May 01, 2014


Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1-4; Overture to “The Creatures of Prometheus”; Coriolan Overture. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra conducted by Bruno Weil. Tafelmusik Media. $29.99 (2 CDs).

Ives: Symphony No. 2; Carter: Instances; Gershwin: An American in Paris. Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot. Seattle Symphony Media. $16.99.

Ravel: Alborada del gracioso; Pavane pour une infant défunte; Rapsodie espagnole; Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3, “Organ.” Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot. Seattle Symphony Media. $16.99.

Dutilleux: Symphony No. 1; Tout un monde lointain; The Shadows of Time. Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot. Seattle Symphony Media. $16.99.

     Practically every day, it seems, another orchestra announces that it is creating its own music label to issue recordings of the orchestra’s performances. From the London Philharmonic’s LPO label to the Atlanta Symphony’s ASO Media to many others, these tightly focused labels are designed to make sure that sales and any profits from the recordings remain with the orchestras that make the music, instead of going to an external company that is in the business of making, marketing and selling discs. Given the very small number of classical CDs generally sold nowadays, the arrangement makes business sense; the question is whether it makes artistic sense as well. The good news is that, generally speaking, it does. The Tafelmusik Media label is a fine case in point. Created in 2012 to release both new and older recordings by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, it has brought listeners some very fine performances that, despite the orchestra’s name, are frequently from outside the Baroque era. The new two-CD set of Beethoven’s first four symphonies is a first-rate example. Hearing these works played by a group of fewer than 40 top-class musicians, using period instruments, invites reconsideration of how the music may have sounded in its own time and how the later gigantism of 100-piece orchestras may have distorted the clarity of line and details of instrumentation that Beethoven carefully crafted into the symphonies. It is for that clarity, along with generally brisk tempos and a well-honed sense of balance, that listeners will enjoy this release, which breaks no new interpretative ground but which shines a different light on these familiar symphonies from the one usually seen. The fleetness of No. 1 – and concomitant openness and lightness of The Creatures of Prometheus overture – is the least surprising aspect of this recording: these works have so much of the Classical era about them that they fit naturally into a chamber-orchestra setting. What is surprising is how well the same garb fits the later music. Symphony No. 2, a transitional and still-underplayed work, really does sound here like a piece straddling the Classical and still-unformed early Romantic eras, its lighter and brighter elements well complemented by its grander and more-portentous ones. The “Eroica,” which might be expected to fare least well with a small instrumental ensemble, actually comes across quite impressively here, not by any means sounding “light” but also escaping the turgidity that it sometimes suffers when played by large orchestras. And Symphony No. 4, which represents progress beyond the “Eroica” and not a reversion to the sound world of No. 1 or No. 2, gets a fresh and altogether convincing rendition here as well. The only piece that is less than wholly satisfactory is the Coriolan Overture, which  is very well played but seems to lack a certain gravitas, not because of the orchestra’s size but because of an interpretation that is more surface-level than are those of the other works in this two-CD set. And there is one other issue with this recording: this “Eroica” performance has been previously released on Tafelmusik’s label, paired with Mendelssohn’s “Italian” symphony – rendering the new set duplicative for anyone who bought the earlier disc. On balance, this is a very fine addition to the Beethoven catalogue and certainly an indication of the quality of the Tafelmusik Media label.

     The newest orchestral self-promotional label, although it will certainly not be the last to be created, is Seattle Symphony Media, made possible under an agreement with orchestra members under which net revenue from the recordings is shared with them. Ludovic Morlot (born 1974), who has led the orchestra since the 2011-12 season and has a six-year contract as its music director, offers works with various provenances but a significant French orientation on the label’s first three releases. The least French of the CDs is the most mixed in quality. It includes Ives’ Symphony No. 2 in a performance that is so concerned with placing the work squarely in the European Romantic tradition that it significantly downplays the piece’s distinctly American qualities, even making the popular American tunes that Ives favored sound like ones created somewhere in middle Europe in the 19th century. The work is very well played but far duller than it has any reason to be – a huge contrast with, say, the original Leonard Bernstein recording, which used a cut version of the symphony but made it into a celebration of Americana in a way that seems more appropriate to Ives than does Morlot’s more-staid approach. Also here is Elliott Carter’s last orchestral work, Instances, which was dedicated to Morlot and, like the Ives, is very well played. The issue with this work and with much of late Carter is that it sounds like pretty much everything else written with a focus on modern structural techniques and instrumentation – an attractive jumble of sound, but a jumble nevertheless, and one that is not so much hostile to audience reception as it is indifferent to it. The most-attractive performance on this CD is of Gershwin’s An American in Paris, the only work on the disc with a touch of Francophilia. Morlot makes this a very quick tourist visit indeed, conducting with a speed and jauntiness that are not usually heard in this work and that fit it attractively, if somewhat oddly. The playing by the Seattle Symphony is a big attraction throughout the recording: Morlot conducts a smooth, well-balanced orchestra that seems strongly committed to giving its music director all the sound he wants as well as all the quietude.

     On the whole, though, the two Seattle Symphony CDs of French music are more satisfying than its foray into strictly American works. The Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony gets a particularly fluid and well-crafted performance, with Joseph Adam handling the organ part to very fine effect. The well-known Ravel works that fill out the disc are also presented with smooth flow and idiomatic sensitivity: Morlot was born in France and seems particularly comfortable with this music, neither overplaying it nor seeking distinctly new approaches designed to counteract its familiarity. He also does a very fine job with the works of Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013), whose personal style builds quite clearly on Ravel’s and Debussy’s but has unique elements of its own. Dutilleux, unlike Carter, was something of a reluctant modernist, never fully embracing the more-extreme compositional techniques of the 20th and 21st centuries but using elements of serialism and other approaches in his own way. His intriguing, symmetrically designed Symphony No. 1 (1951) is played here with rare understanding, while his cello concerto of 1967-70, Tout un monde lointain (“A Whole Distant World”), is fully explored as a work of dreamlike mystery by Xavier Phillips under Morlot’s direction. And The Shadows of Time (1997), for three children’s voices and orchestra, is a fascinating study in sonority as well as a sensitive exploration of six related but different moods. Boy sopranos Benjamin Richardson, Kepler Swanson and Andrew Torgelson handle the music well, and Morlot brings just the right blend of drama and sensitivity to the performance – showing that Seattle Symphony Media, like other labels showcasing specific orchestras, has a great deal to recommend it.

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