There have been countless recordings of Frank Sinatra…but only one Concert Sinatra. So named for its full concert orchestra (and not for a live performance), the 1963 album remains a career triumph. It’s perhaps the pinnacle of Sinatra’s long association with conductor/arranger Nelson Riddle, a vivid display of the singer’s gifts as a dramatic actor, and the ultimate valentine to the American theatrical songbook. Make no mistake, The Concert Sinatra is serious symphonic music, and it’s back in print via a remixed and remastered edition from Frank Sinatra Enterprises and Concord Records (CRE 33302).
The original Reprise Records album stands apart in so many ways from anything else in the Chairman’s considerable catalogue. As multi-track master tape recorders were not yet available in 1963, Sinatra took the drastic and unusual step of recording the album on a Hollywood soundstage: Samuel Goldwyn’s Stage 7, onetime home to Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Multiple synchronized recorders captured the recording on 35mm magnetic film. Though only eight tracks appeared on the LP, its sweep and majesty were overwhelming. There’s hardly a hint of swing in these precisely-controlled recordings, one of the last completely standards-based efforts for Sinatra for many years, as he concentrated on (and succeeded in) the pop market beginning the following year.
The repertoire consisted solely of theatre music, and of the album’s eight songs, four were written by the legendary duo of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Two others were by Rodgers with his earlier collaborator, Lorenz Hart; and one by Hammerstein and his earlier collaborator, Jerome Kern. The eighth title came from the equally sophisticated pens of German expatriate composer Kurt Weill (The Threepenny Opera) and American poet/playwright Maxwell Anderson. Notably, Sinatra had recorded a number of these titles earlier in his career, dating back to the 1940s. But he revisited them with the maturity of a man nearing 50 years of age, bringing the requisite mood to each charged song, whether exultation or resignation. The Concert Sinatra is a big album with big emotions; the Weill/Anderson “Lost in the Stars” asks questions of the universe itself! Much is made of the singer/songwriter’s liberation of the American songbook from the theme of love. But the titans of the American theatre stood tall with wildly varied expressions of love, rendered by Sinatra, in songs like “My Heart Stood Still” and “Bewitched” (both Rodgers and Hart) and “I Have Dreamed” and “Soliloquy” (both Rodgers and Hammerstein).
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Sinatra caresses the poetry of each song in his vocals. “I Have Dreamed”, from The King and I, is stately yet almost impossibly intimate despite Riddle’s eloquent, grandiose orchestration when the singer declares, “I will love being loved by you.” Yet Sinatra is just as restrained in the hymn-like “Lost in the Stars” from the musical of the same name. “Lost in the Stars” is almost operatic, as is Sinatra’s take on Show Boat’s “Old Man River.” His vocal is a beauty of a deep rumble; the song’s dialect (“He jes’ keeps rollin’ along,” etc.) is natural and heartfelt. On songs such as these, Riddle’s writing for strings rivals that of another prominent Sinatra arranger, Gordon Jenkins. Riddle’s orchestrations must surely rank among his finest, ever; listen to the orchestra transport you (and Sinatra) back to earth after the self-questioning verse of the deliciously insouciant Lorenz Hart lyric to “Bewitched,” as in “bothered and bewildered.”
“Bewitched” (from the musical Pal Joey) is just one magical vocal from the singer who so often made art seem effortless; another is “Soliloquy,” one of his greatest performances ever. Sinatra fully embodies the character of the conflicted Billy Bigelow. Oh, what might have been! Sinatra famously almost had the lead in the film version of the musical Carousel; the part eventually went to Gordon MacRae. So while Hollywood immortalized MacRae’s fine characterization, Sinatra got the chance to render the definitive “Soliloquy” on record. (Like other songs on the album, he had previously recorded the song at Columbia two decades earlier, but the well of emotion from which he drew had only grown deeper in the ensuing years.)
The original album notes trumpeted the unusual recording process: “The master tracks were recorded on Westrex 35 mm, sprocket-type multi-head magnetic recorders. High output 325-3M recording film was used to achieve the best signal-to-noise ratio,” and so on. And it’s appropriate that the sound is the most remarkable aspect of this new reissue…and also the most controversial. According to Frank Sinatra Jr. in the new liner notes, the original films were located and restored, making Concord’s disc the first time in nearly 50 years since those masters have been used for a reissue. Sinatra and Larry Walsh, co-credited as engineers and mixers, created an entirely new mix for the 2012 edition, with the goal of allowing the listener to “notice the amount of music, originally recorded on the master film, that was never present before [audible]” on any of the previous CD issues. They have succeeded admirably, with the orchestra, remarkably, more fully detailed than in the past. “New” parts have brought to light that will make longtime fans of the album stand up and take notice. But this is also the most drastic remix of any that has been undertaken for the ongoing Sinatra reissue/remix program.
Frank Sinatra’s Voice (that’s right, capital letters) sounds different – very different. And very dry. The producer, Charles Pignone, and the Sinatra/Walsh team, appear to have elected to strip the vocals of reverb, giving the recording a “you are there” feeling that listeners will likely love or hate. The singer, unvarnished, is up front in the mix, though not at the expense of that stunningly full orchestra. This gives the new Concert Sinatra a radical sound signature unlike any previous CD release, and largely unlike any other Sinatra release of any album. As such, it’s hard to consider the new Concert Sinatra as a reissue of an unfortunately deleted title. It’s a completely new take on an old favorite, and the original mix deserves to be heard, especially for comparison to this alternate view. Whether this remix is a valid one is ultimately up to each listener’s taste. But a two-on-one album, preserving both the 1963 mix and the 2012 one, might have made this pill an easier one for some to swallow. The Concord/FSE team is urged to consider the possibility in the future of allowing these remixes to shine alongside the originals; The Concert Sinatra proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is possible to hear a classic recording completely anew, even if one’s mileage will, of course, vary. (It's worth noting that the original mono mix of the album is a valid one worthy of reissue, too.)
Two bonus tracks have been added, both from the same sessions: Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “California,” an ode to the Golden State, and a choral-infused performance of “America, the Beautiful.” These tracks are orchestrally of a piece, with Riddle again arranging and conducting the large group. So while they are welcome additions in presenting a complete view of the sessions, they don’t hew to the theatrical concept of the album proper. The use of a large chorus particularly makes the two bonus tracks stand out, as the original album is built around, simply, The Voice and the rich concert orchestra. The new liner notes by Frank Sinatra Jr. are illuminating and entertaining (though one wishes Kurt Weill’s surname had been spelled properly!) and he is, as always, a fine and reliable tour guide through his father’s ouevre. It’s particularly valuable to read his take on the new mix that he created.
The Concert Sinatra remains a cornerstone of the Great American Songbook, sung by arguably its greatest exponent. As such, Concord’s new issue – The Raw Sinatra, if you will - is recommended without hesitation, but deserves a place on your shelf next to one of the previous Reprise compact disc versions. Listening to these once-in-a-lifetime performances, your heart just might stand still, too.
For further listening, we recommend Frank Sinatra Sings the Select Rodgers and Hart (Capitol), and Sings Rodgers and Hammerstein (Columbia/Legacy) from Frank Sinatra's Capitol and Columbia eras, respectively.