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Beauty, clarity and refinement - if that's what you want in this work
on 18 August 2013
The clarity and beauty of sound, and the fine control Jansons wields over his vast forces are the most striking aspect of this live recording. The famed acoustics of the Concertgebouw must have enhanced the transparency of Jansons' reading; his orchestra plays with both refinement and power and the massed choirs are simply splendid, shading their phrasing with exquisite dynamic gradations and bringing flawless unity to their singing. The children are especially admirable; there must have been a lot of rehearsal time devoted to the preparation of this concert and the result is the most homogeneous performance of this most challenging of works that I have heard.
The disadvantage to Jansons' conscious quest for beauty is that at times proceedings lack momentum - although I don't necessarily require Solti's propulsive wallop and the climax of Part 1 still really delivers, while the more ethereal, lightly scored passages which prepare the way for the transcendent apotheosis are rapt and radiant, greatly aided by the purity of the children's' voices; the resolution of the whole work is grand and noble without being really overwhelming, but that is of a piece with Jansons' conception and many will find it preferable to vulgar excess.
Previous reviewers have remarked as much; where I part company with several of them is in their assessment of the solo singing. The women range between good and excellent, although Christine Brewer sounds shriller here than is usually the case; some of her - admittedly almost impossible - sustained high notes in Part 1 border on a screech, nor is Camilla Nylund entirely free from that fault - or indeed wobble. Otherwise, the ladies are distinguished; Stephanie Blythe is especially and typically rich-toned. My gripe comes with the three male singers. Least disappointing is Robert Dean Smith, who is in good voice by his own standards. He never had an ingratiating tenor timbre and to me always sounds strained, but he avoids barking and makes something of the text. The baritone and bass are dreadful: Tommi Hakala proves to be the exception to my rule that Finnish singers are nearly always first rate; he is grey and forced of tone, while bass Stefan Kocàn is throaty and strangulated. Think of partnerships like Thomas Allen and Hans Sotin or John Shirley-Quirk and Martti Talvela and weep.
Plenty of other valuable recordings feature soloists who struggle with this cruelly demanding music and I don't expect perfection. Tennstedt is still for me the most successful of all in this mega-symphony but both his EMI studio and live 1991 recordings suffer from vocal deficiencies, as do both of Bernstein's accounts - although I think both more nearly convey the true spirit of the work. Some of the best female solo singing I know is found in Sinopoli's recording; his men, too, are less impressive. Maazel and Kubelik deliver versions from opposite ends of the interpretative spectrum and if I had to plump for one recording, I think I would buck the trend and go either for Sinopoli or that EMI studio recording by Tennstedt - with Solti in reserve for cheap thrills.