BERNSTEIN: Wonderful Town.
Kim Caswell (Ruth Sherwood/Violet); Audra McDonald (Eileen Sherwood); Thomas Hampson (Robert Baker); Brent Barrett (Wreck/Guide/First Editor/Frank Lippincott); Karl Daymond (Second Editor/Chick Clark); Timothy Robinson (Officer Lonigan); Richard Burkhard (First Cop); Pau Bradley (Second Cop/Second Man); Michael Dore (Third Cop/First Man/Cadet/Villager); Simone Sauphanor (First Woman); Frances Bourne (Second Woman); European Voices; Raschèr Saxophone Quartet; Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Simon Rattle, cond.
EUROARTS DVD VIDEO 2052298 TT: 76 min.
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"Orchestral Music in the 20th Century" Volume I: Dancing on a Volcano, with music by Wagner, Schoenberg, Mahler, Strauss, Webern and Berg.
Felicity Palmer, mezzo-soprano; Gidon Kremer, violinist; City of Birmingham Symphony Orch/Simon Rattle, cond.
ARTHAUS DVD VIDEO 102033 TT: 50 min.
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DVORAK: The Golden Spinning Wheel, Op. 109. The Wood Dove, Op. 110. The Noonday Witch, Op. 108. The Water Goblin, Op. 107.
Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Sir Simon Rattle, cond.
EMI CLASSICS 58019 (2 CDs) (DDD) TT: 48:47 & 34:58
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You have to love Simon Rattle’s fondness for Wonderful Town, the 1953 Broadway musical that included some of the best ever of Betty Comden-Adolph Green lyrics and Leonard Bernstein’s second-best score after Candide (see my REVIEW of Rattle’s disc version from June 1998, which featured several of the same cast members in this December 30-31, 2002 Berlin production for a gala audience in Neue Philharmonie). Here he eliminated the drugstore clerk as well as the “Conversation Piece” quintet, with its droll story of a man who ordered a banana split but left the banana uneaten, and Ruth’s synopsis of Moby Dick (“It’s about this...whale”). Brent Barnett, who sang the clerk’s role in Rattle’s Abbey Road recording appears in Berlin as Wreck, the football quarterback (as well as a Greenwich Village guide and the First Editor later on – but EuroArts’ program book still lists him as the drug store’s Frank Lippencott! Did they excise the scene for DVD, which only ran 3:48 in 1998 and 3:20 in the original cast recording?). The Berlin Philharmonic plays with obvious gusto and increasing relish, using Don Walker’s original Broadway orchestration – aggrandized, however, so everyone could take part including the Raschér Saxophone Quartet and at least four trumpets. I don’t have Surround Sound but found the audio excellent in TV-stereo, even though the Christopher Street tourists are virtually inaudible in the first scene.

Aber...and this is a Big But: Greenwich Village of seven decades ago surely needed more help than surtitles briefly glimpsed behind the singers, given a patois that would have bewildered me if I hadn’t already been eight years old in 1935, plus period-lyrics that often go at the speed of the Daytona 500. All this is accompanied by shifting laser beams from above and the sides. Yet this remains a concert in concert dress for an audience with a lot of bewildered faces (middle-aged or elderly many seemed, but then you can guess what a ticket must have cost). Rattle’s head-full of curls is now almost entirely white, but dressed in an oversized, unpressed, black button-up jacket and outsize black trousers, he looks like a kid who is having a simply marvelous time playing grown-up. Tempos are roughly the same as in his 1998 recording. to which an extra 10 minutes on DVD can be charged to applause and a 6-1/2 minute reprise of “Conga” at the end, onstage and in the aisle down front by audience members as well as the cast. This is the high point, even more fun than Kim Criswell’s version (as sister Ruth) in-context earlier on. Audra McDonald’s Eileen is oddly subdued and again quasi-operatic, while Thomas Hampson’s editor (in a maroon sheared velvet jacket) sounds more pompous than before. For someone who has never seen Wonderful Town, the Berlin concert version could be as confusing as it surely was to many in the Neue Philharmonie. But the best of its music and lyrics, until things run down near the end without choreography or scenery to buttress them, are timeless (if no longer timely, and in some cases simply archaic). With a $25 price-tag, the decision is yours. The 1990, remastered MCA-Classics CD of the 1953 mono original is still my first choice if you can find a copy anywhere. Otherwise, Rattle’s EMI studio version with the “Birmingham Contemporary Music Group” and “London Voices” gives you more of the score, plenty of spirit, and some captivating camp by Kim Criswell.

