The King and I (Studio Cast Recording) | Review

David Benedict
Sunday, June 11, 2023

Combined with the full score played and recorded with such lavish care, it’s a must.

There are umpteen reasons why, in a crowded field, this 1996 recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical led from the front and clinched the top recommendation spot in Gramophone and beyond when it first came out. Its re-release is a cause for celebration.

For starters, it’s complete. Even the much-vaunted (but less than ideal) 64-minute, 1992 recording with the great but too-late-career Julie Andrews is a highlights selection. In comparison, this two-disc set, with everything from glorious dance and ceremonial music and more, clocks in at 116 minutes. But length would be of no advantage were the performance dull. Happily, this is anything but that.

The recording’s true glory is the Anna of Valerie Masterson

Conducting the National Symphony Orchestra with easeful, elegant tempos, John Owen Edwards never lets us forget that for this most majestic of shows, master orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett was conveying regal splendour in the pit to match the action. Which is why, in a band of 29, he used a nine-piece brass section. Listen for the pump of the tuba beneath the brightness of the trumpets, or the glowing horn playing in the famous ‘March of the Siamese Children’, all underpinned by a lovely but never insistent bass weight. And, thanks to the re-release DigiMix, the already splendid sound has yet more gleam and heft – but never at the expense of clarity.

Anyone unfamiliar with the show (there is, oddly, no synopsis here) might look askance at the casting of horror legend Christopher Lee as the King of Siam. But as Bert Fink’s excellent notes explain, the stage role was originally offered to Rex Harrison and Noël Coward, so it was clearly written for someone who can act in a song, rather than a singer.

Valerie Masterson & Christopher Lee

Valerie Masterson as Anna and Christopher Lee as the King. Photo: Clive Barda

Hackles might rise at the sight of so many operatic voices in the cast. But these singers had long been singing opera in English so the sound-first, meaning-last condescension that bedevilled so many opera crossover recordings of musicals is banished.

Sally Burgess sings a beautifully controlled ‘Something Wonderful’, but the recording’s true glory is the Anna of Valerie Masterson. Having sung everything from Handel to Verdi, but having started her career as the great Gilbert and Sullivan singer of her generation, she knows exactly how much weight of sound to use and, crucially, how much to hold back. The set is, in truth, worth it for her detailed, dignified and altogether lovely performance alone. Combined with the full score played and recorded with such lavish care, it’s a must.



Richard Rodgers music

Oscar Hammerstein II lyrics

Cast Valerie Masterson, Christopher Lee, Sally Burgess, Jason Howard, Tinuke Olafimihan et al

National Symphony Orchestra / John Owen Edwards

JAY Records