Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le sacre du printemps (1911) [35:37]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D, with Blumine movement (1888/93) [61:23]
Australian World Orchestra/Zubin Mehta
rec. live, Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall, October 2013
ABC CLASSICS 4810847 [35:37 + 61:23]

ABC Classics ought to have told us more about the "Australian World Orchestra" in its outer packaging. Founded in 2010, it brings together Australian musicians from around the world, taking in players from the world's great orchestras.

The question is whether collectors need pay these recordings any mind. This is, after all, Mehta's third commercial go-round with Le Sacre, and his fourth with the Mahler First - and that's not even to consider anything that might be kicking around on YouTube. Is there anything here that's really new?

The Sacre, at least, is distinctive from the start. The opening bassoon solo, marked with tenutos on each group of sixteenth-notes, sounds unusually plaintive. A page or so later, the wind chorale led by the English horn is full and rich-toned.The high D-clarinet soars; the bass clarinet registers with beautiful depth. The sonorities bewitch the ear but are they right? Should a musical depiction of a primitive tribal rite sound so luscious? I like the effect, but the composer mightn't have: in his famous survey of major recordings, published in High Fidelity magazine in the 1960s, he took conductors to task for less.

Mehta's treatment of the busier, more intricate textures, where simple traffic direction is a priority, is necessarily more conventional; but he projects them with more rhythmic shape than one usually hears, especially the triple meters, which go with an undulating swing. Neither does the conductor's concern for tonal beauty preclude the requisite savagery: the strings dig into the repeated chords of the Jeu de rapt with real power and thrust. Some details go better than others. There are a few soggy landings — beginning with the downbeat at 0:32 of the Rondes printaniŤres — and the brasses are perhaps counting too carefully in the Danse de la terre to realize its headlong excitement. As compensation, the Introduction to Part II is really hushed, while the Action rituelle des ancÍtres projects a barely repressed anticipation, with a deft diminuendo. All told, this definitely improves on Mehta's earlier Los Angeles and New York accounts.

The Mahler First is "distinctive," too, but less helpfully so. Mehta plays the score in five movements, as he did on EMI, restoring the discarded Blumine to its original position between the first movement and the Scherzo. His characterful, almost pictorial approach no doubt plays well in the concert hall — the piece is a longtime Mehta specialty — but doesn't come across as well on disc.

The first three movements, while evocative, feel rhythmically infirm. In the first, for example, Mehta pushes forward at the start of the exposition, but allows some latitude with the pulse from phrase to phrase; by the end of the section, the tempo has relaxed. The cellos launch the repeat in this tempo, but the bassoon's answer pushes back to the faster pace. Similarly, in the recap, after a forthright fanfare, the next phrase (13:39) speeds up slightly. The effect is to undercut the movement's cumulative power.

That casualness in matters of pacing and structure is reflected in a similar casualness of execution, sometimes undercutting important points of arrival. In the first movement, the landing in the development at 10:01, setting up the quiet horn fanfare, is soggy. In the Blumine — which otherwise takes in many delicate moments — the back-and-forth among the parts after 4:28 is untidy. In the Scherzo, the downbeat at 3:14 that launches the rushing string chords is blunted. The Trio tends to move ahead as it proceeds, and the oboe is lazy with the dotted rhythms: they're almost double-dotted.

Oddly, Mehta's performance of the last two movements is altogether more cogent. In the Funeral March, I'd have preferred a still more moderated handling of the changes of mood, and the dotted rhythms again sound too "flip"; but Mehta keeps the accelerations for the klezmer episodes within reasonable bounds, while the Wayfarer episode is poised. The conductor integrates the diverse elements of the Finale's introduction into a long line, though the lyrical second theme maintains a chilly reserve even as it expands, and the little "development" section after the soft brass chorale at 8:17 feels a bit heavy. The playing is mostly fine, though the upper strings have a scraggly moment or two in the rushing figurations.

I don't know that I'd favour this set just for the Sacre, so this might be an occasion for selective downloading, if possible. In that case, try to find "lossless" files: you won't want to lose any of the fine sound reproduction in a compromised format.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

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