August 19, 2010


Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique; King Lear Overture. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Mahler: Symphony No. 4. Christiane Oelze, soprano; Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Markus Stenz. Oehms. $19.99 (SACD).

Mahler: Symphony No. 7. Residentie Orchestra The Hague conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $14.99 (SACD).

     The SACD (Super Audio CD) format is likely to disappear sooner rather than later, relegated to the same pile of noble experiments that includes Quadraphonic sound in the era of LP records – that is, the set of noticeably superior methods of sonic reproduction that never quite caught on with the public. SACDs (like Quadraphonic records) generally cost more than recordings made in standard format, but the larger issue is that they require more and better equipment for their full effect. SACDs sound quite fine in standard CD players, but they sound noticeably better when played through the equipment for which they were designed. And certain pieces of music – ones written by masters of orchestral color and instrumental interplay – benefit significantly from being heard in SACD format. The Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique is a perfect example, and PentaTone clearly knows this: it released an SACD performance led by Sir Colin Davis a few years ago, and now offers an SACD of Marek Janowski’s reading with the Pittsburgh Symphony. It is an exceptionally fine performance – recorded live last year and imbued with the thrill of a top-notch concert. Janowski gives each of the five movements its own character, allowing Berlioz the flights of fancy that include a whirling ballroom dance here, some rolling thunder there, a march to the guillotine and opium-fueled dream of witches over there. The very first movement builds effectively from quiet into splendor, and the many piquant instrumental effects are brought forward lovingly and sensitively by Janowski and the Pittsburgh Symphony players. Indeed, sensitivity is a hallmark of this performance, in the episodic third movement just as strikingly as in the loud and raucous fourth and fifth. Throughout, Janowski handles the symphony as an extended tone poem – which it is – while accentuating the idée fixe each time it appears, allowing that theme to knit together the sprawling work as Berlioz intended it to. Whether heard on the equipment for which SACD is designed or on a standard CD system, this is a very high-quality performance filled with elegant touches. And it is well complemented by the highly dramatic King Lear Overture, which was also recorded live: this encapsulation of Shakespeare’s drama is very impressive in its own right, with the tragedy unfolding inexorably to some lovely tunes and very dynamic effects, all orchestrated with the usual Berlioz coloristic brilliance.

     One issue with SACD sound, though, is that it exposes the weaknesses of performances as well as their strengths. Markus Stenz is a fine conductor, and his new recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 certainly deserves a (+++) rating, but there are inelegances in the performance that come through with special clarity in SACD sound. The most notable of these is Christiane Oelze’s voice in the final movement. She has a strong and rounded soprano rather than a thinner, more childlike one – but it is precisely the child’s naïve view of Heaven toward which this whole symphony builds, and the rich tone of Oelze’s voice is simply not very well fitted to the text. She does sing with clarity and with minimal use of vibrato, and these are strengths; but the underlying sound of her voice is just not quite right in this context – and that is clearer in SACD sound than it would be otherwise. Stenz also has some performance quirks that would be clear in any type of recording, notably a number of unwritten tempo changes with which he tries to emphasize elements of Mahler’s writing but manages only to obscure them. The very slow opening of the first movement, for example, makes the sleigh bells almost dirgelike rather than jovial – but they are in proper tempo when they return later in the movement, so whatever point Stenz is trying to make at the start is lost. The performance is full of small miscalculations like this, and they are particularly irritating in a Mahler recording, since the composer was an outstanding conductor and knew exactly what sort of color palette he wanted for his very carefully designed symphonies. Because Mahler made it so clear – through manuscript annotations for his fellow conductors and in other ways – how he wanted his symphonies to sound, there is really no justification for altering his tempo indications, however much a conductor may want to emphasize or deemphasize a particular point. Stenz’s recording has many fine elements – the “entry into Heaven” in the third movement, for example, is excellent – but it also has enough disappointing ones, all of which come through very clearly in the excellent sound, to make it impossible to recommend unreservedly.

     Neeme Järvi’s recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 is unusual among SACDs for its low price – lower than the cost of many conventional CD recordings. But there is no compromise on audio quality here: the disc sounds every bit as good as higher-priced SACDs. The performance is very worthy, too, deserving a (++++) rating despite some interpretative quirks: Järvi’s approach to this difficult symphony is convincing even when atypical. The very opening of the first movement, for instance, seems somewhat too fast; but in the overall context of the movement, it works well by helping propel the music relentlessly forward – although it does lessen the movement’s darkness, which provides the baseline from which the symphony eventually climbs to the blaze of light in the finale. Järvi’s orchestra is not quite as smooth and opulent in sound as some top-quality European ensembles, but it plays quite well here and gives Järvi, its Chief Conductor, plenty of power when he calls for it. The second movement is also on the fast side, but consistently so; so, again, it is convincing on its own terms, and the strings sound particularly lovely. The well-paced central Schattenhaft Scherzo works especially well, its eeriness and dissonances nicely contrasted with the melancholy of its Trio. The fourth movement is the least successful here, because this time Järvi’s faster-than-usual tempo does not let the gentle serenade breathe: the whole thing sounds rushed, precisely when the symphony should finally become relaxed. The finale, though, bursts on the scene with tremendous enthusiasm and never flags, as Järvi pulls out all the stops to deliver a rip-roaring conclusion. It is rather vulgar, to be sure, but that is inherent in Mahler’s music here: this is one of the most forthright movements the composer wrote (despite some often-overlooked subtleties of construction). It is possible to quibble with some of Järvi’s tempos in this finale – as elsewhere in this recording, he tends to opt for speed over elegance. But his approach plays up the C Major ebullience here and therefore works well – abetted by excellent SACD sound that effectively highlights every detail that conductor and orchestra focus on bringing out. The days of SACD recordings are likely numbered, but some of the bright – and subtly shaded – colors of orchestral works will stand out less clearly if and when the format disappears.

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