In the days before streaming; in the days before CDs, cassettes and LPs; back in the days of dance parties and portable phonographs there were 45s – little black records with short playing times and large holes that had an A-side and a B-side. The recording on side A was what listeners wanted to hear. Side B usually had music that was good enough but not as appealing as the music on side A…kind of like a double bill in your local movie theater where the feature was coupled with a film of lesser quality. Collecting some recordings today isn’t very different: LPs and CDs are often purchased for one particular selection that receives all the attention.
Songbird/Somewhere Over the Rainbow/Eva Cassidy, guitar and vocals (Blix Street LP)
I first heard Cassidy’s interpretation of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on ABC’s Nightline in 2001 and had to own a copy. This is not the standard version: it’s an especially touching arrangement and performance, and extremely poignant since Cassidy died at the age of 33 in 1996 – the same year her first solo album (Live at Blues Alley) was released. At that time Cassidy wasn’t well known outside her native Washington, D.C. although she did achieve worldwide recognition after the Nightline broadcast and when her other albums were issued posthumously.
Songbird is a compilation album. While the entire record is appealing, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is exceptional.
Postcards/Geographical Fugue/The Turtle Creek Chorale (Reference Recordings CD)
Ernst Toch wrote compositions including symphonies, concertos, chamber music, operas and film music. But the piece he’s probably best known for is his inventive “Geographical Fugue.” This spoken chorus, a style invented by Toch, is written in strict fugal form for four voices saying the names of various cities, countries and other geographical landmarks. It became a sensation when it was first presented in 1930 and is now the composer’s most performed choral work.
I was never able to find a recording of the “Fugue” until Reference Recordings issued a series of CDs with compositions sung by the excellent all-male Turtle Creek Chorus. This ensemble performs the piece the way I first heard it: clearly spoken in a tempo that, to borrow a phrase from Goldilocks, is just right.
There are a variety of other interpretations on YouTube employing faster or slower tempos, a larger or smaller number of voices, experimental techniques that work and some that don’t. After listening to the Turtle Creek Chorus, check out the Italian Copernicoro choir, where sounds become more important than words…an approach that obscures the important text but creates a nice noise.
The Turtle Creek Chorale:
The Copernicoro Choir:
Bernstein/The Making of West Side Story (Deutsche Grammophon CD and DVD)
Bernstein had never conducted a complete West Side Story on LP. When he finally did record it in 1984 the result wasn’t what fans and reviewers expected. The recording starred opera singers Jose Carreras, Kiri Te Kanawa and Tatiana Troyanos instead of the usual Broadway suspects. It was criticized by many critics for being a Broadway show that was too operatic.
According to Bernstein, “It’s not an opera… It’s a work on its way towards being one….The main thing I have omitted to do in my compositional life is opera. Except for ‘Trouble in Tahiti,’ which is a one‐acter and many years old now, I have never written a real, full length opera. The reason is that I was convinced the true American opera would grow out of the Broadway musical. ‘West Side Story’ is not an opera, though it has strong operatic elements, but I thought of it as a step in the direction of what American opera would finally be. I expected others to take the next step, that’s why I left Broadway and went to the [New York] Philharmonic.” (The New York Times, Dec. 11, 1977)
An LP box set and CD were issued, as well as a DVD documentary that showed backstage glimpses of what went on during rehearsals. After listening and watching, I don’t think bridging the gap between opera and musical theater is successful here and agree with the critical critics. West Side Story is a sensational, exhilarating Broadway show that doesn’t need any help. While the orchestral selections are exciting, the vocal style is all wrong and slows things down. The edges are too soft, the sound too round and smooth, the timing not sharp enough. There’s too much attention paid to making beautiful sounds than sustaining an edgy musical experience.
There’s one exception to the “but it’s not an opera” conclusion: Carreras and Te Kanawa rehearsing “One Hand, One Heart.” These few minutes succeed because of the opera singers. It’s a stunning duet: beautiful voices and a superb performance. In a brief voice-over, Bernstein says that one of his daughters, who was at the rehearsal and never flatters when it isn’t called for, came to the podium and broke into tears. Bernstein thought it had been a wonderful presentation, too.
Puccini/Chrysanthemums/ Riccardo Chailly, cond. (Decca CD)
Need a Puccini fix? Can’t go out to the opera because your gown or tuxedo is at the cleaners? Don’t have enough time to listen to a complete score at home? Try some Chrysanthemums.
Puccini is famous for his 10 operas but composed chamber music as well. The most well-known of these lesser-known compositions is an early piece originally written for string quartet but almost always heard in its arrangement for string orchestra. It’s as lyrical as music from any Puccini opera and if it sounds familiar, it’s because some of the music was subsequently incorporated into his third opera Manon Lescaut.
In addition to the rare and beautiful Chrysanthemums, the Chailly disc includes other lesser-known pieces plus selections from his earliest operas including the aforementioned Manon.
Vaughan Williams/Serenade to Music/Matthew Best, cond. (Hyperion CD)
There are two versions of the “Serenade to Music”: the original score for orchestra with 16 soloists (or soloists with chorus and orchestra) and an arrangement that’s purely instrumental. With a text adapted from Act V of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the “Serenade” was premiered in 1938 as a tribute to Sir Henry Wood, who conducted London’s annual promenade concerts (aka "The Proms") for about 50 years. The sixteen vocalists who sang at the premiere made the performance unique: The composition was written with the talents of those specific artists in mind, and the soloists’ names or initials were actually inscribed over their parts in the score.
The beauty of the lyrics, where lovers revel in the magic of the night, are reflected in Vaughan Williams’ sensuous sounds…a celebration of music so captivating that Rachmaninoff, who performed at the same concert, was visibly moved. He later wrote to Wood that he had never been affected so much by a piece of music. Perhaps the best description of the Serenade is found in the text’s final words: “…Soft stillness and the night become the touches of sweet harmony.”
The original version with voices is the one to hear but harder to find. Some years ago the Hyperion label made a recording available: I bought the CD at Tower Records as soon as I could afford it. Unfortunately it isn’t available on YouTube, but the 2019 BBC Proms concert conducted by Martyn Brabbins is just as engaging, and was performed as part of the same series of concerts in the same hall where the work was premiered.
 Originally written in German, the “Geographical Fugue” is from the three part suite Gesprochene Musik (Spoken Music). When Toch moved from Germany to the United States in 1935 the suite was translated into English with the support of composers including John Cage.
 The composition wasn’t originally intended to be performed by live singers. It was designed to be recorded on shellac discs (78s) then “performed” in concert by playing the discs at a faster speed. As Toch wrote in his original program notes: “increasing the tempo, and the resulting pitch level…created a type of instrumental music, which leads the listener to forget that it originated from speaking.” Caines, C. “Preface to Gesprochene Musik, 1. ‘O-a’ and 2. ‘Ta-tam.’” Current Musicology (97), 2014.
This article first appeared in Issue 141.