Review by: David Vernier
Artistic Quality: 9
Sound Quality: 9
No one knew when Robert Shaw made this recording in November, 1999, that it would not only be a crowning personal achievement for the conductor and his Atlanta musicians, but also would stand as a final and fitting memorial to the work of one of this century’s finest and most influential conductors. Shaw’s death from a stroke three months after the sessions assured that this last recording would get extra attention, primarily viewed through a lens of reverence, respect, and retrospection. In the more ruthless world of commerce and criticism, however, the question will be how this recording stands up to the competition. The answer: This eloquent, cohesive, and confidently paced performance is sufficiently thoughtful and so clearly centered in its point of view that it will be the version of choice not only for Shaw’s legions, but also for anyone who prefers a chorus-dominant listening perspective and a dramatic interpretive attitude. Shaw’s soloists, too, are the most evenly matched on disc, although Telarc’s balance sometimes places them too far forward.
In comparison, Jiri Belohlavek’s excellent version for Chandos from 1991 opts for a choral sound that’s more blended into the orchestra and farther away. And although the Atlanta choir’s front and center role gives it impressive presence and authority, many listeners will prefer Belohlavek’s totally contrasting stance, in which the Prague Philharmonic Choir seems to be guided by a deeply felt understanding of the work’s inherent gentleness and tenderness. Thus, there is a soul-satisfying purity and lyricism to their lines that’s missing from Shaw’s more emphatic but equally assured direction. The Prague ensemble’s exquisite legato singing in the first movement is more effective than the more pronounced style of Shaw’s chorus in the same passages, and the Czech chorus produces softer consonants and vowels; the American sound is typically more hard and open. These technical considerations and interpretive mannerisms aside, you can’t go wrong with Shaw’s heartfelt, intense effort. Would that we all could leave the world with such a profoundly beautiful goodbye. [10/14/1999]
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Recording Details:Reference Recording: Czech Philharmonic/Jiri Belohlavek (Chandos)
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