985 operatic studio recording on DG, a 1997 complete studio recording on Jay Records, a 2009 Broadway cast recording on Sony, and an excellent presentation from the Nashville Orchestra on Naxos, among others I've probably forgotten. Now, we have a live concert recording from Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony, and a fine assembly of singers. Is it worth one's time and money? Yes. And a qualified no. Let me explain.

On the plus side, almost everything sounds pretty well cast and well sung. Soprano Alexandra Silber, a relative newcomer on the musical stage, sings Maria. Prominent singer and actor Cheyenne Jackson sings the part of Tony. Jessica Vosk is Anita, Kevin Vortmann is Riff, Juliana Hansen is Rosalia, Cassie Simone is Francisca, Louise Marie Cornillez is Conseuelo, Justin Keyes is Action, Zachary Ford is Diesel, Chris Meissner is Baby John, David Michael Laffrey is Big Deal, Louis Prado is A-rab, Kelly Markgraf is Bernardo, Michael Taylor is Officer Krupke, and Julia Bullock is the Girl. Members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus sing the parts of Jets, Sharks, and Girls.

Both leads are comfortable in their roles, even if Jackson's voice didn't strike me as that of a tough street hood. He sounds like a pleasant, clean-cut, down-home young man, maybe a character from Oklahoma or The Music Man rather than a New York City delinquent in West Side Story. Anyway, it's a minor concern, and Ms. Silber's portrayal of Maria more than makes up for it. She's most persuasive, providing the production a much-needed poignancy. Indeed, she tends slightly to dominate her duets with Jackson.

The rest of the cast function well in their roles, too, especially those performers voicing the Puerto Rican contingent, who tend to get the more-colorful musical numbers in the score.

Then, it goes without saying that the San Francisco Symphony do their part admirably. OK, I admit a bias: I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and remember first hearing the orchestra around 1955. So, yes, I've always thought they were good; but, really, they seem to get better with age. Today, they can hold their own with the finest ensembles in the world for richness, sonority, balance, and precision.

The qualifications? First, the production comes in an elaborate two-SACD set, enclosed in a fancy hardbound book with a 100-page insert of notes and lyrics. That may seem like a great deal, and it is, but it comes at a price: a hefty cost that may be a bit much for some listeners to bear, especially if they already have one or more of the competing releases. Second, what we get from Tilson Thomas is a concert production; that is, without dancing or dialogue. Well, doing without the dancing is fine with me on an audio recording; we couldn't see it, anyway. However, some listeners might prefer hearing the dialogue as well. Third, it's a live recording, with all the attendant sound issues that brings: see below. And fourth, not everyone will take to Tilson Thomas's fairly literal translation of things. While, as I said, the singing is quite good, there isn't to me as much spark in the production as I hear in the Broadway cast, motion-picture, and Nashville albums. Not that Tilson Thomas is exactly stiff; he just seems more attuned to refined musical elegance rather than the raw energy of the Broadway musical stage. Everything under Tilson Thomas seems too exact, too proper, too well articulated, too calculated for the character of the music. Nevertheless, the latter objection is largely a matter of taste, so other listeners will love the production for its polish.

Total playing time on the two discs is about 123 minutes, and Tilson Thomas admits they did not include every note; they omitted change-of-scene music, for instance, and, of course, the dialogue. By comparison, the movie version is 151 minutes, almost a full half hour longer.

Producer Jad Vad and engineers Roni Joles, Gus Polleck, and Jonathan Stevens made the hybrid two-channel/multichannel SACD recording at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, California in June and July 2013; and SFS Media released it in 2014. In order to overcome the presence of a live audience, the miking is fairly close. Still, it provides a good deal of detail, definition, and dynamic impact, with a surprising amount of warmth as well as spacial dimensionality in the two-channel SACD layer to which I listened. The only real problem is rather small: voices do not always seem well integrated with the orchestral support. They're too far out front. Still, this arrangement also provides excellent vocal clarity, again with a welcome touch of ambient warmth. On loudest passages one notices a trace of steely edge, although it isn't much. Then, on a final note, there is very little audience noise and no applause. Thank goodness.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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 John 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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa