I had long remembered these performances, which I originally owned and enjoyed on those old-style vinyl platters, now gone the way of the 78 RPM discs that gathered dust on the shelf at my great grandmother's house.
Now, here they are again. This time round, Silverline Classics has achieved 24-bit, high resolution, 5.1 surround sound via DVD Audio versions. Since the venue is that of the Mormon Tabernacle, it makes for a unique experience to hear the Utah players in that circular space, at once both ethereal and tonally specific.
So the story has it, building materials were hard to find in the time when the tabernacle was built. It had to be mainly erected with laboriously fitted wood, helped along by endless leather ties and wooden pins to tighten the beams. As a soundstage, the tabernacle offers your ear a round, reverberant space; but still you get a simultaneous particularity that goes against the brain's logic, which would otherwise argue that you cannot get so clear an edge to high frequency transients in such big, circular air.
So it is a pleasure to report that this modern recreation on DVD Audio disc is successful. (Amazon doesn't yet seem to have sufficient high resolution clue, to list them; but look around, the discs are released and available.) DVD Audio in fact captures the tabernacle's acoustical identity, in ways that support and serve the music.
Then you must add in the impact of Abravanel's sheer musicality. Like Herbert Blomstedt, or the late Gunter Wand, Abravanel was a conductor who lived into the repertoire for years and years, always going deeper into the music. Yet he led the Utah orchestra with a self-effacing transparency, so that in the final analysis, all that is left standing in an Abravanel performance is the composer and the music. Oh, yes, probably a refined French sense of instrumental timbres and orchestral textures cannot help but be heard; but it remains utterly in the service of the music.
One key to the almost invisible genius of Abravanel's conducting is his unerring choices of tempo. He could fit a tempo to both the composer's style at hand, as well as to the best aspects of the Utah players' technical strengths. And Abravanel's tempo is rock steady: no swooping, no swooning, no gratuitous flash and bang. His music-making is entirely hearty, even mystical stuff when it comes to conducting Sibelius. NO empty calories.
These days, when many conductors strap you in for a Sibelius symphony as if you just paid an entrance fee for cheap thrills at a huge musical amusement park, Abravanel's magic can initially sound a bit old-fashioned. Who was this guy? you may find yourself asking. He started his career in Europe on the cutting edges of modernity, leading Kurt Weill theater pieces. But if these recordings are any evidence, he probably brought his genius for tempo and for orchestra balances and for sheer musicality of gesture to bear on Weill, as much as upon any other older composer.
Fortunately, the Five Stars awarded to Sym 1 and Sym 4 are just the beginning. The remaining Sibelius symphonies will eventually also be released by Silverline Classics in very good, high resolution, surround sound. But wait, there is more. Abravanel and Utah also did all four of the Brahms symphonies.
Highly recommended: exemplary high resolution/surround sound, plus incredibly musical interpretations that will stay with you over the next few decades, ever nourishing.