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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’ (1894) [75:15]
Anna Maria Chiuri (mezzo)
Regula Mühlemann (soprano)
Orchestra e Coro Teatro Regio Torino/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. live, 24 October 2015, Teatro Regio Torino, Italy
Reviewed as a stereo DSD64 download from NativeDSD
Pdf booklet included
Also available on two 180g LPs
FONÈ SACD157 [75:15]

How’s this for nostalgia – an Italian jazz and classical label called Fonè that uses vintage analogue equipment for all its recordings. At one end of the audio chain are valved Neumann microphones – U47, U49 and M49 – manufactured between 1947 and 1949; at the other is a Nagra 4S, Studer C37/J37 or Ampex ATR 102 tape machine. As they point out, those classic mikes lay at the heart of RCA’s Living Stereo recordings from the 1950s, many of which still sound superb today. Only the best analogue cutters are used for the LPs and the transfers to DSD – for SACD – are also painstakingly done.

Fonè’s founder, the impressively named Giulio Cesare Ricci, may seem a lovable eccentric, but he’s very serious about what he does. I daresay his methods will appeal to those for whom glowing tubes and spinning reels still have a certain allure. Indeed, some of the company’s fare is available to buy on quarter-inch two-track tape, so now might be a good time to look in the loft for that old Revox or Tandberg. However, servicing/spares could be a nightmare. I certainly loved my old Sony TC-377, long since lost in one of many cross-border moves. [Ditto a Series 5 Ferrograph.  Ed.]

Rose-tinted reminiscences aside, Noseda – who became music director of the Teatro Regio Torino in 2007 – is not a conductor one associates with Mahler. John Quinn greeted his BBC Philharmonic recording of the Cooke Tenth with respect rather than admiration; that said, Jim Pritchard was impressed with their Proms Seventh in 2012. As for the soloists, the Swiss soprano Regula Mühlemann’s Mozart was well received by Göran Forsling, and Paul Corfield Godfrey has declared the Italian mezzo Anna Maria Chiuri ‘a real find’.

It’s clear from the outset that this Resurection is going to be a ‘straight’ affair, with no unwanted histrionics. The first movement is generally well paced, if a little measured at times, and the playing of this regional opera band is good; what the performance may lack in volatility it more than makes up for in colour and detail. The sound is clean and nicely focused, and those weary of extreme dynamics will surely welcome a return to sonic sanity. Still, the bass drum is well caught, and there are no compromises in terms of presence or power. Indeed, the direct, unfussy nature of this recording makes one acutely aware of the artless, open-hearted character of this orchestra. And that’s a compliment, not a criticism.

As it happens, I’ve just been listening to Zubin Mehta’s classic Wiener Philharmoniker Resurrection (Decca, 1975) and I was surprised to find it quite similar to Noseda’s. In particular, I like both conductors’ unpretentious way with the score, something that others may interpret as a lack of character. Call me fanciful, but I feel the retro nature of the Fonè project really does invoke an earlier, more innocent age, when Mahler recordings were still comparatively rare. It’s a slightly disconcerting experience, albeit a pleasant one, and after some mental/aural recalibration I was eager to hear more.

Noseda has an easy, affectionate way with the ländler in the second movement, such lightness and transparency a relief after the expressive underlinings one tends to encounter here. In fact, it’s been a while since I’ve heard the carefree, Wunderhorn loveliness of this music so disarmingly done. I imagine the microphones – the ‘fairy-dust openness’ of the M49 and the prized clarity of the U47 – feed into this perception. Also, there’s a chamber-like intimacy to both the playing and the recording that’s most appealing. The harp is particularly well caught, and those ever-so-gentle pizzicati are simply gorgeous.

The Scherzo is no less attractive, offering as it does some of the most liquid woodwinds I’ve heard in ages. And as the sound is so revealing it’s very easy to pick up felicities of colour and phrasing. Happily, Noseda has a fine sense of the symphony’s architecture, and that, coupled with a decent pulse, makes for a consistent and compelling narrative. As ever, musical values come first, so the tuttis – often seismic in other hands – seem all the more effective for being so proportionately played and recorded.

Luce primigenia (dal Corno magico del fanciullo) – the Italian rendering of Urlicht, from Des Knaben Wunderhorn – sounds so musical, as does Chiuri’s limpid singing. Her diction may not be the best, but the intent is clear enough. As for Noseda and his band, in rapt attendance throughout, they play the music as directed – Molto solenne, ma semplice (Very solemn, but simple). After that the opening outburst of the fifth movement is certainly arresting, if not as ferocious as it can be. The brass playing is quite magical, and the soft bass-drum and tam-tam strokes are subtle but potent.

True, these regional forces are no match for Mehta’s suave metropolitans, but then it’s the refreshing rusticity of their performance that makes it so special. Still, they’re splendid in the timp-led crescendi – again, not as intimidating as some – and the swift tempi bring a pleasing sense of momentum and purpose. The offstage brass are sensibly distant, and the first choral entry really is misterioso, a celestial choir heard as if from high in the empyrean. I’m tempted to think Noseda’s experience in the opera house is responsible – in part, at least – for the palpable sense of theatre at this point. Mahler by way of Verdi and Boito, perhaps, and none the worse for that.

Mühlemann may seem a bit far back in O glaube, but then that’s the kind of perspective you’d get in the concert hall. As for that sudden harp flourish, has it ever sounded so like the clouds parting to admit a glimpse of heaven? The hushed chorus convey genuine awe in the face of impending majesty, and they cope effortlessly with the demands of that radiant climax. The organ is firm, if not especially powerful, and even if the cymbals, tam-tam and jangle of bells hint at the gaudiness of a feast-day parade this finale is still hugely affecting. But it’s the recording – free of all distortion – that’s the real miracle here. Indeed, it makes the Mehta one – also an analogue original – sound coarse and congested by comparison.

This is not the most electric Resurrection I’ve ever heard, but it’s one of the most heartfelt. Noseda’s unadorned approach to this great score reminds me of Leoš Svárovskı’s recording of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass; also made with a regional band; it strips away all the accretions that have taken the shine off these much-loved pieces. Indeed, hearing that and Noseda’s Resurrection is like experiencing this music for the very first time. In short, immensely rewarding all round.

A palate- and soul-cleansing performance, recorded in first-rate analogue sound; all hail, Giulio Cesare and everyone involved in this extraordinary enterprise.

Dan Morgan

Tech specs

Valve microphones: Neumann U47, U48 and M49
Mike pre-amplifiers, cables (line, microphone, supply): Signoricci
Analogue tape recorder: Ampex ATR 102 (30ips ½-inch)


 



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