I love Mozart's Flute Quartets. Two reviews of them already appear elsewhere on this blog (Schaaff/Pentatone and Trevisani/Delos), both of which are just fine, but neither is a primary recommendation. And now I must point out one to avoid altogether. I really want (need) to review some of my favorites (two of which are mentioned in the final paragraph below), so I will commit to working on an overview in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, I have recently come across this 1991 DG, during a random search for the Emerson Quartet. I was skeptical from the get go, seeing who their flutist was. And, as it turns out, rightfully so.
I like Carol Wincenc, in that her distinctive tone is instantly recognizable, just as Galway's is. But it is different from his, and not necessarily in a good way. Her wide, almost queasy vibrato is always present no matter the repertoire. And it gets old fast. In fact, it is so intrusive to the music she plays, it's nearly impossible to listen past it.
To hear her at her best, though, listen to Charles Griffes's gorgeous Poem, on Falletta's wonderful Naxos CD of that composer's music. Wincenc's "whoo-ey", vibrato-rich sound suits that piece perfectly. It is hauntingly beautiful. But to use that same tone, intensity and mega-vibrato in Mozart is ill-advised and musically inappropriate. It is tasteless, to the point of being garish and gaudy. Mozart is soon forgotten, and instead, one can't hear past that distinctive Carol Wincenc sound in repertoire which does not lend itself to it.
As a former flute player, I know the technique necessary to make that "whoo-ey" sound she produces. And I know you can stop doing it and make a more "normal" flute sound - if you want to. I also know you can alter the speed and intensity of your vibrato - if you want to. Apparently, Ms. Wincenc doesn't want to. Ever. She is unwilling to change her sound even when music requires it, such as here in Mozart. And it's a pity, because she plays with a joyousness not always heard in these quartets.
The playing of the Emerson Quartet, on the other hand, is at all times stylish, alert, crisp, and, most of all, tasteful. Their choice of flutist for these quartets is most unfortunate. Why they teamed up with her, of all the gazillion flutists in the world, is puzzling - particularly for Mozart.
I would recommend just about any other recording of these glorious quartets over this DG. My two primary recommendations are: William Bennett (1969, Philips), whose clear, bright, sparkling flute tone is a constant joy to listen to; and, my favorite of all, that from Oxalys (2004, Fuga Libera), who provide a stylistically correct interpretation which is refreshing, inspiring and uplifting. Both helpfully come with fabulous recorded sound.
I don't typically review stereo components on this blog, preferring to concentrate on the music. But as I've had problems with this particular piece of equipment since day one, and seeing that it continues to be a current product offering from the manufacturer, I thought I'd share my experiences with it. After all, the CD/SACD player is the primary source on which my music reviews originate. (I also use a wonderful universal disc player from Cambridge Audio for DVD-A, Blu-Ray Audio and multi-channel SACD.)
This Yamaha SACD player has been around for many years and it has been widely criticized for being plagued with problems since it was first offered. The problem: the DAC (Digital Analog Decoder) in it "skips". It cuts in and out during playback - until it gets good and hot. Then it seems to settle down and stops skipping (for the most part). But you have to coddle this player to get it to play. And for 3 grand, this is absolutely absurd.
My routine has become well-established. I turn it on first thing, let it warm up awhile, then load a disc and let it play for about half an hour with the amp muted. Then, and only then, will it reliably play a disc without skipping, cutting in and out, or outright distorting, and I can finally begin listening.
Once warmed up this way, it's a totally decent-sounding disc player. It sounds better than the run-of-the-mill CD players in the $1,000 range. Is it worth 3 grand? Nope. But it's better than average.
Operationally it is very slow to load, read the disc, and make itself ready for action. And it's very finicky about the disc you want it to play. I have encountered several that it refuses to read - discs that have worked with zero problems in every other player I've ever had, all of them significantly less expensive than this Yamaha. Also, it has an unusual tray table which requires a very careful placement of the disc before closing the drawer. There are 4 felt bumpers around the circumference of the disc area, in which one must carefully, deliberately and very accurately place the CD. Carelessness in this process results in the drawer failing to close.
So after all this - warming it up for a good hour, carefully placing the CD in tray just right, waiting for the player to read the disc and avail itself for the play command, I can at last listen to music - and am usually rather annoyed with it all at this point. But once the music begins, I settle in.
