in the beleaguered world of classical compact disc sales, the standard repertory has come to be known as the "kiss of death." As a consumer, I am clearly part of the problem. Like most longtime classical music lovers, I already own at least one recording of most of the standard works. And what makes me an even more reluctant classical CD shopper is that when it comes to orchestral music, I've played most of the standard repertory in one or both violin sections. Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," for example, makes me think not of pagan Russia but of quirky special effects that hasten the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome and rhythmic configurations so complex they make the U.S. tax code read like Pat the Bunny by comparison. When I contemplate the "Rite," or the "Firebird," or any number of other popular orchestral works, I am transported to the psychic realm of hard labor. I would just as soon buy a new recording of the "Rite of Spring" as I would voluntarily show up for work on a Saturday afternoon.
So it was with some ambivalence that I approached the pair of CDs recorded earlier this year by Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra. The first CD, "Exotic Dances from the Opera," features some unfamiliar music (whoever can hum the tune from Henri Rabaud's dances from "Marouf, Cobbler of Cairo" has far too much time on her hands); but the disc also highlights such warhorses as the "Dance of the Seven Veils" from Richard Strauss' "Salome" and the "Bacchanale" from Camille Saint-Sakns' "Samson and Delilah." The Stravinsky CD features his less well-known (and incredibly bizarre) "Song of the Nightingale," but this symphonic poem is sandwiched in between the composer's two most frequently performed works, the "Rite of Spring" and the 1919 "Firebird Suite."
But the Minnesota Orchestra discs are so dazzling that I listened to these familiar pieces as if for the first time. The orchestra has a ferocious technique and the musical unity of a first-rate string quartet. The string sections command a vast palette of tonal colors; the brass have as rich and unified sound as a great pipe organ; and the apparent ease with which the woodwinds subdue the notoriously knotty passages of the Rite is nearly as thrilling as the music itself. The combination of exquisite phrasing, perfect ensemble, and better-than-live recording quality makes these performances virtually indispensable.
Special mention should be made of a couple of tracks. The Firebird's "Infernal Dance of King Kastshei," thanks in large part to the engineering wizards at Reference Recordings, should be listened to with extreme caution by anyone with a heart condition. And the "Dance of the Seven Veils" is played with such convincing affects of lasciviousness and moral dissolution that one wants to get to know these players better. I would never suggest that the Minnesota Orchestra intentionally was using sex to sell its recordings; but if they succeeded in doing so, who could fault them?