September 20, 2012


Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1; The Snow Maiden—excerpts. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Dmitrij Kitajenko. Oehms. $19.99 (SACD).

Mahler: Symphony No. 1. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Markus Stenz. Oehms. $19.99 (SACD).

Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 8 (“Unfinished”). Royal Flemish Philharmonic conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Bruckner: Symphony No. 3. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

      The Super Audio CD (SACD) has not supplanted the standard CD, as it was intended to do when Philips and Sony created it in 1999.  Its super-high audio quality is unquestioned, its ability to produce an excellent surround-sound experience is unexcelled, and the way it can hold more music than a standard CD’s 80 minutes is undoubted.  But the medium has never fully caught on, partly because early versions were not backwards compatible with existing CD players and partly because most music sold today simply does not require the audiophile level that SACDs provide.  Especially in light of the fact that physical music storage is itself becoming a niche product as listeners gravitate to MP3 units and other portable players, the SACD has become a niche within a niche – its superiority certain but its value to the majority of listeners questionable.  For classical music, though, the modern SACD, which is also playable on standard CD players, can provide an audio experience that is noticeably better than that of a standard recording, as release after release confirms.  Two new Gürzenich-Orchester Köln SACDs from Oehms are excellent cases in point.  Neither takes advantage of the SACD’s vast storage capacity – the Tchaikovsky disc contains just 61 minutes of music, the Mahler disc only 53.  But both do some things far better than ordinary CDs can.  The clearest difference lies, surprisingly, in silence.  It is absolute in both recordings, so that when, for example, the third-movement funeral march in the Mahler fades away to nothing before the attacca finale explodes with vehemence, the sound is enough to make a listener jump – no matter how many times he or she has heard this work before.  All loud and emphatic passages are well served: for example, the very end of the Tchaikovsky symphony, which is one of the strongest affirmations of G major in the symphonic canon, rings forth with unequalled brilliance and intensity, while the ebullient Dance of the Skomorokhi from the incidental music to The Snow Maiden achieves near-frenetic levels of intensity that are abetted by the superior quality of the sound.

      The quality ratings of the SACDs, though, ultimately depend on the interpretations of the music, with the sound being important but not in itself a sufficient reason to select one performance over another.  Dmitrij Kitajenko’s Tchaikovsky disc, the fourth in his cycle of these symphonies after Nos. 5 and 6 and the Manfred, is a (++++) recording, well-paced and beautifully played, thankfully missing the excesses that often creep into readings of this symphony, such as many conductors’ unjustifiable ritard at the end of the introduction to the finale, just before the up-tempo main section begins.  Kitajenko takes this movement, and indeed the whole symphony, as written, allowing its lovely melodies plenty of time to flow and taking the second movement as a true Adagio cantabile, giving listeners an expansive portrayal of a vast Russian landscape.  This is a glowing performance, with the excerpts from The Snow Maiden providing a pleasant complement to the symphony and a chance to hear parts of one of Tchaikovsky’s less-known works.

      The Markus Stenz Mahler First does not come off quite as well and gets a (+++) rating.  Oehms has already released Stenz’s readings of Symphonies Nos. 2-5 and Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and all have had much to recommend them.  This time, though, Stenz tinkers too much, slowing down before climaxes to try to make them more effective (especially in the first and fourth movements) and succeeding only in making the music seem draggy and overdone.  Mahler has packed quite enough drama into this symphony on his own – attempts to add more invariably fall short.  The orchestra plays just as well for Stenz as for Kitajenko – it is an absolutely top-notch ensemble – and there are many felicitous touches in Stenz’s performance, such as the lovely flow of the main section of the first movement and the understated irony of the third.  But the overall performance would have been better if Stenz had stuck to Mahler’s intentions throughout, not just must of the time.

      Oehms is not the only label with a strong commitment to SACDs – PentaTone is another.  Indeed, this is a label that has made excellence in sound one  of its hallmarks in all recordings.  And much of the time, the sonic focus pays excellent dividends, as in the latest Philippe Herreweghe recording of Schubert symphonies.  This is a (++++) release both because of the fine sound and because of the sensitive, nuanced interpretations of the symphonies.  Herreweghe refuses to treat No. 6, often called the “Little C Major” in contrast to No. 9, as a “little” work in any sense.  He gives it a strong, full reading that is especially effective in the first three movements, including a well-paced and rather broad-scale Andante.  The finale, whose basic theme is on the trivial side, also comes off quite well here, with more seriousness than usual and a pacing that does not drag.  Herreweghe is equally sensitive in the “Unfinished,” which is actually only one among quite a few symphonies that Schubert started but did not complete.  The numbering on this release is odd: this symphony is called No. 7, but in fact there exists a No. 7 that Schubert finished in short score but did not fully orchestrate – although it deserves to be heard more often than it is, since it actually looks ahead in several respects to No. 9.  In any case, however it is numbered, the B minor “Unfinished” is a remarkable work, its second movement sounding much like a continuation of the argument of the first by other means – although at a remarkably similar tempo.  Herreweghe’s view of the first movement is a big one: he lets the music breathe and expand, then creates a somewhat stronger-than-usual contrast with the second movement that helps give it an individual character.  This is a thoughtful performance and a very well-played one, and the SACD sound allows every nuance of the orchestration to come through clearly.

      Marek Janowski’s Bruckner Third is also very well played (although the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande is not quite at the top level of European ensembles), and the SACD sound is ideal for Bruckner, allowing the greatest possible contrast between his silences, pauses and extremely soft sections, on the one hand, and his grand and intense climaxes, on the other.  This is nevertheless a (+++) recording, not because of performance quality but because it uses the 1889 Nowak edition of the score, which is not the most desirable to hear because the finale is so significantly truncated.  Like the Oehms SACDs, the ones from PentaTone make no attempt to fill the discs to anything near capacity: Herreweghe’s Schubert release runs just 57 minutes, Janowski’s Bruckner Third only 53.  But what matters in choosing a Bruckner Third to conduct is not the symphony’s overall length – at least not in the 21st century, when audiences are accustomed to longer and thornier pieces than were listeners in the 19th century.  What counts is picking a version that holds together effectively and on the scale that Bruckner himself, when not under pressure from well-meaning outsiders, seemed to want.  That argues strongly for the original 1873 version or the ones from 1877 or 1878.  For listeners not particularly familiar with Bruckner, though, the Janowski SACD will be more than adequate, being well paced, well played and very well recorded.  The very expansive treatment of the first movement is a highlight that, unfortunately, makes the short finale (not much more than half the length of the opening movement) seem like more of an afterthought.  SACD sound is so good that it can make the difference when choosing one of two equally fine recordings, but in the case of the Bruckner Third, a well-recorded CD using a better variant of the symphony remains preferable to an excellently recorded one using the 1889 version.

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