So how does this player sound? In a word, it is "Polite". "Boring" is probably the more accurate word, but that seems a bit brutal. "Neutral", "honest" and "lovely" are much kinder descriptors. It's not bright or dark, rich or thin. But it is very laid back. My biggest complaint (other than the skipping), is that it's simply too relaxed, and thus tends to lack dynamic power and impact. It never fully opens up to provide the majesty and scope necessary for the realistic portrayal of large-scale orchestral music or opera. Nor does it fully convey the enormity of a full concert grand piano in a large hall, sounding rather more like a baby grand. It doesn't actually miniaturize things; it simply doesn't reproduce the expanse of large sounds in large halls as it should. It is just the opposite of thrilling or exciting. Instead, everything tends to be confined and rather intimate in scale. Again - polite. (Or boring.) That being said, it is very sweet on top, with silky smooth violins, refined, burnished brass, and bass which is potent but never boomy. There is also a beauty in tonality as well, with warm, sumptuous orchestral color. Thus, it excels on small-scale Classical chamber music, acoustic jazz groups and choirs.
Unfortunately, it's not the most detailed player, either. It never startles with the sound of the performer being in the room with you. For example, it doesn't fully reveal the little clicks of the keys, or the finger on the string during pizzicato, or the intake of breath from the players. Those sounds are there, but you really have to listen hard to hear them. It provides a wonderful recreation of what's on a recording, but it doesn't make you believe it's the real thing. It just does what it does, and no more.
All of these characteristics are actually emphasized during SACD playback. Unlike any other SACD player I've encountered, this one actually sounds better on good old fashioned CDs. The touch of extra brightness and forwardness of most CDs boost this player's sound up a notch. However, the extra refinement of SACD simply takes it too far in the wrong direction, overly laid-back and smooth. (It's worth noting that is a stereo-only SACD player and therefore can not play the multi-channel layer.)
For the record, I have experimented with numerous high-end power cords, interconnects (both RCA and XLR), and power conditioners - to no avail. It's simply impossible to coax more performance from this player. I actually have achieved better sound using its digital out jack, via the incredibly good Straight Wire InfoLink (coax/RCA) cable, into my Krell Vanguard integrated amp. The DAC in the Krell provides sound which is much more "present" (but not "forward" - it's just more there). It is more dynamic, detailed and better focused. And thus, more realistic and involving. Now, a full symphony orchestra positively fills the hall in which it plays. And a concert grand Steinway sounds like the massive instrument it is, with a much more powerful presence and a more realistic, full-bodied left-hand range. However, I, of course, lose the ability to play SACDs in this configuration, as DSD digital data cannot be passed via the digital output. I must set the player's default to read the CD layer only. And, in all honesty, I occasionally do miss the loveliness of the Yamaha player - on some music - which the Krell can't quite match. (The Krell is good, but no one could ever describe its sound as lovely.)
If this Yamaha player were offered at half its current asking price, and if Yamaha would actually fix the problem with the DAC, I could highly recommend this player. But at full price, and given its aging shelf life (this unit has been around many years) and with a known, recurring and uncorrected malfunctioning DAC, I'd stay away from this Yamaha player and buy just about anything else.
Unfortunately, SACD players are becoming a rarity. There are a few in the $1,000 range (offering average sound, I'm afraid), and Marantz likes to dominate the range just above this (with only incrementally improved sound over those lesser players). And then there are the astronomically priced units from the likes of Mark Levinson, Luxman and Esoteric. So, this Yamaha occupies a sweet spot, price-wise, at $3,000. And thus, it is not easy to replace with something better unless you have the resources to fork over the big bucks. So I stick with it and hope something else comes along before SACD disappears altogether.
Tchaikovsky Nutcracker (complete ballet)
Dorati (1976, Concertgebouw/Philips) and Ozawa (1990, Boston/DG) lead the pack of modern recordings. Oh I know, given that these originated 30 and 40+ years ago, respectively (can they really be that old by now?!), they no longer technically qualify as "modern"! But no other recording since has bettered either of them - not even close. Not for performances, precision of playing, or for recorded sound. So they shall remain my "modern" recommendations.
As for "classics", there are also just two: Dorati again (1962, LSO/Mercury) and Rodzinski (1958, Royal Philharmonic/Westminster). The former is self-recommending, even if its sound on CD is just slightly rough (although slightly better on the rare SACD). The latter was remastered and released by DG in 2001. And it is stunning. It is so full of color and imaginative touches, one hears this glorious score with new ears - as if for the very first time. And to cite one example of the sublime, just listen to the muted strings in the Arabian Dance (tr. 14). Oh my goodness, I don't believe I have ever heard such ravishing, creamy string sound - dark, rich, wooden - on any recording, ever.
All four recordings provide amazing good sound (especially for their age) and performances which are full of life, wonder, imagination, inspiration and individuality. Not for an instant, in any of these, is there even a hint of the routine or a lack of spontaneity. Each orchestra responds with an involvement, precision and musicality rarely heard today. And, notably, each remains faithful to the letter of the score, which has definitely not been the case in recent decades, where we witness too many conductors taking all kinds of liberties with it. Among my favorites here, only DG for Ozawa raises a concern with its omission of the gunshot in the Mouse Battle scene. The orchestra pauses for several seconds, but the engineers failed to splice in the sound of a gunshot. And it's not corrected even on subsequent reissues! Oh well. One smiles (or shakes his head at the blunder) and moves on to the glories that follow.
Britten Ceremony of Carols
I have three favorites of this uniquely, wonderful piece - two sung by adults and just one by a youth choir. As with Messiah (below), I turn to the Robert Shaw Chorale. His classic, 1963 RCA is the standard by which all others are judged. It's a pity the recording show its age with some overload distortion on climaxes. But one can listen through it and still enjoy the fervent singing, rich acoustic and fabulous harpist. It is available rather hidden away within a 1994, RCA, 3-CD compilation, "Christmas With the Robert Shaw Chorale".
For superlative recorded sound and equally fabulous singing, The Philadelphia Singers, conducted by Michael Korn, (1988, RCA), cannot be bettered. Along with the clear sound in a superbly atmospheric acoustic, what makes this set irresistible is the ravishing soprano of Benita Valente in the solo sections. Angelic indeed.
My favorite recording from a youth choir comes from The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, conducted by Richard Marlow, on a splendid all-Britten program on Conifer Classics (1996). As with the Philadelphia Singers, this one also features beautiful recorded sound, atmospheric and clear. This performance is fresh, with boundless energy. The professional, highly accomplished singing from this group of youngsters is astonishing. Not to be missed.
I generally prefer "modern" performance standards of this work, as opposed to those specializing in period performance. Not only that, I am partial to full-throated, full-vibrato American choirs! Two are exemplary - the classic 1966 Robert Shaw Chorale and the 1981 Musica Sacra, both on RCA. Both have appeared in "highlights" and complete versions over the years. Robert Shaw's highlights sound fabulous on RCA's 1988 budget Victrola series - full-bodied and boisterous. The complete set was newly remastered for a 2004 "Classic Library" 2-fer. As to Musica Sacra, their highlights disc sounds splendid on the 1990 Silver Seal budget release. However, their complete recording was disastrously ruined in RCA's 1999 "Dolby Surround" release in the "High Performance" series. It is riddled with distortion all through. It sounds almost as if a shorted-out (or loose?) cable was emitting static into the digital converter during the mastering process. I really have no idea what went wrong, but it's devastating - especially since it is completely absent in the Silver Seal highlights, proving it was not inherent in the original master tapes, but an engineering/production disaster. Why this was never corrected is a travesty.
A fascinating alternative is Solti in Chicago (1984 Decca), sounding not at all like his usual fiery self. Solti's is cherished for its lightness of touch, clarity of textures, precision of choral execution, sweet outpouring of musical expression, sensible tempi and superlative recorded sound.
