The Boston Sound

James Levine (music director) and Mark Volpe (managing director) held a press conference at Symphony Hall yesterday for the primary purpose of highlighting the release of the first four Boston Symphony Orchestra/Levine recordings on the in-house BSO Classics label. The line-up:

  • Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe (CD and download)
  • Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem (CD and download)
  • Bolcom: Symphony no. 8/Lyric Concerto (download only)
  • Mahler: Symphony no. 6 (download only)

Levine talked about each recording, and also played excerpts through a surround-sound set-up, which resulted in a rare and entertaining glimpse of Levine the itinerant huckster—

“Did you hear the dynamic range?” [pause] “Did you hear the top-to-bottom range?” [pause] “The left-to-right range—and especially the front-to-back range?”

—and so forth. He’s actually quite good at it.

The CD/download duality is, both Levine and Volpe admitted, experimental—it’s designed to see how various releases sell in the various formats. (The download formats are 320 kbs MP3 and WMA Surround HD—no lossless Mac-compatible options as yet.) The all-BSO structure—an in-house label, distributed through the BSO’s own website—is based on 1) maximizing revenue and, Volpe seemed to hint, 2) a belief that the major labels other orchestras have partnered with (New York and Los Angeles, for example, both release digitally through Deutsche Grammophon) might not be around for the long haul. “It’s basically taking our destiny and putting it into our own hands,” Volpe said, “and not relying on media companies, and partnerships with companies that, in their heyday, were significant, but less and less so, given the new world we’re living in.”

All the releases are live, concert recordings. No doubt this reflects the good-news-bad-news combination of the increasing quality of live recording and the increasing cost of studio recording, but for Levine, it was all good, as he repeatedly expressed a preference for live recording over studio recording, capturing the electricity of a concert hall experience over filling in the repertoire. “I watched this when I was George Szell’s assistant,” Levine said. “The record company said, ‘Dr. Szell, we want to come every week and record a Haydn symphony.’ So they did. Meanwhile, he played the Sixth Mahler… the Siegfried Idyll: no recordings. Simply unbelievable performances.” Levine specifically cast the BSO’s lot with concert recordings. “It shouldn’t come from the old aesthetics of studio recording,” he said. “What one always hoped would happen was that the technology would make it possible to get an exciting enough, vivid enough souvenir of that live feeling you get at concerts.” The BSO had recorded every one of Levine’s programs since he took over as music director, but they held off releasing any of them until the technology caught up with that goal. “I thought, what I want is to release a kind of recording that has certain characteristics that are now possible that were not possible this way before, not at this level,” Levine said, “and even if they were possible, they weren’t the aesthetic of the time, maybe.”

Noticeable was an interesting shift in that aesthetic—Levine seemed eager to use recording to build up the BSO as a unique brand, in both sound and repertoire. (Singular was a word that came up a lot.) In the first four releases, you get the BSO’s long association with French music (Daphnis); its initial at-that-time modern German orientation (Brahms); its Koussevitzky-incubated reputation for new music (Bolcom—the symphony was a BSO commission); and the addition of Levine’s own stamp (Mahler). It’s a throwback to the time—not coincidentally, the time that Levine first came into the business—when orchestras cultivated distinct sonic personalities, before the movement towards homogenized versatility in the 70s and 80s. Levine spent a fair amount of time pointing out how big a part the sound of Symphony Hall itself plays in the new recordings. “Even one of the characteristics of the hall that was really fascinating is preserved there,” he said. “You know that tendency for the upper-middle to be the strongest register in the room? It is—it always is. We could artificially change it, but I didn’t want to.”

The orchestra also took the occasion to release Levine’s concert repertoire for next season (guest conductor programs will have to wait until March). Most noticable was an October-November series of all nine Beethoven symphonies—something the BSO apparently has never done. (Levine revealed that he himself has never gotten around to conducting the Fourth.) Levine sold it as a chance to rethink the symphonies from the ground up, rather than simply tack them on to programs as a rehearsal-management technique, which I thought was pretty good spin, at the very least. The BSO is also honoring retiring harpist Ann Hobson Pilot with a John Williams commission and an October farewell. Other premieres include a baritone/orchestra cycle by Peter Lieberson, a violin/cello Double Concerto from John Harbison, and the American premiere of Elliott Carter’s Flute Concerto. No concert opera from Levine next season, although Mendelssohn’s Elijah gets an airing in the spring.

(You can read the BSO’s press release about the new recordings here.)

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