This disc, from the Californian audiophile imprint
Reference Recordings, is without question an impressive listening experience.
The combination of conductor Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra has
now recorded several discs for the label yet, looking at the listing
in the back of the CD booklet, this one has to go down, its excellence
aside, as one of its least adventurous. A few tracks apart, it could
otherwise easily be mistaken for one of the endless compilations for
"relaxation" etc. that seem to be forever hitting the shelves.
The performances of the French works (especially Debussy,
Satie, Fauré, Ravel) are all satisfyingly idiomatic, including
Adam Kuenzel's lovely flute in the mysteriously English titled Afternoon
of a Faun (the same idiosyncrasy arises with Ravel's "Dead Princess"
yet not the Massenet and Gounod pieces!). I have to say that this listener
at least was distinctly underwhelmed by the works that I was less familiar
with, i.e. the Massenet, Gounod and Wolf-Ferrari. Massenet's Last
Sleep of the Virgin pales completely beside John Tavener's much
more recent "veneration" on the same subject matter and the others owe
a great deal to their respective composer's operatic inspirations (melodramatic
and ultimately lightweight to these ears).
Tchaikovsky is a much maligned composer in some circles
but the Andante Cantabile included here (originally drawn from
the first string quartet) confirms the genius at work (the aforementioned
Tavener has publicly expressed his preference for Tchaikovsky over Mahler
and I was reminded also of Louis Andriessen's recent comments, in a
similar vein, that a great composer writes music that is about music
not about himself). Tchaikovsky continually transcended his personal
tragedies in his music and this is but one example. Which, of course,
brings us on to Sibelius. If ever there was a composer who, Finlandia
and maybe the Karelia Suite apart, is totally inappropriate for
inclusion on this type of disc, then it is the Finnish master. The
Swan of Tuonela is one of his earlier minor masterpieces and fairly
unusual in highlighting the cor anglais but it is far more effective
set among more likeminded works (either of Sibelius' own or those of
kindred spirits) rather than in this present context.
This is probably a disc for audiophiles to cherish
(and play at dinner parties?) and one that someone newly discovering
classical music might gain a great deal from but for the classical aficionado
there is precious little here that will truly illuminate or enlighten.
The gushing booklet notes are rather over the top as well.