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Classical Gas

By David Greenberger

The Explorers Club

Freedom Wind (Dead Oceans)

 

The Explorers Club could not exist without the Beach Boysí resonant catalog. Sidestepping the gently experimental era of Pet Sounds and its brief aftermath, the Explorers Club revel in the earlier Beach Boys Today and the later Carl & the Passions: So Tough. The latter in particular found Brianís two younger brothers stepping to the fore, having learned under his leadership. Maligned at the time, the album even contained a few songs that didnít have the familiar Beach Boys sound, especially when new members Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin took the spotlight with their own songs.

In the í90s, the High Llamas celebrated the Beach Boysí work from theí70s, though they used it as a starting point. Explorers Club have built themselves a much smaller yard. Their sound is indeed glorious, as thoughtful arrangements underscore layered voices. The songs ape Wilsonian motifs, in the way that Neil Innes did with the Beatles for his Rutles songs. They roll by dreamily, sounding so familiar that they donít come into clear focus as their own compositions. Additionally, the lyrics adhere to simplistic boy-girl issues that are decidedly dated in a way that the music isnít. But perhaps the band make their objectives clear right on the cover, with its homage to the Beach Boysí All Summer Long, complete with an LP coverís telltale ringwear. Explorers Club are planting this album in the past, though there is plenty about it that deserves to be blooming right now.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, conductor

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A Minor (CSO-Resound)

London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, conductor

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A Minor (LSO Live)

Itís long been an economic truth that orchestras are too costly for the major labels to record. Classical CD sales have tanked low enough to drag down many a brick-and-mortar retailer, and new formats and technology have cast their shadows.

And itís taken the classical world longer than the rest to figure out how to use new technologies. Orchestras are more and more capturing their own performances and offering those recordings online and in their concert halls, and the more significant such releases are showing up as old-fashioned, jewel-cased CDs with cover art and liner notes.

Two recent ones feature Mahlerís Sixth Symphony. The Chicago Symphony and the London Symphony both have their own CD labels, and both of these new recordings are drawn from live performances last fallóin the London Symphonyís case, as part of a complete Mahler symphonies cycle conducted by Valery Gergiev to great acclaim.

Bernard Haitink has three earlier recordings of this symphony in the catalogue (with three different orchestras). While none compares to the sonic brilliance of the CSO version, this one presents itself as the lengthiest. In fact, at 91 minutes, itís one of the lengthiest of them all, suggesting that Haitink, like Bernstein before him, is putting the brakes on the brio of his earlier interpretations.

But he has a brilliant orchestra with which to explore this more subdued approach. Certainly itís not stinting in emotional intensity, at least not in a cumulative sense. Buildups are slow and not given to untoward outburst.

Adhering to the composerís initial wish, Haitink places the symphonyís Scherzo in the second-movement slot, which gives it the function of offering wry commentary on the relentless seriousness of the opening movement. The ensuing Andante, with a four-note rising-and-falling motif at its heart, is a stretch of relative calm before the Finale comes crashing in: tuneful, bold, but with more gloomy clouding its triumph.

The CSOís brass section is rightly celebrated, and shows itself in this recording not only as a terrific source of virtuoso color but also as risk-takers, going after those notes with what almost seems like recklessnessówhich, in the context of Haitinkís careful control, contrasts excitingly.

Gergiev is a more of a china-shop bull. His single-CD sixth (it runs 78 minutes) cries out at overwrought moments where Haitinkís throbs throughout. Again, the orchestral forces are accomplished enough to devote the needed attention to interpretive matters, although some passages for the high strings falter. Under Gergievís urging, the opening movement takes off at a run, prompting some critical drubbings from the easily offended. But the turbulence of the opening is effective in an episodic manner: you donít have to ride to the journeyís end to get some thrills.

Following Mahlerís second thoughts, the Andante is placed second, a more usual custom that binds the martial scherzo to the finale. And that finale shows Gergiev at his best, with the thunder and lightning propelling this nearly half-hour-long movement to a finish rendered all the more depressively exhilarating by the turbulent journey.

The worst of classical-music criticism comes when pieces and performances are thrown into hierarchical rankings. Thatís a too-easy approach to organizing oneís own thoughts on this most subjective of arts. Over time Iíll find a Mahler Sixth recording to which Iíll return most often, but for now Iím fascinated by the contrasts between these two, both of which reflect the intelligent thoughts of justifiably renowned interpreters.

Haitinkís cover art is a painting in shades of deep blue painting titled Fate and Freud, to one side of which lurks an anguished human face. Gergievís cover is a deep red illuminated by vivid sparksóeach an appropriate metaphor to the flavor of the recording within.

óB.A. Nilsson


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