October 2007

Brahms - Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Variations of a Theme of Haydn
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Marek Janowski, cond.
PentaTone 5186 307
Format: Hybrid Multichannel SACD
Released: 2007

by Rad Bennett

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

PentaTone is a relatively young company that has shown wisdom beyond its years. It was formed when the SACD format was new. In those early days, this Netherlands-based label relied on local artists and was very fortunate to have such fine ensembles in its immediate neighborhood as the Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra and Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra Amsterdam. Its parent company, Polyhymnia International, was founded in 1998 in a buyout of key personnel of the former Philips Classics Recording Center, so PentaTone was staffed from day one with engineers that created superb-sounding discs. The Philips connection also allowed PentaTone to re-release, in 4.0 multichannel sound, the many "quad" recordings made by Philips in the 1970s.

Early success allowed the young company to branch out. PentaTone signed the Russian National Orchestra and violinist Julia Fischer, and now the label has begun to record one of America’s oldest orchestras. This Brahms disc will be followed up by two more, so we’ll have the composer’s four symphonies, Haydn variations and a selection of Hungarian Dances when all is said and done.

I’m looking forward to that, because this first disc is a resounding success. I’ve never thought of Marek Janowski as a sensitive maestro, but he is exactly that here, breathing new lyrical life into these often-played works. His readings are fleet but never rushed. The introduction to the fourth movement of the symphony is exceptionally tight and dramatic, setting the stage for the noble theme that serves as a basis for the rest of the movement. The Pittsburgh players are on the mark all the way, and the live recording sounds very natural and transparent. The engineers have wisely cut the applause out. The SACD layer's surround channels add presence, and the center channel solidifies the front of the soundstage.