May 07, 2009


Mahler: Symphony No. 1. Bamberg Symphony conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $19.99 (SACD).

Mahler: Symphony No. 4. Mojca Erdmann, soprano; Bamberg Symphony conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $19.99 (SACD).

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Symphony in 3 Movements. Bamberg Symphony conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $19.99 (SACD).

Janáĉek: Sinfonietta; Taras Bulba; Suite from “The Cunning Little Vixen.” Bamberg Symphony conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $19.99 (SACD).

     For nearly perfect examples of how excellence in recording and sonic reproduction can be put at the service of outstanding musical experiences for the home, listen to any or all of these new Tudor SACDs, in which the sound is so integral to the effectiveness of the presentation that it is in effect a third partner in the music – along with the conductor and orchestra. It is not just that sound quality is clear and background noise absent – any SACD and most CDs will deliver that. But the clarity here is of an unusual kind, whether you hear the discs on a system that fully reproduces the multichannel SACD experience or listen to them as if they were ordinary CDs. It sounds as if every instrument in the orchestra has been individually miked, with the 90 or so audio streams then blended through a sophisticated mixing system by a highly knowledgeable musician. This is nonsense, of course (and in practice wouldn’t work very well); but the clarity of individual orchestral voices, especially the middle voices that are often difficult for conductors to bring out, is truly remarkable here, and all these SACDs create an experience approximating that of the conductor himself – standing at a point where individual instrumental elements can be clearly heard as they coalesce into the totality of large-scale orchestral works.

     None of this would be of much consequence (except on a technical level) if the performances themselves were less than exemplary, but every one of them is highly worthy, and most are outstanding. The Bamberg Symphony may not be one of the world’s best-known orchestras; Jonathan Nott, the orchestra’s principal conductor for almost a decade, may not be one of the biggest names in his profession; but if this is the quality of music-making that this conductor and orchestra deliver consistently, listeners should become much more familiar with both the man and the players. There is, in fact, a responsiveness in the Bamberg Symphony that argues for a return to the practice, now largely discarded, of a conductor having a long-term, focused relationship with an orchestra, so everyone gets to know everyone else’s quirks and can respond almost intuitively when the music being performed is difficult.

     And make no mistake: all the music on these SACDs is difficult. Mahler’s First and Fourth Symphonies are repertoire standards these days, but that makes them, if anything, harder than ever to perform effectively, since audiences bring expectations to them. Nott handles both works with great sensitivity and excellent attention to detail – just the right approach to Mahler, whose huge climaxes are made up of details piled upon each other, and who, as a brilliant conductor himself, knew very well what sounds orchestras could produce if prodded to do so. So Nott, for example, uses the unusually clean and slightly dry sound of the Bamberg Symphony’s brass to highlight horn, trumpet and trombone lines in these symphonies, even as themes are being carried primarily by strings or woodwinds. He paces the works carefully and deliberately, retaining each movement’s forward momentum but allowing himself slight tempo changes that highlight individual sections of the more discursive movements (such as the first of Symphony No. 4). His handling of the finales is particularly adept: in No. 1, the movement begins with startling assertiveness and the brass is elegant and emphatic throughout, but Nott treats the slower sections expansively and with great beauty; while in No. 4, each verse of the sung text gets a slightly different orchestral emphasis, so there is both repetitive continuity in the movement and a sense of development. Mojca Erdmann is not an ideal soprano soloist here – her voice is a touch too rich to produce the childlike quality that the text calls for – but she does sing beautifully, and the orchestra is effectively interwoven with her words.

     On the Stravinsky disc, the sheer barbaric splendor of The Rite of Spring may be a touch too carefully controlled – there is never a sense that the music is about to burst at the seams – but the details of orchestration are highlighted splendidly, and the underlying dance rhythms of what is, after all, a ballet, are very skillfully handled. The Symphony in 3 Movements is top-notch as well, with the important piano and harp parts brought to just the right level of prominence – both by Nott’s skillful orchestral balance and by the excellence of the recording.

     On the Janáĉek SACD, the splendid Sinfonietta is the highlight, the brass ringing out with intensity and drama from the beginning and the rest of the orchestra delivering an angular, rhythmically convincing interpretation. Taras Bulba, with its contrasts between martial and emotional sections, is almost equally effective, and the František Jílek suite from The Cunning Little Vixen – less well known than the later one by Václav Talich – proves dramatic and convincing, focusing on the opera’s “transformation” music and providing the brass with the chance for a grand conclusion. Nott and the Bamberg players make an exceptional team, and Tudor’s outstanding technology captures their performances with such liveliness and transparency that listeners will find themselves hearing and delighting in things, even in relatively familiar music, that they simply had not known were there.

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