28 May, 2009

Listening Log 29/05/09: Symphonic Heavyweights

Listening Log 29/05/09: Symphonic Heavyweights

In the last forty days I had been going back and forth between HK, Taipei and Fuzhou (mother's birthplace). Yesterday was my first real free day. From the Tsuen Wan library I obtained a stack of expensive (SA)CDs and settled down for some serious listening.

Dutch PENTATONE, in association with Dutch POLYHYMNIA, has been issuing a hugh number of SACDs, many in multi-channel. All their own DSD recordings that I have heard have excellent sound, though one may debate on their artistic merits. But they do have a stable of excellent musicians, like Julia Fischer, to cite just one. Pentatone has also been re-issuing older analogue PHILIPS recordings that have originally recorded third (and more) channels, but I'd skip those.

Slowly but surely, Pentatone is half-way through the Shostakovich cycle, all featuring the redoubtable Russian National Orchestra conducted by different conductors. From the two releases that I have heard, they are top-choice material, from both musical and sonic standpoints. I suspect the RNO is incapable of delivering boring Shostakovich.

Interestingly, although produced and recorded by the same team, in the same Moscow venue, the Jurowski recording has notably better sound. Fortunately for us, the interpretation is excellent. This is the first Jurowski recording that I have heard and I am really impressed. Music Web International has an excellent review that makes a great read. If the Shostakovich Symphony No. 6 does not eclipse memory of the magisterial live account delivered by HKPO/Elder recently, it does dig deep and have exemplary patience and control. I am even more impressed by the Symphony No.1, here given real gravitas by Jurowski that to me sheds new light on this early work. Jurowski's explored everything yet knit everything tightly together, remarkable for a young conductor! The RNO have this music in their blood and play magnificently. Recording is demonstration grade. I'd love to hear a multi-channel demo.

Symphony Nos 5 and 9 are conducted by Yakov Kreizberg and have received much critical praise. Perhaps because I am just a little jaded by the over-abundance of Shosty 5 (live performance and recordings) around I am less enthusiastic. This does not mean the interpretation is not good. On the contrary, it is excellent. Just to give one telling example: although the inner movements have about the same timing as Haitink/Decca, they feel more deliberate. This is because they are highly sculpted, with rhytmic emphasis that serve to impart feelings of gawkiness and, hence, protest under the jubilant surface. If you don't have a recording of the fifth, this is as good a place to start as any. The coupled No.9 (a difficult one to render right) receives yet another superbly structured reading imbued with gravitas, although the first movement does not have quite the effervescence (rightly or wrongly) of Inbal/Denon (also on Burmester CD2!).

Onto Mahler Symphony No. 1, not THAT hard to bring off but not that easy to achieve true distinction. Here are 2 live recordings. The Concertgebouw under Mariss Jansons (RCO; from the booklet, patched from 2 separate occasions) play perfectly (how can they not?) and Jansons has great structural integrity and precise articulation. Sonics too is excellent (also done by Polyhymnia), yet with all that to its credit, the recording misses just a little the all-encompassing quality that Mahler speaks of. "...the symphony must be like the world...it must contain everything...". Judged by Mahler's own words, which is as it should be, EdW's Mahler world mostly comprise only notes, sometimes with no apparent link nor direction; Jansons world has all the notes, much of it purposeful. But in Tennstedt's world (as in Kletzi/EMI) one feels a sense of journey. I prefer the Concertgebouw's playing to the Chicago, but under Tennstedt in this live recording one can feel the tremor in the heart, the calling out, the world. This live recording is only available on Japanese EMI TOCE-13107. Grab it ASAP. The sound is not as resplendent as the RCO release, but still very good. Warning: not for those who dislike slow tempi.

Much as I love Barbirolli, BBC Legends is scrapping its barrel in the issue of Beethoven Symphony No. 5 and Shostakovich Symphony No. 5, both with the Halle. The Beethoven is good but not as distinctive as his EMI Eroica. The Shostakovich is a Barbirolli curiosity, well played but not competitive today.

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