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“This England”
Edward Elgar: Cockaigne (In London Town), Op. 40
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5 in D Major
Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes: Four Sea Interludes, Op. 33a, & Passacaglia, Op. 33b

The Oregon Symphony, Carlos Kalmar (conductor)
Recorded in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, OR (18-19 February and 12-14 May 2012) – 77’29
Pentatone PTC 5186 471 – Booklet in English, German and French

This is a remarkable recording in every way. The repertoire is a thoughtful trio of important works presenting a cross-section of “This England,” from Elgar's bustling cityscape, through Vaughan Williams' wartime reflection on his homeland's natural beauty, to Britten's expert limning of the tumult and glory of the sea surrounding the island nation. The performances are powerful and exacting, and the discs coming from the triumvirate of the Oregon Symphony, Carlos Kalmar and Pentatone remind one of the high quality of the series of discs released by partnerships like the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Charles Dutoit and Decca/London.

In Cockaigne, Elgar out-pomps his Pomp and Circumstance series in an exuberant illustration of city life. The work is bold and brassy, and the arresting opening and subsequent contrasting episodes lay the groundwork for the success of the entire disc. The orchestra responds to Kalmar's direction with thrilling rhythmic accuracy, notable not only in the quick, rhythmic passages, but also in the slow music of all three composers, where harmonies and melodies move in perfect synchronization. Kalmar expertly sculpts Elgar's overture, which comes perilously close to a noisy ramble in the wrong hands.

Vaughan Williams' hauntingly beautiful Fifth Symphony receives a new reference recording on this disc. Kalmar moves the first and fourth movements nicely forward, keeping an inevitable momentum underpinning the overlapping ideas. The tempo for the second movement scherzo is measured, but the music doesn't suffer from it. The orchestra plays with sharp articulation and rhythmic exactitude that keeps the energy at a high level throughout, and it's a nice change to hear all the small details (pizzicato cross-rhythms, stopped horn buzzing, scurrying string counterpoint) in this movement that are easily blurred at a quicker pace. Throughout this and the other works, the solo winds, especially oboe and English horn in the “Romanza,” are gorgeous. Strings and brass respond in turn, always sensitive to their roles in the overall texture.

The virtuoso demands of Britten's symphonic excerpts from Peter Grimes are child's play for the Oregonians. The opening stratospheric flute and string musings are perfectly coordinated, and the ensuing sea splash from clarinet, viola and harp usher in warm, perfectly balanced brass chorales. The inexorable rotations of these gestures, gathering momentum, draw the listener in. “Sunday Morning” is, like the Vaughan Williams scherzo, slightly measured in tempo, but again doesn't flag in energy. The puckish E-flat clarinet at the opening and the ecstatic piccolo trumpet rushes up and down at the climax are highlighted in the recording mix, but tastefully so. The sheer beauty of the orchestra's sound dominates the “Moonlight” interlude, which leads smartly into the “Passacaglia”, with the fading nocturnal raindrops passing appropriately into the depths of the orchestra to initiate the ground bass. The tremendous low brass agility in the “Storm” interlude brings the program to a thrilling close.

This is a disc for audiophiles and Anglophiles alike, but also for those needing a reboot of faith in the American orchestra. The Oregon Symphony certainly deserves recognition as one of the greatest in the country, and under Kalmar's confident and intelligently musical guiding hand, one looks forward to many exciting future releases.

Marcus Karl Maroney




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