Good Translation 

Getting out for a spell

Getting out for a spell

The concert season has moved outdoors and the summer doldrums will soon be on us. For those who haven’t quite gotten their quota of symphonic music, the Nashville Symphony’s plethora of area concerts gives you no excuse to miss catching them at your favorite park, community college or historic house. If moonblock and fireflies are not your style, though, head on down to your nearest record store: The new Nashville Symphony Orchestra compact disc is about to arrive, and there’s much to like.

Whenever a symphony orchestra tosses itself into the shark tank of recording, the first requirement of preservation is repertoire. Does the ensemble go for the rare and offbeat in the hope that it can find an unoccupied niche, or does it keep to the standards in the hope that its performance might bring some new recorded insight—or the same old stuff at a budget price—into the catalogue? Our NSO folks have cleverly split the difference and allowed the public to hear each of the band’s sections shine by putting on disc the elements of the symphony’s 50th anniversary concert from the season just past. In addition to two short works by Richard Strauss, the op. 40 Nocturne by Dvorak, Shivaree by Leonard Bernstein, and the seventh symphony of Beethoven, the disc presents Maestro Schermerhorn’s tribute to Bronson Ingram, performed by orchestra members at Ingram’s funeral last year.

From the standpoint of recorded sound, this is by no means a shabby first effort. Recorded at TPAC on the Sunday following the 50th anniversary concert pair, the sound is somewhat drier than the normal run of recordings—something I attribute to the acoustics of Jackson Hall. Focus is primarily on the middle range, with Nashville’s splendid winds getting the best of the bargain. While low sounds and high transients seem to be somewhat de-emphasized in comparison to standard recorded sound, this problem should be remedied as the production team and the symphony become more accustomed to working with each other.

From a philosophical standpoint, I believe that sound on a recording should differ from sound at a live concert—recording renders musical sounds artificial, and it is up to the musicians and technicians to take this into account. I have a personal preference for recordings that add both warmth and presence; without this assistance, recorded sound is apt to be dry, uninvolved and unemotional. There are many who disagree with this approach, and they will find the dry-ish ambience provided by Elizabeth Ostrow and John Newton, the recording’s producer and engineer, much to their taste.

Kudos to the selection process, because the disc is of real interest to the collector, and not just the local collector interested in the symphony’s first classical recording in some 30 years. None of the smaller works on the disc is overrepresented in the catalogue, and all of them are grateful to the talents of the NSO members. Richard Strauss’ Fanfare for the Vienna Philharmonic and his early Serenade for Winds receive good performances. The latter piece is a particular personal favorite, and, although I’d like to hear a greater sound presence, the performance has a beautiful flow and fine dynamic structure. As to the Fanfare, it’s Strauss at his brassy best. This is not an unbuttoned performance, however: The brasses lack that ringing sound that’s capable of leveling a building, and the timpani needs to be goosed-up. These minor deficiencies aside, this is so infrequently recorded a work that its inclusion on the disc is a plus to any fan of Strauss’ music.

Much the same observation can be made of the performance of Shivaree by Leonard Bernstein. I may be in error here, but I don’t think another performance of this piece exists in the current recorded catalogue. It’s a lot of noisy fun for almost any wind or percussion instrumentalist, and the NSO members have a good time here. The only drawback is that the bass drum needs a punchier sound.

Two elegiac pieces, Dvorak’s Nocturne and Schermerhorn’s Elegy in Memoriam, are chances for the strings to shine, and they do their parts. The playing, particularly the phrasing, is as good as any of the competitive recordings of the Dvorak. But the dry TPAC ambience somewhat works against this piece, which needs the warmth and roundness that might come from a more secure double bass sound. On the other hand, this same dryness creates an element of desolation in the Schermerhorn piece that works very well.

Of course, the big work on this disc is the NSO’s performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major. Here, the listener is made aware of the careful crafting of line and phrase that inform this reading. As in their concerts, the orchestra’s woodwind players are particularly fine—their high point is the lightning-fast third movement, with an especially fine star turn by the flute section.

My personal favorite, however, is the second movement. Whenever I hear this music, I have a mental picture of nineteenth-century Hungarian cavalrymen at a drinking bout. In the movement’s famous 280-bar ostinato, I imagine the tension as these drunken men struggle between holding their liquor and unraveling into total abandon. This tension is well articulated here, but the overall thrill is somewhat attenuated by the piece’s lack of gutsiness. The finale is well-paced and very well phrased, but I think that Schermerhorn, in pulling his forces back from a truly precipitous performance, is trying to stress Beethoven’s continuity with the restraint of the classical era.

Packaging for the disc is handsome. Liner notes—for which I, humble critic, am responsible—are adequate. By the time you read this, the disc should have hit your favorite local record store, although it has been available for the last few days through a television offer on WNAB-Channel 58. Speer Communications, which is affiliated with Magnatone Records, the label releasing the disc, has expressed interest in a series of NSO releases. Let’s hope that this solid foundation supports future growth.

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