Review by Oakland August 2, 2012 (16 of 16 found this review helpful)
|I have listened to the Kitajenko conducted Tschaikowsky Manfred Symphony numerous times over the past two years. My opinions have evolved but not by that much. Out of the gate I found this recording to have far and away superior sound than other Manfred's I own but thought that the performance came up a bit short in passion, particularly the second movement. But recently I listened a couple of more times and I honestly can't tell you what my apprehension was about. Perhaps I have become acclimated to Kitajenko's interpretation or whatever but this Manfred is flat out my favorite performance of the half a dozen+ recordings I own.
I made some comparisons between three of several Manfred's I have on hand, Muti/Philharmonia/EMI (Lp), Kobayashi/Exton and Kitajenko/Oehms. Regarding recording quality, it is the sun lit clarity that separates Kitajenko recording from the rest.......especially given the complexity and the complex passages that are played at fortissimo. The transparency rivals what one might expect from a well-done chamber recording. And here's the possible rub, the clarity seems to exceed (on some levels) what one might find at a live performance?....depending on where you are seated. Of course, what some consider "clarity" others may find "etched". But I believe you may draw that conclusion only if you are using "recordings" as your reference and not a live experience in a good seat. As an experienced concert attendee I find there is nothing "etched" about this recording.
The transparency is most appreciated at the explosive fortissimo(s) that I understand are among the loudest ever written in classical music and certainly the loudest written by the Tschaikowsky. Whereas Kobayashi loud passages sound like a "glob" (by comparison) with Kitajenko you can make out the "molecular" components of the musical explosion. Its kind of like in the old days when we saw photos of Saturn's almost solid looking rings compared to present day photos that show the tens of thousands of matter, large and small, that comprise those rings.
But, and this is key, it is the strikingly black *quiet* passages that are utterly indispensable to transparency that make those loudest ever Tschaikowsky passages so *musically* effective and not just noisy music. For example, in the first movement there are three distinct stages. In between the stages there is utter quiet. The other side of that quiet is where the full orchestra forces come to bear. This is where Muti simply comes up short. The vinyl noise that is not bad at all, but it is still audible and cannot be excused after listening to the Kitajenko. Many have noted the incessant noises of Kobayashi on the Exton recording. But they have been understated. The man not only mutters but he snorts, hums, grunts, snores, blows wind (hopefully not flatulence), etc. But he also bangs the podium and induces near subterranean noises with what I think are stomps. The first times I heard this recording I did not realize what was going on. I initially thought someone was walking around the house before I realized what was being heard/felt were random and unintended thumps at probably below 30 Hz emanating from the system. I still managed to enjoy the performance and the sound. But I could never recommend it.
All three recordings, Muti, Kobayashi, and Kitajenko, have the same or similar "loudness" levels. But the Kitajenko recording has formidable "quiet" and is far more "aux naturalle" because it's more transparent. And this attribute is priceless in allowing intense appreciation of the extensive colors and contrasts that flow throughout this one hour symphony.
I now find that Kitajenko/Oehms completely outclasses the Muti/Philly and the Kobayashi/Exton SACD.
Some of the highlights:
There is detail for days on end. In the first movement the diamond like clarity of the juxtaposition of the violins and violas is as clear as I can recall in recent memory. The two harps are strikingly clear with sound quality to die for. The woodwinds are well placed on the sound stage and are never masked by the orchestra even at fortissimo. The gongs are as clear, well.... as gongs. The violins are oh so sweet, even when playing with unmitigated fury (as in a Francesca Da Rimini kind of way), without sounding stressed or over the top. The low end is as quintessentially captured as any recording that I have. The bass drum on many recordings though extended come across as being overly taut. For example, the bass drum in the Exton "Church Windows" is as extended as it needs to be, but it comes across as "high strung" or overly defined (like timpani on steroids). You can hear it but not really "feel" it, at least not enough for me. No problem here with the Kitajenko Manfred. The bass drum is "thuddy", I dare say a little "muddy", for lack of a better description. And you *feel* it in a most visceral way. That's what I'm used to in the concert hall. (I do understand that the bass drum can come off differently in different halls and/or with different percussionists or with different scores). The brass sound and execution is marked by flawless craftsmanship as in the start of the fourth movement. I don't believe I have heard better.
