Hot on the heels of the launch of the Mariinsky Theatre's new CD label a couple of months ago the Bayerishe Rundfunk (Bavarian Radio) is launching its own label, devoted to making the performances of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks more widely available. Though the label's product has stiff competition from many of the leading international symphony orchestras, a striking majority of which now have their own record labels, BR-Klassik stands out for its excellent sound quality, resulting from the orchestra already being set up to record for the radio.
There's no sense, then, of this being an orchestra going it alone in the unknown waters of the record market, or of trying to contend with a difficult acoustic in the way that LSO Live does with the Barbican. Instead, these CDs almost uniformly have the fine-tuning and detail of the studio. And of course, that's also because the orchestra is of such a high standard, currently benefiting from the artistic vision of its chief conductor Mariss Jansons. Jansons appears on four of the nine releases, two of which document the same Haydn performance, one on CD and one on DVD.
As it happens, that's the finest of the performances on offer here: truly compelling, it combines musicality and heart in equal measure. Two symphonic performances begin the concert: the brief Symphony in D major, Hob. 1a:7, ‘Overtura', created in 1777 as an opera overture, and the longer Symphony in G major, Hob. 1:88, which followed on from the Paris symphonies in 1787 by wearing its roots in French dance forms on its sleeve. Jansons' way of making the ultra-romantic Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra create a lucidity of texture is splendid in both these works, but it's the performance of the Harmoniemesse, Hob. XXII:14, with a secure quartet of soloists and the Choir of the Bavarian Radio, that makes the CD and DVD (the latter directed by the inimitable Brian Large) unmissable.
Both orchestra and conductor are on home territory with the other two releases. First is Mahler's Seventh Symphony, often an enigmatic and difficult work in my experience, and one which Jansons doesn't quite get under the skin of here. The BRSO plays beautifully and the final apotheosis is breathtaking, but on the whole the performance is ordinary. Bruckner's Seventh Symphony, however, is marvellously played from start to finish. Jansons' interpretation is clean and fresh, taking us on a rollercoaster adventure and revealing all kinds of small details whilst maintaining momentum. Like the Haydn, it's highly attractive.
Another aspect to the new label is BR-Klassik Archive, for which (unsurprisingly) the extensive Bavarian Radio archives have been mined for great performances of the past. The first batch of releases contains just a single disc from this series, consisting of two concerto performances from legendary pianist Marta Argerich. It's worth the cover price for her visceral rendition of Beethoven's First Piano Concerto in C, in which her full-on approach to articulation markings makes one hear the piece anew, even if Seiji Ozawa's conducting is extremely subservient to Argerich rather than interpreting the piano as part of the full orchestral texture. I was less struck by Argerich's way with Mozart's Eighteenth Piano Concerto – less insightful and thoughtful in delivery – but the Beethoven makes up for everything.
I'm sad not to have been able to make more of the next release, which comes under the series title BR-Klassik Wissen. This two-disc set is an exploration of Bach's St Matthew Passion by Wieland Schmid, with excellent performances from the orchestra and choir under Peter Dijkstra. It looks fascinating and could be the start of an important series, but since my German isn't up to scratch, I confess I got little out of it (there's no English translation).
Three discs of twentieth-century music wind up the first batch of releases. Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti is given an emotive performance by the Münchner Rundfunkorchester under Ulf Schirmer and benefits from idiomatic singing from Rod Gilfry as Sam and Kim Criswell as Dinah, the latter especially sympathetic. Tahiti is Bernstein's first opera, and was composed in 1952 when he was at the height of his powers on Broadway. Though only a one-act work, it's vastly underrated, especially from the point of view of instrumental invention, and this recording – which is coupled with the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, virtuosically but perhaps a little too teutonically played – is a great way to discover the piece.
Schirmer also leads the complete performance (on two CDs) of Karl Amadeus Hartmann's Des Simplicius Simplicissimus Jugend (Simplicius Simplicissimus's Youth). This complicated music drama was written during 1934-6 but wasn't given its premiere until 1948 – on Radio München. It was altered in 1955-6 and was given in Munich in 2005 in a conflated version, which is recorded here. It's a fascinating if sometimes impenetrable piece, which benefits from a beautifully-recorded performance. Finally, Peter Dijkstra leads the Choir of the Bavarian Radio in three small-scale religious works: Frank Martin's Mass for Double Choir, Kodály's Missa brevis and Poulenc's Litanies à la Vierge Noire. These are haunting works, even if they don't set the pulses racing quite as Bruckner's Seventh or Haydn's Harmoniemesse do; impeccable performances are found throughout, however.
Lavishly packaged and with short, if sometimes eccentrically-translated, liner notes, BR-Klassik's new releases provide something for everyone, and are an optimistic sign for the future of the recording industry.
All the releases are due in the shops from 18 September.
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