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TERRY GROSS, host:

It's not a surprise that big record labels are making fewer recordings with our symphony orchestras. More and more major orchestras are fighting back and releasing recordings of their live performances on their own labels. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says this is a positive turn of events.

(Soundbite of music, "Symphony No. 6")

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: On September 12th, 2001, the San Francisco Symphony, under Michael Tilson Thomas, performed Mahler's tragic "Sixth Symphony," an appropriate piece to play right after 9/11. Then the orchestra released a recording of that performance on its own label. It was so well received, they started to issue a series of their Mahler performances that is now nearing completion. Two of the so-called top five American orchestras, the Chicago and Boston Symphony orchestras, have now also begun to produce their own recordings.

Coincidentally, Chicago and Boston have both released, either on CD or as a download, their own versions of Mahler's Sixth Symphony, which is certainly one of the most challenging pieces in the classical repertory: nearly an hour and a half long, darkly intense, full of rhythmic harmonic and emotional twists and with passages of sublime beauty. It's not a display piece, but it certainly shows just about everything a great orchestra can do. It's fascinating to compare the more youthful, exuberant San Francisco performance with the meticulously controlled Chicago version led by principal conductor Bernard Haitink.

(Soundbite of music, "Symphony No. 6")

SCHWARTZ: Then compare both Tilson Thomas and Haitink with the urgency and spaciousness of James Levine and the Boston Symphony, partly achieved by Levine's decision to go back to the old practice, long before stereo, of putting the first and second violins on opposite sides of the stage.

(Soundbite of music, "Symphony No. 6")

SCHWARTZ: This is a good time for music lovers to be living in Boston. James Levine, who's been the music director of the Metropolitan Opera for more than a quarter of a century, came to Boston five years ago and transformed the orchestra, which had fallen into rough shape under the nearly 30-year tenure of its previous music director, Sergio Zawa(ph). Levine has wisely waited to release recordings until he was completely happy with his new orchestra and they with him. I wish that the one contemporary piece they've issued, a BSO Commission, had been something other than William Bolcom's "Symphony No. 8": A choral setting of passages from William Blake's mysteriously opaque "Prophetic Books." But I have no reservations about the other releases.

The BSO has a famous old recording of Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe," but their new live recording sounds even more glamorous. And the Brahm's "German Requiem" is one of the most moving and muscular versions I know.

(Soundbite of music, "A German Requiem")

SCHWARTZ: The most exciting of the Chicago recordings is the rarely performed Shostakovich "Fourth Symphony": a big work the Soviet censors kept from being performed for 25 years. And Shostakovich is one of Bernard Haitink's specialties.

(Soundbite of music, "Symphony No. 4")

SCHWARTZ: All these recordings have the quality of being there. Since I live in Boston, I've been to all the concerts that the BSO has released and the recordings capture remarkably well what it was like to have been in Symphony Hall. Since the big record companies have been making fewer recordings with our major orchestras, it's a great thing these superb orchestras themselves have decided to take their futures into their own hands.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix. I'm Terry Gross.

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