However, a newcomer this year, from Penatone, has captured my interest. While it's not SACD (tsk, tsk), I found the sound on this CD to be perfectly fine (although, do I hear some distortion here and there?). All involved are "newcomers" to my collection: Justin Doyle leading the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin and Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin. (I can't translate all that and the booklet is no help.) It is the fresh and original interpretation which commands one's attention, with a fascinating combination of period-practice(-ish) playing in the orchestra, with a bit more full-bodied, modern singing techniques from the choir (yet still light and airy), and with full, vibrato-rich soloists. Of note, the alto solo part is sung here by a countertenor, and the soprano takes some liberties with ornamentation, and even some added flourishes which take her up to high Bbs in Rejoice! (I loved it, actually.) Pentatone's production itself is odd, though; the booklet is comprised of a very lengthy, boring, fictitious, imaginary 21st-Century "interview" between Handel and his lyricist. This gibberish goes on for 9 pages. And while it eventually does get around to providing the lyrics, there is not a word about the performers, ensembles or conductor. Pentatone seems to have taken a new, rather wayward direction during the past couple of years - not only with booklet productions like this (which leave one scratching one's head), but with arbitrary decisions regarding SACD vs CD-only releases. It's all very odd coming from a label once regarded as being of the highest quality. However, I greatly enjoyed this performance of Messiah. So all is forgiven - this time.
While taking a break from the usual Classical fare for the holidays, I thought it might be fun to briefly review a few of my favorite holiday CDs, concentrating on professionally produced orchestral and choral releases.
Each year I like to ease into it, rather than jumping right in with Jingle Bells and the familiar santa tunes. Two of my favorite orchestral collections on the great Naxos label are just the ticket - "The Night Before Christmas" (2006) and "Another Night Before Christmas" (2011). Both contain at least one selection featuring a narrator, which I dutifully program my player to skip (they are simply intolerable). But the remaining tracks are wonderful, light-hearted orchestral originals and arrangements. Highlights include Liszt's Christmas Tree Suite (each CD containing different sections of it, with different orchestrators), and original creations by Philip Lane, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Adam Saunders and Angela Morley - all rarely found elsewhere. The recorded sound is consistently good, as are the performances, by the RTE and BBC Concert Orchestras, and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia.
My favorite purely orchestral set, though, comes on an earlier 2002 Naxos CD, with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gavin Sutherland. These suites are symphonic in structure and sound wonderful in excellent recorded sound. I can listen to this disc all year long. It is worth noting the 5 substantial selections included here:
- Improvisations on Christmas Carols - Bryan Kelly
- A Carol Symphony - Victor Hely-Hutchinson
- Bethlehem Down - Pater Warlock
- Wassail Dances - Philip Lane
- A Christmas Carol Symphony - Patric Standford
This disc is worth it for the Hely-Hutchinson symphony alone. This wonderful piece was recorded decades earlier for EMI (1966) - played by the rough-and-ready Pro-Arte Orchestra. But this new recording is far more refined and vastly better played.
Next up are two newer Boston Pops collections, with Keith Lockhart conducting, featuring the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. The first disc, "Holiday Pops" (1998, BMG), includes Bass's Gloria, Angela Morley's Christmas Waltzes, wonderful arrangements of Carol of the Bells, Tomorrow is My Dancing Day, and a terrific choral version of Sleigh Ride. It concludes with John Williams's exuberant Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas! from the movie, Home Alone. The second disc, "Sleigh Ride" (2004, on the Pops' own label this time), provides a couple of selections with vocal soloists, which I'm not real fond of - particularly an ill-chosen Alfred Boe for O Holy Night, whose fast, insistent, intense vibrato does not suit this music. (Does it suit any music, for that matter?) But the rest is quite wonderful, including Leroy Anderson's original Sleigh Ride and an absolutely ravishing reading of Respighi's Adoration of the Magi (the second movement of his Three Botticelli Pictures). Another highlight is a wonderful new recording of Harry Simeone's setting of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (bringing back memories of the pioneering American choral groups, The Harry Simeone Chorale and Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, from over 50 years ago). Both discs have fantastic recorded sound.
Next up is my favorite of Erich Kunzel's holiday recordings - his first one (1985) with the Rochester Pops Orchestra on ProArte. This one revives many selections that Arthur Fiedler made famous with his 1950s/60s RCA recordings (subsequently reissued on a 1994 Living Stereo CD, "Christmas Party"). As good as that RCA is - (they did an admirable job remastering it) - there is no denying the superior sound of ProArte's modern digital recording for Kunzel. It is, however, typical of that label - a bit too warm and rich, lacking sparkle, and requiring a BIG boost in the volume control knob. But once the ear adjusts, it's enormously fun.
