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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 14 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 07
A weird recital disc and a gorgeous one
Arts & Entertainment
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A weird recital disc and a gorgeous one

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Both of these Blu-ray Audio-only discs are a source of wonderment, but for very different reasons.

I'll try to describe the glory of the Anna Netrebko disc; but first let me dispense with the other disc: a program put together by pianist Hélène Grimaud. Aurally, this is a strange disc indeed.

Assuming that the aim of recording engineers is to capture the sound and make it as much as possible like one would hear in an ideal seat in a good hall, I fail to understand how they could have got it so very wrong this time. First of all, the piano (which I assume is a Steinway, for the piano tech mentioned in the credits is from Steinway in Berlin) sounds nothing like any Steinway I have ever heard, live or recorded. It is extremely dry and totally lacking in warmth. In fact, it sounds like the microphones were almost INSIDE the piano, under the raised hood. One even hears the sound of the internal mechanisms of the instrument itself! And the different registers don't seem part of the same whole.

Two additional flaws mar my attempts to enjoy this program: first, in the piano solo pieces, there is absolutely no hint of the room in which the recording was made. In a live recital, only part of the sound comes directly from the piano to our ears, with the rest bouncing off the walls, ceiling, etc. Without some suggestion of these reflections, the sound is downright strange and unnatural. The other problem is even stranger: the dynamic range is LARGER than one ever hears in a hall. Setting my volume so that the softest sounds can just barely be heard, I find the loud passages unnaturally loud - almost too loud for comfort. Mind you, I'm someone who likes his loud music really loud. But this is ridiculous and not true to even the largest concert grands.

The program is innovative and could have been fun, beginning with John Corigliano's 'Fantasia on an Ostinato' (1985). Grimaud follows this solo work with Beethoven's 'Sonata in D minor, op. 31 no.2' ('The Tempest'). For me, the antiseptic sound and super-cerebral interpretation don't work. She follows that with Beethoven's 'Choral Fantasy, op. 80.' Even though this is a live recording, there is again hardly any sense of the hall or of a real orchestra and chorus in a real space. Close multi-microphones make every detail unnaturally clear. The most satisfying work, again with Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Swedish Radio Symphony and Choir, is Arvo Pärt's 'Credo' for piano, mixed choir and orchestra' (1968). An interesting amalgam of Pärt's most modern sounds next to, and eventually resolving into, the first prelude of Bach's 'Well-Tempered Clavier,' it is both fascinating and fun.

Both of these discs are recordings made only a decade ago. The faults listed above are thus not the fault of out-dated equipment. Indeed, the recording of Anna Netrebko's recital suffers from none of the problems plaguing Ms. Grimaud's sound. While it is short of the most demanding audiophile requirements, the sound is quite good, both in the rendering of Netrebko's lovely voice and especially in the detail and airiness of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, conducted by the great Claudio Abbado.

What makes this program so extraordinary is the glory of Netrebko's artistry, passion and confident technique. Today's listeners to the Met broadcasts or live in HD performances at the movie theater might need reminding that this soprano came upon the scene as a coloratura, singing many of the Bellini and Donizetti vehicles for florid but beautiful legato vocalism. That's what we get here from ten years ago. Netrebko is moving on to gradually heavier roles these days, but the only hint of that here is Desdemona's 'Willow Song' and 'Ave Maria' from Verdi's great opera Otello.

This recital shows the artist at her very best. Granted, her coloratura is not so perfect as, say, Joan Sutherland's; but she also lacks some of Dame Joan's faults (muddy lower register, mush-mouth diction, etc.). Although Netrebko's diction here is somewhat lacking in clarity, she more than makes up for that with gorgeous tone throughout her range. Her sensitive artistry, effective projection of emotion, and lovely sound, all the way up to high E-flats above high C make this one of the finest recital discs of modern times.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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