New CD/SACD Reviews

  • 09 Jan 2007 10:49
  • 25

As always, I am reviewing only those CDs, new or fairly recent, that I found interesting. (Sometimes even a bad performance can be interesting.) Just because they sent me a review copy is insufficient reason for a review in this Web ’zine; there are plenty of other reviewers out there who will oblige.

SACD from Channel Classics

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor (“Resurrection”). Birgit Remmert, mezzosoprano/alto; Lisa Milne, soprano; Hungarian Radio Choir; Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer, conductor. CCS SA 23506 (2 SACDs, recorded 2005, released 2006).

“A symphony should be like the world: it must embrace everything,” Mahler is supposed to have said, and the Second is the earliest gigantic work reflecting that creed, still completely free from the mannerisms and self-indulgence of some of the later symphonies. You don’t have to be a Mahlerian to love the Second (or the Third). This recording by Iván Fischer is a sequel to that of the Sixth reviewed here about a year ago, made with the same orchestra and technical crew in the state-of-the-art Béla Bartók National Concert Hall in the Palace of Arts in Budapest. I will not repeat my encomiums regarding the hall, suspect as they were of Hungarian chauvinism, but I must reluctantly admit that the Mahler recording in Philadelphia’s comparable Verizon Hall (see below) sounds even a little better, especially the 5.0 layer, although this one too is very high-class audio. Fischer’s performance once again emphasizes the big line, the totality of the work; he conducts the forest, not the trees (again, see below). The soloists and the choir are excellent. Of course, the competition in Mahler Seconds is huge. Speaking of Philadelphia, Fischer guest-conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra recently and made a tremendous impression. The musicians loved him. Does this mean he is a dark horse to follow Eschenbach when the latter retires after the 2007-08 season? No one says so, but you heard it here first…       

CD from EMI

Carl Orff: Carmina Burana. Sally Matthews, soprano; Lawrence Brownlee, tenor; Christian Gerhaher, baritone; Rundfunkchor Berlin; Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle, conductor.  7243 5 57888 2 5 (recorded 2004, released 2005).

A poor performance of Carmina Burana is almost impossible; everybody employing the required forces does a more or less decent job because the piece is totally simplistic—no harmony, no counterpoint, simple rhythms, unison singing, unsubtle aggressive percussion. That the piece is so effective is utterly amazing (must be the catchy tunes). The best performances are characterized by high energy to the point of wild abandon, combined with precise execution plus superior singing. This is definitely one of those best performances, and since the live stereo recording is also excellent, one of the better efforts in the tricky Philharmonie, the whole production must be rated as top rung. The awesome competence of Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic is almost overkill for the piece. Baritone Christian Gerhaher is a standout, better than most singers in the role. If you don’t have a recording of this oddball quasi-masterpiece, you might as well get this one.

SACD from the Fry Street Quartet

Joseph Haydn: String Quartet in D Minor, Op. 9, No. 4; String Quartet in F Major, Op. 77, No. 2. The Fry Street Quartet (Jessica Guideri, violin; Rebecca McFaul, violin; Russell Fallstad, viola; Anne Francis, cello). FSQCD4 (recorded 2005, released 2006).

This is another IsoMike recording by Ray Kimber under the Fry Street Quartet label. The first one I reviewed here some time ago and declared it to be the new “state of the art” in chamber-music recording, surpassing all previous efforts in realistic, lifelike string sound. This one is even a little better, if such a thing is possible. The warmth, the presence, the sheer you-are-thereness of the violins, viola, and cello are unprecedented. (Yes, Ray, your cable marketing sins are forgiven.) Op. 77, No. 2, dating from 1799, is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, string quartet of Haydn, an absolutely stunning work surpassed only by the best of Beethoven (whose earliest quartets are roughly contemporaneous). Op. 9, No. 4, composed some thirty years earlier, is good music but not quite in the same league. The Fry Street Quartet, as I wrote before, is as good as some of the big names that are much better known. They play with superb musicality and unfailing beauty of tone. For a wonderful musical experience and a unique audio treat, get this CD. (I like the stereo layer at least as much as the 4-channel surround layer.)  

CD from Harmonia Mundi

Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major (“Romantic,” 1878/80 revision, ed. Nowak). Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, Philippe Herreweghe, conductor. HMC 901921 (recorded 2005, released 2006).

