I hate to start off the new year with a stinker. But I'm afraid that's just what I've got. Cutting to the chase, this is the worst yet in a string of sonically disappointing CDs to come from Reference Recordings. This one is sub-par not only from a technical, recorded-sound perspective, but also from performance standards.
I understand San Francisco ballet lovers adore their local troupe and its orchestra. But by professional orchestral standards, this orchestra is rather mediocre these days. And unfortunately, its conductor is uninspiring, bringing precious little imagination or good spirits to this music. The playing heard on this disc is routine and merely serviceable. As a matter of fact, listening to track 1, I immediately grabbed the booklet to see if this was written for band. What I was hearing sounded so much like a high school band playing, I was astonished to discover that this is indeed the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. Oh my. This is far from the polished ensemble heard in their glorious 2000 Arabesque Records recording of Debussy rarities, conducted by their founder, Emil de Cou. One wonders why the decline in standards during the intervening decades.
What is most baffling is the characteristic so curiously absent from the playing heard throughout this program - the spirit of the dance. An orchestra used to playing nothing but ballet music ought to be able to at least get that right. But no, everything is decidedly earthbound, leaden and bland. Just listen to the concluding Spanish Dances, which simply refuse to come to life with lilt, charm or even a smile. They plod along as if trudging off to the trenches.
As to the recording quality, it is impossibly compressed and muffled; details and dynamics suffer considerably. Any life that might have been there to begin with (which isn't much) has been stifled. The sound simply refuses to open up and sparkle, remaining frustratingly congested in climaxes. Reference Recordings has completely lost its collective minds if they hear this as a state-of-the-art product. Perhaps they are having a difficult time finding a suitable venue in which to record this orchestra. That they have moved them to Lucasfilm's Skywalker lab for this recording is intriguing. As is the fact this was recorded in 2014 but not released until late 2016.
This could have been a wonderful disc - adventurous and entertaining repertoire which should easily have provided endless amounts of pleasure. But, alas, what we have instead is a disappointing experience, devoid of charm, energy and the very essence of the dance. I feel sorry for these players. They really deserve a better conductor and record company if they are going to make commercial, orchestral recordings.