I admit I was a bit skeptical with this. I was not overly impressed with James Gaffigan's 2014 Dvorak disc with this orchestra on this label (6th Symphony and American Suite). Oh it's very good and very well played, but just not particularly memorable. And I thought harmonia mundi didn't help him out any with sound which is a bit stuffy. So an Americana program from this same team made me hesitate. But, I needn't have worried. James Gaffigan has this music in his very bones and brings the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra to life and keeps them on their toes all through. And harmonia mundi's sound is more open, dynamic and lively than in the earlier Dvorak.
Bernstein's very familiar West Side Story Symphonic Dances sets the stage (so to speak), and Gaffigan brings energy and fabulous characterization. While always the ultimate in refinement, he does encourage this orchestra to "let loose" in the rambunctious sections, and they deliver - if not quite to the level that the composer himself achieved with the New York Phil back in the early 60s. But the brass do give it the gusto and the strings dig in with impressive authority. Most of all, though, the lively percussion and impressive bass drum wallops make a splendid impact. And the gentler passages are expressive with beautiful, singing, melodic lines. Gaffigan maintains a certain symphonic control over the proceedings, enhancing the structure of the work. He also affords this music a bit more atmosphere, bringing out more inner detail than usual. It is a vivid portrayal of the stage work and it comes off splendidly, especially with harmonia mundi's immediate, focused, airy sound.
The only other recent recording that comes to mind as being in the same league is on a splendid 2017 all-Bernstein collection with Christian Lindberg conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on BIS. Lindberg is just a touch more rambunctious (reminiscent of a pit orchestra) and BIS provides him a more upfront, edgy presentation, which comes even closer to matching Bernstein's own. But Gaffigan is better recorded (more refined and sumptuous), despite being on standard CD vs Lindberg's SACD. Both these readings are a far cry better than another recent attempt that I had the misfortune of hearing, that from Santtu-Matias Rouvali on a 2018 Orfeo set (combined oddly with various violin concertos), which is tame (lame) and seriously under-characterized in comparison.
Charles Ives's Third Symphony is based on 3 of his original organ preludes utilizing familiar hymn tunes. The booklet reminds us the work was not immediately welcomed and wasn't premiered until some 35 years later (in 1946). And, frankly, it's still not a great symphony, sounding rather like expanded symphonic arrangements of church hymns. Nonetheless, the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra's tonal richness and beauty of blend suit it perfectly and Gaffigan's choice of tempos ensures it keeps moving along without dragging. It is pleasant and I enjoyed it more than usual, aided by the beautiful recording.
Time to wake up, though, for Barber's School for Scandal Overture which bursts into the room next. This is one the most vivacious accounts of the piece I've heard in recent years, reminding me of David Zinman's incomparable 1992 account with the Baltimore Symphony for Argo. Once again, the bass drum makes its presence known (and felt) to stunning effect. I couldn't decide if I would have preferred it coming first on the program rather than immediately after the solemn Ives. But no matter, it is a stupendous account and once again reveals spectacular recorded sound.
I was not impressed with Ruth Crawford's Andante for Strings. Even the booklet seems to have a rather hard time making it sound interesting ("...a heterophony of dynamics--a sort of counterpoint of crescendi and diminuendi.") There's just not much to it, compositionally or musically. And I was glad it doesn't last long (4 minutes).
Finishing the program, Barber's Toccata Festiva gives the engineers a chance to really show off. It is well played, of course, and the sound is very impressive. The organ is not given a prominence which would allow it to swamp the orchestra, but is naturally balanced, just as one would experience live. And it provides a triumphant conclusion to the evening.
Hats off to James Gaffigan for a fabulous concert - superbly played by his orchestra, with excellent sonics from harmonia mundi. I normally would lament the absence of SACD, but when standard CD sounds this good, there is no cause for complaint.