This one is controversial. Like Herreweghe’s recording of the Seventh reviewed here several installments ago, it is “Bruckner Lite,” and you have the right to love it or hate it. I happen to think that the added transparency achieved with 19th-century instruments and the nonpompous treatment of the musical material yield a highly viable alternative to the monumental Bruckner style. Bruckner may have been a Wagnerian but he was no Wagner; the Götterdämmerung approach to some his passages runs the risk of self-parody if the conductor isn’t careful. Emphasizing the classical side of the music isn’t such a bad idea. I still want to hear the Karajan kind of Bruckner from time to time, but Herreweghe’s approach is refreshing. The stereo recording in a smallish auditorium in Dijon is very realistic of its kind.  

CDs from Naxos

Béla Bartók: Mikrokosmos (Complete): Books 1–6. Jenö Jandó, piano. 8.557821-22 (2 CDs, recorded 2005, released 2006).

Not for the fainthearted—153 increasingly complex piano pieces, ranging from the naïvest simplicity to diabolic virtuoso exercises, the shortest lasting 16 seconds, the longest over 4½ minutes. No other composer has tried anything remotely like it; most of it is of pedagogical importance rather than concert-hall material, but Books 5 and 6 contain some brilliant performance pieces. Bartók’s utter devotion to the essence of music, without the slightest attention to the possibility of worldly success, could not be better exemplified than by this monumental work. Jandó is a well-established Bartókian, and I hear nothing to fault in his performance, right up to the virtuoso rendering of the terminal complexities. The recording of the piano is close-up and extremely real, typical of the work of the excellent Phoenix Studio in Budapest.

Aaron Copland: Prairie Journal (1937); Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes (1942); Letter from Home (1944); The Red Pony—Film Music: Suite (1948). Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta, conductor. 8.559240 (recorded 2005, released 2006).

Big surprise. The Buffalo Philharmonic is a very high-quality orchestra; JoAnn Falletta is an excellent conductor; Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo is a world-class venue. Others may know these things; I didn’t. To perform Copland’s rural/cowboy/American/pop pieces with maximum impact, you have to swing it, not just a little (like, for instance, Michael Tilson Thomas) but a lot. Falletta and the Buffalo musicians dig into it with real gusto, maximizing the rhythms, and it makes a difference. They sound great. As for the audio, my jaw dropped when I listened to the reproduction of the Kleinhans acoustics. How come they don’t make more recordings here? What a great hall! The bass is especially fabulous. This is definitely a CD which is more than meets the eye.

Franz Schubert: Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat Major, D. 929, Op. 100; Sonatensatz in B-flat Major, D. 28. Kungsbacka Piano Trio (Malin Broman, violin; Jesper Svedberg, cello; Simon Crawford-Phillips, piano). 8.555700 (recorded 2003, released 2006).

If you have seen Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick’s great 1975 movie, you probably remember from the soundtrack the haunting andante con moto of the E-flat trio, even if you are unfamiliar with the whole work. It is late Schubert, and that means sublime music, regardless of Deutsch number or opus number. In the last few years of his short life Schubert was in a zone of transcendence. D. 28 is a work of adolescence and not comparable. The Kungsbacka trio, a youngish ensemble that started in Sweden and is based in England, provides an alert and highly transparent performance, maybe a little too foursquare for my taste—I can imagine a more poetic interpretation—but their intonation is flawless. They play every repeat of the sprawling work, stretching it to nearly an hour (not that I’d want it to stop). The violin tone of Malin Broman is occasionally a little wiry, emphasized by the superbly lifelike English recording.   

SACD from Ondine

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A Minor; Piano Quartet movement in A Minor (1876). The Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, conductor; in the quartet, members of The Philadelphia Orchestra (Christoph Eschenbach, piano; David Kim, violin; Choong-Jin Chang, viola; Efe Baltacigil, cello). ODE 1084-5D (2 CD/SACDs, 2005-2006).

