BERNSTEIN: West Side Story. On the Waterfront—Symphonic Suite

BERNSTEIN: West Side Story . On the Waterfront—Symphonic Suite. Kiri Te Kanawa (Maria); José Carreras (Tony); Tatiana Troyanos (Anita); Kurt Ollmann (Riff); Marilyn Horne (A Girl); Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein (Story); Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein (Waterfront). DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 415 253-2, produced by Hanno Rinke and John McClure, (two compact discs).

For many listeners West Side Story transcends the artistic constraints of the American commercial musical theater more than any other example of the genre. Indeed, some with no taste at all for show music (myself included) have been moved by Bernstein’s music to acknowledge its exceptional quality. For West Side Story offered Bernstein the opportunity to express musically an emotional theme for which his limited, but not insignificant, creative talent is ideally suited: the poignant intensity and innocent vulnerability of adolescent love—especially as set against an urban backdrop. Having demonstrated this sensitivity in his brilliant score to the 1954 film On the Waterfront, he had in the Romeo and Juliet story a vehicle through which to expand this focus, with characters placed in the milieu of New York City street gangs. Such songs as “Maria,” “Tonight,” “One Hand, One Heart,” “Somewhere,” and “I Have a Love” capture this emotional state with a touching, elevated lyricism that has rarely been matched. Bernstein combined this element with other facets of his strangely eclectic personality: exciting dance numbers that simulate the progressive big-band jazz idiom, as well as more conventionally lightweight “show tunes” such as “I Feel Pretty” and “Officer Krupke,” which many people seem to enjoy. The musical structure is strengthened by an ingenious use of thematic integration, along with considerable contrapuntal and rhythmic sophistication. However, also in the mix is a thread that has permeated virtually everything Bernstein has ever created and is certainly the Achilles’ heel of his entire output, if not of his very character: the relentless effort to touch upon existential and social issues through means that are simplistic, pretentious, self-conscious, and revoltingly self-serving. And then there are Stephen Sondheim’s often gag-inducing lyrics. 

Over the years claims have been made for West Side Story as approaching the stature of opera. This new recording, with Kiri Te Kanawa as Maria and José Carreras as Tony, invites us to view the work in this way. Questions along the lines of is or isn’t something an opera always strike me as the sort of fruitless, meaningless non-issues that fascinate New York Times readers who like to flatter themselves that they are reflecting on artistic matters when they are really distracting themselves from them. Nevertheless, I will go so far as to say that at a time when lesser works like Porgy and Bess and Sweeney Todd (which is pretty good) are presented in operatic context, the superior musical substance and sophisticated structure of West Side Story must be acknowledged. 

In considering the effectiveness with which this new recording presents the music, it is worth bearing in mind that the original cast recording, with Larry Kert, Carol Lawrence, and Chita Rivera, and a studio orchestra conducted by Max Goberman was awfully good, exhibiting an idiomatic fluency, vitality, and dramatic intensity that left room for improvement largely in matters of vocal and orchestral refinement. Also worth noting is that in virtually all recent recordings in which Bernstein conducts his own music, tempos have been rather relaxed. This is evident here, from the beginning of the overture, and it is not to the advantage of the music. Bernstein’s fast music draws much of its appeal from its nervous, restless, very urban-New York quality. Eliminate this edginess and the music is weaker; after all, it is not so substantial that it can afford to be stretched out. 

Many will probably comment on the strange choice of José Carreras as Tony, leader of the “American” gang—the gang opposed by the Puerto Rican gang—singing with an obtrusively heavy Spanish accent. The effect is ludicrous. But worse is Carreras’ rendition of “Something’s Coming,” a song with a thoroughly syncopated vocal line—but not as Carreras does it. He squares off the rhythm of almost every phrase! Now this is really something. There is Bernstein on the podium, with Carreras singing wrong rhythms. Did Bernstein not hear? Did Bernstein not care? Did Bernstein give up because Carreras just couldn’t get it right? Did the singers lay down vocal tracks at a later time, without the conductor? These rhythms aren’t that difficult: Look at the score; listen to Larry Kert on the older recording.

That is really the worst of it. Yes, Carreras’ diction is consistently problematical; Kiri Te Kanawa’s voice is surprisingly small here; and most of the fast numbers are too relaxed in tempo and spirit for their own good. There are about 15 minutes of music not heard on the earlier recording. Most of this music is best left unheard, especially a horrendous polka. But there are also some beautiful things on the new set. “One Hand, One Heart” is gorgeous; “Somewhere,” magnificently sung by Marilyn Horne, may be the high point of the set; “Officer Krupke” is done cleverly; the “Tonight” quintet is very smoothly coordinated, and makes a marvelous musical impact, but at the expense of a driving sense of anticipation that, after all, is its essence; “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” (my favorite number in the show) is excellent; Tatiana Troyanos is effectively personable as Anita. The best aspect of the set, of course, is the quality of the recording: extraordinary clarity, enormous dynamic range. 

I guess I was disappointed—One might expect more, considering the opportunity and the resources available, not to mention the hype surrounding the whole project. Whether it’s worth buying is an individual question; but I will say: Anyone who doesn’t know the music from this show (Is there such a person? Maybe readers under the age of 20—do we have any?) and doesn’t feel like investing in this new release—do grab up the original cast album.