SCHUBERT-MAHLER: String Quartet in D Minor, D. 810 "Death and the Maiden." DVORÁK: String Quartet in F, Op. 96 "American."
Royal Philharmonic Orch/Charles Rosenkrans, cond
TELARC SACD 60610 TT: 69:39 (5.1 channel)

STRAVINSKY: Petrushka (1947 version). Scherzo à la Russe. The Firebird Suite (1919 version).
Cincinnati Symphony Orch/Paavo Järvi, cond.
TELARC SACD 60587 TT: 59:42 (5.1 channel)

This Royal Philharmonic Schubert/Dvorák recording is a beauty. Purists will of course object to these chamber works performed with the large string complement of a symphony orchestra, but there is no question that Mahler's arrangement of the famous Schubert quartet is highly effective, the music bubbling along just as captivatingly as it does when well played by the quartet for which it was composed. Rosenkranz and the RPO strings play the familiar music with precision and tonal beauty, qualities also evident in their performance of Dvorák's American quartet. This also is presented in a version for massed strings, although CD notes don't identify the arranger—a publicity notice says Dvorák did it, which is unlikely—perhaps RPO strings are simply playing the original with more strings to each part. At any rate, this is delectable music very well recorded in London's Walthamstow Town Hall in August 2002. Interestingly, although Robert Woods is listed as Executive Producer, the "recording producer" is identified as André Gauthier "for Pilot Music Inc.," Anthony Manoli as Associate Producer, and Robert Friedrich as Recording and Mastering Engineer. The sound is wonderfully warm and spacious with clear definition of the string groups. In surround sound the string orchestra is in the front with only ambient sound coming from rear speakers producing a very natural concert hall effect. Generous playing time, too. Recommended!

Unfortuntely, Paavo Järvi doesn't bring much imagination to Stravinsky's brilliant ballets—these are sedate performances with little orchestral excitement. Both Petrushka and Firebird are dramatic scores, but not much happens here to grab the attention. Aside from the laidback performances, I have a concern about the sound. The SACD version has an uncommonly wide dynamic range and remarkably expanded frequency response compared with the regular CD, which, of course, is one of the great advantages of SACD over regular CDs. However, the recording team of producer Robert Woods and engineer Jack Renner have given us a rather distant sonic orchestral picture that seems to minimize string textures so important—particularly in Firebird. Although at the beginning of Firebird the double basses are impressive, for most of the performances there is no rich underler of low strings—and there should be. As always with Telarc, the bass drum is very prominent. The 5.1 surround sound places the orchestra in the front—and, as previously mentioned, rather distant—with only ambient sound from rear speakers. It's effective in its own way, but the Cincinnati Symphony, as here recorded, just doesn't sound big enough. And on this multi-channel recording would it not have been effective if the trumpet solo representing Petrushka in the final scene came from one of the back speakers? Telarc only gives us four tracks for Petrushka; most recordings give separate tracks for all of the individual sections, usually 14 tracks. If you want to play just the "Russian Dance" or any other, you'll have to do an amount of fast/back tracking. The 4-minute scherzo is welcome, but even with it the playing time of this CD is less than one hour.

R.E.B. (June 2003)