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 Recording of the Week  Rodgers & Hammerstein at the Movies

OK, so the music of Richard Rodgers maybe falls on the very edge of the ‘Classical’ part of Presto Classical (in the strictest sense!), but every once in a while I attend a performance that has me bursting to share the experience with every music-lover I come across, and last Thursday night up at Gateshead’s Sage Centre was one such occasion – John Wilson and his Orchestra, with a guest line-up of soloists, performing classics from a selection of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.

John Wilson
John Wilson

The collaboration of Richard Rodgers (who wrote the music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (who wrote the lyrics) started a real ‘golden age’ for musical theatre, as together during the 1940s and 1950s they produced a string of Broadway musicals which are still some of the best known today. Popular extracts from five of the really big ones – Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music are the subject of both the current concert tour and a newly released CD from EMI, which gives me the perfect excuse to tell you a bit about it today.

Following on from a sell-out Prom in 2010 (commissioned by the BBC to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Hammerstein), this disc has perhaps been a long time coming, but it has been well worth the wait. As at the Prom, John Wilson uses the film orchestrations rather than the original Broadway ones: scored for a much bigger orchestra, these deploy a much more exciting palate of instruments and sounds and offer much greater variety. While many of these film scores survive, one or two had to be transcribed by ear from the original film soundtracks, but that just further demonstrates the commitment and passion which John Wilson has put into this project.

The results reveal more richness, colour and detail than I had ever thought possible: I don’t think I can remember a time when I didn’t know the ‘Big Tunes’ from these musicals, but the endless counter-melodies, orchestral details and underlying motifs that Wilson teases out really do throw the scores into glorious technicolour.

The orchestral playing is superlative: the arrangements throw up some fiendish technical hurdles, all surmounted with breathtaking panache and verve. There’s a real vintage feel to the orchestral sound, and attention to 1940s period detail is everywhere: listen to the deliciously old-school vibrato from the trumpets in the Oklahoma! Prelude, or the schmaltzy-but-tasteful portamento in the strings in the love-duets.

The other great pleasure of the disc is the diverse line-up of vocalists and the aptness of the casting: opera-singers can easily sound too plummy or mannered in the wrong songs, music-theatre voices harsh or pushed in the more operatic numbers, but as with everything else Wilson has an instinctive feel for the ‘right’ sound. On the musical-theatre side, Sierra Boggess has the perfect wholesome ‘Hollywood starlet’ timbre for Maria von Trapp (The Sound of Music) and Julie Jordan (Carousel), whilst powerhouse belter Anna-Jane Casey makes a delightfully sassy Nellie Forbush (South Pacific).

From the classical camp, Maria Ewing – one of the greatest Salomes in recent history – contributes a malevolently hypnotic (and mercifully un-campy) ‘Bali H’ai’ (South Pacific), and Joyce DiDonato brings her peerless legato and creamy tonal opulence to the big tear-jerkers from Carousel and The Sound of Music. Julian Ovenden’s matinee-idol presence doesn’t register as strongly on disc as on stage (he doesn’t do a great deal with the text, so much of the comedy and some of the pathos in the big Carousel soliloquy get lost), but his attractive baritenor sound falls easily enough on the ear.

An antidote to winter blues if ever there was one – this life-affirming disc is a guaranteed mood-lifter!

Rodgers & Hammerstein at the Movies

Sierra Boggess (soprano), Anna Jane Casey (mezzo-soprano), Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano), Maria Ewing (soprano/mezzo), Julian Ovenden (baritone) & David Pittsinger (bass-baritone), The John Wilson Orchestra & Maida Vale Singers, John Wilson

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC