* “This England” = ELGAR: Cockaigne (in London Town), Op. 40; VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 5 in D; BRITTEN: Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a and b – Oregon Symphony/ Carlos Kalmar – PentaTone multichannel SACD 5186 471, 77:29 (11/13/12) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Seeing that the eminent James DePriest recently reposed, it felt quite appropriate to be reviewing the latest recording by the Oregon Symphony, this time on audiophile label Pentatone. What surprised me is the choice of repertory—one just doesn’t associate, rightly or wrongly, English music with the forest-laden American west coast orchestra. Boy, how silly an assumption that is! Not only do they play with a brilliance and verve equal to any on record—orchestra that is—but they are entirely attuned to the “English” idiom, however we choose to define that elusive terminology. Well, it’s true to an extent; we have all heard Gershwin played by non-American orchestras, and for the most part in my experience something integral is missing, though I have always been one to assert that any orchestra can play any music anywhere and anytime. Some Brits also assert the same thing when American orchestras tackle British music—that something is missing. I don’t hear it in the way that they must, and I am sure that the opposite is true as well. With that said, for instance, I thought that Robert Spano’s surround sound effort in Symphony No. 5 of Vaughan Williams simply superb (ASO/Telarc), easily as good as any recording I am familiar with. But along comes Carlos Kalmar and his now ten-year Oregon band and the DePriest legacy looks not only intact, but greatly expanded as well.
This is as fine an English album as I can think of, but even beyond the concept the individual performances are exquisitely rendered. Coming after the wild and wooly No. 4, RVW’s Fifth Symphony is a model of studied English pastoralism in its best sense; arching melody and stirring but sparse climaxes make this a work to enhance serenity and enable the emotions to achieve an even keel. Kalmar steadies the lines marvelously, and gives us as rolling an account as ever the gentle mists of the English shore has experienced.
Edward Elgar presents the delights of rambunctious Edwardian England in a completely different manner than Vaughan Williams; his London is one of the social urbanite, frolicking, nonstop busy, with little care for the gentle swaying of the countryside. Elgar knew that aspect as well of course, but here he chooses to concentrate on a picture of full-blown city living with all the ups, downs, and collisions inherent in such a state. Again Kalmar gets this, and shifts gears appropriately.
Finally, Britten’s evocative scene-changing interludes from Peter Grimes give us not only a community, albeit a small English fishing village, but the darker side of the legendary British sea as well. Here we have lovely scents of the shore but surrounded with the scent of human degradation too, the effects of Original Sin plowing its way into a community that may not be sophisticated, but is in every way as capable as absorbing evil and making mistaken judgments as the most erudite of the learned class. Britten’s music is full of this ebb and flow of human frailty sunlit only briefly by the inherent beauty of the shore, and Kalmar and company cast it beautifully in sumptuous sound. Who knew Oregon could sound like this? PentaTone should hold on to this bunch as long as they can, and explore as much repertory as they can handle. Great sound, performances, and production!