On looking at this CD my immediate reaction was,
"Oh no, not again!" In all honesty, it has to
be said that the R.E.D. book would be substantially less overweight
without the cholesterol-packed surfeit of these pieces. It also
has to be said that companies wouldnít keep churning them out,
like so many Big Macs, if there wasnít any money in it. The $64,000
question is, "Who buys them all?" Iím blowed
if I know, but then looking at my own collection I find that I
already have two 1812s and no fewer than four Romeo
and Juliets - and this oneíll bring those scores to "three"
and "five". Seeing as I only set out to have one of
each, Iím not even sure where the others came from. Should I be
Anyway, one nice touch on this CD is the inclusion
of a much less well-known item to divide the war-horses into two
stables. Itís not entirely unknown, though, as Naxos already boasts
a recording (8.553856, no MusicWeb review available!) of the complete
Snow Maiden incidental music. The two versions of the gloriously
invigorating Dance of the Tumblers tend to be complementary.
Both the Moscow SO under Igor Golovchin in the complete recording
and NSOU/Kuchar on the present disc give it all itís got, which
is plenty! In fact, their timings differ by only one second. While
the NSOU finds more detail in the percussion, the Moscow first
trumpet leaves his Ukrainian counterpart stranded on the starting-line.
Golovchinís woodwind sound very remote so that, with the distinctly
"left or right" placing of the rest of the orchestra
in a murky recording, they are at risk of vanishing down the "hole
in the middle". Curiously, this is a problem with this number
only: the remaining 19 tracks sound fine. Kucharís recording suffers
the same tendency, but is much clearer and better balanced. However
thereís something badly amiss in the microphone phasing - headphone
listening is definitely not recommended!
Go to the start of the Capriccio Italien,
and that "hole" is well and truly plugged, by shining
trumpets, with horns to the right and trombones/tuba to the left.
Kucharís view is a thoughtful one, which is fine for the long,
slow introduction - and, by golly, it does sound slow. Itís only
Kucharís considerate moulding of the phrases and the central crescendo
that keeps it from seeming interminable. Yet, this is only
an introduction, a reposeful context which by contrasting them
is supposed to enliven the two dancing sequences. Sadly, having
successfully slowed our heartbeats, in the first dance sequence
Kuchar fails to quicken them again: these dances just donít catch
fire the way they do in Antál Doratiís hands. On the plus
side, Kuchar - and the orchestra - do start to wake up for the
Tarantella and happily finish on a high note. The recording here
is much better, although the sound doesnít really open out as
youíd expect in the climaxes. Itís not "congested",
though, just a bit "limited".
Romeo and Juliet is one of those pieces
that almost plays itself, which is a compliment to the craft of
the composer. However, the watchword is "almost"! For
instance, I heard a performance in Huddersfield Town Hall a short
while back (September 2003) in which the conductor tightened up
the bolts of the introduction. By injecting that bit of edge,
accentuating the real relationship of the themes to the "fighting"
main allegro passages, he took the music out of the cloisters
of "Friar Lawrence", where it doesnít belong, and into
the streets of Verona, where it does. All was quiet, but you could
feel that there was trouble brewing. I sat up in anticipation
- and was sorely disappointed! They forgot to deliver the "trouble"
This recording brought equal disappointment,
though for different reasons. Kuchar hovers in the doorway between
the cloisters and the street. He moulds the music beautifully,
and the playing is sensitive to his demands. The first big crescendo
is a cracker, with the strings bringing out some fizzing tremolandi
that fair set my teeth on edge and the horns cutting through magnificently.
Again, I sat up in anticipation - and again was sorely disappointed.
The love music is fine, the initial entry especially sweet, but
as soon as the big climaxes loom something goes badly wrong. Itís
not the playing, or at least I donít think so. The bass drummer
sounds as if heís using the fag end of a snare-drum stick: it
lacks dead weight, sounding more like an extra kettledrum. However,
thatís not the real problem, which is that the sound is all over
the place. I have the impression that every time things got aggressively
loud the recording engineer panicked. With the sonic "image"
wavering and wobbling like (I imagine) a gargantuan jelly on a
plate, itís impossible to focus on the playing. If I were you,
for cracking performances in top-notch modern sound Iíd stick
with Siân Edwards (EMI) or Claudio Abbado (DG). The latter
in particular, at least on my original LP, at the one extreme
produces some meltingly tender moments in the "rocking"
theme, and at the other has bass drum and cymbals thatíll bring
tears to your eyes.
