This CD arrived just in time for Halloween. And I'm glad it did, as its appeal diminishes as the days pass by that time of year. In a nutshell, it is very well played, fairly well recorded, but ultimately not the most distinctive concert you'll hear. I was not aware this was a live concert before listening to it. Nowhere on the cover or back insert does it state this fact. Only in the very tiny print in the very back of the booklet does Decca reveal this little detail. However, immediately on pressing "play" on the disc player, the recording transports the listener right smack in the middle of the hall, with all the acoustic "presence" and restless rustling sounds from nearby concerto-goers that make it feel alive. While I often shy away from live recordings for various reasons, in this case it actually made it a more involving experience for me than it otherwise would have been (more on this in a moment). The audience was very well behaved and back in the distance.
As this recording was made in the Montreal Symphony's new hall (inaugurated in 2011), I'll start with the sound. This is a different perspective from that heard on previous recordings of this orchestra. It is up close (typical of live recordings, presumably to minimize extraneous audience noise) but less atmospheric and spacious, with a slight "hardness" to the sound. But, I was pleasantly surprised at how weighty and dynamic the orchestra sounds on this recording. I always felt Dutoit kept this orchestra under tight reigns and never really let them "let-er-rip". But Kent Nagano certainly brings moments of dynamic power rarely heard before from this ensemble.
That being said, we come to the pervading feeling about this concert and and that is: the rather superficial, glossed-over and largely uninvolving readings, typical of Nagano. Although very well played by all involved, much of what is heard here is not much above the routine - which makes those moments of dynamic extremes sound bombastic, overblown and rather out of character.
The Dukas, especially, is rushed through without much thought. Played this fast it misses much too much of the details. Nagano, in his hurry to whip up the excitement for his eager audience, completely ignores all the many small tempo indications, and dynamic markings (hair-pin crescendos, sforzandos, etc.) and articulation markings (woodwinds lazily slur everything in sight). An audience-pleaser it might have been, but it certainly does nothing for the letter of the score. Although the reading culminates in a fine climax.
The Saint-Saens hobbles along without incident or much interest, as does the Mussorgsky. By far the best things here are the Dvorak Noonday Witch and Balakirev's Tamara. These are less well known and all the more enjoyable for it. The orchestra probably hadn't played those scores in a long while and they obviously came to life with some interest in playing them. And the heretofore unrealized weight and body of tone to the lower strings is one obvious improvement to the overall health of the orchestra.
Ending with the very short Ives "Hallowe'en" (lasting just 2-1/2 minutes), scored for string quartet, piano and percussion, is certainly a bizarre close to the concert. But the audience dutifully applauds, albeit without much spirit. Mercifully, this is the only time applause has been retained.
All in all, this is enjoyable in its way, but not really one to return to for serious listening. And finally, even though it contains a generous 69 minutes of music, I feel it is overpriced, considering the seasonal appeal and overall musical merits. And shame on Decca for not indicating anywhere but inside the booklet that it's a live recording. However, if you find it on sale (or used), get it now and save it for next October. It might be a treat for the kids around Halloween time.