March 19, 2015


Bizet: Carmen. Marilyn Horne, James McCracken, Tom Krause, Adriana Maliponte, Colette Boky, Marcia Baldwin, Donald Gramm, Russell Christopher, Andrea Velis, Raymond Gibbs; Manhattan Chorus and Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein. PentaTone. $35.99 (2 SACDs).

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique. Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa. PentaTone. $16.99 (SACD).

Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust. Stuart Burrows, Edith Mathis, Donald McIntyre, Thomas Paul; Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Boston Boys’ Choir and Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa. PentaTone. $35.99 (2 SACDs).

     Are excellent remastering and extremely fine sound, coupled with performances featuring various “name” artists, reasons enough to launch a new line of recordings and reasons enough to buy them? PentaTone apparently answered “yes” to the first part of the question and hopes many listeners will answer “yes” to the second part. These three recordings date to the 1970s: 1972 for Carmen, 1973 for the two Berlioz offerings. And all were originally made in quadraphonic sound, a short-lived experiment whose very high in-the-studio quality was ill-matched to the sound systems of the day and the vinyl records played on them – and which therefore never caught on. In a way, there is irony in releasing these performances on SACD, since Super Audio CDs are to some extent like quadraphonic sound of four decades ago: clearly superior to those who have equipment that does them full justice, but otherwise of no special interest or added value. The difference today, though, is that technology allows both SACD layers and traditional CD ones to be produced on the same disc, so even people without the capability of hearing full-fledged SACD sound can still get very fine CD-level discs from firms that are as good with recording technology as PentaTone is.

     All this, however, evades the question of whether these specific recordings are worthy of the technical skill that has been lavished on them through the remasterings done in 2014. For most classical-music lovers, the unfortunate answer is: not really. These are recordings with historic value, to be sure, and ones that fans of the performers are likely to want to have, but none of them stacks up particularly well, from an interpretative standpoint, against more-recent performances.

     The issue is especially acute when it comes to Carmen. This was, and remains even today, a bold and unusual interpretation. The Metropolitan Opera at this time used the original Opéra-Comique version of the work, which had extensive spoken dialogue (like the German Singspiel or an operetta) – and then as today, this version is very rarely staged and invites controversy, the much-preferred one using Ernest Guiraud’s recitatives. Leonard Bernstein, never a strong opera conductor, had not yet attained superstar status at this time, but his podium predilections – some would call them indulgences – were already pronounced. Most noticeably, Bernstein liked to push tempos and change them frequently; in this Carmen, that means occasional very fast sections and a great deal more that are very slow, with, for example, a Toreador Song that is either exceptionally draggy or revelatory, depending on whether you dislike or like it. To bring off so unusual a Carmen successfully would require top-notch principal singers and a first-rate chorus, but this recording has neither. Marilyn Horne is aggressive and tight-voiced as Carmen, not seductive at all, and makes the sexy gypsy sound more like someone’s brittle maiden aunt. It is not that she gets the notes wrong but that her vocal characterization is so far from sultriness that the opera’s focus ends up being on Don José rather than on her. This could actually be an intriguing angle, but James McCracken is weak in the role, his voice being all right but rather colorless and his characterization being too bland and uninvolving to pull listeners into the drama. Tom Krause is fine, if scarcely outstanding, as Escamillo, but the best singing here turns out to come from Adriana Maliponte as Micaëla – and it is decidedly odd to have that part be the opera’s strongest. To make matters worse, the chorus – which at the time of this recording consisted largely of freelance singers – is no more than adequate, and the entire cast seems distinctly uncomfortable speaking French: aggressive mispronunciations are many, to the point of being an embarrassment to listeners who know the language to any significant extent. So what we have here is a peculiarly paced and oddly emphasized Carmen, with lead singers who fit their roles at best uneasily, a chorus that is of insufficient quality, and a performing edition that requires considerably more comfort and familiarity with the French language than the cast possesses. Even fans of Horne and McCracken are unlikely to find this a worthwhile addition to their collections, except perhaps for the sake of completeness. Fans of Bernstein may want it because of the comparative rarity of Bernstein opera performances and because the peculiarities of the conducting are so reflective of how Bernstein came across elsewhere. But that is at best a lukewarm recommendation, and indeed the whole musical quality of this recording, as opposed to its technical quality, is lukewarm at best.

