MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition. Night on the Bare Mountain. Sorochinsky Fair (Introduction). Khovanshchina (Prelude. Dance of the Persian Slave Girls).
Russian National Orch/Carlo Ponti, cond.
PENTATONE SACD 5186332 TT: 60:52

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 1 in C, Op. 21. Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 36. Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Op. 55 "Eroica." Symphony No. 4 in B flat, Op. 60. Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67. Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68 "Pastorale." Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92. Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93. Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op,. 125 "Choral."
Camilla Tilling, soprano; Charlotte Hellekant, alto; Julian Gruin, tenor; Nathan Berg, bass; Düsseldorf Musikvertein Chorus; Hague Residentie Orchestra/Jaap Van Sweden, cond.
PHILIPS SACD 476 028 (5 disks) TT: 69:14 / 66:27 / 70:28 / 66:30 / 61:08

FOSS: The Prairie
Elizabeth Weigle, soprano; Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, mezzo-soprano; Frank Kelley, tenor; AaronEngebreth, baritone; Providence Singers; Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Andrew Clark, cond.
BMOP SOUND SACD 1007 (F) TT: 53:02

Young conductor Carlo Ponti, eldest son of actress Sophia Loren and film producer Carlo Ponti, makes his recording debut with this Mussorgsky program conducting the Russian National Orchestra of which he is Associate Conductor. Unfortunately, these are unexceptional performances, although well played. The soft ending of Night on Bare Mountain is rushed, and the Dance of the Persian Slaves is a quick run-through. None of the performances are helped by the sound. Job Maarse has produced some excellent recordings for Pentatone, but these, made in Moscow's DZZ Studio 5 in March 2008, disappoint. Although wide in dynamic range, the sound is dry, lacks warmth and presence, and cymbals, heard so often in this music, are dull. The program is rather short (60:42), still more generous than the recent Telarc issue with Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony, which is but 51:41 (REVIEW). ArkivMusic lists well over 200 recordings of Pictures, and it seems the finest are the older ones: for an outstanding Pictures in surround sound, try Sony's SACD with Thomas Schippers and the New York Philharmonic (which also contains Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky) recorded in 1961, or Mobile Fidelity's 1975 version with Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony. And of course the classic 1957 Reiner/Chicago Symphony, and 1978 Maazel/Cleveland Orchestra recordings, both stereo reprocessed for SACD, are spectacular when played on multiple speakers.

I have great respect and admiration for Dutch conductor Jaap Van Zweden who for many years was concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra before beginning his conducting career. I've heard a number of his live recordings including an incredibly exciting Rite of Spring. Zweden has appeared often as guest conductor with major orchestras, and his live Mahler 5 with the LPO was reviewed on this site (REVIEW). However, this set of Beethoven symphonies disappoints. Tempi are generally brisk, odd accents are the norm. Recordings were made in Hague's Philipszaal from June 2002 through March 2003, No. 9 a live performance. Surround sound is spacious but not particularly directional, with occasional odd balances—you'll hear every single note played by the piccolo in the finale of Symphony 9. Packaging leaves much to be desired. You'll need the booklet to be able to see what is on each of the five disks; at least CD numbering on the disks is clear—nothing else is. In the accompanying booklet there is little difference between text and background—whatever happened to black text on a light background? Skip this one—but if you really wish to have it just to follow Zweden's career, check around on the internet for a less expensive way to acquire it.

Lukas Foss based his 53-minute cantata The Prairie on Carl Sandburg's poem of the same name from his collection of Americana called The Cornhuskers. Written in the summers of 1941 and 1942, music from The Prairie first was heard in an orchestral suite played by the Boston Symphony directed by Serge Koussevitzky Oct. 15, 1943, and May 15, 1944, Robert Shaw led the cantata's premiere in New York's Town Hall. Artur Rodzinski soon presented it with the New York Philharmonic and it won the New York Music Critics' Circle Award as the most important choral work written that year. Foss freely edited Sandburg's texts (with the author's approval), and there are seven sections: I Was Born On The Prairie, Dust of Men, They Are Mine, When the Red and White Men Met, In The Dark Of A Thousand Years, Cool Prayers, O Prairie Girl, Songs Hidden In Eggs, and To-morrow. Foss's score has a very definite "American" sound, particularly with traces of Copland. This superb new release seems to be the first recording and it is outstanding. All four soloists are excellent, and their enunciation cannot be faulted. Andrew Clark and the orchestra are equally fine, and sonically this issue is an outstanding sample of surround sound. The listener is right in the room with the performers in a most natural way. Complete texts are provided. High recommended!

R.E.B. (January 2009)