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CD Review

Leonard Bernstein

Peter Pan

  • Linda Eder (Wendy)
  • Daniel Narducci (Captain Hook)
Amber Chamber Orchestra/Alexander Frey
Koch KIC-CD-7596 50:32
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Back from Neverland.

In 1950, Bernstein provided a score to a Broadway production of Peter Pan, starring Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff. For various reasons – including the fact that neither of the two stars could sing, at least well enough – much of his score disappeared by opening night. Indeed, in the original cast recording, Alec Wilder's interludes and underscores had replaced some of Bernstein's. So the title character had no songs (Bernstein knew up front about Jean Arthur's musical abilities), and Karloff couldn't handle the big number Bernstein had provided. Bernstein never intended the score as a full-fledged musical, but as incidental music to the play. As far as Broadway went, the Styne-Comden-Green version with Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard delivered the kick that booted Bernstein's work into oblivion: more songs, and good ones at that, well within amateur capabilities. Even with his clout at then-Columbia Records and DG, Bernstein made no attempt to preserve his score. Some of its numbers – "Build My House," "Dream with Me," "Peter, Peter" – occasionally turned up on fugitive collections of Bernstein songs.

The CD presents us with a "reconstruction" of Bernstein's work, confined exclusively to orchestrations, as far as I know. It keeps the original arrangements by Trude Rittman and Hershy Kay (the latter also worked on Candide, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and On the Town). For those numbers partially lost, the new orchestrators include the old Bernstein hand Sid Ramin, as well as Garth Edwin Sunderland of the Bernstein Office and conductor Alexander Frey. Despite Bernstein's usual musical thrift, he never recycled any of the numbers into other works, although the "Times Square" music from the earlier On the Town shows up in the "Tink Lives!" underscore. Consequently, all of this music will be new to most listeners. A "new" Bernstein score is reason to celebrate.

I suppose most readers will ask whether this CD adds anything essential to one's knowledge of Bernstein. Probably not. However, it does indeed present refreshing, lovely music. Bernstein, the great eclectic, pulls off his marvelous trick of appropriating from here and there and coming up with something unmistakably his own. Here, he practically channels the spirit of Sir Arthur Sullivan's Savoy operas, particularly in the music for Captain Hook, a latter-day Pirate King of Penzance. With minimal help from Marc Blitzstein, Bernstein also wrote the lyrics. He had a talent for light verse (his "serious" poetry, forget it). His lyrics here range from the absurd (Captain Hook's soliloquy) to the annoyingly whimsical ("Peter, Peter" is just too damn cute) to the genuinely affecting ("Dream with Me"), and one encounters wit throughout. I particularly enjoy the "Plank Round," a Belloc-like cautionary tale sung by Hook and his crew, and a bracing non-academic bit of counterpoint besides.

Since I stopped listening to non-Sondheim Broadway on a regular basis roughly thirty years ago, this counts as my first encounter with Linda Eder's voice. People compare her to Streisand, and I can sort of see the point. But in this recording, at any rate, she seems a bit thin-toned to me, less a live performer than the creature of the microphone. This may be a function of the songs she has to sing rather than her natural, unimpeded self. She does what she can with "Peter, Peter," and I must admit I cringed less than usual. Nevertheless, I thought much more highly of Daniel Narducci, who has all the vocal chops and who has mastered the art of acting with his voice. He makes an elegant, brilliantly funny Hook without, like Cyril Ritchard, crossing into camp.

Alexander Frey does a good job with his ad hoc Amber Chamber Orchestra – the name is an inside joke ("Bernstein" means "amber" in German). However, the level reaches no higher than good. The playing lacks the effervescence of Eric Stern's Gershwin work for Nonesuch, for example. The music and the orchestrations mean more here than the performances, for the most part.

The sound, however, is quite fine, better than what you normally get on a small label like Koch. And the CD gives you a bonus. Bernstein, Comden, and Green worked on a musical version of Thornton Wilder's Skin of Our Teeth that came to naught. From those sketches, we have a duet between Eder and Michael Shawn-Lewis, with Frey at piano. The melody is one of Bernstein's best, so good in fact that he didn't waste it. It became the "pastoral" part of the Chichester Psalms ' second movement. It sounds great with the Comden-Green lyric as well.

Copyright © 2006, Steve Schwartz