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Recordings

Phantasia
15 Sep 2005

WEBBER: Phantasia; The Woman in White

Probably the best thing that can be said about Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Richard Stilgoe, and Charles Hart’s The Phantom of the Opera becoming the longest running Broadway musical, which it almost certainly will, is that it will take that honor away from Cats. (I am reminded of David Letterman’s comment, made with mock horror, “What if it really is ‘now and forever’?”) Phantom, as it is known both with and without affection, is perhaps Lloyd Webber’s most “traditional” show: it has far more book scenes than his earlier, concept-album-as-musical shows, although the latter, including Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, are tremendously and, arguably, more effective; it recalls operetta despite its pop-heavy score; and it is based on a novel that is already known through incarnations on stage and screen. Its unabashed romanticism, despite its occasional descent into bathos, has endeared it to millions, many of who see it again and again and continue to be moved by it. So I suppose it was only a matter of time until an arranger came up with an orchestral version of the score to satisfy pop concert audiences and other aficionados of the score.

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber: Phantasia (arr. Geoffrey Alexander) and The Woman in White Suite (arr. Laurence Roman).

Sarah Chang, violin, and Julian Lloyd Webber, cello (on Phantasia). The London Orchestra conducted by Simon Lee.

EMI Classics 7 243-5-5804327 [CD]

 

Geoffrey Alexander, building on an idea of Sir Lloyd Webber and his brother, renowned cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, and drawing from the original score as well as from new material written for the only moderately successful film version, has arranged the work for orchestra and two soloists. The violin solo represents Christine, the soprano heroine, and the cello represents the Phantom, and both Sarah Chang and Lloyd Webber play beautifully. Indeed, Chang’s violin is a far more expressive Christine than Sarah Brightman ever was. Passages of lyricism contrast with virtuosic passages, as is customary in such concert pieces, and the bravura sections are well written for the instruments. But in a work this long – the selection clocks in somewhere between thirty minutes and eternity – repetition is inevitable, and, by the end, only devotees will fail to grow antsy for the final cadence. The cheese factor is not as prevalent or pronounced as it could have been, given the material, although there are some modulations that would cause a first-year music theory student to blush. And Alexander’s orchestration is reminiscent of his film scoring, which means the whole thing is a bit overblown, but it is professional and colorful.

In arranging a suite from the recent musical The Woman in White, Laurence Roman was faced with the old sow’s ear-silk purse conundrum: how can a largely tuneless score be turned into an orchestral suite of any interest? The answer: don’t expect a silk purse. While we occasionally hear snippets that recall earlier scores – a little Evita here, a little Phantom there – for the most part this is, at least based on the tunes used in this suite, probably Lloyd Webber’s least interesting score. Even gussied up in the once more overblown arrangements (Andrew Stewart’s booklet notes calls them “full-blooded”), the score never catches fire. Actually, it never even smolders. This is definitely what would once have been called “B-side material.”

The Phantasia will delight fans of the show and will probably have a long shelf life as a pops concert staple. After all, there is no denying the music’s popularity, and soloists will find it rewarding. Fans of the show will treasure the medley, and many will find the virtuosic fancies a highbrow treatment of melodies they could, and perhaps do, sing in their sleep. And in all fairness, the whole thing could have been much worse. For its intended audience, this should find much success.

The recording quality is superb, as is the orchestra’s playing under Simon Lee. (Lee conducted the film version of Phantom as well as the stage production of The Woman in White and other Lloyd Webber creations, so he definitely knows what he’s doing here.) As mentioned above, the solo playing is exemplary and perhaps does more with the material than is warranted. Still, this is a work for the listener who is already a Lloyd Webber and, in particular, a Phantom fan. The rest of us will continue to prefer our Puccini straight up.

Jim Lovensheimer, Ph.D.
Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University

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