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CD Review

Danse macabre

Decca 4830396
Montreal Symphony Orchestra/Kent Nagano
Decca 4830396 69:26
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I was initially very excited about this program. Every year it seems that someone asks me for an album of "spooky" classical music for October. It's great to see the Montreal Symphony back with Decca, and Kent Nagano has given us some terrific work across various labels. So, there's a lot of promise here, and I'm sad to say that none of it is fulfilled.

The Dukas is rhythmically engaging and has the requisite color, but little else. "But Brian, it requires little else!" you might say. True, but what distinguishes a good performance from a great one is that extra ounce of sparkle and swagger. Check out Toscanini or Munch to hear a master at work. The Dvořák has none of these qualities, and is a terribly boring performance. All the notes are there, but the composer deserves better. There's some pretty wind playing, but there's an almost total lack of dynamic contrast that cements this rendition as professional, and nothing else. The Mussorgsky is just as dull. No, it's not actually supposed to terrify you, but it can, given the right emphasis and atmosphere. This is a sleepy run-through that features some warm brass playing and low strings. But I don't exactly turn to this work for a cello and French horn masterclass. Even the more sedate closing pages lack any sense of tension or closure.

The Balakirev is new to me, and although I see no reason this work should be over 20 minutes, it's one of the better items on the program. Again, the winds and strings sound very nice. The music concerns an evil (and largely mythical) queen, Tamara, who apparently seduced men into the mountains and then killed them. Mind you, there's water music (rivers, streams, mountains, etc.), then some very Rimsky-esque love themes, and finally the "evil" music rolls around. Kind of: This isn't exactly Berlioz. I still think Nagano underplays the good stuff and fails to fully capture the mood of the music, but listeners will be happy to have this work if the concept appeals. Unfortunately, with the Danse macabre, we are back in the doldrums. This is an orchestra with French music in their blood, but unlike the Dukas, they fail to articulate the all-important rhythms that make this music "go". It sounds good enough, but it evokes no sense of fun. The Ives is a little encore that has no real purpose, followed by overly enthusiastic applause. The whole live program is less than ideally recorded. This is a disappointment, and could have been far better.

Copyright © 2017, Brian Wigman

Trumpet