December 06, 2007


Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5; Ode to the End of the War. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, K. 364; Rondo for Violin and Orchestra, K. 373; Concertone for Two Violins and Orchestra, K. 190. Julia Fischer, violin; Gordon Nikolić, violin and viola; Netherlands Chamber Orchestra conducted by Yakov Kreizberg. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

      Intended as the next generation of audio after CDs, Super Audio CDs (SACDs) are highly unlikely to replace them. The SACD is a niche product, ideal for audiophiles who not only want volume but also – and more importantly – want wonderful definition of sound, superb reproduction of solo instruments within a larger group, and silence that seems actually palpable. Within its limited area of interest, the SACD can add a great deal of presence – and therefore enjoyment – to a wide variety of music.

      Prokofiev’s works would seem to fit the SACD format well, being dense but requiring close attention to detail. Vladimir Jurowski’s reading of the Symphony No. 5 is an idiosyncratic one that highlights the strengths of SACDs clearly. In the first movement, there are areas where horns and piano come through exceptionally clearly. In the second, there is a strong sense of three-dimensionality, with strings in the front, winds behind, and amazingly clear wood blocks. But this movement is paced oddly, with a slow start, uncalled-for speedup, then a slowdown for the mid-movement wind theme – the result being an interpretation that is musically questionable but well adapted to SACD reproduction. The sarcasm of the winds and the pounding of the bass drum come through especially effectively. In the third movement, surprising touches abound: piano, bassoon, trumpet and more. The entire symphony is very well played – the Russian National Orchestra is an outstanding ensemble – but the third movement is extra-special, with a massed climax that nevertheless boasts wonderful transparency. In the finale, the main theme is taken very fast – but the orchestra keeps up – and the details are again outstanding all the way to the hectic end.

      For sheer sonic splendor, the bombastic Ode to the End of the War, written in 1945, fits the SACD format especially well. The 14-minute work is very strangely orchestrated: eight harps, four pianos, winds, percussion and eight double basses (!). Perhaps not surprisingly, the Ode sounds more like Shostakovich than Prokofiev at times, notably in the sardonic bounce after its portentous opening. The work proceeds with organ-like striding, then unexpectedly fades to complete silence in the middle before emerging into a tender section in which the harps predominate. After this relaxed section goes on for a while, a martial and overdone segment – resounding with timpani, gong and more – brings the work to a trumpet-laden conclusion. It is certainly not great music, not always even very interesting music, but it sounds wonderful with Jurowski’s deliberate pacing and the audio quality of SACD.

      Mozart, though, is a far subtler composer, and does not benefit as much from SACD reproduction – certainly not in the same way. The gorgeous Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, K. 364, is beautifully played by Julia Fischer and Gordon Nikolić, but Yakov Kreizberg is not really in tune with the music. He drives the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra hard in the first movement, giving the music little time to breathe, and makes the second movement more deeply melancholy than it ought to be. The quick and light finale, though, is outstanding, and the SACD makes it easy and pleasant to hear the intertwining of Fischer and Nikolić with each other and with the orchestra. Fischer then offers gentle, light and flowing playing in the Rondo for Violin and Orchestra, K. 373, after which she and Nikolić – both on violins this time – take on the earlier and less substantial Concertone for Two Violins and Orchestra, K. 190. Here Kreizberg seems more relaxed than in the Sinfonia Concertante. The first movement is bouncy and enthusiastic, with fine oboe playing by Hans Meyer and cello work by Herre Jan Stegenga complementing the violinists’ performance. The second movement is nicely balanced, pretty and not too solemn, and the finale is rhythmic and pleasant, again featuring attractive interplay with the solo oboe and cello. These are not fully idiomatic performances, but here the SACD format adds a level of clarity and instrumental separation to the readings – apparent, incidentally, even when the SACD is played on standard CD equipment – and that raises the presentation up a couple of notches through the sheer beauty of the sonic experience.

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