Bernstein: West Side Story

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COMPOSERS: Bernstein,Gershwin
WORKS: Bernstein: West Side Story; Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue
PERFORMER: Katia Labèque, Marielle Labèque (piano)


Listen hard during the Prologue and the end of The Rumble in West Side Story and you’ll catch the distant wail of a passing police siren. Varèse would have loved it. And the composer of Amériques would surely have approved of the pairing of Gershwin and Bernstein – mutually illuminating bedfellows propped up on the supportive pillows of jazz, classical and popular music.

The West Side Story arrangement was made for the Labèque sisters by the work’s original orchestrator Irwin Kostal. The inclusion of percussion lends a streetwise veracity two pianos alone couldn’t have mustered – even under fingers so sophisticatedly attuned to the edgy clarity and rhythmic ‘snap, crackle, and pop’ of Bernstein’s score. At full pelt they take no hostages but there’s a quiveringly delicate urgency to Something’s Coming, tender translucence in Maria, and if the ‘cool’ in Cool comes naturally, the tongue-in-cheekery of I Feel Pretty could have strayed out of a Tchaikovsky ballet. The sequence is seamless, the pacing judicious.


Rhapsody in Blue inevitably enshrines the same pianistic precision and electricity, but there’s also something a touch self-conscious. Premiered in a concert entitled ‘An Experiment in Modern Music’ it’s as if the Labèques want to provide an aural analysis of its sassy rapprochement between classical music and jazz. Theirs is a ‘Rhapsody’ not exactly overburdened with the rhapsodic – though 30 years after their famous Philips recording, Gershwin is evidently still the man they love. Paul Riley