Christine Schaefer, soprano; Michael Volle, baritone; James Levine conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus
These two recordings represent diverging paths in the recording of classical music in the last decade. In what I have come to think of as the "old paradigm," Telarc continues to turn out well engineered studio recordings made primarily with the Atlanta and Cincinnati Symphony orchestras — very good ensembles, and less costly to use than the traditional big bands in Boston, New York, Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia, but clearly "second tier" in comparison to those groups. The new release from Boston Classics marks yet another in-house live-concert initiative from one of those major ensembles, joining, among others, Chicago's CSO Resound label.
The title "German Requiem" signals that this is a different sort of piece. Not only is it sung in German, but the text is not from the Catholic liturgy but from an assemblage of biblical texts. In mood the music is sober and contemplative — so much so that I must sometimes "psych myself up" to play it, notwithstanding the undeniable beauty of those quiet melodies.
Spano and his Atlanta forces give us a well executed, consistently paced reading of the score. The two soloists and the chorus show laudable sensitivity to the texts, and the Atlanta Symphony plays with fine execution. Interpretively there is little to complain about here, but I fear that there is also little to get excited about. Looking for words to praise Spano's reading, I find myself coming up with "dutiful" and "conscientious," rather than "exciting," "engaging" or "inspiring."
I feel much the same about the recorded sound here. The Atlanta venue comes across in this recording as, frankly, rather dull-sounding. And, although as always the Telarc engineers give us good (if not great) dynamics and properly weighty climaxes, I don't find this recording representative of their best work.
Levine's performance has a very different feel. To begin, of course, it captures a live performance — in this case the BSO's 2008 season opener — and listening to it I feel the excitement of the occasion. These two soloists sound both vocally slightly superior and interpretively more engaged than their Atlanta counterparts — although neither pair can match the splendor of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on the classic Klemperer/EMI recording. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus is captured with a livelier, brighter-sounding acoustic, as is the orchestra — no surprise, since Boston's Symphony Hall is one of the world's great concert halls.
I was surprised, reading the timings of these two releases, to find that Levine's performance runs three minutes longer than Spano's, because it feels fleeter. I attribute this slight paradox to Levine's many years at the Met. While he doesn't go overboard with theatricality, his conception of the piece is inherently more dramatic, and time after time I hear felicitous shapings and pointings of the text that are absent in Spano's more four-square performance.
Boston's sound here is livelier and more engaging than Telarc's, and does a better job of capturing the large forces involved. Both releases are full-fledged stereo and multichannel SACD, but I have not heard the multichannel versions, only two-channel SACD.