This 1998 recording of The Sound of Music is as near to a definitive recording as we could hope for. Taken from the lavish 1998 Tony-worthy Susan Schulman revival, it combines many of the best hallmarks of the original Broadway and film soundtrack albums, while adding some of its own. The cast is strong all-round, and they sing with an instinctive feel for the music, and enables the score to be served as well as by the sumptuous orchestra under Michael Rafter. And this digital recording, though lacking in ideal balance, brilliance and ambient warmth, brings out the clarity and crispness of the vocal and orchestral textures perfectly.
Rebecca Luker shines as Maria in a Tony-worthy performance and captures many of the hallmarks associated with the Marias of Mary Martin and Julie Andrews, while adding some others of her own. Her sublime and angelic voice has just the right amounts of youthful vigour, warmth and efferverscence, and achieves a very strong rapport with the well-cast children. Holding as high a calibre as Luker is Michael Siberry in his performance of Captain von Trapp. As what I consider the finest recorded performance of the Captain, he explores the depth of the character more than I've known from Theodore Bikel. (Perhaps this could be due to an improvement in his character here over the original stage version. This has been done by overturning the stereotype of a more passive and dull character in favour of a more active and motivated chacter, as shown here.) He transfixes you with a likeable and believable portrayal with poise and motivation, and he caps it off with a heart-wrenching rendition of Edelweiss where he really empathises with the meaning of the words. Patti Cohenour adds strength to the principal cast as Mother Abbess. She may not be able to really give a powerhouse performance of Climb Every Mountain as Patricia Neway did, but her voice depicts a wisdom that she imbuses with her concern for Maria. The sparkling children, the Nuns, Max, Elisa and the slightly less seductive Rolf all sing their roles well, and help the score achieve the difficult feat of having all parts sung well for 99.9% of the time.
I can sense that this recording is as near-perfect and near-definitive as can be wished. But I would like to point out that the orchestra may be slightly weak because of its size, and that the recording acoustic needs more warmth (as displayed on the 1994 Broadway Carousel). Still, despite some slow tempi in places (which work for most of the time depending on the context), Michael Rafter keeps the music going with his expert baton, and lovingly helps the cast and orchestra to breathe new life into a much-loved score (dare I call this Broadway score a warhorse?). In this, he is helped by the responsive orchestra, and characterful but not obtrusive new orchestral decorations (by Bruce Coughlin) to compliment the original Robert Russell Bennett arrangements.
This recording is noteworthy in including the two songs written directly for the film, to compliment the songs of Max and Elisa. This is particularly so when the more melodious Something Good is allowed to replace the laborious Ordinary Couple of the original stage production. (I daren't say that these songs are weak, as a number of others have said, but I daresay that the inclusion of the two songs for the film actually helps those who have so far encountered the show through the film only appreciate this recording more.) Here, and elsewhere throughout this recording, you get the feeling of a definitive Sound of Music for the 21st century that ideally combines the elements of its original stage and screen productions yet achieving a consistent feel. And, of course, the shifting of My Favourite Things to the thunderstorm scene from Mother Abbess's office, and also Lonely Goatherd from the thunderstorm sequence to the Salzburg Festival concert scene only serves to help make the scenes more effective, while working pretty well in them.
To top it off, this Sound of Music recording is as near-perfect a recording of the score as could be hoped for. I know that the older recordings need some respect and that the film soundtrack needs to be bought along with this new version, but I'm sure that this recording can grow on the listener rather quickly. So it leaves me with great confidence to recommend it very strongly, even to those who have yet to become Sound of Music converts.