Saturday 5 May 2018

Weekend Review: Chess (the musical)

One of my most treasured possessions is an old 78 of Rhapsody in Blue, Paul Whiteman's orchestra with Gershwin lui-même at the keyboard**.  Even through the crackles, we can tell how it's supposed to be played!   Which means there is always scope for instant disappointment when hearing a new performance, however open one tries to be to new interpretations. 

Mrs D and I went to see the revival of Chess this week with much the same trepidations, having been enthralled first time around.   Like Bruckner symphonies, Chess is very rarely staged because technically it is fantastically difficult, and a lot of effort has gone into this new ENO / Michael Grade production.   Matters were not helped by the late withdrawal of Murray Head, part of the original 1980's crew - for 'personal reasons'; thirty years on, perhaps he can't manage the songs any more, which wouldn't be a big surprise.  His replacement did OK, but hadn't had time to learn all the words, which doesn't help in songs as well-known as One Night in Bangkok and Pity The Child, with words that are so good and surely so, errrr, memorable!   One assumes this will be corrected night by night.

Chess is in a category with West Side Story and Oliver! - quite outstanding musicals by writers who just never delivered again (for different reasons in each case:  retirement in the case of Chess; hubris with Bernstein, and drugs'n'booze with Bart).  The score is by Benny and Björn who were at the absolute peak of their powers, just before they called it a day: several of the songs are as good as (I would say better than) anything they had come up with in ABBA.  And the lyrics are by Tim Rice, also on top form and by then newly-separated from Lloyd Webber.  Again, for my money, he was well shot of ALW who struggled to achieve one song per show that could bear comparison with at least half a dozen from Chess.  And while it's fair to say the result includes a number of pastiche set-pieces emulating Gilbert & Sullivan, Rogers & Hammerstein and Sondheim (they wipe the floor with him), also included are straight-down-the-line masterworks.  

ALW is supposed to be the classically-trained one; but there is more effective classical technique here than anything he ever managed: counterpoint, polyphony, and in Pity The Child, the best modulation you'll ever hear in the rock-pop genre.  (Paul McCartney was pretty good at it, but how much he owed to George Martin I'm not sure.  The BeeGees were exceptionally good but they threw it off for fun [Chain Reaction].  Pity The Child uses it for awesome emotional effect.)  And the outright orchestral pieces are as good as any film music ever written.

So how does the revival do?  The critics have been fairly harsh, but if you read them carefully they are really saying they don't like the musical itself, or the SFX.  The Murray-Head replacement can be forgiven for his slips, but the ENO Chorus cannot and their evident lack of rehearsal was a bit of a shocker.  But the set-piece songs were mostly done very well.  Michael Ball is a helluva pro.  We give it 8/10 and considered it an evening well-spent.  In a week or two it may be even better.


** You can check Gershwin out too for yourself on youtube


Bill Quango MP said...

As a student in the 80's, my flat was next door to Murray Head.
I can inform you all, with insider knowledge, that not only did he put his own bins out, but did it in his slippers.

dearieme said...

It is said that on the original recording of the Gershwin piano concerto it's Bix Beiderbecke playing the trumpet part - on cornet, presumably. I suppose it must be the passage beginning at about 15mins on this youtube.

dearieme said...

That probably ought to say "original performance" rather than "original recording". Sorry.

dearieme said...

Well, maybe not: "Roy Bargy sounding like Gershwin, plays Ferde Grofé's arrangement with Paul Whiteman's Concert Orchestra. Bix Beiderbecke plays the stunning cornet solo."

dearieme said...

Is that Bix coming in at 11:30? Quicker version, then.

Anonymous said...

I think the only recorded performance of the Rhapsody by Gershwin himself is the piano roll.

Michael Tilson Thomas made a recording of the roll with a jazz band accompaniment. It is on the Sony label.

Don Cox

Nick Drew said...

@ I think the only recorded performance of the Rhapsody by Gershwin himself is the piano roll


See the link at the end of the post, Don

Anonymous said...

That's what comes of relying on memory. It was indeed Gershwin himself playing on both the 1924 (acoustic) and the April 1927 (electrical) recordings of the Rhapsody. I have both versions on CDs -- "Gershwin Plays Gershwin" and "Music for Moderns - Paul Whiteman Vol 1", both on the Naxos label.

Bix cannot be on either recording as he didn't join the Whiteman orchestra until October 1927.

Roy Bargy played piano on the Whiteman recording of Gershwin's Concerto. The "Gershwin Plays Gershwin" CD includes an off-air recording of Gershwin playing his Second Rhapsody.

dearieme said...

"Bix cannot be on either recording as he didn't join the Whiteman orchestra until October 1927." Is it impossible that they asked him to sit in?

More likely you're right: have you any idea where the widespread notion came from that he's on that recording?

E-K said...

Great post, Nick.

I was lucky enough to see the first production of Jesus Christ Superstar

The opening drumming West Side Story is my greatest musical moment.

Modulation is key to professional musicianship and song writing. It takes it all to the next level - scales within scales.

E-K said...

You didn' know I was a drummer, did you!

dearieme said...

We once watched a documentary about West Side Story, dominated by Bernstein. They managed not to mention the lyricist once.

Nick Drew said...

No, but I'm not surprised, Kev - you're a good musician!

(modulation may indeed be key but rhythm's kinda important too, n'est-ce pas? No surprises, either, that McCartney's rhythms are first rate, notwithstanding he's generally known best for melody)

Electro-Kevin said...

Praise indeed but undeserved. I cannot modulate - hence I cannot postulate.

Live and Let Die is PM's finest work in my view. This talent was also demostrated amply in A Day in the Life. I think PM was the greater talent and I fully understand his neediness over one of the best songs ever written - Yesterday.

I got to meet the great Roger Moore several years ago. (A true gent and raconteur... and advisor on how to pack a suitcase.)

I expect your CO had a lot to do with your knowledge of music - her being a chorester and all that and you being a military chap. Send her my regards.

Electro-Kevin said...

Chorister ???

Nick Drew said...

Agree absolutely that both LALD and DITL are first-rate. Could go on all day ... but have to mention For No-one. Himself always cites Here There & Everywhere.

Suggest the early Wings stuff (contemp. with LALD, of course) contains some outstanding material, esp on Band on the Run and London Town

Lennon is a puzzle - a lot of dross but some really interesting stuff - musically, I Am The Walrus and Sexy Sadie. And where did Help! come from?

dearieme said...

Here There & Everywhere: a lovely tune.