New Recordings From The Bay Area

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Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

Are classical CDs and DVDs going out of style? Not in the Bay Area, where at least two organizations continue to regularly pour out live recordings of their musical offerings on their own labels on paradoxically old-fashioned, state-of-the-art physical media.

The San Francisco Symphony observed its centennial with a gala season-opening concert last September that was shown on PBS here a couple of weeks ago and has found its way onto a DVD (SFS Media).  It isn’t quite the complete concert – Lang Lang’s idiosyncratic star turn through Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was left off the disc (his exclusive contract with Sony stood in the way) – but what remains shows Michael Tilson Thomas deftly putting a mostly 20th century slant on this gala without alienating any gala ears.

Tilson Thomas reaches back to his association with Aaron Copland to turn in one of the best performances of Copland’s Billy the Kid suite in any format – tempos right on the dot, the high-kicking spirit of the street scene and sharp cracks of the timpani in the gunfight scene captured stunningly by the engineers.  Itzhak Perlman may no longer be quite the immaculate player that he was two and three decades ago – at that time, his playing was the closest thing to perfection that I’ve ever witnessed live from a violinist – yet he still has enough left to sail through the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with sufficiant elegance, no schmaltz, and incisive fire. There is a welcome nod to a living composer with a surprise encore, John Adams’s Short Ride In A Fast Machine, as a light show illuminates the Davies Symphony Hall walls. Yet the most satisfying performance of all is the electrifying trip through Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, which shows the SFS off as an orchestra with no individual weaknesses, piling strength upon strength. Not only that, the pinpoint camera work makes this segment a great instruction tool that every school should be using.  No narration for the Britten, and none is necessary; the visuals say it all.

Interspersed with the music is a potted history of the orchestra which expands into a one-hour documentary elsewhere on the DVD, breaking up the SFS story into categories rather than using a strict chronological approach.  Though conspicuously omitting any mention of the troubled Enrique Jorda era (1954-63), it’s otherwise fairly thorough, patching together a remarkable story of an organization that consistently planted seeds in the community and has grown more adventurous in its programming as it grows older.

The performance of Short Ride does double service as the encore to Adams’s Harmonielehre on the latest MTT/SFS audio release, delivered as always in sumptuous SACD surround sound.  The San Franciscans made the first recording of Harmonielehre under Edo De Waart back in 1985, marking Adams’s breakthrough into the international symphonic mainstream and away from the minimalist club. So this is their second crack at it – and it’s clear that a quarter-century on, they are a much better orchestra today. Tilson Thomas takes a less airy, more probing approach, getting darker colors right out of the Sibelius Fourth Symphony playbook in the second movement.  It’s a splendid disc, the only drawback being its short LP-like length (47 minutes) – couldn’t they have held the release back a bit and included Adams’s new Absolute Jest to fill it up? (Update: Absolute Jest will be recorded by the SFS in May 2013, so that might have made it too long a wait for release).

Meanwhile, further down the Peninsula, Music@Menlo has issued another of its jumbo boxed sets that preserve each of its summer festivals going back to 2003.  I don’t think we’ve seen documentation of a chamber music festival this thorough since Columbia kept its tapes twirling during the Casals Festivals in Prades and Perpignan in the early 1950s. The 2011 Festival was called “Through Brahms” – and these seven discs pack a lot of variety from Bach to Harbison with Brahms acting as a kind of a way station to whatever came before or after him.  Upon sampling bits from the set, I found that the performances, as in previous boxes, have a solid professional sheen and polish with a bit of a live edge – and the sound, as engineered by digital maverick Da-Hong Seetoo, is clear and warm to a degree that would have been unimaginable to Casals’s engineers in 1950. And if that isn’t exhaustive enough, and you have the time to spare, there are a whole bunch of videos and live streams from the last four festivals at Music@Menlo.org that almost make up for that trip you didn’t take to the Peninsula last summer. Almost.