Our family has a saying: Whenever one of your dinner guests makes a point of proclaiming his honesty, piety, and wisdom, make sure you count the silver before he departs.
It is, unfortunately, in this spirit that anyone who purchases this SACD should read Kavi Alexander's lengthy description of the many trials and tribulations he encountered in the process of recording it. He begins by citing the Biblical parable of the pearl merchant, speaks then of the contentment that comes from fulfilling "sacred vows to his personal God," paints a compelling picture of Yuri Temirkanov as a man of honor, a chevalier, a Solomon -- like unto the very God of Abraham himself, forming music as Adam was formed, out of raw clay with his mere hands; does the same for the St. Petersburg Philharmonic; and ends by acknowledging the help of many others, plus the Grace of Our Lady.
And thus it may all have seemed to Mr. Alexander. The rest of us will hear a fairly routine evening with this fabled Russian orchestra, making its way through a difficult work in a hall that does it no favors, accompanied by an audience that is more concerned in demonstrating its collective ill health (tuberculosis? whooping cough?) than in attending to the performance.
Repeated hearings do allow us to realize that this is a pretty good rendition of the Mahler Fifth after all: there is something about the Russian soul, with its fatalism, its long experience with suffering, its willingness to soldier on, that infuses this performance with a special quality that Mahler would have recognized. Mr. Temirkanov is a good conductor, and he was obviously working with a vision that he strove to realize in spite of all the obstacles thrown up by an indifferent universe (sorry, I'm starting to sound like Mr. Alexander!).
But, oh the HYPE slathered onto this project by its producer and by Water Lily Acoustics (and by a couple of the high-end audio rags)! Have they no shame? Here are the undeniable basic facts about this recording:
1. Balances throughout are problematic, perhaps because of a shallow stage that forces the orchestra to seat all its winds and percussion on the far right. Hence they can blow away the strings whenever they wish, and they do so fairly often.
2. The recorded string sound is soupy, distant and amorphous.
3. There are frequent ensemble problems, both within and between sections. Some of these are the sort of thing ordinarily cleaned up in studio recording sessions with inserts, but some sound like the players were simply not up to their task, or were caught off guard.
4. The audience coughs continually, and often quite loudly. This is more distracting than you would think, because it implies that they aren't particularly involved with the performance! There is one real bronchial explosion toward the beginning of the Adagietto which is especially disconcerting.
I could go on, but you get the picture. Oh, what the heck, I will go on. The recording was made in 2-channel DSD using a Tascam DS-D98; although the booklet proudly proclaims that "no noise reduction, equalization, compression, or limiting of any sort was used," it is a plain fact that the producers could only come up with a five-channel version by chopping and dicing the original two. The result is not bad, except it has produced the comic effect of seating all the audience coughers among the violins and violas.
I probably won't get rid of this CD. At its heart, there's an interesting and occasionally moving performance. But goodness, why did anyone promote this as the millenial event that it isn't?