The DVD from Arthaus Musik is Volume One of a seven-disc series (available singly or as a boxed set) devoted to “Orchestral Music in the 20th Century” – a.k.a. “Leaving Home/Die Revolution der Klänge” – and is called “Dancing on a Volcano.” It takes its cue from Wagner’s “Tristan Chord,” which Rattle explains from the piano as he plays it, and then is heard in its original orchestral form. The sections that follow, with photographs of the period and its dramatis personae as well as print background, cut to Rattle – not yet “Sir Simon” – who speaks very clearly, very slowly, and not quite as enrapturingly as Leonard Bernstein, who obviously inspired this series. It dates from 1996 and has been around for almost a decade, when Rattle’s hair was still brown, and his face less creased at the corners. But none of his Wonderful Town fun-time will you find here. The subsections are, following an introduction and “The Tristan Chord,” “Vienna 1900”; “Arnold Schoenberg – Leaving Tonality Behind”; “Gustav Mahler – Precursor of Modernity”; “Richard Strauss – Progressive or Reactionary?”; “Schoenberg again: Developing the Twelve-tone Technique”; “Anton Webern – Master of the Small Form,” and finally “Alban Berg – Requiem for a Fallen Culture.” All of this in PCM Stereo with a playing time of 50 minutes. The recordings, and we do see sections of the City of Birmingham SO playing in rich color, were less persuasive heard through TV-stereo but should sound better in a multi-channel setup.

There’s an anomaly, however. While we hear the Wagner, the scherzo from Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, four of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces, Op. 16, in their revised version, several of Webern’s wisps, and Felicity Palmer singing Klytemnestra’s self-loathing monolog from Strauss’ Elektra, Arthaus has a footnote saying that “unfortunately there are no recordings available with...Rattle conducting the complete works of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night and Berg’s Violin Concerto with the CBSO. We would like to thank Naxos for the licensing of their recordings.” But which ones? Gidon Kremer is the video violinist in part of the Berg, but he didn’t record it for Naxos; Rebecca Hirsch was their violinist with Eri Klas and the Netherlands Radio Orchestra, recorded in 1999 (three years after “Dancing on a Volcano). As for Transfigured Night, Naxos lists a 1998 recording by Takuo Yuasa and the Ulster Orchestra – two years later than “Dancing on a Volcano.” We see the violins playing excerpts but no faces, and playing very well in sound that could be the CBSO’s. It does seem that the buyer deserves a more complete explanation. Jiggery-pokery?

The Dvorák tone poems, composed in 1896 on Grimm-type folk fables by Karel Jaromír Erben – the kind created to scare the hell out of children – are missing several choice versions in the current catalog, although one outlet still sells the Zdenek Chalabala version of 1961 with the Czech Phil on Supraphon as well as Vaclác Neumann’s 1976 remake on the same label. To get Rafael Kubelik’s DGG readings with the Bavarian Radio SO, one needs to buy a 10-disc volume with several Berlin Phil performances of the symphonies that are almost manic in mood. The non-symphonic content, however, deserves to be reissued as an “Original.” And why hasn’t Supraphon engaged Sir Charles Mackerras to do new versions of all four tone poems, plus the composer’s last purely orchestral work, Heroic Poem, Op. 111, composed a year later? He is the world’s current leading Czech conductor, despite birthing in New York state and an Australian upbringing; he was a pupil of the storied Vacláv Talich, has conducted definitive modern recordings of several Czech operas, and corrected a ream of published errors in the scores of Czech and Moravian composers.

For that matter, Rattle could have recorded Heroic Poem since his tempos in the four Erben tone poems are just slow enough to necessitate a second disc (at no extra charge) – overall, six minutes longer than Neumann’s still-vivid-sounding versions, despite the chronic lack of bass in so many Supraphon recordings from the Rudolphinum at Prague. I’ll venture on the basis of this disc alone that Sir Simon is bringing back the saturated string sound of Karajan’s years in Berlin, which Claudio Abbado needed 12 years of hard work to balance out. In the event, these all are glossy performances full of details that, in themselves, can be interesting once or twice, but detract from the gusto of Dvorák’s writing, not to mention momentum, or the sheer eerieness in spooky pieces like The Wild Dove (which has somehow come to be called “The Wood Dove”), The Water Goblin or The Midday Witch. Even the jaunty main theme of The Golden Spinning Wheel has a Buckingham Palace cadence at odds with the march music of a Czech monarch. One comes away feeling that Rattle may have mastered Moravian (he is acclaimed for his Janácek performances although not by me) but Czech seems a foreign language musically. The closest he comes is a Frenchfied accent, as in Ravel or Dukas. That said, “live performance” sound from March and June of 2004 is the sweetest and most substantial yet that EMI has captured in Berlin’s Neue Philharmonie. As for the performances, not bad mind you; just not idiomatic or spirited enough to charm this rabid fan of Dvorák’s orchestral swan songs.


R.D. (August 2005)