March 24, 2016


Bruckner: Symphony No. 9. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons. RCO Live. $21.99 (SACD).

Copland: Orchestral Works, Volume 1—Ballets: Suites from “Billy the Kid” and Appalachian Spring”; Four Dance Episodes from “Rodeo”; El Salón México; Fanfare for the Common Man. BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Wilson. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Dvořák: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8. Houston Symphony conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Dvořák: Overtures—Nature, Life and Love (In Nature’s Realm, Carnival, Othello); My Home; Hussite Overture. PKF-Prague Philharmonia conducted by Jakub Hrůša. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Dvořák: Violin Concerto; Romance in F minor; Suk: Fantasy in G minor. Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds. Ondine. $16.99 (SACD).

     Sony’s Super Audio CD format (officially SA-CD, but almost always written without the hyphen) is in a sense a solution in search of a problem. Like the company’s videotape-era Betamax – a superior system that did not drive hardware sales as Sony hoped and that eventually lost out to the earlier, lower-quality VHS format – SACD seems like an enhancement that is more trouble than it is worth, and in fact is not worth the extra cost of creating discs that use it. But producers of SACDs have avoided the Betamax trap by the clever stratagem of making SACDs dual-layer, with one layer in the extended audio format and another in the older and somewhat lower-quality CD form. This means that SACDs play perfectly well on ordinary CD equipment, but without their enhancements. And while SACDs have usually sold for a few dollars more than comparable CDs, even that has been changing recently, with SACDs and CDs selling for the same price or perhaps a dollar’s difference. Furthermore – and this is where things really get interesting – the use of SACD recording seems to have brought CD recording to a higher level, so that the CD version of SACD releases, even though it is two-channel rather than multichannel, is now more often than not just as good as the SACD version. The result is discs like these, all of them top-notch in sound as well as first-rate in performance quality. Indeed, when a reading of Bruckner’s Ninth is as good as the one featuring Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, released on the orchestra’s own label, the biggest problem is the extent to which it makes a listener yearn for a complete, four-movement Ninth. Bruckner’s failure to complete this symphony is a massive frustration for lovers of his music, primarily because he came so close to finishing the fourth movement – much closer than, for example, Mahler did with his Tenth. Yet while the Mahler work is often heard in one or another “completed” version, Bruckner’s Ninth rarely is, though a few conductors, such as Johannes Wildner and Sir Simon Rattle, perform and have recorded the best available four-movement Ninth (which is still not wholly satisfactory; perhaps nothing ever will be). Most conductors, including Jansons, continue to present the Ninth as a three-movement unfinished symphony, which in Jansons’ case means a work that strives mightily and attains extraordinary heights in a third movement whose structure and dissonances are highly forward-looking – but that then simply stops, leaving listeners waiting fruitlessly for what comes next. This is the great frustration of the RCO Live recording, which in terms of playing and sound is absolutely exemplary. It is one of those releases that make it clear exactly why the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is rightly deemed one of the absolute best in the world. Whether heard in CD or SACD version, this reading resounds with gorgeous string tone, burnished brass that is almost painfully beautiful and precise, and woodwinds whose piquancy perfectly complements the rest of the orchestra. Jansons paces the symphony with an eye toward monumental splendor throughout, the first and third movements soaring to great heights while the second – that weirdly flickering scherzo – weaves its ghostlike way through the orchestral forces. Jansons is particularly outstanding in the third movement, where he accentuates the modernity of the harmonies and the unusual elements of the scoring, making it clear that Bruckner here was striving to bring listeners toward a truly great peroration. The fact that the planned conclusion never comes is deeply distressing when the lead-in to it is this fine. Connoisseurs of the three-movement version of Bruckner’s Ninth will nevertheless find Jansons’ handling of it cause to celebrate.

