TOP 500 REVIEWERon 20 March 2014
In these times when what we thought of as the "big labels" have all but ceased recording the major orchestras unless there is a popular tie-in likely to lead to immediate commercial success, music lovers and inveterate collectors can be grateful to the smaller independent companies who continue to release recordings gleaned from the archives of the world's broadcasters and featuring some of the greatest artists and orchestras in live performances.
The "Weitblick" series has been available outside of the UK for some years, but only now has a tranche of its extensive catalogue become available at reasonable cost via amazon.uk.
The series originates in Wiesbaden but is engineered in Japan and is targeted primarily at the German and Far East market-many of the issues are imported from Japan and Korea.
I have already reviewed releases by Tennstedt and Svetlanov and I have acquired the whole collection available at present and ordered more from the US site, but so far the crowning glory is this truly magnificent recording of Mahler's epic 3rd Symphony by Sinopoli and the SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra.
The recording is taken from 2 live concert performances in 1999 in full DDD sound which fully captures the strengths of the orchestra which on this occasion plays to a World Class standard and I have detected no imprecision. I have heard detail unfolded in this recording that I have never heard before, the brass is nothing short of magnificent, the strings are lustrous, the woodwind brilliant and penetrating and all the percussion is wonderfully caught-I do not recall the tam-tam and cymbals being reproduced in such detail and in perfect balance on any other recording.
There is perhaps a little lack of weight in the low strings when they enter in the first movement compared to the VPO or BPO, though no lack of bite, but this is how the Maestro has balanced his platform and it is a very realistic sound indeed.
Technically then it is utterly superb-the choirs and soloist (and WHAT a soloist!) are very well caught in a realistic perspective-the boys are not too prominent for once-and the offstage post horn (as ever these days in fact a Flugel horn) is very well balanced in a resonant acoustic conveying perfectly the sense of it being in the near distance.
The snarl of the Wagner tubas and trombones in the bold opening are a thing of wonder, and the massed strings in the finale are rich and lustrous, perhaps benefitting from playing with no vibrato under their obsessed Music Director Roger Norrington-here they are " let loose" by Sinopoli and give us their best " dirty string tone."
Technically then it is a triumph-in recording and musical accomplishment. However the crucial element is of course the artistry of the conductor and for many years Sinopoli polarised critical view, particularly during his tenure with the Philharmonia in London.
Some of the most vicious critical attacks I can recall dogged his every performance and recording while his adherents were all but silenced under the onslaught.
He did not endear himself by taking such a unique approach to his art at times-there is the famous incident where a rehearsal of Schumann's Manfred Overture consisted of him reading the whole poem aloud and not a note being played (if Carlos Kleiber had done this it would have been regarded as a sign of genius!)-but this was the artist and the man, and to my ears his performances were never less than fascinating and frequently exalted. (I really like his Elgar Second Symphony!!!!)
Thankfully, as the years passed, he found due recognition in Germany and Austria particularly, and it dawned on the chattering critics of the UK that they might just have been wrong!
His Mahler 1980-90s cycle recorded in London in "studio conditions" and now best heard re-mastered on a set available in Germany only and shorn of the poorly recorded Das Klagende Lied was overall a very fine achievement, though variable in quality-rehearsal times were short-but in that set he showed us a new face to many of the familiar works-his de-constructionalist Seventh Symphony is a triumph of original thought on the work-but as is the case with so many great artists we can now hear performing away from the studio (Karajan and Giulini in particular), we find that their live performances are far removed from what we thought we knew about them!
Sinopoli's Mahler 3rd with the Philharmonia is very good but somewhat routine-it survived as a separate issue for a few months only after its release.
This Stuttgart performance by contrast is little short of sensational- the ebb and flow, the changes of tempo, the pulse of the work are electrifying and this listener hears the work anew on every playing.
The opening statement with its allusion to the Brahms First Symphony in the horns (which returns in a slightly different guise as the main theme of the finale) has never been more arresting, and the slow process through the opening is riven with snarling low brass, penetrating percussion and plangent woodwinds supported by weighty but not over dominant strings-I have never heard it better executed.
The succeeding March of Spring is lively and well pointed, the great explosions of power that intrude on 2 occasions are just that, the crowds rush to the holiday revels as described by Strauss in the tumultuous middle section, and the finale accelerates into sheer joyous brilliance.
The second movement is elegant, wistful and picaresque by turns, the third is a jolly bucolic scene rather than the more languid one (if I'm truthful I prefer this movement a little more relaxed in the manner of Maazel/VPO) and is perfectly judged in that vein-and then we come to the concise 4th movement.
This is the one of only 2 recordings, both live of Waltraud Meier in this work, and in 1999 her voice was in its absolute prime. The recording does not result in the rather plummy effect that can happen with this artist's voice-a quirk of voice/microphone relationship-and catches every note in clean, detailed and unaffected clarity.
The most beautiful unworldly performance of this movement is for me by Jadwiga Rappé in the Rögner/Berlin Radio (DDR) recording, but Waltraud Meier's enunciation of the text, where she is not afraid to use deliberately ugly tone to emphasis a word, is overwhelming, and she gives the most impassioned reading of any. Her singing is scarcely less beautiful that that of Rappé and this carries over to the choral movement where the choirs are superb too.
Throughout Sinopoli could not be more affecting in his direction, and the finale opening brings a beatific smile to the face. The stately tempo is very akin to that of Bernstein in his second NYPO recording with as much emotional commitment, but the string tone is far better here and the acoustic is warm and generous unlike that of the unforgiving Avery Fisher Hall.
The final bars pack an enormous punch-visceral and emotional-and bring a conclusion that is totally satisfying.
The scale and scope of this great work that encompasses the emotional and spiritual universe in Mahler's conception is so varied in content that different approaches are possible, and there is an array of fine alternatives, though many are now available only as part of complete sets or are not widely available at all and need hunting down-but Abbado (VPO), Maazel (both VPO and Philharmonia), Boulez (surprisingly!), Bernstein (despite the recording), the aforementioned Rögner and Jansons/BRSO(only available in Germany) top my preference list, and I am not so fond of the likes of Chailly, Zinman, Haitink and Inbal-worthy all but overall a tad dull. I actively do not like Solti, Gergiev and Ozawa.
Michael Gielen's recording with the other SWR orchestra from Baden-Baden is a wonderful reading and sounds great-but the orchestra hardly plays together in the first movement, and the brass especially tire early on and there are more and more blips and fluffs as the work progresses which is a shame.
Tennstedt, Rattle and the venerable Leinsdorf all offer fine accounts, and no doubt readers can add more-BUT-if I were to be cast away on that desert island with only 1 recording permitted, it would be this one under review and I can give no higher praise.
At the price, it is a unrivalled bargain.
The (thankfully) brief notes are evidently from Japanese translated to German to English and have lost a lot on the way-let's face it, they've lost it all!-but it's the music that counts!
Don't be put off by the fact that it's not the VPO, BPO, BRSO or Dresden Staatskapelle-the playing IS world class!
Totally and unreservedly recommended. Stewart Crowe.