Exactly one week from today SFS Media will release the latest hybrid SACD recording of concert performances by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall with Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) on the podium. The content consists of two major compositions by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the Opus 64 (fifth) symphony in E minor and the “Fantasy-Overture” that evokes selected episodes from William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. Both of these selections were recorded in Davies during September of 2014. The SFS Web site has a Symphony Store Web page from which both the physical CD and an iTunes download may be pre-ordered.
It goes without saying that both of these compositions are warhorses. I suspect that there are readers out there who have lost track of how many recordings they have of each of them. I am even willing to confess that I approached the concert performances of both the symphony and the overture with the trepidation of one concerned that (s)he may have heard this music too many times. Nevertheless, I have learned over the years that such too-many-times thoughts can be readily dispersed when the right ensemble with the right conductor can demonstrate that there is still something to say about the music.
In this case MTT’s approach honed my awareness of Tchaikovsky’s singular talent for thinking about his music in terms of its sonority, beyond any issues concerned with structural architecture or thematic vocabulary. Often this is simply a matter of finding just the right pair of spectrally distinct instruments playing the same passage in unison, creating a blend as subtle and alluring as any mix of pigments encountered in a canvas by Rembrandt. Then, of course, there are the roles that the mixing of sonorities play when Tchaikovsky is building up to a climax. What looks like rote repetition on the printed page is anything but, because, even when the instrument is not changing, the quality of the sound changes as the dynamic level gets louder.
In addition, both of these compositions have very powerful spatial qualities. One may get some sense of this by looking at the score pages, but there is no substitute for the physical experience when the blending of sonorities varies depending on how close the contributing instruments are to each other. When he is at his best, MTT can be very effective in escalating the spatial to a level of significance during a performance; and he was definitely at his best when both of these pieces were performed in 2014.
Nevertheless, when one makes the move from the physical experience to the recorded one, something is lost. That something cannot necessarily be measured in terms of bandwidth, which means that a specification such as “PCM 192 kHz/24-bit” is more likely to impress the obsessions of an audiophile than to register on that physiological path that leads from the eardrum to the cerebral cortex. Indeed, the source of that “something” may not even be auditory. When we sit in a concert hall, we are more attuned to the sonorous and spatial mixes of instruments because we see them, rather than just hearing them. Like any other form of serious cognition, listening to music is as much a “whole body” experience as making it is, meaning that, regardless of the sophistication of capture technology, a strictly auditory impression cannot help but be an impoverished one.
Thus, while there is no doubt that these recordings are based on performances by MTT at his most expressive, many may find that the isolated auditory signal does not convey just what made his expressiveness so impressive.