It's no secret to readers of this newspaper that -- compared to their concert performances -- the recordings of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and David Zinman for the Telarc label have been disappointments.
Part of the problem seems to have been the performances themselves -- performing for microphones is not the same as performing for people, and the BSO is not exactly a frequent visitor to the recording studio. But at least as important a reason is that Telarc's engineers did not seem to know how to record in Meyerhoff Hall. The BSO's records -- unlike the same company's records in Atlanta or Cleveland -- have had a generally constricted sound that went hand in hand with Zinman and the orchestra's somewhat inhibited performances.
Until now, that is.
A new Telarc recording by Zinman and the BSO of Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" is not only the best recording they've ever made -- both sonically and interpretively -- but among the best performances of the work ever recorded.
The sound is gorgeously full-bodied and finely detailed. In the final "Witches' Sabbath," the wood of the bows strikes the strings with a vividness that suggests the rattling of skeletons, the doom-laden bells fairly leap from the loudspeakers and the snarling lower brass in the "Dies Iraes" has an incisive edge that is perhaps the most impressive this listener has heard.
It's interesting to compare Zinman's interpretation with those of Lorin Maazel (also on Telarc) and Christoph von Dohnanyi with the Cleveland Orchestra (London). Under Maazel and Dohnanyi, the Cleveland sounds like the great orchestra it is, but the interpretations sound flat compared to this new one. (The BSO, of course, has more of a French tradition than the Clevelanders, and Berlioz was one of Sergiu Comissiona's specialties.)
Zinman is able -- without distorting idiosyncrasies -- to breathe fresh life into an overplayed work. In the opening of the first movement, for example, Zinman holds back just a little and is able to create a delicate sense of mystery and foreboding that escapes Maazel and Dohnanyi. If the BSO's music director does not match the yearningly dreamy quality that Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony (London) create, neither does anyone else, and the Zinman-BSO version is more exciting in the passionate second half of the first movement.
Zinman's wonderful performance, at once so swaggering and so classically proportioned, can only be compared to the best performances ever recorded -- to those of Charles Munch, Pierre Monteux and Sir Thomas Beecham. It will be interesting to see how this record will be reviewed in the national and international press. Will it be recognized as the wonderful performance it is, or will the admittedly second-tier reputation of orchestra and conductor prevent reviewers from listening with unprejudiced ears?
This listener's ears certainly were prejudiced in favor of Roger Norrington's first recording of Mozart -- of Symphonies Nos. 39 and 41 ("The Jupiter") on EMI-Angel -- with the London Classical Players. And why not? This team's earlier efforts -- whether of Beethoven, Schumann or Berlioz -- are high-water marks in the history of the authenticity-in-music movement. But this disc is something of a mystery. How can the same conductor produce a performance of the Symphony No. 39 that is so good and one of the "Jupiter" that is so mediocre?
In No. 39, Norrington and his crack team of instrumentalists are at their best. This is excitingly lean and mean Mozart that elucidates every line of the music, with wonderfully brisk tempos, the clear articulation that can be produced on the older woodwind and string instruments and the hard-edged bite of authentic timpani.
But the "Jupiter" is a bore. The fugal finale of this symphony is in a sense an extended meditation on the music of J. S. Bach. But although one would expect Norrington and the Classical Players to be at their best here, the finale is a mess. The darting lines of Mozart's counterpoint have rarely sounded so phlegmatic and the majesty of the music is merely muddied.
One case in which results match expectations is Bernard Haitink's recent recording of Bruckner's Symphony No. 3 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Philips). Haitink is one of the greatest of Brucknerians (his earlier recorded cycle with the Concertgebouw is a landmark) and the Vienna Philharmonic possesses a Bruckner tradition that goes back to the composer himself.
This is the best performance of this symphony this listener knows. The Symphony No. 3 may not be the greatest of the Bruckner symphonies -- it may not even be a great symphony -- but Haitink and the great Viennese orchestra convince one to think otherwise. As always with Haitink, there is no striving after effect as there sometimes was with that other great Brucknerian, the late Herbert von Karajan. Haitink's pulse is steady, his vision is long-lined, his response to the music is always ardent and the playing of his orchestra is nothing less than stupendous.