Thursday, November 12, 2009

Bernstein's Exquisite Peter Pan

“Peter Pan” was a score I was once in love with, heard live in concert performance, but which I (as well as many others) have put in the back of the memory banks.

While I no longer have the original cast LP, the discussion had me pull out a wonderful five year old recording on Koch Classics I’d also not paid much attention to, but which I’ve played a number of times the past few days and have fallen in love with this score – to the point of being enthralled enough that I’d wish someone would mount a major revival of this Peter Pan. The score is an absolute gem.

The first song is Wendy’s lullaby “Who Am I?” – a lovely, lyrical piece but showing Bernstein’s penchant for difficulty of extremes of range requiring a singer who can sustain some hushed, piano high notes. Similarly, Wendy has more high note challenges – keeping them within the scope of the hushed music in the exquisitely tender “Build My House.” Bernstein’s mastery of this kind of music produces a sort of swoon in the orchestration that spills over into the listener of this most beautiful song. The lyrics themselves raise this far, far beyond a mere children’s story –

Make the ceiling strong
Strong against the storm
Shelter when the days grow shorter
But build my house of love,
And paint my house with trusting.
And warm it with the warmth of your heart.
Make the floor of faith.
Make the walls of truth
Put a roof of peace above.
Only build my house of love.

They fit right in with the universal, almost archetypical themes Bernstein yearningly makes in nearly all of his stage works from West Side Story to A Quiet Place. A bit more wistful is Wendy’s closing song “Dream With Me” though still hardly your typical Broadway ballad. (And it’s a wonderful final number).

As stated this was a “play with music” – NOT a “musical” in the sense we think of today. Historically, this sort of “score” harkens back to the great theatre music composed by Beethoven, Grieg, Debussy, Mendelssohn – a sort of lost practice that (with few exceptions) is just not much enjoyed anymore. A pity.

Though the songs come few and far between (and no spoken dialogue is offered in the recordings) there appear to be three principal singing roles: Wendy, Captain Hook and the chorus. As with Wendy and Hook, Bernstein has given challenging, difficult and exquisitely atmospheric music for the choristers. (Some will note how the women’s chorus “Neverland” has a hypnotic, almost Philip Glass-like minimalism – even in the manner Bernstein chooses to end the song. (Can’t tell me Glass was not familiar with this score!)

Similarly the chorus for The Pirate Song – provides wonderful, rhythmically comical work for the men with a sort of built-in theatrical bravura aria for Captain Hook.

Hook gets it even better in “Captain Hook’s Soliloquy” – called a “song” – it is in every other way but title an “aria” (and has been picked up by operatic baritones, and recorded as such by no less than Thomas Hampson). Again, though set for a “children’s story.” – the dark inward look and psychological insights Hook sings of would confuse almost any child. But for grown ups it is glorious stuff.

Hook and his henchmen get another doozey of a tune in the hilarious “Plank Round” (a wonderful bit where every line rhymes with “plank” – and the accompaniment is a brilliantly minor-key rendition of the opening of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. Genius – and guaranteed to put a smile on yer mug!

With such wonderful songs as these, the bulk of Bernstein’s “Pan” score falls to the incidental music and overall, it is a rich score full of surprises, and covering a wide range of emotions. Melodically, rhythmically and theatrically we hear a lot of Bernstein’s ideas we’d hear earlier and later from “On the Town,” “West Side Story,” as well as from his symphonic works.

In the new(ish) recording, the original orchestrations by Trude Rittman and Hershy Kay are expanded upon by a team led by Alexander Frey, who also restored and edited the score. Broadway/Pop soprano Linda Eder, baritone Daniel Narducci and an uncredited (but wonderful) chorus join the Amber Chamber Orchestra under Frey’s leadership in a reading that is atmospheric, respectful of the original, and (sigh) just a real treat to spend some time with.

A “bonus” comes in the form of “Spring Will Come Again” a lovely, but forgotten song Bernstein composed for – but dropped from Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth.”

This recording was clearly a labor of love and the efforts are well worth it. For anyone looking for some off-the-beaten-path, wonderful, music, some delightful and touching unfamiliar songs I can’t recommend this recording highly enough.

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