New Century Chamber Orchestra / Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

Live: Strauss, Barber & Mahler

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Violinist/conductor Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and her handpicked New Century Chamber Orchestra have charted an independent course, starting their own label and giving concerts marked by fresh performances and a high level of musical commitment. This is not only a live recording, but also, according to Salerno-Sonnenberg's testimony in the booklet (in English only), one that was not even planned for release but simply a recording of a celebrated concert the group gave in its native San Francisco; hearing the recording, Salerno-Sonnenberg felt the experience was powerful enough that it should be shared. Listening to the album, it's easy to believe her on all counts. The live aspect is immediate; there's a good deal of crowd noise, including some coughing, and there are some imperfections in exposed solo lines. The orchestra is miked unpleasantly close up, perhaps with the intention of capturing in a direct way the efforts of the orchestra's players in the highly soloistic writing in Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen (Metamorphoses), the centerpiece of the program. You can also understand why Salerno-Sonnenberg wanted to get this music out on the street. The program is daring indeed, striking an unvarying emotional tone and making it work: it consists of three works that from the beginning moments strike a tone of profundity and transcendence, of endurance of tragedy. The Metamorphosen, the masterpiece of Strauss' old age, is in the middle, flanked by the shorter and tonally clearer but no less elevated Barber Adagio for strings and Mahler Adagietto (from the Symphony No. 5). Salerno-Sonnenberg takes the Barber at quite a slow pace, emphasizing what audiences would have heard at an early performance of the work mentioned in her notes: the one that occurred at the funeral of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. The Strauss is a musical high-wire act in which nobody falls and everybody remains confident. The Mahler is perhaps the most transcendent of all, and it's nice to hear it in surroundings of like-minded music. For those who like orchestral music for strings that takes nothing less than revelation as its goal, this is a must-have.

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