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Music for a Time of War - Kalmar

Music for a Time of War - Kalmar

PentaTone Classics  PTC 5186393

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical


Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question, John Adams: The Wound-Dresser, Benjamin Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem Op. 20, Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4 in F minor

Sanford Sylvan (baritone)
The Oregon Symphony
Carlos Kalmar (conductor)

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Review by Graham Williams - November 7, 2011

On 13 May 2011 the Oregon Symphony and their current music director Carlos Kalmar made their début at Carnegie Hall in New York. The programme, entitled ‘Music for a Time of War’, comprised four works – two by British and two by American composers. The concert received ecstatic reviews from the press including the New York Times, and Alex Ross the ever-perceptive critic of the ‘New Yorker’ called it “one of the most gripping events of the current season”. Fortunately the same programme was given in the orchestra’s home, the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall , Portland, Oregon, about a week earlier (7 & 8 May) and was recorded live by John Newton and the Soundmirror team for issue on this stunning PentaTone SACD that confirms the superb musicianship of both the Oregon Symphony and Carlos Kalmar.

‘Music for a Time of War' is an arresting tile, and it certainly does encompass the music heard on this recording, some of which is only obliquely concerned with war. True, both the Ives in its revised version, and the Vaughan Williams symphony were written in the 1930s when the spectre of war was beginning to hover over Europe, though in the case of the latter, the composer vehemently denied that the symphony presaged any forebodings of war. The Britten, written for a commission by the Japanese government in 1940, is a reflection of the composer's pacifism and dedicated to the memory of his parents. Crude pictorial representation was never a part of Britten’s musical ethos so I must take issue with the writer of the booklet notes who posits the fanciful notion that in the 'Sinfonia da Requiem' Britten was depicting the sounds of the Battle of Britain.

One unusual feature of the actual concert was Kalmar’s decision to perform the first three pieces without any pause between them. So even on this recording the closing bars of the Ives move almost seamlessly, and it must be said most effectively, into the Adams work, whilst the calm of the ethereal final bars of the 'The Wound-Dresser' are shattered by the huge drum thwacks that open the Britten. This striking and unexpected 'coup de theatre' will take many listeners aback, particularly when this recording has such a huge dynamic range – so be warned. The audience's concentration throughout is almost palpable thanks to Kalmar's brilliant programming, and only occasionally is one made aware of their presence by a discrete cough or two.


Though 'The Unanswered Question’ of Charles Ives that begins the programme has no direct connection with war it effectively sets the mood for what follows. The strings of the Oregon Symphony are quite breathtakingly captured by the recording team in the hushed opening of the piece, while the distant trumpet of Jeffrey Works is perfectly balanced against the almost holographic wind interjections. As the Ives dies into silence we move into what is surely one of John Adams' finest works 'The Wound Dresser'.This is a setting of a harrowing poem by Walt Whitman based on his experiences as a nurse during the American Civil War. It is magnificently sung by the baritone Sanford Sylvan whose close identification with the music of Adams is well-known. Sylvan's performance is profoundly moving and though the poem is printed in the booklet his immaculate enunciation of the text makes it almost superfluous. The sensitively played violin solos of concertmaster Jun Iwasaki also deserve particular mention.

'Sinfonia da Requiem' has already received two recordings on SACD, but in both performance terms and sound quality this is arguably the finest. Kalmar's pacing of the opening 'Lachrymosa' is grim and determined while the 'Dies Irae' that follows is bitingly sardonic and taken at a frenzied pace that tests the virtuosity of his players to the limit. The final 'Requiem Aeternam' moves forward more purposefully than on both the other SACD versions and its final bars are all the more radiant thanks to the glowing Oregon strings.

The 4th Symphony of Vaughan Williams has travelled abroad more successfully than many of the composer's works, particularly in the USA, where it has received acclaimed recordings from such distinguished interpreters as Stokowski, Mitropoulos and Bernstein to which Kalmar's must surely now be added.

The maelstrom of the opening movement is powerful and menacing, though it is slightly more restrained than some of the other versions that I have used for comparison (Hickox, Boult, Haitink and Handley). The bleakness and slow tread of the 'Andante moderato' illustrates both Kalmar's assured pacing of a movement full of contrasting moods and the responsiveness of his exceptionally fine players. The final two movements are thrillingly delivered. The 'Scherzo' has terrific bite thanks to the precision of the incisive wind and brass playing while the 'Finale' is driven forward with tremendous energy to its final crashing chord.

The Soundmirror team's 5.0 DSD recording is beautifully detailed and realistic, with plenty of air around the instruments. As I have indicated earlier, the softest pianissimos and the loudest fortissimos have been captured with ease, and in multi-channel there is an added spacious ambience – altogether this is an outstanding example of how a large orchestra should be recorded.

How ever many versions of these four works you have in your library you should investigate this rather special recording. Though Carlos Kalmar's interpretations of each individual work are very fine indeed, playing this SACD from beginning to end in an uninterrupted session provides an unforgettable 78 minutes listening.

I hope that it will not be too long before Carlos Kalmar and Oregon Symphony appear again on a further PentaTone SACD.

Copyright © 2011 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net

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