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This England
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
(In London Town), Op. 40 [15:02]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 5 in D major [38:20]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia
from Peter Grimes, Opp. 33a and 33b* [24:00]
Oregon Symphony Orchestra/Carlos Kalmar
rec. live, 18-19 February, *12-14 May, 2012, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, Oregon. DSD

Just last year I was seriously impressed by the album Music for a Time of War by Carlos Kalmar and The Oregon Symphony (review). My attention was grabbed not just by the quality of the music and the exciting, committed performances but also by the thoughtfulness with which the programme had been put together. This, their latest disc, is very slightly different in that, while the programme fits together well, this is not, I think, a single concert programme as was the case with the previous release; certainly the Britten was recorded at a different set of concerts.
Kalmar’s account of Cockaigne is a bustling affair; the music teems with life and colour, as it should. Once or twice I wondered if the fast music was being taken a shade too briskly, but to my surprise when I made some quick checks I found that long-admired recordings by Boult and Barbirolli actually take fractionally longer overall. Kalmar gives the sweeping, lyrical passages their full value and overall his reading of the piece is brilliant and cheerful.
At the other end of the programme come the orchestral excerpts from Peter Grimes. Here Kalmar plays the Passacaglia between the third and fourth interludes, an entirely appropriate decision since that is the order in which these extracts occur in the full score. ‘Dawn’ is tensely atmospheric and I admired especially the great depth of tone that the low brass instruments produce in their quiet chorale-like passages. The performance of ‘Sunday morning’ catches the gradually increasing bustle as the Borough comes to life. I was impressed with the way ‘Moonlight’ is presented; Kalmar ensures that what we hear is an evocation of an unsettled, even oppressive, moonlight. The Passacaglia is powerful and biting and then a potent, boiling ‘Storm’ is unleashed. Here the orchestra’s response is particularly imposing: there’s ample power and the accents and the percussion interjections are all delivered with whiplash attack; it’s all very exciting.
At the heart of the programme is Vaughan Williams’ serene Fifth Symphony. This was the first time I’d heard the work since I was lucky enough to experience English National Opera’s staging of Pilgrim’s Progress late last year (review). There’s so much of Pilgrim in this symphony, not just the direct use of material in the Romanze movement but also in terms of ambience, and I found it a very special experience to return to the symphony after seeing Pilgrim’s Progress live on stage. Happily, it soon became apparent that I was returning to the symphony courtesy of a very fine performance.
Carlos Kalmar shapes the first movement very nicely, imparting proper flow to the music. The E major episode (from 3:34) glows warmly, the Oregon strings singing and their woodwind colleagues blending beautifully with them and with each other. The central paragraphs are invested with welcome energy and Kalmar builds this section very well indeed (5:27 - 7:22). If I were being hyper-critical I think that the movement’s climax (from 8:34) is perhaps thrust home a little too firmly but it’s a marginal call and overall I think the reading of this movement is a conspicuous success.
The half-lights of the Scherzo are done really well. The playing is alert and atmospheric. I loved the crisp but soft interjections from the heavy brass. Here, as throughout the performance, listeners will hear an abundance of detail, which is testament to the performers as well as to the engineers. The glorious and moving Romanze is very sensitively handled. The Oregon strings sound very well indeed; there’s just the right amount of weight to their collective tone and the sound has a lovely sheen. Not to be outdone, the woodwind treat us to some refined playing - sample the passage between 4:24 and 5:11 - and the climax around 8:30 glows. Near the end of the movement Sarah Kwak contributes some delectable violin solos. For these concerts she was the guest concertmaster but I believe she now holds the position permanently; I’m not surprised if this sweet-toned playing is typical of her. However, it’s almost unfair to single out an individual soloist since all the solo work is beautifully done. Kalmar and his players give a deeply satisfying account of the movement’s hushed ending. In the finale Kalmar brings out the confidence and good nature in the passacaglia. From 6:48 to the end of the symphony the playing is captivating with the strings and gentle woodwinds displaying great refinement.
This is a disc of no little distinction. Throughout the performances the playing is excellent and Carlos Kalmar conducts all three works with understanding and flair. The sound is very good indeed - I listened to this hybrid SACD as a conventional CD. As I indicated earlier a wealth of detail is brought out and the sound certainly shows this orchestra off to best advantage - the percussion is excitingly present, as is the brass section. The one slight caveat I would express is that in the louder passages - such as the last movement of the Britten and parts of the symphony’s finale - the recording is just a little close. Perhaps a bit more space around the orchestral sound might have brought even more impressive results. However, this is very marginal and other listeners, using other equipment, may hear things differently. In any event, the recording is still highly successful and I wasn’t surprised to see that several of the same recording team that brought us the Music for a Time of War album were involved once again. There is no applause after the music and even when listening through headphones I couldn’t detect any extraneous audience noise: the music lovers of Portland, Oregon must be a more disciplined, considerate bunch than some British audiences I’ve encountered. Steven Kruger’s booklet note is detailed and informative though on occasion I find his style a rather acquired taste.
I was sorry to read on the orchestra’s website that in the current economic climate The Oregon Symphony has not been immune from the need for some recent belt-tightening, including the cancellation of their planned re-appearance at Carnegie Hall in May 2013. We must hope that the need for economies will soon be a thing of the past for on the evidence of the two discs of theirs that I’ve heard this is a fine orchestra, worthy of support. Happily, the budgetary constraints will not affect their planned release of a new disc in the near future and I await that with some interest.
John Quinn 


Review index: Vaughan Williams symphonies ~~ Britten Sea Interludes