By turns gloomy, pompous, nervous, jolly, boisterous
and aggressive - though not necessarily in that order! - this
performance of Marche Slav is about as energetic as you
could wish. Kuchar again shows his aptitude for crescendo-building,
and the players of the NSOU clearly enjoy every minute. However,
yet again the recorded sound is a let-down. Right from the gun
thereís a "corkscrewing" effect which seems to be due
to mismatched frequency-dependent microphone phasing, or something
along those lines. Towards the end, as the sound level hits the
top, thereís a "tunnelling" of the image which suggests
some misjudged selective fader activity.
Now, the finale, the warhorse di tutti
warhorses! I get the impression that the orchestra really enjoyed
playing this, which as a piece of graphic music is not half as
bad as its composer made out. Kuchar manages the awkward ebb and
flow of Tchaikovskyís patchwork of genius with a keen eye for
the overall drama. At the start he coaxes from the cellos some
playing of exceptional tenderness. Similarly, by finding more
dynamic nuances than many, he amplifies the lyrical interludes
into gorgeous full-blown balletic adagios - for once in my life
I didnít find myself getting ever so slightly fidgety, waiting
for the next Big Blast! Kuchar is also good at "pregnant
pauses" and, as weíve come to expect from the other pieces
in the programme, he cranks the crescendos emerging from those
pauses to terrific effect. The belligerent climaxes, with the
mottos of the opposing forces ringing out across the musical battlefield,
are attacked with considerable venom. In the recording thereís
still a slight but noticeable, nagging aura of nervous fader twiddling
- the acoustic seems to bulge and billow slightly, with instruments
prone to moving in and out, even in mid-phrase.
Orchestrally, the infamous dénouement
continues on the same plane. Now, I know that cannon and church
bells were indicated in the score, but that was for the intended
but unrealised ceremonial, outdoor performance. The actual first
performance eventually took place under normal concert hall conditions,
and there are no reports of any "special effects". As
far as I can tell, our modern obsession with the cannon and bell
effects dates from the pioneering Mercury recording made in the
1950s. Actually, I should say "two", because the original
was made in mono., and Mercury re-did the entire works for stereo.
Attempts in the concert hall to reproduce the "outdoor"
effects generally range from feeble to farcical, and frequently
encompass both. The thing is, if you canít make these effects
impressive, which is to say "utterly convincing", which
is not the same as "extremely loud", then itís
best to leave them out altogether.
In the recording studio, as Mercury so eloquently
proved, the implementation of cannon and bell effects should be
a doddle. On this recording, they get half of it almost right.
Rather than messing about with clutches of feeble orchestral chimes,
theyíve dubbed the clangour of real church bells. Itís a lovely
noise, but Iím sure it shouldnít continue right through the peroration
of the Russian quickstep and God Save the Czar - Mercury
were so fastidious, I canít imagine they got it wrong when they
stopped the bells as the quickstep started, with just one more
short blast of bells just before the end. For some reason, possibly
time and cost, the Naxos engineers have used a monophonic bells
track, a "haíporth oí tar" move which carves a chunk
out of the intended spectacular impact. I fear we shall have to
wait a while longer before we hear anything to match the awe-inspiring
depth, brilliance and amplitude of the Laura Spellman Rockefeller
Memorial Carillon, as captured by Mercury.
What of the cannon effects? I regret to relate
that they did attempt these. I donít know what they used,
but - certainly in the more exposed first salvo - it sounds suspiciously
like they went outside and recorded some irate businessman slamming
his car door. Youíd think, wouldnít you, that nearly 50 years
on, and with more new technology than you can shake a cat at,
that we could produce a convincing cannon sound? Well, it seems,
we canít. What a pity, but thank your God that the Mercury recording
is still around, and superbly remastered at that.
So many fine Naxos recordings now grace the catalogue,
but this isnít one of them, not by a long chalk. There is some
lovely and lively playing from the NSOU, especially in the Marche
Slav and most notably in the 1812. Kuchar is a thoughtful
and dynamic conductor who manages to find some new things to say
- which couldnít have been easy, given the content of the programme.
However, with a regretful nod in the direction of the engineers,
I have to say that the performers are not well-served by the recording.
I would even hazard, though this is to some extent guesswork,
that they did the recordings from "flat cold" - possibly
still in the process of setting up even as the tape rolled - starting
with Marche Slav and Romeo and Juliet, moving on
to Dance of the Tumblers, thence to 1812, and finishing
with Capriccio Italien. I could be wrong, but thatís not
the point. The point is that it sounds like it, and it
See also review by Paul