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SACD Review

CSO Resound

* Jessica Rivera, soprano
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
CSO Resound 901908 Hybrid Multichannel SACD 77:18
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Also available on CD 901906:
Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic - CD Universe - JPC

This is an unusual but highly rewarding program. It's nice to see Bernard Haitink tackling something which – at least with the Poulenc – he hasn't done a dozen times already. Even in the complete Ravel ballet the conductor has a less-filled, less-good rendition on the London Philharmonic Orchestra's own label. Why artists can't simply trust their own work is beyond me; when you start duplicating repertoire on the private labels meant to showcase the orchestra, it looks like an ego trip.

Happily, there is very little wrong with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on this occasion, and these are not works in which the ensemble has made its name. Unlike Riccardo Muti's – admittedly excellent – Verdi Requiem also on CSO Resound, you won't be scratching your head in confusion over which of the orchestra's many – admittedly excellent – versions to buy. Haitink is not a conductor who is automatically at his best live, as his personality doesn't scream excitement at the best of times. But here he is in good form, and he's aided by the terrific Chicago Symphony Chorus and soprano Jessica Rivera.

Poulenc's sacred choral music is a bizarre mix of his catholic tastes in musical styles and his renewed Catholic faith later in life. The Gloria has a grandly stated opening – magnificently rendered by the fabled Chicago brass – and a 1920s kick line Laudamus te. It's frankly the weirdest setting of the Gloria that I've heard, and takes some getting used to (especially if you have religious ties). The Chicago Symphony Orchestra seems to be having a blast in what is probably the best recorded version since Ozawa on Deutsche Grammophon. Soprano Jessica Rivera is an ideal and never heavy soloist for this work, and Haitink also seems unusually focused. Great conductor he may be, but "fun" and "jazzy" are not words that often describe his often sober musical accomplishments. The Chicago Symphony Chorus is predictably excellent, and it is especially rewarding to hear them hamming it up in such odd music.

The Ravel has been a part of Haitink's repertoire forever, since he's recorded parts of this score with seemingly every ensemble he's worked with. His Ravel was a benchmark achievement in Amsterdam, a bore in Boston, and a mixed bag in London. Perhaps the failure in Boston is most surprising given the orchestra's history, but I haven't heard anything from Haitink in Boston that I especially liked, so maybe it was just a phase. In any event, Chicago has been better at Ravel than you might think, having recorded some with Reiner and Martinon. The latter gets no attention because – let's face it – it is Jean Martinon, and Reiner gets overshadowed by Charles Munch in Boston. So Haitink has a lot to live up to, and the best part is that he actually does. Ravel doesn't at first seem an ideal fit for the conductor; he's a rather laid back and introverted interpreter who occasionally misses the sparkle and (dare I say it) sexiness of this music. Still, when given a great orchestra with a signature sound, Haitink can do wonderful things. The opening of the ballet is gorgeous, with the chorus in great shape and the Chicago winds and strings in equally terrific form. Haitink really creates a genuine sense of atmosphere while managing to keep the dead spots alive, if you will. In the "big" moments, Haitink has always done well. That remains true here, where the Chicago Symphony really demonstrates its pure power. There are other fine recordings of this work, including Levine's on the Boston Symphony Orchestra's own label, but few are given such a cogent treatment by such a powerhouse band.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman