Masterpieces in Miniature (SACD review)

Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony; Yuja Wang, piano. SFS Media 821936-0060-2.

First off, I have to admit a bias: I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the San Francisco Symphony has always been my hometown orchestra, so to speak. I remember first hearing them while I was kid back in the early Fifties, a school (or Sunday school) outing to one of the symphony's annual Nutcracker specials, if memory serves me right. In any case, even though the Bay Area has a multitude of fine orchestras, I have always considered the San Francisco Symphony the king of the hill, one of the greatest orchestras ever. Maybe that's why I felt my opinion vindicated when a few years ago Gramophone magazine listed the San Francisco Symphony among the ten best orchestras in the world. Yeah, well, I could have told them that.

In Masterpieces in Miniature Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas and his orchestra present twelve short favorite pieces by twelve familiar composers, each of the pieces a polished little gem under the conductor and ensemble. Tilson Thomas imbues them with energy, subtlety, refinement, and grace as the occasion demands, and the orchestra plays them with vigor, nuance, culture, and élan always. Together, the conductor and orchestra provide a polish and sparkle to make even the most timeworn of these warhorses sound fresh again.

Since I haven't the time or the energy to comment on every piece of music on the program, I'll just mention what they are and point out a few favorites. The disc includes Henry Litolff's Scherzo from Concerto symphonique No. 4, with Yuja Wang, piano; Gustav Mahler's Blumine; Gabriel Fauré's Pavane; Claude Debussy's La Plus que lente; Franz Schubert's Entr' acte No.3 from Rosamunde; Charles Ives and Henry Brant's The Alcotts from A Concord Symphony; Sergei Rachmaninov's Vocalise; Antonin Dvorák's Legend No. 6; Jean Sibelius's Valse triste; Frederick Delius's On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring; Edvard Grieg's The Last Spring; and Leo Delibes's Cortége de Bacchus from his ballet Sylvia.

Pianist Yuja Wang gets things off to a rollicking good start in Litolff's Scherzo, taken at a pace that might have left some ensembles behind. Not here. The music comes off in a sprightly, witty fashion, and the only thing that disappointed me was that Wang doesn't appear on any more of the program's selections.

Tilson Thomas shows his skills as a seasoned Mahler interpreter in Blumine, which the composer probably wrote originally as a stand-alone piece, then later incorporated into his First Symphony, only later cut. It works best as we hear it here, vaguely melancholic and atmospheric, with a wonderful trumpet solo.

Under Tilson Thomas, Faure's Pavane flows gracefully and stylishly along; Schubert's Entr'acte is as beautiful and lyrical as one could want; Rachmaninov's Vocalise for orchestra sounds expectedly enchanting; Sibelius's Valse triste comes across appropriately sad and wistful; and Delibes's Cortege de Bacchus seems almost Elgarian, even though it predates Elgar by some years.

Anybody's recording of Delius's On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring has stiff competition from its original advocate, Sir Thomas Beecham, yet Tilson Thomas manages pretty well to convey its sensitive changes of color, expression, and inflection. Otherwise, the music can merely come off as repetitious and meandering. Despite the pleasing character and vitality of some of the other pieces on the disc, this one touched me the most with its delicate beauty.

Producer Jack Vad and engineers Roni Jiles, Gus Pollek, Dann Thompson, and Jonathon Stevens recorded all the works live at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, California. They recorded "The Alcotts" in 96 kHz/24-bit audio in February 2010 and the rest in PCM 192 kHz/24-bit audio in September 2013 and May 2014. What's more, they recorded the music for hybrid two-channel (regular CD and SACD) and multichannel (SACD) playback from an SACD. I listened in two-channel SACD.

It's all a rather elaborate recording considering the engineers captured the resultant sound before a live audience. Fortunately, the audience is pretty quiet throughout the performances; the only offset is that the engineers had to record the orchestra somewhat closely, so we don't get quite as much sense of place, environment, or dimensionality as we might like. There is, however, just enough hall resonance to make everything sound fairly natural, with no jagged edges, forwardness, or brightness. Stereo spread is understandably wide, the dynamics and impact appear strong. The frequency response covers most of the spectrum nicely (although the top and bottom ends seem slightly rolled off), and the overall clarity is fine despite some softness in the presentation. An inevitable eruption of unnecessary applause occurs only after the final number.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa