Site review by akiralx April 21, 2006
|An excellent SACD, if slightly short measure at under an hour. Kobayashi and the Czech PO have made several fine recordings of Mahler and other composers, and with this one and the companion Manfred disc they move into the late Romantic era.
For along time Iíve been seeking a performance of this symphony (perhaps the composerís best) which would match the outstanding 1959 performance by the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. That is even finer than his famous LSO Fourth he recorded two years later for Decca. I cut my teeth on the middle version of Karajanís three for DG (the 1970s one) Ė though in some ways his currently unavailable EMI version from a few years earlier is more exciting, if rather garishly recorded. But with this superb Exton production I may have found my Tchaikovskian Holy GrailÖ
A word first about the sound Ė itís excellent. The symphony and coupling were superbly recorded in the ideal acoustic of the Prague Rudolfinum. Rich strings and characterful woodwind are complemented with superbly focused timpani. The detail is excellent, with a wide soundstage and a tangible sense of depth. I should perhaps make a special comment about the brass which sound superb, with a gleaming, richly burnished tone.
In some ways the sound very occasionally becomes almost too vivid, though reducing the volume a tad seems to cure that. If the microphones were perhaps a foot or two further away from the players this would sonically match the wonderful Mahler Third these same forces recorded a year earlier for Exton Ė that is state of the art, probably the best orchestral SACD I have heard.
Tempi-wise Kobayashi is uncontroversial in the symphony, though with rather more interpretative ideas than Szell, whose performance is relatively straight. One of these towards the end of the first movement is Kobayashiís slight speeding up for the quicksilver passage at 13í45 before returning to ĎTempo 1í for the actual coda which makes it seem more imposing. I like this effect quite a lot, and itís fairly subtle. The movement begins with a sombre and atmospheric introduction at a steady tempo, before the main allegro which is taken slightly quicker than normal. Kobayashi manages to nail the passionate climaxes superbly, and the recording copes with them without any trouble. On my Stax earspeaker system this sounds great.
Thoughout the Czech PO playing is superb, and this continues into the Andante, where the solo horn is ideally nostalgic with a lovely sense of warmth and restraint. None of the slightly faceless playing that afflicted Abbadoís Berlin recording for Sony.
Here Iíll mention something about the now infamous Kobayashi vocalise: itís worse here than the few very slight groans which he injected into the Mahler 3. At one or two point in the first two movments I detected some slight growling, but these were more prevalent in the Finale. Iím not sure how discernible they would be via a normal speaker system, but I didnít find them troubling.
The third movement waltz is finely done (not much a conductor can do with this, really Ė most just let the music speak for itself), which leads onto the finale. Again the introduction is superbly weighty, but when the main allegro arrives at 3í06 Kobayashi launches it at a decent clip. One recording which I always enjoyed was Rudolf Kempeís early stereo version with the Berlin PO, reissued by Testament. He was supremely exciting here (perhaps even more so than Szell), and if Kobayashi and his Czech players donít surpass him, they come pretty close.
One slight caveat I would make (and itís a minuscule one) is that after the timpani-led fermata before the coda, I might have wished for a bit more attack on the orchestraís re-entry Ė and the trumpets donít cut through the texture quite as well as they could. Stokowski used to keep the timpani roll continuing through the pause, mainly to prevent audiences erroneously applauding! But the final section and coda come off powerfully (the last four chords really rammed home), and this brings the workís conclusion off very well.
Of SACD rivals Iíve heard Jarviís decent version Ė but Kobayashi is in a different class in every department: interpretation, orchestral playing, and recording.
The Marche Slave is also a cracking performance. Kobayashi has obviously decided that it is primarily a march, so takes it at a decent tempo, bringing it in at well under 10 minutes. Overall the performance is exciting and very satisfying, making it a sound recommendation alongside the more orthodox Abbado DG recording, and Karajanís mid-1970s version for the same label.