Saint-Saens: Trois Tableaux Symphoniques d’Apres La Foi, “Bacchanale” from Samson et Dalila, Symphony No. 3 (Organ). Paul Jacobs (organ), Utah Symphony, Thierry Fischer (conductor).
Hyperion CDA 68201. Total time: 75:15
Berlioz: Requiem. Kenneth Tarver (tenor), Seattle Symphony, Seattle Chorale, Seattle Pro Musica, Ludovic Morlot (conductor).
Seattle Symphony Media SSM 1019. Total time: 75:59
Aspects of America. Oregon Symphony, Carlos Kalmar (conductor).
PentaTone PTC 5186727, SACD. Total time: 75:26
Berlioz: Romeo And Juliet (complete). Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Phan (tenor), Luca Pisaroni (baritone), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor).
SFS Media SFS 0074, two SACDs. Total time: 97:00
Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (complete). Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Childrens Chorus, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor).
Deutsche Grammophon B0029360-02, two CDs. Total time: 89:44
By Richard S. Ginell
DIGITAL REVIEW – The last time I did a roundup three years ago of new discs issued at more or less the same time by symphony orchestras of America’s West, they were all programs of new, edgy and/or idiosyncratic American music. This winter season, the orchestras have aligned up again with new CDs but this time, all but one have backed away from the edge, sticking to European brand names from the 19th century – albeit with a rarity or two and some ambitious projects.
So let’s start with Salt Lake City and then head for the West Coast.
Utah Symphony – Under Thierry Fischer, the Utah Symphony continues to roar back onto the recording scene with a frequency that we haven’t seen since the Maurice Abravanel era, which ended some 40 years ago. So far, they’ve done it with Mahler blockbusters and a CD of world premiere commissions, recording in both their home base, Abravanel Hall, and in the famous Salt Lake Tabernacle where Abravanel set down the first all-in-America Mahler symphony cycle in the LP era.
While Fischer’s previous Utah recordings were issued by Reference Recordings, the orchestra has switched over to Hyperion for a Saint-Saëns symphony cycle (another first for an American orchestra) that complements Hyperion’s previously-issued Saint-Saëns concerto cycles. The rarely-heard Trois tableaux symphoniques d’apres La Foi that leads off the first volume of the cycle is a find – beautifully and often sparingly scored, setting scenes in a gracious, melodic Romantic manner with passages of mystery and atmosphere and a suitably grandiose conclusion.
The “Bacchanale” from Samson et Dalila, once a popular fixture at pops concerts and on records, serves as a suavely played intermezzo between the La Foi music and the actual opening of the Utah Saint-Saëns symphony cycle, the inevitable Organ Symphony. Overall, the latter is beautifully paced in a classically proportioned conception, but the organ – a digital one, apparently – sounds anemic in the subterranean underpinning of the second movement and underpowered in the grand C-major crunches of the fourth. Maybe this, too, should have been recorded in the Tabernacle, which has a pipe organ.
Seattle Symphony – For Ludovic Morlot, who leaves the Seattle Symphony at the close of the 2018-19 season, the Berlioz Requiem is the largest work in terms of sheer bulk that he and the orchestra have set down on the orchestra’s in-house record label.
The Requiem is a streaky piece in a grandiose package. It’s famous for spectacular outbursts that flood huge spaces with surround sound, yet the big moments are separated by acres of sparse meditation that can be a trial to sit through. Morlot keeps things moving along strategically, getting the work to fit comfortably on one disc; most versions require two.
In the mighty “Tuba mirum,” the monstrous timpani rolls are kept at bay the first time through, but on their second entrance, they come in with a titanic crash of cymbals, avoiding anticlimax. Tenor Kenneth Tarver soars fearlessly and luminously in the Sanctus, and the Seattle Symphony Chorale and Seattle Pro Musica sail through the contrapuntal choral sections with absolute assurance. The engineers get a big spacious sound in Benaroya Hall – exactly what is needed.
Oregon Symphony – While his West Coast colleagues stick with 19th century Europeans, Carlos Kalmar typically goes off on his own tangent with an adventurous program of pieces by five composers gathered under the title Aspects of America. Americans they all are, but what “aspects” of their country are they supposed to represent?
