The songs of Irving Berlin (1888-1989), all lyrics by Irving Berlin
The Abbey Road Ensemble conducted by Jonathan Tunick
all songs arranged by Jonathan Tunick
All Music Guide
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Kiri sings Berlin
Irving Berlin is probably America's best-loved songwriter. He wrote our anthems (God Bless America, Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor), celebrated our holidays (White Christmas, Easter Parade), our customs and national character (No Business Like Show Business, Oh, How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning, Doin' What Comes Natur'lly) with a gentle, romantic and unbombastic tone that embraces, rather than assaults the listener. His songs are a cohesive influence to a generation of Americans that still believes in an inclusive "melting pot" American society.
The direct honesty of Berlin's work, particularly his lyrics, is remarkable. Only he could write a lyric with the frank sincerity of Always or What'll I Do?, while avoiding the slightest hint of mawkishness. No rhapsodies, concertos or tone poems for him; he did not go in for tricky rhymes, modulations or involved sequences, and was content to work in basic, conventional song forms. Nevertheless, he was able to achieve a sophistication of tone and sureness of technique that could rival any of his better-schooled contemporaries.
What a pleasure, then, for any arranger to be awarded such a project as this recording: an artist of the stature of Kiri Te Kanawa, the noted producer John Fraser, a crack orchestra in a great studio, and a sheaf of favorite standards by the old master, Irving Berlin.
The project began to take shape on 27 May 1996 with an afternoon's work session at Kin's country home, with Laurie Holloway at the piano. John Fraser, Kiri and I each had a wish-list of Berlin favorites and the afternoon was spent reading through dozens of great songs, experimenting with keys and routines. We were able to settle on a list of fifteen songs, making a point of setting the keys in a low to moderate tessitura so as to allow Kiri to sing in an informal, conversational style. Rather than attempt a period, "original orchestration" style of scoring, I decided to approach the material in the classic pop style established in the 1950s. Kiri was most enthusiastic about this approach, having recorded with the master himself, Nelson Riddle, who had created so many landmark orchestrations for Frank Sinatra and others during this period. Should the listener detect within my orchestrations here any inkling of the style of Riddle and his fellow master arrangers Billy May and Gordon Jenkins, I should not be offended.
The recording sessions began on 1 October 1996 in EMI's historic Abbey Road Studio 2. I have actually employed three different orchestral formats. The first -a full studio orchestra of woodwind, horns, brass, rhythm, harp and strings - is used for the light ballads, both the sensual, chromatic sort (It Only Happens When I Dance with You, Cheek to Cheek) associated with Fred Astaire, and the more angular, skipping melodies (It's a Lovely Day Today) that Berlin tended to write for Ethel Merman. The second combination, a band of five saxophones, four trumpets, three trombones, rhythm and strings, was brought in for one session to play the "up" tunes such as Blue Skies and I Got the Sun in the Morning. The remainder of the album uses an orchestra similar to the first, but without the trumpets and trombones, for the slow ballads and waltzes.
The waltz ballad, of which Berlin is one of the all-time masters, is a form neglected by his contemporaries. Rodgers (Out of My Dreams, Hello, Young Lovers) and Kern (You Are Love, The Touch of Your Hand) wrote a few, Porter not many, and aside from the pastiche By Strauss, anyone but an expert would be hard put to find a single waltz by Gershwin. Here, we have three of Berlin's best: What'll I Do? (a nod to Gordon Jenkins), The Song Is Ended and Always, sung compellingly by Kiri and complete with their rarely-performed verses. These waltz ballads show most clearly the absolute clarity and honesty of Berlin's lyrics; they are poignant and moving, but never stray into sentimentality.
Kiri phrases liltingly through the light ballads such as Cheek to Cheek, Isn't This a Lovely Day? and I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm. Notice also her rhythmic punch and clear affection for the American "show business" style in I Got the Sun in the Morning and Blue Skies, as well as Phil Todd's tenor sax solo in the latter. In the slow, intimate ballads Kiri spins a long, legato line, intense but never forced. Attention should be called to the elegant piano of Laurie Holloway, which is featured throughout the album.