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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Suite from Billy the Kid [20:41]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95 ‘‘From the New World” [41:49]
National Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. live June 2019, Concert Hall, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts , Washington, DC. DSD

I have attended too many concerts at the Kennedy Center by the National Symphony to count and none of them have sounded like the orchestra on this recording. The acoustics of the Concert Hall from where I usually sit - first or second tier - provide a clear, if somewhat dry, sound where all the parts are audible. This new recording is both bass heavy and more blended than what I am used to, and one at times has to strain to hear underlying passages that should sound clearly. Granted, I listened to this disc on my regular stereo setup without the advantage of surround sound. So, my judgements are based on two channels only. Now to the performances.

I compared Billy the Kid with three other accounts in my collection: New York Philharmonic/Bernstein, San Francisco Symphony/Tilson Thomas, and BBC Symphony/Slatkin. Noseda and the National Symphony in general hold their own in this august company. Bernstein, of course, remains primus inter pares in this repertoire, even if his recording is beginning to sound dated—at times unduly harsh—and the orchestra has its rough edges. Tilson Thomas, on the other hand, is overall too muted with the distant recording not helpful. Much to my surprise, Slatkin and the BBC Symphony on a BBC Music Magazine cover disc has it all—a terrific performance with really splendid sound. He captures the various episodes of this suite almost as well as Bernstein. Noseda’s account is fine, too, except that the bass drum’s heavy thuds sound more like thunder than gun shots, lacking the necessary impact. The various woodwind solos, though, are exquisite. He has the measure of the music, but it is a shame the remainder of the SACD does not contain more American works, such as Roy Harris’s Third Symphony which sorely needs an up-to-date recording.

It’s an understatement to say that recordings of Dvořák’s New World Symphony are not thin on the ground. It would take an exceptional performance to make this a viable alternative. Although the National Symphony plays extremely well, with Kathryn Meany Wilson’s English horn solo in the Largo particularly beautiful, elsewhere the account has more bluster than personality. The Scherzo is especially disappointing with rushed tempos that nearly destroy the dance character of the movement. The horns counter theme to the first subject is almost buried and the last note not incisive. The beefy sound may have something to do with my overall impression, but comparisons with two older favourites are telling. Both Harnoncourt with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw (Warner) and the London Philharmonic account with Czech conductor Zdeněk Mácal on a budget Classics for Pleasure CD (EMI) bring this warhorse to life like few others I have heard in recent years.

As a memento for National Symphony concertgoers, this SACD is good enough, but it could have been much better. The orchestra has vastly improved under Noseda’s leadership. Their plan to record all the Beethoven symphonies following a series of concerts this spring will probably come to naught with Covid-19 pandemic affecting their near future. This is a pity because Noseda has recorded some superb Beethoven with the BBC Philharmonic. His account of the Fifth on a recent BBC Music cover disc reminds me of Toscanini’s way with the piece—I can think of no higher compliment to pay. The present disc’s booklet contains a brief note on the works by Noseda and a longer one about the conductor, colour photos, and full listing of orchestra members.

Leslie Wright
Previous review: Brian Wilson

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