     The case is much the same with the two Berlioz releases conducted by Seiji Ozawa. Ozawa was a Bernstein protégé, and like other such – Marin Alsop comes immediately to mind – seems never to have become fully comfortable with the standard repertoire, tending to overdo well-known works through over-frequent rubato and unjustified emphases along the lines of what Ozawa apparently considered to be Bernstein’s own way. Bernstein did abuse composers’ intentions a great deal of the time – his bitterly intense Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 is a good case in point – but he usually did so to try to delve more deeply into the music than he felt other conductors did. Even when he was wrongheaded in this, he was thoughtful and frequently insightful: it was easy to disagree with his interpretations but difficult to deny that he was after something special and unusual in them (this is even true of his Carmen). Ozawa, though, especially early in his career, seemed to go through the motions of being a “Bernsteinian” without ever having a clear sense of why he was doing what he was doing. In the case of Symphonie Fantastique, this is clearest in the first two movements, which are very well played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra but come across as rather indulgent, or self-indulgent. Matters improve significantly in the third movement, which hangs together much better than it usually does – and that in turn leads to intense drama in the fourth movement and considerable grotesquerie in the finale. In toto, the result is a performance that improves as it goes along, ending in a wholly satisfying way after starting in a less-than-involving one. For potential purchasers who are not dyed-in-the-wool Ozawa fans, though, there is a question about the value of a recording featuring only 47 minutes of music – nothing else is included here, even though the original Deutsche Grammophon release that PentaTone has remastered paired the symphony with Scène d’amour from Roméo et Juliette. On balance, however, there are more pluses than minuses here for listeners willing to accept a disc that contains only the symphony itself.

     The pluses and minuses are more evenly balanced in Ozawa’s La Damnation de Faust. Again, the Boston Symphony plays beautifully – the orchestra was at a high point of quality in the early 1970s – and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus is excellent as well, which helps a great deal in a work in which the choral elements are so important. On the other hand, Ozawa’s unnecessary tempo changes are very much in evidence – the unjustified speedup of the Marche Hongroise is one example among many, with the conductor apparently thinking that accelerandos are somehow guaranteed to produce excitement. Ozawa does have a good sense of the richness of Berlioz’ scoring – he brings that level of understanding to the Symphonie Fantastique as well – but his conducting is too uninvolving and at times even crass to make the overall performance effective. Stuart Burrows sings the role of Faust very well, with more subtlety and attentiveness than Ozawa brings to his podium role, although Burrows’ French pronunciation is not of the best. Edith Mathis has too high a voice for Marguerite – she is a good soprano, but this is closer to a mezzo-soprano role – but her interpretation is touching even if her actual singing is not really rich enough in tone. Donald McIntyre, unfortunately, is a disappointment as Méphistophélès: the best single word for his not-very-smooth singing is “loud,” his French is not very good at all, and he neither cajoles effectively nor oozes menace – instead, he comes across as something of a bully, and not much more than that. This makes the character uninteresting, which is one thing the devil should never be. On balance, this is a good but scarcely outstanding recording, with high points for its choral singing and orchestral playing, middling ones for Ozawa’s conducting, and a mixture of the good and not-so-good in the singing and characterizations of the main solo roles. Just as with PentaTone’s other releases in what it is calling its “Remastered Classics” series, there are interesting elements here, presented in sound that is just about as good as it can possibly be. But none of these releases is an unalloyed (or even close to unalloyed) pleasure, and certainly none is a must-have for listeners for whom the primary attraction of these works is the music itself.

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