Classical Music: Edward Seckerson's record of the week

Bernstein: Arias and Barcarolles; A Quiet Place - Suite; West Side Story - Symphonic Dances Von Stade, Hampson, London Symphony / Tilson Thomas (DG 439 926-2); `Isn't "Greeting" that much more touching when floated on just a few spare piano chords? "The world is pure," concludes the text. Not with flute and strings it ain't'
Click to follow
The inspiration behind Arias and Barcarolles was two-fold. There was the remark made by President Eisenhower after Bernstein played Gershwin at the White House: "You know, I liked that last piece; it's got a theme. I like music with a theme, not all those arias and barcarolles." And there was Brahms's Liebeslieder Waltzes. I liked that allusion. The social context of it: the invitation of the waltz, public salons, private drawing-rooms, formality masquerading as informality. Besides, the time-honoured intimacy of voice and keyboard lent Arias and Barcarolles its particular character. Lenny "at home". Love and marriage, the whole domestic shebang. So, for my money, any orchestration (and this one, from Bruce Coughlin, follows a version for strings and percussion from Bright Sheng) is like an invasion of privacy. It takes the piece somewhere else, pulls focus away from the ingenuity and intrigue of the word-play, over-paints the musical allusions, shifts the emphasis from implicit to explicit. I'm not sure I want to hear so much as sense the Bergian and Straussian intimations of "Little Smary", the Mahlerian ironies of "The Wedding", the bumptious Shostakovich march of "Mr and Mrs Webb Say Goodnight". And isn't "Greeting" (a setting of words written on the birth of the composer's son Alexander) that much more touching when floated on just a few spare piano chords? "The world is pure," concludes the text. Not with flute and strings it ain't.

Individually, and as sparring partners, Thomas Hampson and Frederica von Stade do a great job. It's just that I want them back in private. Lieder not Opera. Then again, the suite from A Quiet Place - an opera re-cast in symphonic terms - works like a dream. The opera might have begun here, forged out of, driven by, the burden of guilt that weighs heavily in every bar. Michael Tilson Thomas and Sid Ramin second-guess the composer with uncanny sureness and sleight of hand. The sound of it (right down to the oddly retrogressive bursts of twanging synth) is echt Bernstein, the virtuosic trombone transposition of Sam's tell-all aria exploding in an angry, jazzy, vernacular that almost upstages the original. But the voices are always there in your subconscious, close-harmonied and bright as a button in the jazz trio "Mornin' Sun" (Trouble in Tahiti's bebopping Greek Chorus), graduating here from combo to big band, as befits the symphonic scale. The LSO sound as if they were in at the inception of this one. They were. But I've heard them hotter and sharper in the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Nice body-work, cool paint-job. But it's driving with the handbrake on.