Béla BARTOK (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra (1943) [37:37]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Ma mère l’oye (1911) [16:42]
Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Romeo and Juliet (1869 rev. 1880) [20:06]
Japan Soloists Symphony Orchestra/Marco Guidarini
rec. details not given
TALENT DOM 2929 902sp [74:28]
Having greatly enjoyed Marco Guidarini’s Paysages recording for the Talent label I needed no second bidding to see what he would come up with for some of my all-time favourite music. Looking classy in livery which reminds me of an old LP sleeve, this programme is an attractive prospect which pretty much delivers on all fronts. I hadn’t heard of the Japan Soloists Orchestra, and there is no information on them in the booklet, nor on the occasion of what turns out to be a live concert recording. Aside from a few noises from the rostrum there is precious little to give this away until the instant applause at the end of the Bartók.
Having collected a rather substantial number of versions of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, my pre-programmed memory of the piece is something of an amalgam. What I can say from the start is that this performance is in fact rather good. From the atmosphere of the opening to the blistering excitement of the Finale there is plenty of crack playing, and Guidarini has a firm grip on pretty much ideal tempi throughout. The recording is good too – immediate and transparent for the most part, but with one or two rather subjective imperfections which in fact come across to a greater extent in the more revealing SACD mode. I might be being a bit picky, but the timpani can be a bit tubby and indistinct at times, filling in resonance rather than percussive emphasis. This is only the case above a certain volume level however, for instance in the Andante non troppo third movement: the subtle little touches elsewhere are fine. Be prepared to hold onto your hat when the tuba plays full force as well. I did detect one or two cleanup edits here and there, but for a live performance there are precious few errors, and the only little glitch I found was in the 4th movement, Intermezzo interrotto, where the first flute makes a mess of the end of that laughing phrase just before that raspberry trombone slide at 2:14, coming off the repeated notes one too soon. Perhaps the side drum is a bit loud at the opening of the second movement, but that’s really neither here nor there. All of the favourite moments are done very nicely – that brass chorale in the Allegretto scherzando, all of the lovely tunes, dark bass lines and instrumental solos are mostly done very well indeed. The benefits of the recording also allow little details to come through that you might not have noticed before, such as the inner string glissandi in the second movement. As a whole, this recording may not have quite the bite and impact of Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on RCA, which is also available on a SACD disc, but so far I’m not complaining.
Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye is another marvellous masterpiece, and again the team here acquits itself very well indeed. Gently atmospheric strings, mostly well intonated winds and nicely phrased solos all combine to make for a delightful listening experience. These are essentially light pieces, and Guidarini doesn’t go in for excessive point making, allowing the music to flow naturally and the colourful orchestration to speak for itself. The only minor points probably have more to do with the recording than the performance. The entrance of the gong in the Laideronnette for instance might possibly be considered a little too up-front and unsubtle, not really rising from within the orchestra but certainly an imposing presence. There is a mild, heavily suppressed audience explosion 51seconds into Le jardin féerique but again, for a live performance, this is a pretty clean sound and mostly good stuff. Favourite versions of Ma mère l’oye such as Bernard Haitink’s early 1970s Concertgebouw recording now available on a Pentatone SACD need not have too much to fear from this newcomer, but I can live with it quite happily.
Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet is justly popular, and once again the performance here is very good but not wholly world-beating. The wind chords in the beginning are close to being in tune, but miss out on being perfect by a few hairs-breadths here and there. The orchestral sound Guidarini obtains is rich and full however, and the ‘aaaaahhh’ effect of those marvellous progressions early in the work are beautifully expressed. The tubby timpani are back in evidence to a certain extent in the dramatic tutti passages which can be rather boomy, but you can blame that on the bass drum as well. With the orchestra at full tilt this isn’t really a huge problem, but the low percussion doesn’t do much more than assist rather than really drive the intensity of those rhythmic sections. The ‘big tune’ when it arrives each time is nicely done, as is the final apotheosis, but I didn’t immediately melt at the knees and fall in love.
As usual with Talent CDs, there are a few little funny typos and odd idiomatic strangulations here and there in the booklet. If for instance you are wondering what the text means by ‘the score is created’ or that musicians ‘performed the creation’, this refers to the première performance rather than a non sequitur reference to Haydn or Milhaud. This is one of those well-filled CDs which is nice to have for the programme, and to keep around as a healthy alternative to stop those oft-played old favourites from crusting up your mental pathways. The SACD sound is good enough, and certainly a more spacious and luxuriant experience than the standard stereo layer, which can even be a little congested sounding in places. There is no actual surround decoding mentioned on the disc, and I can’t say the multi-channel experience was vastly superior to straight SACD stereo.
Nice to have around, but doesn’t trash the competition.