From Chandos, we get what may be the first and last CD featuring Yan-Pascal Tortelier conducting the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra. It seems that no sooner had Meastro Tortelier taken the helm replacing John Neschling, he's now stepping down from the post. Well, even if this turns out to be the only Tortelier/Sao Paulo collaboration, it's certainly one in which everyone involved can be proud.
Florent Schmitt was one of the most fascinating French composers active in the early 20th century. Tortelier has selected one Schmitt rarity, along with two works that are among the best known and oft-recorded of the composer's. Starting with the tone poem "The Haunted Palace" (after Edgar Allen Poe), this is only the second recording of this music. Comparing this performance to Georges Pretre on EMI, Tortelier has taken things more slowly and deliberately. This allows us to hear more inner details of the score, which is interesting. But in the end, I think I prefer Pretre's leaner, swifter treatment -- especially as the score moves toward the final pages and where the music should sound more "manic" than we get here. Still, it's nice to have this piece in up-to-date sound (the EMI is from 30+ years ago) -- and with a better ensemble than the Monte-Carlo Orchestra was back in those days.
We now have a veritable embarassment of riches in terms of the "Tragedie de Salome" performances on CD. Just a few years ago, you'd be hard-pressed to find any choices beyond the classic Paul Paray/Detroit Symphony account on Mercury Living Presence. Then in short order, we've gotten the Marek Janowski/ONF reissue on Erato/Apex, and also brand new recordings by Sylvain Cambreling/Southwest German Radio, Sascha Goetzel/Borusan-Istanbul Philharmonic, Thierry Fischer/BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and Yannick Nezet-Seguin/Orchestre Metropolitain (Montreal).
Where does Tortelier come out in the competition? At or near the top, I think. This is a viscerally very exciting reading, masterfully played with precision and aplomb by the orchestra. Tortelier's musicality is really on display here, getting just the right balance between the quiet-yet-foreboding atmosphere of the Prelude and the "Enchantments of the Sea" sections, the thrilling excitement of the "Pearl Dance," and the drama and force of the final "Dance of Lightning" and "Dance of Fear." The conductor employs a female soloist in lieu of the oboe in one small but important part of the score, and this particular temptress sounds more sinuous than any other one on record. I wouldn't want to part with my Paray, Almeida or Martinon recordings of the Salome, but I have a feeling I'll be listening to Tortelier more often than any other one in the future.
The third work on the CD, the Psaume XLVII, is a blockbuster choral composition that deserves to be better known. The magnitude of the forces required (large orchestra ... large chorus ... soprano soloist ... organist) make it one of those pieces that's more "heard about than heard" -- and yet anytime it's performed in concert, the audience response is electric.
I find this interpretation by Tortelier to be quite interesting. In some respects, I'd classify it as very full-bodied and robust -- maybe even Teutonic in its style, which might be a bit surprising considering this is a French conductor with Brazilian performers. It's a more meaty, mighty sound than we hear with Jean Martinon (EMI), Jean Fournet (Fontec) or even Marek Janowski (Erato/Apex), but very convincing in its own right. I love how the conductor allows the brass to really play out in various different places (he does this in the Salome as well).
The canon section of the Psaume that starts about four minutes in is played more effectively than I've heard in any other performance, and the middle section, with its ecstatic soprano solo and soft murmering orchestral passages that contrast with the pugilistic power of the outer two sections, is breathtaking in its beauty. The soprano soloist Susan Bullock is also extremely well-suited for this music; she does a far better job than the disappointing account we have of Christine Buffle on the Fischer recording (Hyperion) -- that one is particularly ineffective -- or Sharon Sweet's heavy-handed account with Janowski on Erato/Apex.)
Mention should be made of the organ, however. While the instrument doesn't sound "bad," it doesn't come close to matching the genuine pipe organ sound on the Martinon/EMI recording (played by the legendary Gaston Litaize). Like the other more recent recordings of the Psaume, this one employs an electric organ, which just doesn't sound quite the same. Who could've expected anything else, as the Sao Paulo Orchestra's concert hall is a renovated/converted train station! As for me, having heard this piece in concert at the Washington National Cathedral with its huge pipe organ, I'll likely never be satisfied with any other treatment of the organ part, which is a shame because it plays a pretty important role in the work. This isn't a deal-breaker here ... just a bit of a disappointment.
Tortelier does take some interesting interpretive turns in the Psaume; he is rather more deliberate in his pacing in the beginning section with its jagged rhythms and ejactulatory choral exclamations. Also, the way he plays the concluding moments of the score is quite different from any other conductor on record or that I've heard in the concert hall. Some may find this unexpectedly surprising, but I like the different take and certainly can understand the merits of the conductor's approach.
As for the recording quality, it has all the classic trademarks of the "Chandos sound" -- plenty of reverb, but also good close-up presence. This is one of Chandos' new "super audio CDs" designed to play on conventional or DSD equipment. Some people aren't crazy about the Chandos "wash of sound," but it's never bothered me.
In sum, I recommend this CD for a superlative account of the Salome ballet, a very interesting performance of the Psaume XLVII that is effective on many levels, as well as an opportunity to hear a Schmitt rarity in the "Haunted Palace" ... in short, another winning CD from the Chandos classical team.