The London Symphony Orchestra can be justifiably proud of itself for having launched LSO Live, its own in-house label, which is soon to celebrate its tenth anniversary.
There's scarcely a major orchestra in the world which hasn't copied its format, which allows the orchestra to maintain artistic control of the product in a way that might not be possible with an external label – and with the major record labels struggling financially, it's unlikely they could produce so many CDS if they hadn't struck out on their own.
Nevertheless, the cracks do show sometimes. These latest two releases are performed with the utmost professionalism and musicianship, and one imagines that the live events were exciting to witness. Yet both Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and Verdi's Requiem are extremely well served in the catalogue already, and, though very enjoyable, neither of them offers real competition for previous recordings.
Sir Colin Davis has previously explored Verdi's late music on LSO Live with an excellent recording of the final opera, Falstaff, which contained many revelations, was tautly played and boasted an outstanding cast. Those are the only respects in which this new Requiem doesn't quite cut the mustard. One can't fault the beauty of the LSO's playing, the commitment of the soloists or Davis' love of the music, but the recording is a bit rough and ready.
The soloists are a big problem for me, though all of them seem to feel the text very deeply. Karen Cargill was a late replacement as the mezzo soloist and can therefore be forgiven for not being in top form, but to my ears she's not up to the standard of Baltsa, Borodina, Bumbry or Ludwig in this music. I'm a huge fan of Christine Brewer normally, but hers is not an Italianate voice: listen only to the opening of the 'Libera me' to hear how a lack of metal in the delivery undermines her unquestionable musicality and feeling for the text. John Relyea's bass isn't the gravest I've heard – think of Raimondi or Furlanetto – and Stuart Neill's tenor has heard better days, though he's arguably alone amongst the four in having the right instrument for the music.
The LSO's brass inevitably comes off best in the piece, which is a showcase for them: the 'Sanctus' and 'Dies irae' are heightened by the exciting trumpet and trombone playing. That said, the classical precision brought to the fugal 'Sanctus' by someone like John Eliot Gardiner in his Philips recording is not matched by Davis, and somehow the whole is not quite sad or reverent enough. The LSO Chorus, too, sounds woefully Anglophone at times, for instance at the start of the contrapuntal 'Libera me' passage. Nevertheless, the pair of discs offer a more than acceptable performance, and if you were there at the live concerts in January 2009 this is probably an essential purchase.
I had expected a more febrile attack from Valery Gergiev in Bluebeard's Castle (again recorded in January), but his account is surprisingly tame. The woodwind and percussion work from the LSO is outstanding, and there's a certain cerebral feel to some of the reading, but the performance isn't creepy enough for my taste. It's peculiar to have the spoken Prologue read in English when the opera is performed in the original Hungarian, and since the music begins while the prologue is still being read, isn't the overlap of languages unacceptable?
I think the piece works very well in English, in fact, as the thrilling recording on Chandos with Opera North forces proves. Sir John Tomlinson and Sally Burgess make a splendid team on that one, and for me they easily outdo Sir Willard White and Elena Zhidkova on LSO Live's new set. The mezzo is especially ordinary, it seems to me: her tone spreads under pressure and contains no noticeably individual characteristic, which limits her powers of expression. White is better, since he's commanding and succeeds in colouring his voice to match the text. But with Gergiev in surprisingly subdued form here – the opening of the Fifth Door hardly breaks the sound barrier as it should; nor do the jewels shimmer as brightly as others have made them – this is again a good quality bargain recording rather than the crème de la crème.
LSO Live's forthcoming release schedule includes Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet with Gergiev, Strauss with Haitink and Colin Davis' Otello and Berlioz Te Deum.
CD Review The Creation (LSO Live)
CD Review Sibelius Symphonies 1 and 4 (LSO Live)
Concert Review Sir Colin Davis conducts the Verdi Requiem
CD Review Semyon Bychkov conducts the Verdi Requiem (Profil)
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