If we focus upon the central work of this program, Aspects of an Elephant by Portland’s Kenji Bunch, the concept becomes clearer. The piece is a series of quirky, mocking, ponderous vignettes that depict several men in a dark room touching different parts of an elephant and coming up with their own one-dimensional descriptions of the beast before a conciliatory Copland-flavored finale unites everyone. Now we realize that “aspects” should refer simply to the diversity of the pieces on the disc.
Sean Shepherd says his guiding inspiration for Magiya, a brief flashy prelude written for Valery Gergiev and the National Youth Orchestra of the USA, was Russian exoticism, but the language is abstract and fragmented as if the tradition had been thrown into an electric blender. Sebastian Currier’s fascinating Microsymph is supposed to compress a five-movement symphony into “only ten minutes” (actually 12:55). You could also call it a divertimento in the shape of a palindrome, the frantic opening movement giving way to a gentle ticking “minute waltz,” a brooding Adagio that dominates the center of the work, a tiny tumbling “nanoscherzo,” and a finale that mixes all of the above together.
Supplica by Christopher Rouse changes the mood immediately with a continuous, deeply introspective, thoroughly tonal threnody for strings, harp, brass chorale, and solo trumpet, good for displaying the dense rich sound of the Oregon strings. Finally, Samuel Barber’s wonderfully nostalgic/satirical Souvenirs serves as a dessert from the past; Kalmar catches the satire, not so much the lush nostalgia.
San Francisco Symphony – More outsized Berlioz from the West Coast, this time from the City-By-The-Bay.
With an eye perhaps fixed upon reports of falling CD sales, the SFS in-house label has been steering toward digital reality in the marketplace the past two years, releasing download-stream-only recordings during the year and just one physical album per year for collectors and holiday gift-giving. The fall 2018 entry from Michael Tilson Thomas and the SFS was Berlioz’s neither-symphony-nor-opera Romeo and Juliet on a pair of SACDs, taken from concert performances at the close of the 2016-17 season.
This Romeo shows off the high degree of polish that the SFS has acquired in the MTT years; every phrase is lovingly shaped, the drama inherent in the long orchestral orations brought out. If I do have a quibble, it is the “Queen Mab” scherzo which, however beautifully played, just jogs along in its path; it needs light-as-a-feather dashing and darting about (for the most famous example, check out the Toscanini aircheck).
The voices are young and fresh – the warmth of mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke in the Prologue, tenor Nicholas Phan’s agility in the Mab episode of the Prologue, and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni’s compassion and righteous authority as Friar Laurence in the Finale. The SFS Chorus again proves that it is one of the best in the world. The sound is excellent, but no texts are provided for the vocal parts (why not? SFS Media is not a budget label.)
Los Angeles Philharmonic – Gustavo Dudamel’s home base in America has been very quiet on the recording scene in recent years – puzzlingly so, given the Phil’s status as the best-financed and most adventurous major orchestra on the continent. Until now, only two Dudamel/LA Phil albums have been released on CDs. That’s two in the nine years he’s been in L.A., a glacial pace more common for rock superstars than classical conductors, and the handful of download-only releases at the beginning of Dudamel’s tenure has since dwindled down to nothing.
Now, under its new CEO, Simon Woods (a former classical record producer), the orchestra has struck a renewed deal with Deutsche Grammophon – and with it, a new release of Tchaikovsky’s complete The Nutcracker taken from concert performances in 2013. One wonders why this had been gathering dust in the vault for five years, thus losing out on five holiday seasons of potentially lucrative sales.
Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky has long been one of Dudamel’s strong suits. He embraces Pyotr Ilyich’s gusts of emotion wholeheartedly and attends to details that routine performances pass by. He does come down on the slow side in numbers like the Overture, “Arabian Dance,” and “Waltz of the Flowers,” but others race around rambunctiously where they should, and the LA Phil plays gorgeously with good rhythm. You would be fortunate to hear the music played this well when the Nutcracker ballets come your way en masse next December.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.