I have read with amusement the mixed reviews of this disc on Amazon (and elsewhere). And I admit to having hesitations going in. But in the end, many of us (myself included) are thrilled to hear the magnificent Philadelphia Orchestra with modern recorded sound which finally does it justice. Others, however, just can't get passed the past.
Getting right to it: DG's recording is extremely good. It positively invites the listener to turn it up and luxuriate in the richness of it. No, it's not perfect. It is a LIVE recording after all, and that in and of itself presents all sorts of challenges. (Fortunately there is no audience noise that I could detect.) I wish it had a bit more air and sparkle, for example. But it's certainly warmer and richer than EMI could ever manage for Muti. And it has a spectacular dynamic range. Granted, they are now in their new home (Verizon Hall), and EMI didn't have that luxury. Nonetheless, the top-heavy, edgie, glarey brashness of EMI's Philadelphia is long gone. And DG has done a pretty darn good job, with warm, full, soaring violins and rich (but not muddy) lower strings and brass. Just what is needed for Rachmaninoff. And the power of the bass drum and tam-tam in both works is spectacular.
I think those who are still trying to compare this to the good-ol' Ormandy days are forgetting that CBS loved to spotlight, with a bunch of microphones everywhere. So, yes, there were things heard in his recordings that impressed more, and made more of an impact. Ormandy had Rachmaninoff in his very bones, but he also had a lot of help from the engineers in the control room. Put simply, DG's recorded sound in Philly is as natural and realistic as you'll hear these days - as well it should, after 60 years of advancements in recording technology/techniques.
And getting to the crux of the matter - the conducting. Nezet-Seguin certainly shows off his operatic pedigree. From beginning to end, I hear ardent singing lines. I also hear majesty. And I hear an enormous assemblage of musicians playing their hearts out. Perhaps there is a little less ostentatious drama than I've heard from others (including Ormandy). And I would never describe this music-making as being the most "Russian"-sounding around. But it sure is passionate and emotionally moving, and often exciting. And the playing is magnificent.
While I overall enjoyed the disc immensely, I do have just two reservations.
1) I know the first movement of Symphonic Dances is marked "non Allegro". But does it really have to be THIS non? There isn't quite enough Allegro for me; it is rather leisurely. I wished for a little more forward momentum, and thus a little more excitement in this movement. (David Zinman in Baltimore is incomparable in this work, and the 1994 Telarc recording is absolutely spectacular. It is a pity Zinman never recorded the First Symphony.) The remaining movements are spot on, however, and the ending is thrilling - with the tam-tam allowed to resonate for the perfect length of time, with a most natural decay.
And 2), the finale of the Symphony simply failed to raise the roof in an overwhelming way. After the massive, spectacular tam-tam crash just before the final peroration, why is the timpani so backwardly balanced and anemic in the final measures? Is it DG's balance? Or is the timpanist tired? Glancing at the score, the timpani is marked ff with no accent markings, while the strings are fff with accents. Surely Nezet-Seguin isn't making a big distinction out of that? Regardless the reason, the ending lacked sufficient power because the timpani do not sound remotely ff.
The rest of the Symphony is spectacularly done, with perfectly chosen tempos. And even though the final section was a bit of a let down for me, I admire Nezet-Seguin for not drawing it out with an unnecessary (and unmarked) ritardando, which too many conductors can't resist doing. In fact, the score is marked con moto here.
Taken as a whole, I am impressed - especially with DG's sound, which is not always the case. (It's not even usually the case, frankly.) And I am thrilled this fabulous orchestra finally is receiving fabulous sound. I hope this team continues the series with Rachmaninoff's tone poems, although I suspect we'll be seeing the remaining symphonies next. And the Second, in particular, will be the real test.