John Wilson may be British, but he has the American musical in his blood. A “Whomever” & Hammerstein specialist — he conducts composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II’s Showboat for San Francisco Opera next season — Wilson has an innate sense of the right tempo, pace, swing, and color for the melodies he loves. So unerring is his feel for the selections from the movie versions of Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music on Rodgers & Hammerstein At the Movies, the John Wilson Orchestra’s new disc for EMI Classics, that you will likely be too busy enjoying yourself to do much more than smile, sigh, and, perhaps, swoon.
Given the singers Wilson has welcomed into the studio, swooning is well in order. At the famed Abbey Road Studios in the U.K., his lush, hand-picked orchestra holds its own alongside Sierra Boggess, Anna-Jane Casey, Maria Ewing, Julian Ovenden, David Pittsinger, and the oh so perfect Maida Vale Singers. From Kansas comes a dubbed-in Joyce DiDonato, sounding so at home in this idiom that none except the initiated might guess that Handel and Rossini usually ride the horses on her carousel.
Before discussing the singing, an explanation of the origin of Wilson’s orchestrations and arrangements is in order. Although you won’t learn it from the liner notes, which don’t even include bios of the singers, the CD showcases the original Technicolor movie orchestrations of Wilson’s selected overtures, medleys, and songs. When copies of the original orchestrations for some pieces, including “The Carousel Waltz” and Overture from The King and I, could not be found, they were transcribed by ear by Wilson and Andrew Cottee from the movie soundtracks. Copies of others, including “Bali Hai” (sung by Maria Ewing), lacked certain parts that had to be transcribed by ear. In many cases, Wilson added dynamics, phrasing, and additional passages that were not in the scores, but which appear on the movie soundtracks.
DiDonato first. In “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” from Carousel, our Joyce sounds anything but operatic. Her spirit is fabulous, some of the things she does with words are adorable, the Maida Vale Singers are a joy, and there are some hilarious orchestral sound effects. This is a great track.
DiDonato returns for two grander selections, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (Carousel) and, of course, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” (The Sound of Music). Although the latter’s orchestration is far too schmaltzy, even for a musical that positions the Swiss Alps in a huge pot of chicken soup, DiDonato sounds ideal on both tracks, and in far less blowsy voice than some who have assayed this music. Boggess’ endearingly youthful, lovely sweet voice is a joy. (There goes that “joy” word again, for good reason.) Ovenden does the handsome and vocally taxing Soliloquy from Carousel very well, and sounds quite warm in his “People Will Say We’re in Love” (Oklahoma) duet with Boggess. Nonetheless, his tendency to sound at times as though he’s snarling and capable of biting your head off will mainly please those who like men whose 5 o’clock shadow is more than skin-deep.
Casey is a superb character singer whom you’ll love; Pittsinger a very fine, deep bass who lacks the sex appeal of Ezio Pinza — I know, he was on Broadway, not in the movie; and Ewing, age 62 at the time of the recording, in careful but well-controlled voice. Put it all together as expertly as Wilson has done, and you have a disc no lover of the American musical will want to miss.