     The familiar and popular Copland works on a new Chandos SACD exist on an entirely different level, but they too benefit from an exceptionally clear and well-balanced recording. John Wilson has a stronger “popular” orientation than do many conductors: he founded his own orchestra in 1994 specifically to focus on film music. This orientation holds him in good stead in the Copland works here, which have great flair, bounce and good humor, with a generally upbeat sense of life and liveliness. Wilson is especially adept at bringing out the rhythmic flourishes and changes of pace with which these scores abound, and at allowing orchestral color to blossom to the greatest possible extent – Fanfare for the Common Man being a particularly good example in its very broad stateliness. Copland’s ballet suites are heard quite often and have long since become international rather than American music, although their folk tunes and nationalistic touches come through quite clearly as played here by the BBC Philharmonic. The rhythmic vitality of El Salón México is as impressive as the material from Billy the Kid and Rodeo, both of which are handled from a sonic viewpoint that is occasionally startling in its clarity – the “Gun Battle” in Billy the Kid being only the most prominent example. Where Wilson does fall a bit short in this recording is in the broader, more-sentimental elements of the music, not so much in “Corral Nocturne” from Rodeo (which is, after all, deliberately cast as a rather surface-level piece) but in most of Appalachian Spring. Much of this ballet’s music is slow and expansive, with broad, sweeping gestures that reach back to American pioneer life very differently from the way “The Open Prairie” does in Billy the Kid. Wilson seems a touch uncomfortable with Appalachian Spring, turning some of the slowest music into a kind of orchestral taffy pull in which the lines get longer and longer before a section ends and the next one begins. This is scarcely an unsatisfactory approach, but it is a somewhat overdone one – yet the playing is excellent throughout, and the sound (both CD and SACD) brings out so many nuances of the scores that even listeners highly familiar with the music will likely find some new elements to enjoy.

     The Houston Symphony’s SACD of Dvořák’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies also takes full advantage of excellence in recording – PentaTone being one of the very best producers of high-quality discs. The big surprise here is not the quality of the recording but the very rich sound of the orchestra, which has never been one of the very best in the United States but is clearly moving in that direction under Colombia-born Andrés Orozco-Estrada. Everything in these live recordings works exceptionally well: the balance is just right, the warmth or stridency of various orchestral sections – and sections of the music – comes through appropriately, and the overall impression is of an ensemble that has found itself and developed a sound of its own that complements the repertoire beautifully. Orozco-Estrada’s way with the music is also a pleasant surprise. Apart from a few ragged edges, these are thoroughly well-thought-through readings filled with flow, grandeur, and structural understanding, as well as empathy for the symphonies’ emotional underpinnings. No. 7 is the composer’s most deeply felt symphony and the one most in need of careful attention to each movement’s inner structure as well as Dvořák’s overall approach to the material. From the drum roll and grumbling thematic depths of the work’s opening to the brilliance of brass at its end, this is a symphony roiled by emotions – each listener can decide exactly which ones (Dvořák’s nationalism comes through clearly but is scarcely the only feeling explored here). Dvořák’s use of minor-key touchstones is especially striking and effective throughout this work, and although the symphony never comes across as tragic, there is no doubting its intensity of feeling – when it is presented as well as Orozco-Estrada does. There are a few dismaying mannerisms here and there, notably some uncalled-for tempo changes and fervor-disrupting rubato in the finale, but by and large, Orozco-Estrada encourages the music to breathe, to expand, and to speak with highly effective emotional directness. Symphony No. 8 is in many ways the polar opposite of No. 7 – bright, sunny, forthright and forthcoming – and it is unusual for a conductor to handle one of these pieces as well as the other. But Orozco-Estrada does. No. 8 sings, its themes seeming to flow effortlessly and with ever-present beauty from one to the next, its G major home key as emotionally distant as possible from the D minor of No. 7. Again there are a few thoughtless and mannered elements in the performance, again concentrated in the finale and primarily involving injudicious tempo variations for which the composer never called. But the Eighth, like the Seventh, comes through here with style as well as substance, and the bright sound of No. 8 is as appropriate for the music as the somewhat warmer (although not more-constrained) sound of No. 7 is for that work. A full Dvořák cycle from Orozco-Estrada and the Houston Symphony would, on the basis of this recording, be well worth hearing.

