Thursday, September 07, 2006

CD REVIEW: Britten/Elgar, Cincinnati Symphony

Here's what must be called a rave review (I mean what else would you call a 10 out of 10 in both Music Quality and Artistic Quality?) by David Hurwitz of for the newest release by Paavo and his Cincinnati Symphony:
The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra; Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes
Enigma Variations
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi
Telarc- 80660(CD)
Reference Recording - Guide: Britten (Decca); This One; Enigma: Jochum (DG)

This is a spectacular recording, not just in the "blockbuster" sense of containing four big, splashy orchestral works, extremely well recorded, but also because Paavo Järvi brings a real point of view to music that many listeners (with good reason) assume has been done to death. Good as the sound is, and despite Telarc's reputation for same, this disc is not noteworthy primarily for its sonics. In regular and SACD stereo the engineering is indeed stellar, but the multichannel version is curiously low-level and diffuse. It's remarkable what variable results SACD technology still produces, even in the hands of the most experienced labels. So for the purposes of this review, I am limiting my comments to the standard stereo release.

Järvi without question offers the finest Young Person's Guide since Britten's own. It has similar energy and freshness, allied to similar continuity and flow. Often the work breaks up into individual bits, sounding too much as though the original narration is missing between the variations. Järvi insures that you hear the piece whole--but more to the point, and also like the composer, he does it by paying great attention not just to the timbre of the highlighted instrument but equally to Britten's sensitive and imaginatively colored accompaniments. Witness, for example, the atmospheric variations for horns, or harp, or the gutsy rhythms underpinning the violins. This permits the music to make its didactic points without a trace of pedantry, and the final fugue combines raw excitement with exceptional textural clarity to an amazing degree.

The Four Sea Interludes, which Britten never actually recorded in their concert versions, also reveal a strong sense of the conductor's individuality while being played as persuasively as anyone ever has. "Dawn" never drags but still preserves a certain dreaminess in its treatment of the brass chorales. "Sunday Morning" features a daringly quick tempo, but the Cincinnati players rise effortlessly to the challenge. "Moonlight" is the essence of cool stillness, and the final "Storm" erupts at an unusually measured tempo, the better to give the timpani and brass a chance to really articulate their ferocious rhythms. You will hear things in this performance that no one else realizes in quite the same way, and that makes listening a constant source of joy.

Telarc has done itself proud with Elgar's Enigma Variations. The label's earlier release, featuring Zinman and Baltimore, surprisingly earned a rosette from that paragon of the English critical establishment, the Penguin Guide. It will be interesting to see how those grey worthies react to this version, which is no less appealing and quite different. Within the context of basically swift tempos, Järvi offers a reading of high contrast. The more boisterous variations, particularly Troyte and G.R.S., erupt with phenomenal energy, but there's no lack of delicacy in, say, the beautifully realized accompaniment to C.A.E., or the charming Dorabella. Nimrod finds Järvi well-attuned to the need to create a real triple-forte climax without a trace of harshness from the brass.

The finale is uncompromisingly grand. Indeed, some listeners might wish for a less stately approach, but with the organ beautifully integrated yet still ideally "present", the overriding impression is of a triumphant apotheosis well-earned. There have been many superb performances of this piece: Boult and Barbirolli, of course, for the traditional English view, but also Monteux, Jochum (arguably the finest of all), Litton, Mackerras, and a handful of others. Järvi's performance certainly belongs in these upper echelons, offering plenty of special moments without ever violating Elgar's clear intentions. That is what a great performance is supposed to do, and these are, all three, great performances. Listen, and judge for yourself.

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