West Side Story on Analog Spark

I wrote about the new audiophile label Analog Spark a few months ago, on its vinyl reissue of Dave Brubeck's oft-overlooked 1954 Jazz Goes to College. Now its proprietor, Mark Piro, has come out with a few Broadway musical soundtracks, the best of which is West Side Story, with its score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim.

This is not the 1961 movie soundtrack, with which Bernstein had little involvement and that featured Marni Nixon and other uncredited singers overdubbing for Hollywood actors. This is the 1957 theatrical soundtrack, in which Bernstein very much played a role, with Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert, Chita Rivera (who was also in the movie), and the array of original cast members.

One of the best Broadway scores ever, certainly a breakthrough in its day, the music is flush with jazz rhythms, Latin tinges, and rich inner voicings that only a classical conductor-composer of Bernstein's stature could have woven into the idiom of popular song. And these songs—"Tonight," "Maria," "Somewhere," "America," "I Feel Pretty"—were among the most popular introduced in a stage play.

This is also one of the finest-sounding soundtracks I've ever heard. And don't be misled by the date: this is a true stereo recording. Stereo LPs were in their infancy when the session was planned, but Columbia Records' executives knew the new format was coming, so they laid down the session—at the label's 30th Street Studio—on three-channel tape.

More than that, the engineer was Fred Plaut, who also recorded Masterpieces by Ellington and, in the coming years, Kind of Blue, among many other classic Columbia titles (none of which credited the engineer, which is why Plaut isn't as well known as, say, Rudy Van Gelder).

The sound, as you might expect if you know Plaut's other records, is jaw-dropping: so spacious, such wide dynamic range, such resonant voices, such tonally true instruments—and everything so clear, even when the music gets complex and the vocals split into operatic parts.

I have not heard an original pressing, but I suspect the Analog Spark—which was mastered from the original tapes, by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound, and pressed at RTI—might sound better. The album lasts nearly an hour, and the original squeezed it all onto one record. Piro decided to spread the grooves out on two slabs of 180-gram vinyl, leaving plenty of blank space near the spindle, to avoid inner-groove distortion. It's swoon-worthy from start to finish.

Finally, let us praise Broadway pit musicians. A couple years ago, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra's label released its own recording of West Side Story, on SACD, conducted by Michael Tilson-Thomas. The sonics were great, the musicians and singers were impeccable, and of course Tilson-Thomas, who was Bernstein's main protégé, knew the score inside out. But it came off a bit stiff, when this music needs to swing and sway: the difference between the SFSO and the Columbia soundtrack is the difference between a very good symphonic orchestra and a great pit band, and, with this music, the great pit band is what you need.

SoundStagePete's picture

I can't wait to listen, but I cleaned the copy last night, and like most RTI pressings, this one looks perfect (after the ultra sonic bath treatment). Looking forward to hearing this version. I quite liked the SFSO version myself, but agree it is just a little tight, and I'm sure the vocalists from this original production version will be superior. Thanks Fred.

fetuso's picture

Mr. Kaplan, may I ask respectfully why your last two album reviews are of reissues that were already reviewed by sister - site analogplanet.com? Further, your review of Mofi ' s Kind of Blue was much less flattering than Mr. Fremer's. Might this cause confusion among the audiophile masses?

John Atkinson's picture
fetuso wrote:
Mr. Kaplan, may I ask respectfully why your last two album reviews are of reissues that were already reviewed by sister - site analogplanet.com?

Stereophile and its 3 sister sites are run independently, so reviews by different writers on different sites are not uncommon.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

fetuso's picture

Thank you for the reply. Kaplan and Fremer are two of my favorite writers on these sites so I easily picked up on the coincidence.

volvic's picture

I would like to purchase this album and perhaps the Glenn Gould Goldberg recording but $13.15 for shipping when the company is located in New York, and I live in New York, is akin to paying those exorbitant service charges concert sites charge. Email attempts to get an explanation or breakdown of charges has been fruitless. Will pass.