     The excellence of PentaTone’s sound is equally apparent in another Dvořák program, this one featuring very different forces and music that, although certainly symphonic in scope, is of a different type altogether. It is self-evident that a Prague-based symphony orchestra and Czech-born conductor will have a nearly intuitive feeling for Dvořák’s music, but it is nevertheless something of a surprise to hear just how well and idiomatically the PKF-Prague Philharmonia (simply called the Prague Philharmonia when established in 1994) and Jakub Hrůša (the orchestra’s music director from 2009 to 2015) handle five of the composer’s tone poems. It is also wonderful to hear the works’ groupings. Nature, Life and Love was intended as a trilogy but is rarely heard that way, with the middle tone poem, Carnival, being performed far more often than the others – and containing references to In Nature’s Realm that make no musical sense when Carnival is played on its own. Here the three works follow a kind of story arc that begins in openness and lyrical, pastoral beauty, progresses through a kind of frenetic intensity, and concludes with a tragic reminder of humanity’s darker instincts – and in fact Othello, least often played of these three pieces, comes off particularly well here, building from its portentous opening to a conclusion conveying a sense of real tragedy. Hrůša does particularly well with the delicate balancing act of giving each tone poem its individual character while at the same time making it clear that there is connective tissue, in terms of both philosophical and musical themes, among the three. There are also multiple parallels between the other two overtures here, My Home and Hussite Overture, and even though these two were not conceived as a duality, their juxtaposition on this recording is a particularly happy decision. Both these overtures were written for stage plays; both include authentic Czech folk tunes; and both use music intimately associated with their subject matter – in the first case, a patriotic song with words written by Josef Tyl, on whose life the play focused (a song that is now the national anthem of the Czech Republic); in the second case, the Hussite battle hymn. Like Nature, Life and Love, the two overtly nationalistic overtures are large-scale works with sumptuous scoring and propulsive structures whose relationship to the style of Dvořák’s symphonies is unmistakable. Hrůša handles all the music with care and sensitivity; the orchestra’s playing is quite good in a traditional central European manner (this ensemble, like the Houston Symphony, is something of an up-and-coming group); and the sound, both SACD and CD, is exemplary.

     Dvořák’s Violin Concerto is not among his very best works and is a standard-repertoire piece largely because, well, it is the composer’s only effort in the form. Some structural peculiarities in the first movement and a considerable amount of repetition in the finale make the work a less-effective one than Dvořák’s other string concerto, for cello, a piece that alters structural norms even more substantially but to much greater and more involving effect. The Violin Concerto does have many pleasures, including a profusion of warmly melodious themes, and it gets a strong and stirringly lyrical reading on a new Ondine SACD that features Christian Tetzlaff and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under John Storgårds. The best word for Tetzlaff’s playing here is “supple.” He stretches themes, cooperates with the orchestra at times while pulling it along with him at others, and offers a winning mixture of delicacy and strength, rather more of the former than the latter. The approach holds up well, perhaps even better, in the Fantasy in F minor, often paired with the concerto on recordings and here particularly happily so. Tetzlaff’s singing tone and textural nimbleness make the shorter work – which at 12-and-a-half minutes is not all that short – a pleasure to hear. The most interesting piece here, though, is neither of the ones by Dvořák. It is the Fantasy in G minor by Josef Suk, Dvořák’s son-in-law and a fine and generally underrated composer. Twice as long as the Dvořák fantasy and in fact extended enough to be deemed a concerto were it not for its lack of any formal structure, Suk’s work opens in strikingly dramatic fashion and becomes, from start to finish, an alteration of intense and pastoral sections that complement each other winningly. Suk’s fantasy requires nuanced playing and a sense of constantly shifting colors in the solo and orchestral parts alike, and that is just what it gets here, with Tetzlaff and Storgårds handing off the lead to each other time and again in a collaborative effort that combines flexibility with dynamic strength – just as the music requires. One particularly pleasant element of this fine recording of an infrequently performed work is that the sound, both SACD and CD, unobtrusively underlines the approach of soloist and conductor, bringing one forward and then the other, helping blend them at some times and maintain them as separate entities at others. This recording is yet more evidence of just how significantly good SACD sound, and the CD sound that coexists with it on these high-quality discs, can contribute to and enhance the experience of listening to music.

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