THERE ARE still many "basic repertory" orchestral works awaiting their first digital recordings, and very few that have been recorded digitally more than once. The latest digital duplication is a new Deutsche Grammophon release on which Gidon Kremer plays Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto and "Seranade Melancolique" with the Berlin Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel (2532.001; cassette 3302.001).
It competes directly with Denon's 1977 recording of the same two works with Jean-Jacques Kantorow as soloist and Akeo Watanabe conducting the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra (OX-7103-ND). Kantorow is not the high-powered fiddler Kremer is, and the Tokyo orchestra is not in the same league as the Berlin Philharmonic, but the Denon disc is by far the more satisfying of the two.
While Kremer and Maazel appear to have met in the studio and not really adjusted to each other, Kantorow and Watanabe are in full accord throughout both works. Maazel seems reluctant to go along with Kremer's all-out drama and passion on the Concerto, and he just ambles along in the Serenade while Kremer pours on the emotion. Kantorow takes a more patrician approach (rather like Grumiaux in this respect) which is especially welcome in the rather innocent little Serenade, a piece that benefits from poise and subtlety and tends to wilt under the excessive overlay Kremer applies. Watanabe makes the most of the delicious material Tchaikovsky wrote for the woodwinds, and there is a real sense of give-and-take commitment between him and Kantorow.
Of course, if you don't insist on a digital recording, there are more than a few excellent analogue versions of the Tchaikovsky Concerto. One of the best is Itzhak Perlman's third time around, with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and with the same additional piece that is offered by Kremer and Kantorow (Angel SZ-37640).
To say the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra is not in the same league as the Berlin Philharmonic is hardly a put-down. The Japanese orchestra was good enough in 1972 to inaugurate the digital era with a more than respectable "Pictures at an Exhibition," conducted by Louis Fremaux, and it has improved steadily since then, as you can hear for yourself on the stunning new Denon disc of French favorites under another French conductor, Jean Fournet (OX-7213-ND).
The program comprises a tastefully voluptuous performance of Debussy's "The Afternoon of a Faun" and the digital premieres of "la Valse" by Ravel, "Escales" by Jacques Ibert and Chabrier's marvelous "Espana." Fournet is an expert at this sort of thing, and draws convincingly Gallic sounds from the orchestra. The solo flute on the "Faun" and in fact all the solo woodwinds make fine showings, and the sound has a little more punch than what we've been accustomed to from Denon -- nothing at all exaggerated, but very warm and full-bodied. The Ibert in particular is a knockout, but nothing on this disc is less than splendid.
More digital Tchaikovsky comes from Philips: that composer's two most popular tone poems, the frequently paired "Romeo and Juliet" and "Francesca da Rimini," in their joint digital debut in performances by the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam under Edo De Waart (9500.745; cassette 7300.830). Philips is so casual about its digital releases that they appear on the same numerical series as the analogue recordings, and so far at the same price. These are both sound, pleasing performances, very amply recorded, but there are more vital ones in numerous analogue editions, some of them at half the price of this by no means overpriced disc.
Finally, more Russian music: London has issued the first digital recording of Stravinsky's complete score for the ballet "The Firebird," with Christoph von Dohnanyi conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in a really superb performance (LDR-10012). Less than a year ago, when Philips issued the similarly impressive Colin Davis/Concertgebouw version of "The Firebird" (9500.637), I was so impressed by the sound that I thought it could pass for digital -- but the real thing does make a difference. What London has achieved is surpassingly well-defined as well as sumptuous, with every glittering nuance and every tiny inner voice heard to full effect in the most natural balance. This is an outstanding release in every respect.
Vanguard, one of the several "independent" record companies created in the early years of the microgroove era, has not only proved to be one of the most durable but has, for more than three decades now, maintained an enviable reputation for imaginativeness and quality consciousness in both the musical and technical aspects of its activity. Recently Vanguard entered the digital field, using the Sony 1600 system; production standards are high, as one would expect, but I cannot think of a more depressing trio of discs then the three made by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Sergiu Comissiona in this series.
Seven highly colored orchestral staples are offered on the three discs: Respighi's "Feste romane" and "Pines of Rome" on VA 25004, Ravel's "Bolero," Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio espagnol," Berlioz' "Corsaire" Overture and Enesco's Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 on VAS 25005, and Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony on VA 25006. The recordings were not made in the Lyric Theater, the orchestra's Baltimore home, but in the National Presbyterian Church here in Washington.
The splashy Respighi items are not great music, but with a little subtlety, a little relish and lots of sheer virtuousity they can be gorgeous fun. No one, I'm afraid, could call these performances gorgeous, and they are no fun at all. The perpetrators are guilty of the one unpardonable sin in music-making: they are boring.
One would expect a near-definitive, and at the very least, enthusiastic, account of the Enesco piece, but dullness prevails. Where one wants voluptuous washings of string tone there is only lackluster sawing away. It is not that there are mannerisms or distortions in the performance -- there are not -- but it simply never arises above the level of the dutiful.
Throughout the six sides, melodic lines are obscured, textures are muddled, there is little or no lift in the phrasing, there is no inner tension to sustain slow passages, and for all the bluster in the more energetic ones the music fails to come to life. These are dismaying, joyless performances of music whose vitality is virtually written into it.