SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

* “Music for a Time of War” = IVES: The Unanswered Question; JOHN ADAMS: The Wound-Dresser; BRITTEN: Sinfonia da Requiem; VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 4 – The Oregon Sym./ Carlos Kalmar – PentaTone Classics

********* MULTICHANNEL DISC OF THE MONTH *********
A superb first new SACD with PentaTone for the Oregon Symphony.

Published on December 10, 2011

* “Music for a Time of War” = IVES: The Unanswered Question; JOHN ADAMS: The Wound-Dresser; BRITTEN: Sinfonia da Requiem; VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 4 in f – The Oregon Symphony/ Carlos Kalmar/ Jeffry Work, trumpet (Ives)/Sanford Sylvan, baritone & Jun Iwasaki, violin (Adams) – PentaTone Classics multichannel SACD PTC 5186 393, 78:04 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

What a pleasure to again have a new recording from our excellent local symphony. The Oregon Symphony is one of the largest arts organizations in the Northwest, one of the largest orchestras in the nation, and this is their first of a planned series of SACDs for PentaTone. Conductor Carlos Kalmar, who hails from Uruguay and conducted for many years in Vienna, said in an NPR interview that he didn’t put together the unusual program (which the Symphony played in their recent Carnegie Hall debut) due to the country being in a war right now, but keeping in mind that the human race is always at war somewhere with someone.

The program of four works by 20th century composers is well-chosen to offer great variety in sound and compositional techniques, as well as provide a very moving and touching meditation on the idea of war and its awful consequences. The opening short Ives work for solo trumpet, four quarreling woodwinds and some strings starts things off with the question—perhaps of the meaning of existence—but with the heavy philosophy mitigated by Ives’ off-beat humor, making it all less tragic-sounding. The words sung by the baritone in John Adams’ The Wound-Dresser come from Walt Whitman’s experiences in the battlefield hospitals of the Civil War. It is an evocation of nursing the sick and dying with the greatest human compassion.

The other two works on the program get more symphonic/orchestral. The Britten Sinfonia had been originally commissioned by the Japanese government, who perhaps understandably refused it. Written in 1940 while the English composer was in the U.S. as London was burning, the work uses titles from the Latin Mass for its three movements: Lacrymosa, Dies Irae, and Requiem Aeternam. It has orchestral imitations of some of the sounds of war, such as the drone of aircraft engines and the dot-dashing of radio signals. The third movement offers some respite from the horrors of war. I’ve always found this work my least-liked of Britten’s, but the Oregon Symphony’s moving recording makes a strong case in its favor.

Vaughan Williams was known for his primarily pastoral three symphonies and other works when he shocked some British listeners with the premiere of his Fourth Symphony in 1935. Its opening is similar to the brash announcement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and the entire work is full of tension, dissonance and drama. The composer himself recorded the work in 1937—his only commercial recording. It’s not really a “wartime symphony.” but nevertheless fits into this program perfectly with its sonic equivalent of an avalanche of power, and the finale does seem to sound a note of triumph that is fitting.

Recorded during a live concert in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, the Oregon Symphony’s home in Portland, the rich surround sonics predict a superb combination of excellent performances together with first-rate fidelity for their new SACD series.  Every detail is well represented; perhaps better than in the actual concert hall (as also with the Telarc recordings of the San Francisco Symphony). The audience is amazingly quiet, or else the engineers did a subtle job of digital noise removal on the recordings. Without the applause and pauses between the works—of a live concert, one better gets into the relationships between them.

—John Sunier




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