Another orchestral treasure is found on a 1991 Sony Music Special Products CD, "The Nutcracker and Other Orchestral Favorites", with Charles Gerhardt conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. (Yes, THAT Charles Gerhardt!) It is fascinating to hear Gerhardt so mannered in the Nutcracker Suite. He reminds me of Stokowski with his free handling of some of the tempos and the outrageous application of rubato for maximum effect. And check out the over-the-top, flamboyant cadenza in Waltz of the Flowers, played by not one, but two harps! It is beyond rhapsodic; it's positively glamorous. I'm sure Tchaikovsky would not have approved, but Gerhardt has the ability to somehow make it all sound convincing. (Well, almost!) The rest of the program contains the ubiquitous Sleigh Ride and Skater's Waltz (played straight) and finishing with a cinematic suite of carols arranged by Peter Knight. Given this is a budget release, I was surprised to see it is a digital recording with great sound. It is a must for every collector, and a fond remembrance of the great Charles Gerhardt.
The best disc of full-scale symphonic arrangements for orchestra and chorus is surely the magnificent "A Festival of Carols", with Colin Davis conducting the LSO and the John Alldis Choir. Recorded in 1979 by Philips, it comes up sounding superb on CD - warm, clear, dynamic and bursting with orchestral color. These are almost operatic in scope and dramatic impact, sung with power and majesty by this choir, which is right at home in opera. The individual tracks play without pause, making for a stupendous, uninterrupted, 45-minute concert.
For fans of a cappella choir music, there is a glorious 2012 Eloquence disc titled, simply, "Christmas Carols", sung by Musica Sacra, conducted by its founder, Richard Westenburg. Pieces/parts of this set have appeared here and there on various Polygram/Universal miscellaneous collections over the years, but this Eloquence reissue contains the complete set of 27 tracks from the original 1990 DG digital recording. Based upon my sometimes faulty "audio memory", the Eloquence sounds more refined and warmer than I remember some of these sounding on earlier DG collections. Suffice it to say, this is among the most accomplished, professional and moving choral performances I've encountered. The recording is clear, focused and "present". It is a bit more up-front than many choral recordings which set the choir back within an over-reverberant, empty hall in an effort to achieve maximum blend and glow. Musica Sacra is an impressive example of American a cappella choral singing at its finest - full-bodied, with full, rich vibrato.
Another a cappella disc which one shouldn't be without is the "Complete Collection of The Alfred S. Burt Carols", featuring The Voices of Jimmy Joyce. I am baffled why this music is so rarely recorded, as a modern digital recording of them - in their original guise - is sorely needed. Thankfully we have this set from 1963, remastered in 1995 for TRO Hollis Music. The recorded sound is not ideal, though. It's clean, but tends to sound its age with an up-front perspective, being too closely mic'd. Once the ear adjusts, this works well enough most of the time; however on those carols which feature a soloist, Jimmy Joyce's forceful, raspy tenor is grating and unappealing. Fortunately, this occurs on just 3 tracks. These are modest (and familiar) arrangements, with the 3rd verse of each carol sung in Burt's original settings.
Sticking with choral music, one CD stands above all others. And it is one which provides that reverberant, distant, blended sound described above. None other provides more pleasure than this one from the incomparable Dale Warland Singers, on their 2002 Gothic Records album, "Christmas With..." Year after year, this is the disc I turn to for the ultimate Christmas experience. It is life-affirming in its sublime refinement and heartfelt expression of the season. There is no finer choral group on the planet for those qualities which we hold dear - blend, legato, phrasing, musical expression, breath control, perfect pitch, and a sense of ensemble. Now THIS is Christmas!
I wasn't sure what to expect with this release. Neeme Jarvi can sometimes be too extrovert, too brash even, and almost certainly in too much of a hurry in ballet music. I was so put off with his 2014 complete Tchaikovsky Nutcracker (Bergen Phil/Chandos), I've avoided many of his subsequent releases. However, I'm really glad I gave him a chance with this Delibes. Because it's quite splendid.
