Rarely have I listened with such hostile ears as I did to the boatload of new compact discs issued by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. That's the orchestra recently named No. 1 in Gramophone magazine's list of the world's 20 greatest orchestras - as decided by a panel of international critics who, by the way, shut out the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Loyalty to the home team isn't behind this confrontation. I've loved the Amsterdam orchestra for decades. My motivation was curiosity: What does it take to be No. 1 on a list that's mainly decided by impressions (albeit highly intelligent ones)? Who's on and who's off seems so much an anything-is-possible matter that Denver Post critic Kyle MacMillan suggested a similar list of American orchestras might include the Colorado Symphony, which rose from the defunct Denver Symphony only in 1989.
So let's get empirical. What forms impressions of musical supremacy? Among the world's great orchestras, how did the Dutch do it? The Concertgebouw Orchestra's five new CDs are indisputably excellent, but so are those of other great orchestras. The difference, it seems, is a strategy behind the artistry that creates a marketplace presence. How that happens isn't simple.
First, some context: The Philadelphia and Amsterdam orchestras have much in common, having achieved international recognition through an immediately recognizable sonic luster and similar history of great, long-term music directors. While Philadelphia had Leopold Stokowski, Amsterdam had iconoclastic, dictatorial Willem Mengelberg, followed by the extended tenures of middle-of-the-road conductors (Eduard van Beinem, Bernard Haitink and Riccardo Chailly), not unlike Philadelphia's succession of Eugene Ormandy, Riccardo Muti and Wolfgang Sawallisch.
But Philadelphia experienced a declining international media presence during some of its best years under Sawallisch - so much that critic MacMillan wrote that the orchestra has had drifting leadership since Riccardo Muti's departure, which just isn't true. In fact, Philadelphia had been recording with intermittent success under Christoph Eschenbach.
In contrast, Amsterdam's presence has burgeoned. The orchestra's concerts are televised live across Europe. Dutch Radio has emptied out its archive of great historical recordings with huge boxed sets documenting the orchestra's history. Who knows how well they sold, but media copies - lots of them - went to newspapers and radio stations worldwide so that the right people were plugged in.
But it is the new recordings under current chief conductor Mariss Jansons that are the envy of the industry. The original idea of orchestra-published recordings - pioneered by the London Symphony Orchestra's LSO Live label - was concert performances issued quickly and cheaply, almost as a souvenir. Such discs didn't pretend to challenge the long-standing classic performances. But Amsterdam's do. And those that don't turn up instead on the orchestra's Web site as free downloads after they've run their course in the market.
While the London Symphony Orchestra's use of SACD surround sound mostly functioned (successfully) to counteract the flat acoustic of London's Barbican Centre, Amsterdam's famous hall ambience needed no counteracting. The combination of space, color and immediacy in its recent Debussy/Dutilleux/Ravel disc conspires to create one of the best-sounding orchestral CDs I've ever heard. Ever. From a purely consumerist standpoint, a new
recording is hardly news, but this disc also has Dutilleux's great violin concerto
L'Arbre des songes,
a deeply alluring work given a performance by Dmitry Sitkovetsky that never gets lost in the music's abstraction.
Jansons has never been a conductor to upset anybody's fundamental vision of the great symphonic classics. If anything, he's too reticent. But that minus is counteracted by the live-performance heat he generates in these discs. Though Jansons is recording some major symphonies for the third time here, the new discs have a sound quality, frisson and maturity that command attention amid the redundancy. The last thing I need is anybody's new Mahler
Symphony No. 5
, but the Jansons/Amsterdam disc has been finding its way into my SACD player with unanticipated frequency.
Other Jansons outings, with Strauss'
Rite of Spring
, are recordings to live with, the offstage-instrument effects in the Strauss being particularly effective. And though Jansons' Stravinsky isn't as nasty as I'd like, it's clearly conceived and confidently executed.
Lest we assume that Amsterdam's discography is only about classical greatest hits, two of the most interesting discs are an Alban Berg program by guest conductor Daniele Gatti (better known as a Tchaikovsky/Verdi conductor) that shows the orchestra going to earthshaking extremes. More daring is
the first in a series of contemporary music recordings conducted by Markus Stenz, including a dazzling new orchestral work by British composer Colin Matthews titled
and Dutch composer Theo Verbey's
which uses the imposing trombone solos from Mahler's
Symphony No. 3
as a jumping-off point. Some contemporary discs are like taking bad medicine. Not this.
Most important, these discs are easily found. Though Jansons makes more interpretively specific recordings with his other group, the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, they're so hard to find outside Germany that even shops in Amsterdam don't know that Jansons' Bavarian discs exist. His Amsterdam discs, in contrast, have a major U.S. distributor in Harmonia Mundi. For any active classical consumer, they're unavoidable.
How possible is this kind of success in Philadelphia? Very - but not likely for a while. Charles Dutoit, who hasn't been much of a recording presence since leaving Montreal, could make great recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra, but as long as he's an interim presence, the time-and-expense investment may not make great sense. Most of Gramophone's Top 20 orchestras have strong artistic leadership - and, more important, the leadership that's right for them. Few orchestras walk on water - particularly without leadership in these fraught times.