American Classics

0 of 5 stars

West Side Story – Symphonic Dances
Billy the Kid – Suite
An American in Paris

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
John Baltimore

Recorded 12 & 13 July 2006 in Blackheath Halls, London, SE3

Reviewed by: Hank Denver

Reviewed: June 2007
Duration: 69 minutes

This selection of pieces does indeed constitute “American Classics”. Captured in very good recorded sound – warm, tangible and detailed (albeit with a slight electronic ‘buzz’ noticeable in the very quietest passage) – the American John Baltimore (with a surname like that could he be any other nationality, writes Hank Denver!) – a percussionist who seems as much a music educator as a conductor – enjoys a co-operative relationship with the Royal Philharmonic in these enjoyable performances.

An American in Paris – by George! – is made whimsical, expressive and spontaneous – but some passages lack poise and a couple of moments might usefully have been re-made; yet a real, even unedited performance seems the end result. There is a doubt, though, whether ‘real’ car-horns are used; some ‘notes’ seem more from brass and wind instruments, and while others do have some of the ‘flavour’ of the real thing, the ear is not entirely convinced; a particular flavour of the score is compromised. Even if the car-horns are ‘authentic’, then they need to be in pitch – and are – but also more disruptive and more distinct in timbre – which they are not. Nevertheless, Baltimore’s affectionate conducting and the RPO’s responsive playing combine for a likeable version.

The drama, pathos and humour, and also the loneliness and nocturnal pensiveness, are well conveyed in Billy the Kid; yet the percussion-dominated ‘Gun Battle’ lacks drama – surprising given the conductor’s background but this scene is also hampered by being under-tempo – and, again, generally speaking, the performance is enjoyable.

So, too, is West Side Story – good to see Irwin Kostal and Sid Ramin credited with the creation of the Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein’s fantastic piece of music-theatre – and while separate tracks for the various sections would have been useful (as they would in the Copland) this is a vital and ardent version that has a goodly amount of edge to match the story-line (the feuding gangs and ill-fated love based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”).

The composer’s last recording of the Dances (with the LA Philharmonic, for Deutsche Grammophon) is mandatory listening for its sear and guts, but Baltimore and the RPO come close – Latin-American percussion and cries of “Mambo” adding to the vibrancy and ‘Somewhere’ a moving retreat and intense wish for something beyond – and that’s a heady recommendation.

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