West Side StoryMichael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

San Francisco Symphony SFS 821936-00592-2
Format: Hybrid Multichannel SACD (2)

Musical Performance: ***
Sound Quality: ****
Overall Enjoyment: ***1/2

West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein’s unlikely Broadway hit, has not suffered for recordings. There are the original-cast recording (1957) and the soundtrack of the film version (1960), as well as recordings by a revival cast and an English studio cast. Then there’s the controversial recording on Deutsche Grammophon led by Bernstein himself (1985). For reasons known only to him, he chose to cast this one with opera singers: Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras were the star-crossed lovers.

This new recording, culled from live performances by Michael Tilson Thomas leading the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus, purports to be the musical’s first genuinely complete recording. Not quite -- it includes stage-business music, but omits other snippets here and there, as admitted in the 106-page booklet. But though there’s dialogue in the intro to “Gee, Officer Krupke!,” there’s none in “The Rumble.” The original cast recording offers that.

Complete or not, this one has a lot of good things going for it. The San Francisco Symphony and Chorus play and sing splendidly, and Alexandra Silber and Cheyenne Jackson make an appealing Maria and Tony. Jessica Vosk sings a feisty Anita, while Julia Bullock brings a classy operatic voice to the role of “A Girl,” who sings “Somewhere.” Some chilling moments in that selection seem appropriate for this concert version.

But there’s the rub. This recording sounds like a concert version. It has all the big, lush orchestral sound one could desire, but it’s done with such reverence that it’s more an oratorio version. Missing is the Broadway edge in singing and playing that’s needed to perfectly realize this magnificent show. Take the amazing quintet version of “Tonight” that precedes “The Rumble”: Tilson Thomas conducts as if it’s a double chorus from a Bach cantata. It’s sonorous and exciting, but you have to go back to the OC recording to hear the raw nerve endings of the characters. It needs more sizzle.

The 5.1-channel recording is rich and warm, with sufficient detail. There’s lots of bass, which is a good thing and a bad thing -- Tilson Thomas and the sumptuous carpet of sound don’t allow the bass to be very well defined. The single double-bass in the OC recording of the balcony scene moves “Tonight” along much more effectively than the entire SFSO does here.

The packaging is opulent. The booklet is bound as a hardcover book whose front and back inner covers hold the two discs. The booklet contains cast, credits, and track listings, a conversation with Tilson Thomas, historical notes, a timeline, a synopsis, complete lyrics, artist biographies, and rehearsal comments. There are many magnificent color photos, as well as black-and-white archival images that are sharp as a tack.

If you’re looking for the letter of West Side Story, this set will not disappoint. But if you want the true spirit of the original show, seek out the original-cast album (Columbia/Legacy SK 60724). Led knowingly by Max Goberman, it’s superbly recorded and presented, and includes Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, with the composer leading the New York Philharmonic.

. . . Rad Bennett