Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story
Alexandra Silber (Maria), Cheyenne Jackson (Tony), Jessica Vosk (Anita), Kevin Vortmann (Riff), Juliana Hansen (Rosalia), Cassie Simone (Francisca), Louise Marie Cornillez (Consuelo), Justin Keyes (Action), Zachary Ford (Diesel), Chris Meissner (Baby John), David Michael Laffey (Big Deal/Snowboy), Louis Pardo (A-rab), Kelly Markgraf (Bernardo), Michael Taylor (Officer Krupke), Julia Bullock (A Girl), Members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor)
Recorded live at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco (June 27–July 2, 2013)
SFS Media 0059 – 82'51
2 Hybrid Super Audio CDs with interviews, essays, and libretto in English
Has there been another landmark piece of music so disappointingly served on record as West Side Story? To date, the original cast album remains the best choice. The composer's supposedly definitive recording is a burly and awkward effort, and even that was some 30 years ago. Enter in Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), a personal friend of Bernstein’s. The estimable maestro has led a prototype for what a modern symphony can accomplish on its own record label. This complete recording of Bernstein's iconic masterpiece is his latest effort and may very well stand out as the most important.
While the piece didn't necessarily create its own genre, it has certainly proved an outlier in the realm of Broadway musicals. The vocal demands are unique, the choreography singular, and the book still remarkably potent over fifty years later. Concert performances undertaken last year by the San Francisco Symphony provide the source for this recording, and while the classical concert hall is not the first place you'd think of when encountering Bernstein's score, on this recording it is absolutely revelatory.
The seminal force is the symphony orchestra which is as much of an actor in the play as anyone. As Tilson Thomas explains in the excellent liner notes, American orchestras are expected to play all styles. That is on full display here. Tilson Thomas’ band swings, thumps, and blasts their way through Bernstein's colorful score. In no recording has this music been played with such precision and spirit. Over fifty years later, this score still oozes “cool” from every corner and MTT and his players oblige with a thoughtful performance. The “Prologue” has been played faster, but it has never been recorded with such an attitude. Indeed, many tempi are slightly slower than the original cast album, but this is a good thing. In MTT’s hands, Bernstein’s lines weave and swirl into explosions. His amalgam of styles is as fresh as ever.
Equally as compelling are the vocal talents on display. All of the cast are Broadway talents (thankfully foregoing the path Bernstein himself forged). Led by Alexandra Silber and Cheyenne Jackson as the star-crossed lovers, the combination of vocal pedigree and dramatic energy is exceptional. Silber’s is a shimmering soprano sound with effortless high notes. She is comfortable stepping out of her classical technique to give flavor and inflection to Sondheim's words and the consistency of her accent is much-appreciated. The often-lampooned “I Feel Pretty” is endearing in her hands.
Jackson’s youthful tenor voice is handsome. While occasionally pressed at the zenith of his range, he maintains an attractive sound with consistent vibrato. His “Maria” is lyrical and musically secure. The ease with which he passionately executes Bernstein's topping phrases is breathtaking. Yet, like Silber, the naturalness by which he sings, not only the notes, but the text, elevates this recording.
Jessica Vosk as Anita does likewise in a blistering “A Boy Like That” (a highlight among highlights.) This recording has gathered singers completely comfortable in their characters vocally that are able to synthesize both music and drama into a cohesive performance unsurpassed on record. Kevin Vortmann as Riff avoids caricature and is a magnetic addition with a strong voice.
The surround SACD sound is another star of this recording. The headset vocal mics are integrated into the orchestra seamlessly. Bernstein, Ramin, and Kostal’s orchestration sparkles with detail, his genius on full display. Not only is this the best performance of this music on record, but it is undoubtedly the best sounding. It is as engrossing as any recording I have.
This recording comes packaged in a deluxe book containing wonderful essays and features. The presentation further bespeaks the thought that has gone into this performance and issue from the San Francisco Symphony. Throughout the entire recording, every cast member lavishes love and spontaneity on Bernstein's masterpiece, even numbers that have since occasionally entered kitsch have a new bite. From “Officer Krupke” to “Somewhere” (purely sung by Julia Bollock), every note of Bernstein’s is presented in a spectacular package that is the new standard for this masterpiece. Even if this piece has never been to your taste, it is elevated here to the point that it merits your consideration. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Matthew Richard Martinez