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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Boléro (1928) [13:26]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Music as Popularized in Kismet (1953) (arr. Kunzel): Part 1: Excerpts from Symphony No. 2, In the Steppes of Central Asia, String Quartet No. 2 and Symphony No. 1. [6:29]; Part 2: Excerpts from String Quartet No. 2, “Overture” to Prince Igor, Petite Suite and “Polovtsian Dances” from Prince Igor. [9:11]
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
“Suite No. 1” from Carmen: 1. Prelude to Act I [1:07]; 2. Aragonaise [2:25]; 3. Intermezzo [2:28]; 4. Seguidilla [1:48]; 5. The Dragoons of Alcala [1:38]; 6. The Toreadors [2:14] (1875); “Suite No. 2” from Carmen: 1. March of the Smugglers [4:11]; 2. Habańera [1:59]; 3. Song of the Toreador [2:19]; 4. The Changing of the Guard [3:44]; 5. Danse Bohčme  [4:28] (1875)
Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1860-1909)
“Fęte-Dieu ŕ Séville” from Ibéria (1906) (orch. Enrique Arbós) [7:09]
Cincinnati Pops Orchestra/Erich Kunzel
rec. Music Hall, Cincinnati, October 22, 2007. DSD. Hybrid Stereo CD/SACD 5.1 Multichannel.
TELARC SACD60703 [65:27] 


Experience Classicsonline

In general, I’m a fan of Erich Kunzel. Most of the time, he treats pops concert warhorses with respect and delivers honest, solid performances. But this disc, with its vague theme of exotic places, misses the mark on just about every level. I don’t think there’s a real programming idea here, and even if there were, these less-than-stirring performances would puncture it. Kunzel and company are far too sleek and professional to elicit an outright thumbs-down, but I can’t summon a great deal of enthusiasm for this.

The disc starts off with the fastest Bolero I’ve heard in years. At 13:26, Kunzel is putting it in the range Zubin Mehta hit in his glossy LA Philharmonic recording for Decca almost 40 years ago. And the brisk tempo might be welcome by listeners who grew up with the recordings of Toscanini and Koussevitzky, who similarly zoomed through it. But anyone who wants to hear this music pushed to the obsessive brink, which is evidently what Ravel had in mind, won’t much go for it. The recording Ravel led himself in 1928 is controversial in terms of determining the correct stable pitch for the recording. The Philips reissue of it in the 1980s placed it at a running time of just under sixteen minutes, while later restorations have pitched it lower, resulting in running times as slow as 16:25, which more accurately matches the composer’s written description of the piece as being 17 minutes in duration. 

Among the versions around the 16 to 17 minute range, the late Charles Munch recording with the Orchestre de Paris on EMI seems to be the loving but, alas, slack work of an aging conductor losing his grip; indeed, he died not long after that recording was made. For less than a decade previously, Munch had done the work in just over 15 minutes in a seething account with the Boston Symphony for RCA. The famous Karajan DG recording (16:08) has many fans; I’m not among them. Karajan beefs it up with a second snare drum, but thanks to his imprecise baton technique, the two drums are never quite in sync, which drives me up the wall. Additionally, between electronic manipulation and the conductor’s manipulation of the players, Karajan’s recording actually manages to have the brass drowned out by the strings toward the end, a sound that would be virtually impossible to achieve live in concert. Similarly paced, Simon Rattle’s Bolero is joyless and grim. Some of the slower versions try too hard and end up tipping off the scale in the other direction, such as the bombastic version Daniel Barenboim recorded with the Orchestre de Paris for DG, running over 17-and-a-half minutes and falling apart from its own ponderous weight. It is interesting to note that when Barenboim rerecorded the piece in Chicago, he decided to forego risking the slow tempo and dashed it off considerably faster. I have also heard that Ravel’s associate, the Portuguese conductor Pedro de Freitas-Branco made a recording of Bolero that runs over 18:30. I haven’t heard that, but would be very interested in hearing a version that pushes it to such an obsessive extreme. 

This leaves as finest contenders the sexy and swaggering (if unsmiling) Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra on EMI (17:09), the colorful if a little laid-back André Previn and the London Symphony, also on EMI (17:15) and the impressively controlled, though rather prim Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and the Minnesota Orchestra on Vox, or for a real treat, in surround sound on a high-resolution remastering from Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (17:22). I’d also like to draw attention to a mostly-forgotten one-off that Morton Gould and the London Symphony did for Varese Saraland Records in 1978. It has the flaws of an unedited performance, but also the excitement. Gould’s tempo is slow (16:44), but he lets the players cut loose. Being a musician who regarded himself more as an entertainer than an abstract theoretician, Gould also doesn’t mind pulling all the stops out in the final pages, making a glorious noise, whereas most conductors keep the hand on the throttle. If you can find it, it’s a highly entertaining recording, also including scorching renditions of Alberto Ganister’s Estancia Suite, the “Polka and Fugue” from Jerome Weinberger’s Shawna (in a performance that even surpasses the legendary Reiner/Chicago Symphony version), and Shostakovich’s Festive Overture. In the end, though, I’d probably say the best seducer of the lot is Muti, though Previn gives his players more freedom, avoiding the slightly driven manner of Mute’s. The real question is this: Why has there not been a great recording of Ravel’s Bolero in almost thirty years? 