The suites from the two famous ballets, Sylvia and Coppelia (lasting 23' and 30' respectively), are compiled by Mr. Jarvi himself. And they work beautifully. The music appears in chronological order and contains a perfect combination of the most famous bits along with some less-often heard segments as well. Variety is a key attribute, allowing one to listen with new ears (well, almost).
But the highlight of the disc is surely the half-hour suite from the less-well-known, earlier ballet, Spring (La Source). This music is taken entirely from Act II, and it is some of the freshest inspiration from this composer.
Jarvi and his Royal Scottish National Orchestra play with the utmost refinement and bravura. Yet, Jarvi sounds distinctly mellow in this music. "Mellow" is perhaps too strong a word (although it is the word which first comes to mind). Musical is surely a better choice. He takes his time, allowing his players to create musical phrases throughout, without rushing through. Dynamic contrasts are also musical - without any unnatural forte/subito-piano/crescendo jolts, which marred much of his Tchaikovsky. Nor is there any hint of brashness to be heard. It all sounds utterly natural.
However, don't surmise this equates to drowsy, lazy music-making. Neeme Jarvi still has a rare gift of bringing music to life, which he does so here, aided by perfectly chosen tempos. And the playing is alert and energetic all through. Not for a moment does this orchestra sound like it's on autopilot. Jarvi keeps them on their toes at all times. Everywhere, there a sense of spontaneity and the spirit of the dance. It's just not overdone. It's not too fast; it's not frenetic. And mercifully, Jarvi doesn't sound like he's in a big hurry to get it over with - which is EXACTLY how I describe his aforementioned Nutcracker.
I am happy to see this release receive the multi-channel SACD treatment from the folks at Chandos. However, I am less than happy with the overly plush, rich sound, which lacks some sparkle. I hear this exact same soundworld from another recent Chandos SACD - the Respighi trilogy from John Wilson. I just think Chandos gets too much richness in the midrange, robbing the music of some excitement and sparkle.
And that is not always the sound Chandos achieves, though. Immediately after this one, I listened to another recent Chandos SACD, Volume 4 in Wilson's ongoing Richard Rodney Bennett series with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Here the sound is instantly fresher - more open, less dark, and with an airier acoustic. And it simply brings the music to life in a way it doesn't quite on the other two discs. Going back to the Delibes, it sounds slightly muffled and compressed in comparison. However, not disastrously so. Far from it. Jarvi ensures it has plenty of life to it, with convincing dynamic contrasts. Once the ear adjusts, it is very pleasant - but falling just short of thrilling.
Despite my quibbles with the sound, this is an absolutely splendid collection of ballet music, gloriously brought to life by Neeme Jarvi, and played with the utmost accomplishment. It is not to be missed.
Poor Riccardo Chailly. He made some spectacular recordings in the early decade of the digital age, including one of the best Rite of Springs ever committed to disc (the 1985 one in Cleveland, NOT the later remake in Lucerne). But Decca just can't seem to get the recordings right for him lately. I was extremely disappointed with his 2017 Stravinsky CD with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, not only for its lack of fresh inspiration, but also because of Decca's thick, murky recording. I was hoping things would improve in MiIan. They haven't.
Maybe it's not all Decca's fault. Maybe it's Chailly. Maybe he's actually going for this heavy, thick, dark, enormous orchestral sound these days. Because I hear it in this Respighi as well as in his earlier Stravinsky, which was with a different orchestra. Even so, Decca certainly does him no favors with their equally heavy, thick, dark walls of sound, lacking air and spaciousness. This is evident right from the opening measures of Pines, with its scoring for flutes, piccolos, triangles, bells, celesta, high violins and piano - there is no tingling sparkle.
As to the readings of the two main works, they are no more involving or exciting than John Wilson's are on Chandos. They are actually very similar in their heavy-handed control and lack of spontaneity and adrenaline. But Wilson scores in atmosphere (thanks to Chandos's superior SACD recording quality) where Chailly sounds too matter of fact. For example, the lovely trumpet solo in Pines near a Catacomb is a moment of sheer magic with Wilson, where his soloist is ethereally distanced in the mists above and behind the orchestra (as indicated in the score). But Chailly's trumpeter is firmly seated in the usual position within the brass section and is therefore much too close. There simply is no excuse for this laziness. However, hats off to the fabulous clarinetist (Fabrizio Meloni) in the next section, who correctly observes the score's dynamic indication that the opening phrase is piano and the phrase immediately following it is marked pianissimo. Breathtaking! But alas, the finale then fails to accomplish much more than a boost in volume. There is no tension or powerful climactic release - failing, just as Wilson does, to raise the roof.
