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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé: Suite No.2 (1909-12; 1913) [17:28]
Rapsodie espagnole (1907-08) [16:50]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le Chant du Rossignol (1913-14; 1917) [22:40]
L’Oiseau de feu: Suite (1909-10; 1919) [22:58]
New York Philharmonic/Lorin Maazel
rec. live, concerts, April 2007 (Daphnis, Chant du rossignol), September 2006 (Rapsodie, Firebird), Avery Fisher Hall, New York
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 7175 [79:59]
Experience Classicsonline

There is often a whiff of hype around Deutsche Grammophon’s marketing strategies, and their new ‘DG Concerts’ series is no exception. With covers distinctively marked like the perforations for concert tickets, the company invites us to ‘the global concert hall’, which turns out not to be a new venue but in fact just some more live recordings, in this case edited together from four different performances of each piece done at the same location in 2006 and 2007. It is in fact the manner of distribution which inspired the New York Times to describe ‘DG Concerts’ as “a seismic shift in the way music is being discovered, distributed and heard.” Yes indeed, DG has discovered downloads, and is now putting ever more marketing power behind this way of buying music, hoping to rescue them from stagnating sales of CDs.
Much as I prefer having a nicely designed and well produced object, something to ‘hold onto’, I actually very much hope DG succeeds in their strategy, certainly in making live performances accessible to a worldwide audience. Not many of us can make it to more than a very small number of world class concert venues, and being able to purchase a variety of programmes for a reasonable price is a good thing on many levels: economical, ecological and educational, just to give out a few of the possible e-numbers. The educational aspect is certainly not to be sniffed at as the booklet for this disc release shows. We can read on the background to each composer and their work, the narrative stories behind the programmatic pieces, highlights to listen out for including the occasional musical quote, pictures and more – much like a well produced concert programme: the one you don’t buy because it’s too expensive. So, there you go – we’ve already spared ourselves a ticket to New York, and the price of a concert programme. DG has also removed most of the annoying coughs and bloopers – if there were any, you’ve been spared the stress of having to sit next to Ms Perfume and Mr Garlic, or even having to go out to a record shop for that matter. If you have enough space on your Hard Drive, you can save the additional pressure of masses of jewel cases on your valuable shelf space or perfectly balanced ‘feng shui’ environment.
Only selected releases of this series are being made into shop stock. Being a privileged reviewer, I of course have the nice CD copy of this recording, which reads a satisfying 80:05 when you put it into your player. Within reason, downloads need have no such limitations of course, which could be another USP – fancy all those mammoth minimal works or Mahlerian masterpieces with no need to change discs. As for the present CD, the recording is highly detailed and transparent, certainly winning on most or all of the Hi-Fi criteria of stereo separation, dynamics, range and balance. The Avery Fisher Hall is a big acoustic, but you only really gain that impression with the solos in Stravinsky’s Chant du rossignol, in the beautifully played ‘Chinese Dance’ for instance. The recording otherwise has a gorgeously intimate feel that gives you the feeling that you are actually sitting in amongst the musicians, the audience being kept at a safe distance. The only downside to this is the occasional rustle of pages turning or shuffling feet, but on the whole the musicians are well behaved and there is no swearing or fights among the violas. My only complaint with the technical side of the recording is an occasional flutter of interference in the right channel on the Habanera in Rapsodie espagnole – probably a bass player having poked his spike through one of the cables. 
Holding such performances up to the harsh light of comparison is difficult. Being ‘live’, if not necessarily of all the same concert, there are inevitably one or two moments which might be better on your trusty studio album. I once remember an audience member, after a breathtaking Stravinsky performance at the Festival Hall conducted by the then not yet Sir Simon Rattle saying, “it wasn’t as good as the record...” We had a good laugh about that in the bar afterwards: ‘Stravinsky; The Album’, but in a way there is a serious point to be made. Our expectations will often, consciously or not, be coloured by a kind of ‘grooming’ from repeated listening to one or other recorded release of a work. The ‘single chance’ snapshot of a concert performance may thrill, or it may disappoint, and the listener’s subjective response to that performance will depend on an infinite variety of factors. The fact that this recording has such a very ‘live’ feel may excite or repel, but this factor has to be set aside when evaluating the performances. Once set as a recording, you’re either going to want to hear it again and again, or it’s just going to sit sulking on your shelf or somewhere in your computer.
My own personal response is ‘yes!’ For a start, the playing is tremendous. There are one or two mildly sour moments of intonation, notably in bits of Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, but there is some notoriously difficult and exotic orchestration to be negotiated in this piece so I can’t say I was altogether surprised – neither is it a big problem, I’m just being picky so as not to make this review turn into a splurge of superlatives. Like any good concert, one is carried along on waves of flowing and stretching musical time, from the one highlight to the next. The opening of Daphnis et Chloé is a microcosm of the whole – a magical build up, the principal violin standing out just a fraction too much, but showing the way in terms of dynamic rise and fall. Just the first minute is a marvel in its own right, and superbly paced and balanced in terms of harmonic weight, and the sheer wealth of orchestral activity – no one part of which is really leading, until the ear picks out that rising subterranean theme. The famous flute solo is beautifully taken, with some nice touches of hesitancy, and contrasts in tones both centred and limpidly dolce. The pacing might be measured, but the orchestra lays into the ‘General Dance’ with gusto, and there is plenty of the feeling that the madness of ‘La Valse’ is never too far away.
There is plenty of beauty and wonder in the Rapsodie espagnole as well, even if it hangs together marginally less well as a performance to my mind. Maazel is very good at emphasising the evocative moods of the music, but that temporal stretching might be considered to have gone just a little too far at times.
Lorin Maazel’s interpretations of Stravinsky are underrated in my view, and both of that composer’s works receive excellent performances here. The exotic marvels of Chant du rossignol restores the sense of the impact this work would have had on audiences nearly a century ago, and the playing both individually and collectively is stunning. Maazel is a violinist himself, and knows how to get the best out of that favourite effect of the string harmonics near the beginning of L’Oiseau de feu: no aimless meandering up and down the strings here. After that ‘het kan niet meer stuk’ as they say here in Holland – nothing else could possibly go wrong, and indeed, the rest of the piece holds up in just about every regard you could wish for.
This is a very fine release – live warts and all. I’m sure the ‘DG Concerts’ series will end up being a bit of a mixed bag, but there are at least always sampler tracks on the website from which you can do your shopping in an informed way. For a start there is a whole series of Prom concerts on offer, and by no means are all of the works what you would call ‘populist’ repertoire. If the standard is anything like as high as on this new release from the New York Philharmonic then all concerned deserve every success.
Dominy Clements


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