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Classical Releases: 'The City,' Mahler and Beethoven With Washington Roots
Following their remastering of Pare Lorentz's earlier "The Plow That Broke the Plains" and "The River," with music by Virgil Thomson -- films that influenced "The City" considerably -- the Post-Classical Ensemble has given this Copland score its first modern recording (conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez) and issued it on a bountiful DVD that includes a version of the film with the original soundtrack, a discussion between Joseph Horowitz and the filmmaker George Stoney, and a documentary about Greenbelt.
"The City" unfolds without dialogue, to Copland's score and/or a narration that, hokey as it is, sounds slightly better in the rotund, golden-age-Hollywood diction of the original narrator, Morris Carnovsky, than in Francis Guinan's retake. The film's four-part structure -- a pastoral introduction about country life, an anguished section about the modern city (belching smokestacks and all), a scherzolike interlude of traffic jams, and finally the ideal community -- let Copland stay clear and relatively spare, identifying certain sections with repeated motifs. The crisp new recording sounds great, though giving pride of place to the music means the narration is sometimes drowned out and the clarion sounds of the instruments don't always blend as smoothly with the on-screen action as the blurry, less distinct original. Nonetheless it's a worthwhile recording that deserves watching more than once.
Mahler: Eighth Symphony
Valery Gergiev leads the London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Choral Arts Society of Washington, Choir of Eltham College and soloists.
Valery Gergiev's cycle of the Mahler symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra is definitely Mahler for the 21st century: powerful, idiosyncratic, but also a little twitchy and nervous. This last trait certainly fits Mahler's tendency to spring from one idea to another. But hyperkinesis is an unusual quality in the Eighth, which is often seen as the odd man out in this oeuvre. You could call it the opera Mahler never wrote: Massive even by Mahler's standards, it involves huge orchestral and choral forces and eight soloists singing the final and possibly most enigmatic scene of Goethe's "Faust," Part 2. It's a piece that tends to steamroll listeners.
Whether because of its weirdness or its power, Gergiev saved it for the final recording of his cycle. But it would have been hard to predict the singular effects of bringing his moment-by-moment approach and a host of fine musicians (including Washington's own Choral Arts Society) into St. Paul's Cathedral for this performance and live recording. The mikes do all too fine a job of capturing the church's echoey acoustic, which has an alienating effect: It creates a halo of indistinct sound on the one hand, and on the other the individual parts emerge in relief, without the warm blend of a wood-lined concert hall. Recording here was going to be a challenge.
The result is oddly episodic. The sound is a consistent distraction. And the soloists (from Gergiev's forces at the Mariinsky) are only decent, not great, though they sing honestly. Yet the odd space also focuses attention on some moments of truly gorgeous playing from the orchestra: silvery flutes, shining strings and, at the end, an actual sense that one is moving into an otherworldly realm. The massed choruses are fine and strong. And Gergiev, forced to work extra hard to keep it all together, is less prone to interpretive foibles than on some of the other recordings in this cycle. This Eighth is a glass-half-full proposition; some will be put off by the sound and the so-so soloists, but optimists will find some fine playing in its favor.