The opening concert to the 2012 Salzburg Festival could not possibly be described as an easy crowd pleaser. It is traditional for such a concert to have a theme and presumably this year's theme was Russian music. The opening two pieces were vocal which may have been quite a challenge without sub titles for the audience, especially as the Mussorgsky songs were in Russian and relatively unknown. The final item, Prokofiev's fifth symphony, probably came as an aural relief to many.
The recording itself is of a very high standard with detailed and crisp camera work which still avoids being invasive. The imaging quality is good with excellent definition and the sound is well delivered in DTS-HD Master 5.0. Stereo is also provided and comes as the default option which always seems to me to be strange given the likely home cinema set-ups aimed at. Very few manufacturers currently give the surround sound supplied as the default option. The actual sound is wide ranging and offers plenty of detail, depth of stage and dynamics.
The Symphony of Psalms opens the concert and is a setting in Latin of three short psalm extracts - psalm 38 verses 13 & 24 (Hear my prayer), psalm 39 verses 2-4 (I waited patiently for the Lord) and psalm 150 complete (O praise God in his holiness). Stravinsky chooses an unusual instrumentation for this piece without violins. Gergiev sets the orchestra out in a well-balanced manner across the stage between himself and the choir. As always his direction is precise and energetic and the musicians respond accordingly and the frequently astringent and rhythmically tight setting from 1930, described by Bernstein as a 'prayer with claws' is completely effective even though it is probably not the usual Viennese repertoire.
Neither would be Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death. This consists of four poems celebrating the ascendency of the figure of Death. In the opening Lullaby he comes to send a mother's child to sleep. A Trepak follows concerning a drunk peasant who falls down in the snow and dies of hypothermia. The following Serenade is the song sung by Death before taking the life of a sick young woman. The final poem, Commander in Chief, is set within a battle situation with a predictable conclusion. These are not jolly pieces but they are certainly effective in the new arrangement set by Alexander Raskatov in 2007. He provides three interludes which are placed between the songs and are intriguingly convincing scene setters. The tenor soloist, Sergei Semishkur from the Mariinsky, displays both his excellent voice and his dramatic communicative skills as well as possible.
The concert concludes with a performance of the Prokofiev Symphony 5 which is notable for its fast and forwardly driven pace. This demands, and gets, virtuosic playing from the members of the VPO both individually and corporately. Once more, this will not be regular repertoire for the orchestra, but it is delivered with great skill and accuracy bringing the concert to a rousing conclusion.
There are no texts supplied for this disc and no advantage is taken for the inclusion of subtitles. This seems to me to be a big mistake when so much of the concert is unfamiliar and in unfamiliar languages. Fortunately the texts are all readily available on-line which is where I downloaded the poems from in order to write a more detailed review as above. A missed opportunity here to make use of modern technology with a sub-title option that should be automatic these days. However, purchasers can do what I have done and download the texts from the internet without too much difficulty.
Apart from the lack of text problem as mentioned above, this disc seems to me to be just about faultless and is unlikely to be matched or improved upon in terms of repertoire, performance or recording for a very long time.
I would suggest that it makes a very tempting purchase for anyone interested in the program.
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