December 2022 Classical Record Reviews

Tchaikovsky: Symphony 5, Rimsky-Korsakov: Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh—Suite
London Symphony Orchestra. Gianandrea Noseda, cond.
LSO Live LSO0858 (CD). Nicholas Parker, prod.; Neil Hutchinson and Jonathan Stokes, engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics *****

Noseda's Tchaikovsky 5 offers a more distinctive sound than the customary generic polish. The LSO strings' soft-edged attack produces a nice, cushiony backdrop for expressive woodwinds and crisp, focused brass. There's no tonal bloat—those midrange horn chords don't carry an ounce of extra fat—and balances are exemplary.

Noseda's manner is appropriately forthright. The conductor sets tempi that allow a natural flow: a little faster than most in the first movement, a little slower in the Finale's main Vivace. There's little fussing with the basic pulse, even in the first movement's third theme, though Noseda can't resist added rubatos in the recap. The great horn solo is dignified rather than pulsing; the most expressive bit of that Andante, in fact, is the little "closing theme," while the coda is a wistful remembrance. If I must pick, I'd have liked a moment's setup for the Andante's two outbursts—Noseda marches straight into them without preamble—and, in the Finale, the orchestra rushes into the recap. Old habits die hard.

The opening bars of Kitezh dispel Tchaikovsky's rousing triumph into a mysterious ambivalence. Noseda elegantly inflects the first two movements' folklike themes and commits fully to the more dramatically pictorial writing thereafter; a particularly icy moment in the third movement foreshadows Prokofiev. Textures remain consistently airy, even as the sonorities expand, and open out resplendently on the way to the apotheosis. Translucent woodwind soli are fetching, though, after the brasses' final cutoff, the reed chord sounds flat.

The sonics marvelously convey the sense of instrumental groups occupying different areas of the space. The brass choir has a nice organlike depth, and, for once, the cymbals aren't permitted to cloud the textures in tutti.—Stephen Francis Vasta


Mahler: Symphony No.5
Czech Philharmonic, Semyon Bychkov, cond.
Pentatone PTC5187021 (24/96 WAV). 2022. Holger Urbach, prod.; Holger Urbach, Stephan Reh, engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

For many Mahler lovers, the heart-tugging Adagietto of Mahler's Fifth Symphony (1901–1902) makes or breaks the performance. A continually unfolding tender embrace that remains lodged in the memory of anyone who has heard it in Luchino Vicsconti's 1971 film, Death in Venice, the Adagietto surfaces after two movements filled with terror and dread and a third movement whose curious waltz begins to sweep the pain away.

Conductor Semyon Bychkov's recording of the Adagietto's uninterrupted flow of tenderness and longing—which may express Gustav Mahler's conflicted feelings about his pregnant wife, Alma Mahler—lasts for 9:30. But don't mistake pace for lack of feeling: Bychkov's timing is 1:42 faster than Leonard Bernstein's 11:12, but Bychkov's understanding of the sweet yearning (and, perhaps, regret) in Mahler's heart is unmistakable. Bychkov's version is considerably more moving than the recording by Franco Mannino heard in the film. Granted, there are phrases that, if Bychkov had lingered longer, might have caused the breath to stop. Nor do the Czech Philharmonic's strings possess the golden glow of the Vienna Philharmonic's for Bernstein. Nonetheless, the new recording, made 34 years after Bernstein's early digital effort, sounds far smoother and warmer.

Every ponderous step of Bychkov's open death march feels arduous. The gravity of the situation—Mahler's seemingly prophetic view of the arc of his own life—cedes to terror and anger in the second. 27 minutes later, Bychkov's brilliant take on the final movement's happiness and joy sometimes feels a bit forced, as though Mahler is trying to convince himself that the outcome of his long struggle will be happiness. The second installment in Bychkov's ongoing Mahler series, the recording is warmly recommended.—Jason Victor Serinus


Vaughan Williams: String Quartets 1, 2; Holst: Phantasy Quartet
The Tippett Quartet
SOMM SOMMCD 0656 (24/192 WAV). Siva Oke, prod.; Adaq Khan, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics *****

Vaughan Williams's two quartets demonstrate that the line between his English-pastoral style and his more abrasive, dissonant mode is not hard but is porous. The basically lyrical First keeps veering into foreign harmonies and evoking ambiguous moods; even its jiglike Finale bounces into the unstable minor for a bit. Conversely, the Romance and Epilogue of the more aggressive Second both relax into folklike motifs. The Romance's context is distinctly not pastoral, but the Epilogue turns bittersweet and ultimately settles peacefully.

The Tippett Quartet is attuned to the scores' lyricism and unsettled angularity. Attacks are appropriately incisive or gentle, with suave chordal entries. Unaccompanied solos stand out in high relief, blending unobtrusively as the other players join. In the Second Quartet's scurrying counterpoint, I'd not swear that every note speaks dead center, but the chords coalesce impeccably and the octaves in that score's Romance are precisely in tune. In fact, the playing is most impressive in that piece. Perhaps the dissonances kept the players on alert.

Holst's Phantasy on British Folksongs, arranged for quartet by Roderick Swanston, doesn't seem to quote any actual folk tunes, instead suggesting their contours and overall feeling. The composer pulls a metrical trick or two, as when the accompaniments to a broad melody "in three" suggest instead a broad, duple scansion.

If sound engineering is most successful when you don't notice it, SOMM has succeeded. The instruments are strongly present and clearly defined; the acoustic is unified without calling attention to itself. All I noticed was the music. (Downloads of this music come at every conceivable bitrate, from MP3s to high-resolution ALAC, FLAC, and WAV. A physical CD is available.) Bravi tutti.—Stephen Francis Vasta


John Luther Adams: Sila: The Breath of the World
The Crossing, Donald Nally, cond.; JACK Quartet; Musicians of the University of Michigan Department of Chamber Music and University of Michigan Percussion Ensemble
Cantaloupe Music CA-21177 (24/96 WAV/CD available). 2022. Doug Perkins & Nathaniel Reichman, prods.; Bill Maylone & Paul Vazquez, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ***½

To the indigenous Inuit peoples of the north, "Sila" is the spirit that animates all things, encompassing wind, weather, the forces of nature—what they call "the breath of the world. "Sila," however, also connotes intelligence, consciousness, our awareness of the world around us, and the world's awareness of us.

So says Pulitzer Prize in Music–winning American composer John Luther Adams. Adams has spent decades embracing the miracles of nature through music, first in Alaska and more recently in the Sonoran Desert of Mexico. His music has focused increasingly on the transcendent and metaphysical aspects of the natural world. Sila: The Breath of the World begins with a cascade of deep, thunderous roars, loud enough to rattle everything in your room that is not nailed down or glued. Slowly, drones of various low pitches cede to some higher up as music floats up from earth to sky, "grounded in the first sixteen harmonics of a low B-flat."

The music unfolds slowly, inexorably, and unpredictably over 57 minutes (more or less). So much transpires over so many octaves and levels that five ensembles are needed, each with 16 musicians including woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings, and voices. As Adams explains in the liner notes, the musicians surround listeners when the work is performed live, playing composed sequences in any combination, successively or simultaneously, either outdoors or in a large indoor space. Listeners are free to move around like doggies circling for their spot. Two-channel limitations aside, meditators and audiophiles who seek ecstatic experience more than ultimate transparency will find their nirvana herein.—Jason Victor Serinus

mtrot's picture

This Bychkov Mahler 5th is great, but have you also heard the Claudio Abbado Fifth with the CSO on Deutsche Grammophon? It's incredible, streaming in 24/192.