Some exceptionally interesting conductors have come from East Germany in the last several years. Klaus Tennstedt, without a string of recordings to precede him, has been so successful in the West that he has left the German Democratic Republic and has been appointed principal guest conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra. Kurt Masur, conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, was unable to accept a similar appointment in Dallas, but does appear in the West as a visitor, and is represented by several impressive recordings. Heinz Roegner, less well-known than the others mentioned here, has been compared with Furtwaengler for his provocative reading of Schubert's Ninth Symphony, recorded on Denon, Nippon Columbia's digital label.
Yet another fine East German conductor, and perhaps the most consistently satisfying of all, is Otmar Suitner, who has conducted opera in this country and is represented on records by a stunning "Marriage of Figaro" from Dresden (sung in German, Seraphim SIC-6002) and the more recent premiere recording of Schubert's "Alfonso und Estrella" from Berlin (Angel SCLX-3878). Import shoppers may be familiar, too, with his outstanding account of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for String Orchestra, with the strings of the Dresden State Orchestra, on Deutsche Grammophon Privilege 2538.232, a disc which for some reason or other has never been issued in this country.
Suitner now has recorded two Mozart symphonies -- the "Linz" (No. 36 in C, K.425) and the "Prague" (No. 38 in D, K.504) -- with the NHK Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo on Denon OX)7156-ND, a release which must take its place as one of the all-round finest entries in the symphonic segment of the Mozart discography. It is unarguably the best-sounding recording of Mozart symphonies from any source to date, but that would mean little if the performances themselves were not similarly distinguished. The point is that they are: There is not a conspicuously handsomer performance of either of these familiar works on any label in the current catalogue, and I do not believe there has been in the past, either.
Collectors who have Suitner's other recordings will not be surprised. They will expect the instinctive feeling for the true (or, in any event, the most convincing) Mozart style, the knack for making (one might say, in this case, allowing) every phrase to come to life in the most refreshing way without the imposition of obtrusive "interpretation," the unfailing sense of proportion, and the most elegant balance between precision and warmth of heart.
What may be a good deal less expected is the fine response of the NHK orchestra. It has always been regarded as Japan's finest, but that is still several levels below the European norm, to say nothing of the still higher standards prevailing in our own country. The strings are stronger than the winds, but their instruments themselves are not the best. What we hear on this record is not a great orchestra, but a very committed one, in which each musician seems to have been persuaded to forget his limitations and simply give himself to Mozart. Do not look for Viennese richness of tone here, but enjoy the impeccable ensemble and unswerving momentum of the dedicated playing. There is not a single superficial bar in these heart-lifting performances.
The virtues of the performances are, to be sure, enhanced by the quite remarkable realism of the PCM sound. You are not likely to have heard an orchestral string section reproduced with such vividness -- as free here from exaggeration as from distortion -- and the various choirs are ideally balanced; the winds make all their delicious points without any suggestion of artificial spotlighting.
While the whole digital phenomenon is admirable for its emphasis on real music and its restraint from gimmickry (remember all those ping-pong games and locomotives when the stereo disc was new?), Denon's repertory approach continues to call for special applause: lots of chamber music and symphonies by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert; while our domestic companies concentrate on the sonic blockbusters on the premise that nothing impresses like sheer decibels.