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Good but There are better Recordings Available
on 21 May 2010
There have been six recordings of "A Little Night Music" that I can recall: the Original Broadway Cast (Columbia); the Original London Cast (RCA Victor); the Film Soundtrack (Columbia); a Studio Cast recording based on the Chichester Production (TER/Jay); the Royal National Theatre Cast (Tring); and this new Broadway Cast (Nonesuch/PS Classics). Of these, the Film Soundtrack and the Royal National Theatre Cast recording are not currently available. Of the available recordings, the Original Broadway and London Casts use Jonathan Tunick's wonderful orchestrations. That does not, however, rule out those using reduced orchestrations. Both the TER/Jay and this one do not present undernourished performances.
For me, the essentials in making a good recording of this show are an engaging Desiree, a dashing Frederik and a commanding Madame Armfeldt. Desiree has to give us a moving "Send in the Clowns" and pass the test of "The Glamorous Life". Frederik has to be commanding in the "Now, Later, Soon" trio and appealing in the rest of his songs. Madame Armfeldt has to convince us in "Liaisons" and bolster "The Glamourous Life" with her contribution.
On this new recording, Catherine Zeta-Jones is sadly disappointing as Desiree. Her dialogue where we hear it convinces, Her "Send in the Clowns" is strongly sung but it doesn't tear your heart to shreds as Glynis Johns, Sian Phillips and Judi Dench do in their recordings. She falls at the hurdle of "The Glamorous Life". If the actress manages the cross rhythms correctly, a wealth of illuminating sub-text emerges in lines like "I'm performing in Rotvik and don't ask where is it please". This is sadly not the case here and the number comes across as unfunny and the weakest in the show. Listen to how much more entertaining this song is with Mesdames Johns, Phillips and Dench in the driving seat.
As Frederik, Alexander Hanson is ideal casting. As recorded, he does sometimes stretch his timing and stricter adherence to Mr Sondheim's score might be better but he manages to sound young enough to captivate Anne and old enough to fascinate Desiree and always sounds romantically appealing.
Where Madame Armfeldt is concerned, there is the matter of "Liaisons", a "handbag" moment with the ghost of the wonderful Hermione Gingold to eradicate. Gingold was perfect casting for this role, imperious, haughty, totally convincing as a courtesan who had captivated most of the European aristocracy in her day. Angela Lansbury is a very different Madame Armfeldt, gentler and quietly intent on improving her granddaughter's upbringing. Her contribution to "The Glamorous Life" is valuable but it does not, unfortunately, stop it sinking beneath Zeta-Jones' heavy handedness. She makes "Liasions" work in a totally different way from Gingold but her greatest contributions to the new recording come with the snippets of dialogue we are allowed to hear on disc for the first time. Hugh Wheeler's book is extremely witty and Madame Armfeldt is blessed with a lot of very funny lines and Angela Lansbury makes the most of all of them. She also manages to break your heart with her dialogue on "A Wooden Ring".
The performances of the rest of the cast are important too but, if these first three parts aren't played well, the piece won't work as it should. On this new recording, we have a good Henrik, a slightly shrill Anne and a Petra who makes very heavy weather of "The Miller's Son", which simply fails to soar into flight. The Count and Countess are played well although it is only right to point out that Diana Rigg made a shining contribution to the Film Soundtrack recording and that Maria Aitken (RCA Victor), Patricia Hodge (Tring) and Susan Hampshire (TER/Jay) provide deep insight into this lady's character. The role of Count Carl-Magnus is sung extremely well on all the recordings. The quintet are probably best on the Original Broadway and London Cast recordings, with the Broadway Cast winning points with a particularly memorable "Remember".
So, you want a CD of this score, which do you buy? Here is a summary of the strengths and weakness of all.
The Original Broadway Cast (Columbia) is the safest all round recommendation. Not everyone likes Glynis Johns but her limited vocal ability is in rhythm, on pitch and very moving. This recording also has "Night Waltz II" and, as a bonus track, Chloe Franks' performance of"The Glamorous Life" from the film.
The Original London Cast (RCA Victor) isn't quite as good. Joss Ackland was wonderful on stage but his singing was the least of his performance and that is what the CD highlights. Jeam Simmons sounds very like Zeta-Jones in her performances of "The Glamorous Life", and "Send in the Clowns" with the same results. Diane Langton gives one of the best performances of "The Miller's Son" on record.
The Film Soundtrack recording (Columbia) has never been available on CD. It has Diana Rigg and a new version of "The Glamorous Life" which is included on the Original Broadway Cast CD as an extra.
The Studio Cast from TER/Jay is probably the finest all round performance from a singing point of view. Janis Kelly is magnificient as Anne. Sian Phillips is very good as Desiree. Elizabeth Welch as Madame Armfeldt gives a gentle "Liaisons" but does not get quite to the heart of the matter. The reduced orchestrations do not detract and we get the whole of the overture. This is the only recording to do this. Not even the two disc version of the new Broadway Cast does this.
Then there is the Royal National Theatre recording (Tring), sadly and criminally, no longer available. Judi Dench does not describe herself as a singer but she admits to knowing how to put a song over. Her "Send in the Clowns" is heart-wrenching but the sub-text she provides every times she opens her mouth adds enormously to our understanding of Desiree. Sian Phillips provides an intelligent reading of Madae Armfeldt and it would have been good to have heard more of her had space permitted. This recording has several surprising little bonuses. At the director's request, Stephen Sondheim combined the film versions "Glamorous Life' with the original and the result is wonderful. Mr Sondheim also allowed the insertion of a verse of "My Husband, the Pig!" to be inserted into "In Praise of Women". Patricia Hodge makes a tremendous job of this and makes you wonder why it didn't resurface in the new production. We also get to hear the musical interlude "The Dinner table", another nice addition. As Anne, Joana Riding does border on the shrill but her performance does make it very easy to distinguish between Anne and Petra, which makes "A Weekend in the Country" easiker to follow.
Finally, there is this new one. I will admit that, despite all I have said against it, I wouldn't want to be without it! Every time I have played it, I have always enjoyed it but I, generally, enjoy the five recordings available on CD more overall.
So which do you buy? If the Royal National Theatre recording were available, this would be my first recommendation and I'd still urge you to seek it out used through Amazon's sellers. If this isn't viable, my next choice would be the Original Broadway Cast with Glynis Johns and Hermione Gingold. In third place, because of the all round high quality of the singing, would be the TER/Jay Studio Cast Recording. This new recording and the Original London Cast also have some very strong plus points. How many recordings of this wonderful score do you want?