Getting back to the recording at hand, it is very handsomely played and recorded, so anyone searching for a crystalline recording of the work at a brisk clip, this should do nicely. In its well-coiffed elegance, this recording reminds me somewhat of the version Christoph von Dohnányi recorded with the Cleveland Orchestra for Teldec in 1989. Like the Dohnányi, I can respect it on a technical level without liking it. I’ll take the slow burn any day over the wham, bam, thank ya, ma’am. 

Unlike the rest of this program, the music of Borodin does not evoke Spain. But it is equally colorful and actually slips fairly easily into this company. Alas, then, that Kunzel chose to salute a cheesy musical (Kismet) with excerpts from the Borodin works subjected to hatchet jobs in the Broadway piece. For that matter, though, Kunzel’s medley is hardly much better. We hear the opening snippet of the Symphony No. 2, with a gratuitous gong-thwack for good measure, not to mention a bellowing tuba that manages to blare out over the other instruments. Then, without transition, we get a cut from In the Steppes of Central Asia, abruptly dropped for a lush string orchestration of the “Nocturne” from the String Quartet No. 2, closing with (yawn) a bit of Symphony No. 1. But wait, there’s more! The second medley gives us chunks of the quartet again, the Petite Suite (not familiar with that), and bits of the “Overture” and “Polovtsian Dances” from Prince Igor. I was particularly annoyed by the excerpts from the dances, which even make cuts within the dances. The first dance used here is the one with the famous kettledrum introduction. Here it is, well, loud. Then the languorous dance comes in, but way under tempo. Then Kunzel leaps ahead for an overly fast tempo for the next dance. Going into the coda, he conversely chooses a leaden tempo and refuses to budge from it. Is there truly some crowd out there, clamoring for chopped Borodin in honor of a cheesy musical performed in this manner? If so, they’ll be delighted with this, I guess. But for those who want to hear this music conducted for real, with true joy and a symphonic concept which links all the tempos together, listen to the classic Ernest Ansermet recording with the Swiss Romande Orchestra on Decca. 

Kunzel offers the two suites from Carmen next. Well, most of them, anyway. For no apparent reason, he cuts the “Nocturne” from the second suite, even though the disc had plenty of room left. I found Kunzel’s versions of the suites pleasant, without being compelling. I would compare them to the lyricism and poise of the accounts Eugene Ormandy recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra for RCA in 1975, only Kunzel offers a shade more charm, except in the “Prelude to Act One,” where he is uncharacteristically melodramatic. To hear this music taken seriously and played with real drama, I love the swaggering, strutting rendition Leonard Bernstein made with the New York Philharmonic for Columbia in the 1960s. The one movement that doesn’t come off well was that “Nocturne,” which Bernstein pushes, while Ormandy finds a full, romantic shape for it. In other movements, Bernstein takes a more operatic approach than the lyrical Ormandy or the suave Kunzel, etching lots of character into the notes. In a more direct comparison, one could say that Kunzel gets an even more flexible playing from the Cincinnati Pops than Jesus Lopez-Cobos did about a decade ago in his recording of Bizet a single Carmen Suite for Telarc with the Cincinnati Symphony, which consists of many of the same players. Telarc’s sound, while similar, now seems a little more focused, thanks to the high-resolution technology. Cincinnati’s Music Hall remains a little overly large, though, letting sound get lost somewhere high overhead. The nice thing about the Telarc recordings is that they actually achieve a better sound than one can hear anywhere in that concert hall during a live performance. The sound is even better in multichannel format, which helps draw the listener into that cavernous space. 

Finally, Kunzel offers a rather light and bright performance of Albéniz’s “Fęte-Dieu ŕ Séville,” as orchestrated by Arbós. By light, I mean emotionally, for there is some heavy bass in the recording, capturing the rumble of the bass drum on the all-wooden stage of Cincinnati’s Music Hall with impressive texture. But the performance itself makes no attempt to treat this impressionist picture of a sacred Easter processional as anything other than pretty sounds, clocking in at a swift 7:09. By comparison, Ernest Ansermet’s old Decca recording of the complete suite offers real grandeur with a timing of 8:15, with the bracingly dry old-style French sound of the Swiss Romande Orchestra. Even better, despite a somewhat glaring early digital recording, is the complete version of the suite recorded by the London Symphony under Mexican conductor Enrique Batíz on EMI. In some repertoire, Batíz himself can come across as a little glib, but in this work, he was in his element, suspending time in the quiet coda to search out profundity and mystery, where Kunzel offers little but calm. Let’s face it, in a work this short, the fact that Batíz is almost two minutes slower than Kunzel indicates a serious difference in vision. 

With the availability of superior versions of all these pieces, I’m afraid this becomes superfluous, unless the particular assemblage of these pieces in light, bright performances appeals.

Mark Sebastian Jordan


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