Some conductors conduct the forest, others the trees. Toscanini is a good example of the former, Eschenbach of the latter. That’s an oversimplification, of course, because both kinds of conductors, if they are worth their salt, conduct with full awareness of the overall sweep and structure of the piece as well as its details. It’s a question of emphasis. Eschenbach doesn’t reveal anything we didn’t already know about the Mahler Sixth as a totality but he brings out every little detail with amazing lucidity and differentiation. Call it “overconducting”—I love it! I happen to disagree with those who consider this to be Mahler’s greatest symphony but I can’t think of another version I would rather listen to. When Eschenbach leaves Philadelphia at the end of the 2007-08 season, I wonder what great improvements will follow. The sound, too, is superb, the best of the Philadelphia/Ondine series so far. The tunable Verizon Hall has finally been optimized to the nth degree. There are still too many microphones but they are needed for safety; you can’t gamble with “purist” techniques when recording live before an audience. I am completely happy with both the stereo and the multichannel versions; the 5.0 layer is particularly successful in rendering a 3-D space rather than just directional cues.  

CD from Profil

Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944. Münchner Philharmonker, Günter Wand, conductor. PH06014 (recorded 1993, digitally remastered and released 2006).

Günter Wand has been dead almost five years, but various record labels keep issuing late-in-life recordings by him. This one he made when he was 81 (he died at 90), and for sheer musicality and echt Schubert style it’s a hard-to-beat performance. Wand was a musician’s musician to the end of his life. The tempi are leisurely (Toscanini’s famous Philadelphia Orchestra recording of 1941, for example, is nine minutes faster), but that’s a German super-Kapellmeister’s way with Schubert—noble might be the best word for it—and it works. There are too many recordings of this stupendous symphony to rank this one (Wand alone made several) but it clearly belongs in the upper percentiles. The Munich Philharmonic was not one of Wand’s regular (contractual) orchestras, but he guest-conducted it frequently throughout his life and had an excellent rapport with it, although his Munich recordings could not be legally released before his death. It is an excellent orchestra, just short of world-class, and the stereo recording is also very good, without any eccentricities or exaggerations. The whole effort is an exercise in superior taste.

SACD from RCA Red Seal

Johann Strauss Jr. et al.: “Vienna” (waltzes by Johann Strauss Jr., Josef Strauss, Carl Maria von Weber, and Richard Strauss). Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, conductor. 82876-71615-2 (recorded 1957 and 1960, remastered and released 2006).

You think you know how a Viennese waltz should sound? Don’t be too sure. Listen to the very first track on this disc, Morning Papers, Op. 279, of Johann Strauss Jr. Who else beside Reiner conducts a Strauss waltz with this kind of Viennese lilt, with exactly the right hesitation on the second beat and with that infectious exhilaration in the fast passages? Not many, not even most of the conductors of the Wiener Philharmoniker’s annual New Year’s concert (certainly not Zubin Mehta on Jan. 1, 2007). Of course, it helps to have been born in 1888 in Austria-Hungary under Franz Josef. Strauss died in 1899, so little Fritz grew up hearing the real thing. All in all, this is perhaps my all-time favorite Strauss waltz recording, comprising seven pieces by the immortal “Schani” (yes, all the big ones are here), and it even offers extra goodies like the Weber-Berlioz Invitation to the Dance and the Rosenkavalier waltzes. The orchestral playing is awesome, needless to say; the midcentury Chicago orchestra has never been surpassed. As for the audio (this is, after all, an audio journal), it is equally amazing. Lewis Layton, maybe the greatest recording engineer of all time, knew more about microphone placement, hall acoustics, and tape editing fifty years ago than most of today’s top guns with their state-of-the-art equipment. As a result, the soundstage, the instrumental timbres, and the hall effects are as good as today’s best (with maybe just a tad more distortion) and a lot better than today’s average. Orchestra Hall in Chicago, before they renovated it, was probably the most “phonogenic” venue in the United States. The SACD multichannel remastering preserves the original three-channel (left/center/right) recording; the rear channels are silent. I don’t think the center channel makes a huge difference, but the hi-rez DSD technology effects a clear improvement over previous editions. Bottom line: can’t ask for better Strauss or better sound.


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Nicolas Ward By, Nicolas Ward

Nicolas Ward is an elite author with many years of experience in the music field and the owner of many engaging articles at TheAudioCritic. He studies music production and has many years of passionate research into sound systems. Appearing in many popular newspapers, Nicolas Ward provides useful knowledge and the latest information on music and sound.

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