The final paragraph of my recent review of a Toronto Symphony subscription concert included the phrase ‘Whither the Toronto Symphony?’. I have been very pleasantly surprised at the much improved quality of the orchestra over the past five years. Coincidentally, the same time Peter Oundjian has been at the reins. Actually, there’s no coincidence in the orchestra’s rising fortunes. Many hands make quick work, for sure, but much of the bouquet must go to Oundjian. He is a master communicator, a very fine musician, and is turning into a top class conductor and orchestral trainer (he’s just been made Music Director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra).
I’ve attended his rehearsals — he’s relaxed in nature and collaborative, but is insistent. He knows what he wants and how to get it. And what he wants is all the good stuff — flawless intonation, blend, fantastic execution, musical sophistication, and above all musical communication to the audience with respect to the composer. This new release is indicative of the transition (’rebirth’, according to the TSO’s media kit). We have Vaughan Williams’ elegaic 5th Symphony in complete contrast to his war-like 4th. The 5th was recorded in 2008 and the 4th this year. The comparisons are interesting.
Both recordings are very good, matching the recent CD releases of a previous Toronto MD, the ebullient Sir Andrew Davis. He has the BBC Symphony playing very well and the recordings are wonderful (engineered by the wonderful Tony Faulkner), but it’s a pleasure to hear the TSO match the famous orchestra in characterful solos and orchestral execution. Toronto’s problematic Roy Thomson Hall is handled well by the engineers. In fact, there is bloom and definition, something that the orchestra members have to create when heard live through their breathing technique, phrasing and articulation. A little easier when being recorded to ‘fix it in the mix’. That said, the recording does sound very natural.
The 5th, from 2008, shows the orchestra in very fine form. Oundjian is in touch with his inner Boult, emphasizing the long, arching melodies as they unfold with subtle, shifting harmonies. It’s heaven for fans of the flattened 7th. Oundjian brings out the counterpoint, especially in the first movement. The piece can sound moribund if the secondary lines do not maintain interest. And the orchestra commits a fabulous performance of the gorgeous Romanza slow movement. Among the very best.
The 4th, from 2011, is even better. The soloists play with more verve and freedom, the ensemble is precise but has an air of abandon and danger — perfect for this very aggressive work. Oundjian and the orchestra took the 4th Symphony to Carnegie Hall this year and the meticulous preparation shows. This performance matches my benchmarks by Boult and Tod Handley. It is a perfect example of how far the orchestra has developed under the tutelage of Peter Oundjian.
Buy with confidence.
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony Nos. 4 & 5
Peter Oundjian, conductor
Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Symphony No. 4 was recorded live in March 2011 at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, Canada
Symphony No. 5 was recorded live in November 2008 at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, Canada
Product code: TSO-0311