But to single out individual instruments or sections of the orchestra for praise does not do justice to this recording. Indeed, such praise might do injustice because from what I can hear or "see" no instrument or section is compromised in favor of another. You don't going away saying the timpani really sound exceptional but feeling that the brass was a bit over heated. The entire orchestra is as beautifully and comprehensive recorded as any I have heard, especially factoring in some passages, are as "noisy" and "frantic" and "loud" (all as intended) as you will find in classical music. (Important distinction given that I attended a great rock band face off a couple of nights ago).
This recording is at the same time explosive, thunderous, spectacular and *full range*. And the scale is massive as one can imagine in a recording while maintaining perfect sound stage aspect ratio. The finale of the first movement states the case emphatically all the while never sounding congested even at top speed. And while there are oodles of dynamic range, the micro dynamics may be even more impressive.
And make no mistake this is beautiful music. Why some have relegated the Manfred Symphony to second tier status is beyond me. (Indeed, some Tschaikowsky "haters" (for lack of a better description), consider him less than a top rank composer, even though often when you examine their collection they have more helpings of Tschaikowsky than any other. The pastoral third movement (andante con moto) is pure Tschaikowsky at among his lyrical best and the Gurzenich-Orchester Koln plays it as beautifully as I have heard. To Manfred critics I say keep you eye on the prize. Focus on the "music" and don't try to tie it to a "program" or "structure". This is especially true of the fourth movement.
The Gurzenich-Orchester Koln is clearly a top tier orchestra. For sure, no "junior circuit" or regional orchestra need apply when it comes to pulling off the very complex Manfred Symphony. I don't recall performances here in the Bay Area. And no wonder as the orchestra must be especially well-endowed both in numbers and musicianship.There are any number of orchestras here, and decent ones, too. But only the San Francisco Symphony is fully qualified to tackle this work in my opinion.
During initial listens I thought that there was a smidgen too much hall ambiance as if the orchestra was playing in an empty hall. Although in between movements there are clearly stirring going on as if this was a live recording. I think at least portions of this were recorded live. It was recorded over three days. In any event, chalk up my perception of too much ambiance to *me* having to "break in" to a new hall because that perception disappeared after just a couple of listens.
Right when you believe that your system has reached it maximum potential with respect to sound quality a recording like this comes along and makes you staunchly believe you have purchased not just a disc but an astonishing upgrade. A most impressive sound quality virtue about this recording is that speaker position is *never* given up or betrayed by the music or engineering. I mean, at some point, even in the best of recordings of large scale music, at a momentary lack of transparency, the music will expose the speaker, disrupting the illusion, if only for a few seconds for being what it is, just a speaker. But not with this recording. Some audiophiles find that suspension of disbelief is aided by closing their eyes. I am not among those. I find that even in the light of day this is a recording of exceptional transparency.
I think it would be an unlikely stretch for most listeners to prefer the Muti or Kobayashi for sound quality over the Kitajenko. However, some may find that they win for performance on points (no knockout). But not me. The alternatives may display more "fire" compared to Kitajenko in select passages. For example, when the organ enters in the last movement Kitajenko does not let all the ponies out of the barn, unlike Muti and Kobayashi who both pull all stops. Kitajenko's restraint done with intent and sensitivity, is still intensely powerful and I believe implemented to superior effect. Manfred itself is flush with passages of raging fire. The last thing that is needed, I now believe, is for the conductor to fan the flames with uproarious bombast.
Include the Kitajenko/Oehms/Manfred along with, as examples, the Pentatone "Music for a Time of War"/Oregon Symphony and Channel Classics Mahler 4/Fischer as arguably among the highest quality orchestral SACD releases I have heard or read about. And given the massive scale and frequency extremes of Manfred and performed before a live audience (at least in part I think) I view it a significantly more challenging orchestral recording project than those worthy Pentatone and Channel Classics releases.
Robert C. Lang
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