Thursday, 30 August 2018

A return to the Wonderful Town from Rattle's opening season with the London Symphony Orchestra

Bernstein: Wonderful Town - Rattle, London Symphony Orchestra - LSO Live
Leonard Bernstein Wonderful Town; Danielle de Niese, Alysha Umphress, Nathan Gunn, David Butt Philip, Duncan Rock, London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle; LSO Live Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 August 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The LSO on sparkling form for this live recording of Bernstein's engaging hymn to NYC

Simon Rattle has form with Leonard Bernstein's Wonderful Town, having recorded it in 1999 with Kim Kriswell, Audra McDonald and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and he then returned to the work for DVD in 2002 with the same pairing of Kim Kriswell and Audra McDonald but this time with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2017, he presented the work with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, with a cast which features a significant number of opera singers, Danielle de Niese as Eileen, Alysha Umphress as Ruth, Nathan Gunn as Bob Baker, plus Duncan Rock, David Butt Philip and Ashley Riches. This was recorded live and is now presented on LSO Live.

Considering the number of recordings of the work, ranging from the original Broadway production of 1953, to the present recording, it is surprising that the piece has only had two Broadway productions (1953 and 2003) and one London production (1986). There have, of course, been other productions. Grange Park Opera mounted a production (in 2004 with Sophie Daneman and Mary King), and so did the Halle with the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.

On disc you do rather miss something, you lack the sharp dialogue, the visuals and the choreography. Every time one of the numbers breaks into dance, we rely solely on Rattle and the orchestra to make up for what we are not seeing. And though the musical numbers work well, you do rather miss the dialogue.


That said, the orchestra is in sparkling form and attacks the music with wit and zest, along with a certain something which can sometimes be lacking from orchestral versions of Broadway shows. It perhaps helps that the recording was made live, capturing something of the verve and excitement of the occasion, part of Rattle's first season with the LSO.

Alysha Umphress makes a delightful Ruth, a role written for Rosalind Russell and tailored to her limited vocal talents. I enjoyed Umphress performance but sometimes felt that it could have had a little more edge, you feel that musically it is well within her capabilities and we needed more brashness. Umphress is not helped by one of the recordings acoustic quirks, the spoken dialogue is at a relatively low level compared to the music so that the spoken introductions to the songs lack the body of them.

Danielle de Niese makes a characterful Eileen, her attractively warm vibrato given her voice a nice easy feel to it and she certainly does not sound like an opera singer slumming, though occasionally it feels that she is improvising greater elaborations. Overall a fine performance and one which, with Umphress' Ruth makes a fine contribution to a real ensemble piece. And De Niese and Nathan Gunn make a good pairing in their climactic duet. And Gunn gives a quietly characterful and sympathetic performance as the rather unheroic hero of the piece, whom we first encounter with the rather lovely A quiet girl.

One of the features of the performance is the preponderance of operatic voices (of the principals, only Umphress in non-opera trained), but it never feels like an opera manque and the individuals all give superb ensemble performances. I do have a moan about the CD booklet, whilst it gives a list of cast members and roles, and a list of musical numbers, it does not say who is singing what. This means that I have to guess that David Butt Philip as Lonigan sings the tenor solo in My Darlin' Eileen (and delightful it is too).

Duncan Rock is wonderful as Wreck with a finely characterful solo Pass the Football, and Ashley Riches gives a lively turn as the Guide in the opening number. They with Kevin Brewis, Stephen John Davis, Flora Dawson, Sophia Foroughi, Andrew Keelan, Jane Quinn and Michael Baxter provide all the smaller roles.

Perhaps because the performance took place during Rattle's opening season with the LSO, the decision was taken not to use the above ensemble for the chorus number (as might be done on most recordings) but to use the London Symphony Chorus. Whilst the chorus (numbering around 120) performs admirably, bringing enthusiasm, accuracy and flexibility to their role, I have to confess that the sound of 120 voices is not really what I want to hear in some of these numbers. When the chorus has to provide a backing for the solos, the sound is too much the large chorus and not enough the theatre ensemble.

What really makes this disc is the enthusiasm and zing which Rattle and the orchestra bring to this delightful score, and overall it sounds as if everyone is having fun and that is what really counts.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) - Wonderful Town
Danielle de Niese - Eileen
Alysha Umphress - Ruth
Nathan Gunn - Bob Baker
Duncan Rock - Wreck/Second Associate Editor
David Butt Philip - Lonigan
Ashley Riches - Guide/First Editor/Frank
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Simon Rattle (conductor)
Recorded live 16 & 21 December 2017 at the Barbican Hall
LSO LIVE LSO0813 1CD [70.19]
Available from Amazon.

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  • A real discovery: Loder's English romantic opera Raymond and Agnes (★★★★) - Cd review
  • Bayreuth’s Die Walküre is pulled from the pack and given another airing conducted by Plácido Domingo (★★★★) - opera review
  • Popular tunes, segregation & pioneers: Gershwin's Porgy and Bess - feature article
  • A different side to Julian Anderson revealed in this disc of choral music from Gonville & Caius (★★★★) - CD review
  •  In Sorrow's Footsteps: The Marian Consort in Gabriel Jackson, James MacMillan, Palestrina & Allegri (★★★★) - CD review
  • Grand rarity: Halevy's La reine de Chypre revealed by Palazzeto Bru Zane (★★★★) - CD review
  • The Grand Manner - Aprile Millo's London debut recital at the Cadogan Hall (★★★½) - concert review
  • Songs of Farewell - BBC Singers and Sakari Oramo at the Proms (★★★★★)  - concert review
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