Bernstein: West Side Story

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Bernstein
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: West Side Story
PERFORMER: Betsi Morrison, Mike Eldred, Marianne Cooke, Robert Dean; Nashville SO/ Kenneth Schermerhorn
CATALOGUE NO: 8.559126
Bernstein’s pioneering 1957 musical is perhaps his masterpiece, with its combination of lyrical expansiveness and motivic tightness within a wide stylistic range. It’s performed here with great spirit by a young-sounding cast. This slightly cut-down version regrettably omits the ‘Cha-Cha’ and the lovers’ first meeting in the dance hall, and presents ‘America’ not as an all-girls-together number but with mixed voices, as the lyricist Stephen Sondheim originally intended it, and with an alternative text. Of the leads, Betsi Morrison’s appealing Maria touchingly preserves her Latin American accent in singing as well as speech; Mike Eldred’s ardent Tony is a little too sugar-coated with continuous vibrato. The performance, recorded over two days, has a few awkward corners, and occasionally rides roughshod over Bernstein’s detailed notation of rhythms, tempo and dynamics. The voices are placed uncomfortably close, and in several numbers general rhubarbing, intended to suggest stage action, obscures some of the music.

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Of rival recordings, the film soundtrack album on Sony is full of life, but variably sung and rather crudely recorded. TER’s two-disc set contains more of the music, well sung and vividly played, but again with too much noisy stage action. I find myself unexpectedly warming to Bernstein’s own recording: the operatic principals may be stylistically all wrong, but overall it’s the most faithful representation of this wonderful score. Still, the Naxos is quite a bargain, and the many smiles – and the odd tear – it drew from me suggest that despite its faults it captures a good deal of the essence of the piece. Anthony Burton