A personal reassessment of the Oslo Philharmonic’s Chandos recordings – 1984 -1989
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 in D minor
Thought that the second part of this Chandos recording reassessment would continue with Tchaikovsky, didn’t you? Well, as I noted earlier, I am going through each recording in the order that we recorded them, and the Bruckner Ninth Symphony – with a completed finale by William Carragan – and the original sketches for the finale – turned out to be next up on our recording schedule. This was a one-off, as it was not part of our contract with Chandos, which called for the recording of a complete Tchaikovsky symphony cycle.
How this came about is still a little murky as to the exact details, but I believe I can piece it together, even after all these years. William Carragan, a noted musicologist specializing in the music of Anton Bruckner, was going through some of the surviving sketches for the uncompleted finale of his ninth symphony, and had fashioned a workable completion of the movement. There were a few performances – one by an orchestra in Holland, and the other by an orchestra in California. Both were successful, but he and his backers wanted to get it down on record – later CD.
He approached the Oslo Philharmonic, which had just began recording for Chandos and after some discussion, it was arranged that the orchestra would undertake the recording of the Bruckner Ninth Symphony, with the Carragan reconstruction of the finale as well as the source sketches. Chandos agreed to make the recording, but would not be sending out their own recording team. Instead, Chandos contacted James Burnett, the producer of the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony and engaged him to produce the recording with the assistance of NRK technicians. Mariss Jansons was not available to conduct, so it was decided to engage the Israeli conductor Yoav Talmi to conduct the sessions. Talmi was no stranger to the orchestra. He was a regular guest with the orchestra during the mid 80’s and early 90’s, and had in fact conducted the symphony the previous season. It made sense that he should “do the honors”, so to speak.
I have been asking myself “Why Bruckner’s ninth symphony?” many times over the years. After the initial excitement of taking part in the sessions and the anticipation of hearing the recording upon its release – all members of the orchestra got a free album – reality sort of sinks in and one questions why some of these recordings were made, especially since the critical response was not exactly earth-shattering. The sound on the recording is quite good. James Burnett always had the measure of the Oslo Konserthus’ notoriously poor acoustics. Other than the opportunity to record the Carragan reconstruction and related sketches – in other words – an educational opportunity, there was no compelling reason for this recording. I respected their decision at the time – indeed, I embraced it, but on sober reflection, and after observing the critical reception, I have come to the realization that like many other recordings on the market, it really wasn’t necessary. The fact that it has nearly disappeared from the catalogue -if it hasn’t already – kind of confirms my impression.
Having said that, lets assess the recording. As I noted earlier, the sound is quiet good. There is clarity, and just enough reverberation to give the performance the presence it needs. In other words, the sound is not recessed as it was in the Tchaikovsky First. The interpretation is very good, in my opinion. Talmi’s tempi are pretty well judged. The Scherzo has both drive and weight, and the Adagio is deeply felt, and Talmi brings out the inherent drama in the climaxes. When it comes to the reconstructed finale, I was originally enthusiastic about it. I felt that it actually made sense, and the material from the sketches was quite beautiful. After many years and repeated listening, it doesn’t wear as well on my ears. It sounds sketchy, and some of the reconstruction material sounds out of place. It doesn’t flow as well as the complete movements.
The orchestra gives a good account of itself throughout the entire recording, so from the standpoint of performance, it is good. However, when you are surrounded by recordings by Eugen Jochum, Herbert von Karajan, Bernard Haitink,and Zubin Mehta – to name just a few, other than the educational value of the sketches and reconstruction, it wasn’t really necessary. And now that there are other recordings of both the Carragan reconstruction and others, this recording has probably seen its day.
Author’s Note: In checking my records, I was surprised to find that the recording received the Grand Prix du Disque for 1987. I did say it was a good performance, and I guess somebody agreed with that point of view. At the end of this blog post I have put the link to the symphony as Bruckner left it. Enjoy the performance.
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2 in C minor
The Bruckner recording took place in late August of 1985, and hot on the heels of those sessions came those for the next installment of the Tchaikovsky cycle, the Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op.17 – known as “The Little Russian”. I was particularly happy to record this symphony as it had long been one of my favorites. (It still is.) The symphony was not part of of the orchestra’s regular repertoire – it was rehearsed and played in concert before the sessions and as a result was in top shape when it was recorded. Brian and Ralph Couzens were back to handle the recording duties and Mariss Jansons was back on the podium, bringing his usual energy and drive to the task.
The musical result was excellent and when the recording was released, I thought the sound much better than that of the First Symphony, which was recorded the previous April. I still do today, and I am very impressed with the performance. There is enormous energy and drive in the first and forth movements – the Andantino is well judged tempo-wise, and the scherzo bustles along nicely. Mariss Jansons was a bit of an interventionist in the finale – he adds timpani to the bass line just before the tam-tam stroke before the coda. I had an extra timpano available – we had performed Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms during that week’s concert series, so I was able to accommodate the changes without any trouble. One thing I personally would do over if I could go back in time with the blessing of hindsight, is not to use a different set of timpani for the second movement. I used Hingers for most of the symphony, but Light Metropolitan Bs for the second movement. We had just purchased them, and I was anxious to try them out. The result was okay, but they needed to be played in more, and the sound of the drums, while good, was lighter than the Hingers. It was a lesson learned. That being said, I give the recording an A-.
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 3
I am now up to the fourth installment in the Tchaikovsky cycle, the Symphony No. 3 in D major, Op. 29, sometimes called the “Polish“. I believe the symphony received this moniker due to the tempo indication that the composer assigned to the finale – tempo di polacca. While there is a lot of fine music in this symphony, I confess that I have a hard time warming up to it. I wasn’t too keen on it in 1986 when we made the recording, and I find that not too much has changed since then, although I am fond of the finale. I admit that the three inner movements have their charms, and the first movement if performed well, can be a thrill.
We recorded the symphony after rehearsals and concerts – this was becoming our usual recording pattern, with some exceptions. The Couzens father and son were once again our recording team, and Mariss Jansons was at the top of his game. The sessions went well and all were satisfied that we had a good recording “in the can.” If memory serves me, when the recording was released, it was to generally good reviews. Listening to it today, the sound is good, with clarity, but the reverberation is a little too present. The Second Symphony had a bit less reverb which made it a better recording in my opinion. Our recording team kept improving as they became acclimated to the Oslo Konsethus, and as a whole did a good job. As a performance, tempi are well-judged, and Jansons rises to the occasion when the music demands it. Climaxes and codas are well-judged and full of excitement. As a recording, I give this an A-. It would have been a A had it not been for the reverb. As far as I know, this is still in the catalog.
Bruckner 9th …..Enjoy!