CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Boston Symphony Orchestra

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews three new releases by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, all under the direction of James Levine.

RAVEL: Daphnis et Chloé (complete ballet).  Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Levine.  BSO Classics 801.

BRAHMS: A German Requiem, op. 45.  Christine Schäfer, soprano and Michael Volle, baritone; Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Levine. BSO Classics 901.

WILLIAM BOLCOM: Symphony No. 8 (choral symphony on texts of William Blake).   Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Levine.  Lyric Concerto for Flute and Orchestra.  Sir James Galway, flute; with Levine and the Boston Symphony.  BSO Classics 903 (a stereo version of downloadable surround-sound material available at www.bso.org).

All of the above titles may be ordered directly from the Boston Symphony Orchestra at www.bso.org.

Brahms: A German RequiemThe Boston Symphony Orchestra, from its inception nearly 130 years ago, has always been one of the marvels of the American musical scene — through many stages of evolution and changes in leadership and personnel.  James Levine, who is also Music Director (for a long time, also Artistic Director) of the Metropolitan Opera, is now in his fourth season as Music Director of the Boston Symphony.  The tapes of concerts from his first few seasons sounded very encouraging, seeming to indicate that Levine was taking the venerable orchestra through a new stage in its development: one could only lament that the orchestra — once so prominent on records — was not currently making any recordings.  One need lament no more. 

The three of four maiden releases by the BSO under Mr. Levine (rhymes with “divine”) are, to my knowledge, the first instances of current material being issued on that label.  BSO Classics’ initial releases, over a decade ago, were devoted to the handiwork of Karl Muck and Segre Koussevitzky—including Koussevitzky’s marvelously spacious 1944 reading of Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony in a superb remastering.  These appeared more than a decade ago; there were also two CDs devoted to Charles Munch, the BSO’s Music Director for thirteen seasons from 1949 to 1962.  These were mostly reissues of previously available commercial recordings, as were the Muck and Koussevitzky items, although in the case of Muck there were some previously unpublished sides (all from acoustical sessions in October 1917).  But now the present is regnant; and the offerings are superb and, what is more, captivating.

Bolcom: Symphony No. 8William Bolcom’s eighth symphony lasts slightly over half an hour and seems to be a culmination of his long series of settings of William Blake poems.  It begins with a terrifying volley of percussion and travels through mostly atonal territories, with many tonal detours along the way.  Everything about the work, as the critic for The New York Times who reviewed the world premiere pointed out, is writ large.  The string section, and most other sections, are augmented.  The chorus screams, whispers, speaks and waxes lyrical. (It would have been nice if a text insert had been included, as not all of the words are readily understandable in the face of much vocal and instrumental “busy-ness”.) There are soprano and tenor solos within the chorus, especially in the third of four movements.  This symphony ends with a moving stretto repeating the words “everything that lives”, a mighty affirmation of optimism and of tonality.  It is probably a piece that makes a bigger impact on the listener in a live performance rather than on a recording: it is innately theatrical and, especially in the first two movements, rhetorical. 

The flute concerto is obviously a solo vehicle for Galway, and exploits the full range of the instrument.  The second movement seems to remind us that Bolcom, a fine pianist, is a man interested in popular music of other times—mainly his long-standing artistic partnership with his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, and their enthusiastic zeal in ferreting out forgotten sheet music.  In the first movement, the first “theme” — really, a series of arabesques and figurations — and its second, more lyrical counterpart — are not presented separately but are repeated back and forth, as if to emphasize the contrast between the two in a way not really possible in a conventional sonata exposition.  Bolcom writes skillfully for large orchestra, as he does in the Symphony No. 8, and makes for a most agreeable combination or orchestral and solo virtuosity.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has long been a persuasive advocate of new music, and it didn’t start with Koussevitzky, who made bold initiatives on behalf of a number of American composers — most of whom, be it remembered, not all that well-known at the time he came to them with requests for new works.  Even under the short-lived regime of Pierre Monteux, from 1919 to 1924, the orchestra played more new music and more new American music than any other orchestra in the U.S. at that time.  The recording of the Bolcom pieces seems to be a continuation of this proud tradition.

Ravel: Daphnis et ChloeThe Ravel Daphnis et Chloé is a delight to the ear from beginning to end, a performance characterized by meticulous attention to detail and color — and a performance that was fortunately very well-recorded.  Everything that goes into the performance — many well-played solos within the orchestra, the chorus, an infinite variety of dynamics and balances — is part and parcel of the piece.  This is, unquestionably, a benchmark recording of this score.

The choral-orchestral fusion shines brightest in the Brahms German Requiem, buttressed by a fine underlying tension throughout the 70-plus-minute work’s seven movements.  Vocal diction, whether solo or choral, is always clear; from the beginning divisi passages for lower strings that open Selig sind, die da Leid tragen (Blessed are they that mourn), there is a sense that something special is happening.  The steady tension in the second movement, Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras (All flesh shall become as grass), building up to a mighty contrapuntal climax, firmly holds the listener’s attention for all sixteen-plus minutes.  Both soloists are first-rate, and again this seems to be asserting itself as one of the more covetable recorded interpretations of this score. 

It is hoped that these are the first of many releases of the sound of the contemporary Boston Symphony Orchestra.  In addition the above titles, Maestro Levine and the BSO may be heard in a stirring version of Gustav Mahler’s sixth symphony (BSO Classics 902—like the Bolcom, a stereo disc version of downloadable surround-sound material).  It is indeed an auspicious re-emergence by an American musical institution too long absent from the presence of recording microphones.

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