Fountains, which is the highlight of Wilson's disc, is even more ho-hum in Chailly's hands. The recording quality renders orchestral color all dark charcoal. There is an absence of light and shade contrast, and the acoustic lacks air and dimensionality.
The enticement of this disc lies with the lesser known works. Aria for Strings is rather brooding in this dark soundworld, but Leggenda is lovingly played by violinist Francesco De Angelis. Di Sera (for 2 oboes and strings) is lighter, and is surely the most delightful work in this collection. Rounding out the extras is the Ancient Airs and Dances #3, also just for strings. It is well done, but again, the heavy, thick recording robs it of much of its inherent charm.
I really question Chailly's decision to continue recording with Decca if this is the consistently disappointing resultant sound they achieve. This could have been a nice set.
There is something to be said for an orchestra playing something for the first time. And one doesn't get to experience that phenomenon very often. Professional orchestras across the world can play the standard repertoire in their sleep. And too often their playing sounds like it. It's rare to find a recording which springs to life with the freshness and spontaneity of new discovery. Which brings me to the present recording - Beethoven played by a community ballet orchestra led from the keyboard by an excellent pianist.
First a disclaimer - I received this disc gratis from the public relations firm representing pianist Eugene Albulescu, in consideration for a possible review.
This CD appears on a label unfamiliar to me - AMP Recordings. And the pianist, Eugene Albulescu, is also an unfamiliar name. As to the orchestra...well, my eyebrows raised when seeing it named as "Orchestra of Friends". Reading the excellent booklet, I find the "Orchestra of Friends" is actually the orchestra which serves the Ballet Guild of Lehigh Valley and Pennsylvania Youth Ballet's production of Nutcracker (and others). It is a chamber orchestra, with a reduced compliment of strings, and our pianist is their conductor. For these Beethoven concertos, he leads them from the keyboard.
Right from the opening tutti, this ensemble does tend to sound a little bit like an accomplished community orchestra. But the only real issue of note is a lack of real power in tuttis/forte passages. But then - something begins to happen. I hear an unmistakable enthusiasm in their playing; a sense of irrepressible joy which is so often missing from recordings of these over-familiar warhorses. I found myself drawn into the music in such a way that any lack of refinement in the playing itself was soon forgotten. And when the pianist enters, I was hooked. Although, I was hesitant at first. In the very first few bars, Mr. Albulescu exhibited a touch of mannerism. And I am not always convinced by his touches of extraneous ornamentation here and there in the 3rd movement. But, happily, I hear it only occasionally, and he quickly gets down to the business of simply playing Beethoven. And play Beethoven he does! This is some seriously good piano playing.
All through, I found the playing of all involved to be more than accomplished. The precision of articulation was impressive. And I especially enjoyed the lovely tone of the first flute and bassoon players. I was bothered occasionally, however, by the oboe tone, which does not blend with the other woodwinds.
As to performances, I have only one real reservation: the opening allegro con brio of the 1st is a bit sluggish. I kept wishing it would move along with a quicker tempo and a little more brio. But the 3rd movement Rondo compensates - it takes off like a wildfire and crackles with energy to the very end! This orchestra is definitely up to the challenge. Their unanimity of ensemble and precision of articulation are impressive. And the piano playing all through is characterful, crisp and extremely accomplished.
Moving on to the 5th, the opening movement is taken at a true allegro, and bursts forth with joy and exuberance. Only during the opening violin statement does the reduced number of violins reveal itself as detrimental, which sounds undernourished. However, that is quickly forgotten as the sweep of the music-making carries one along at a cracking tempo. Similarly, the final Rondo is very well done. Both slow movements are free-flowing at well-chosen tempos, never dragging, but singing sweetly with a natural expression.
The recorded sound is very good, although not entirely complimentary. The up-close perspective and slightly dry acoustic provide dramatic presence and detailed articulation, but leave any slight imperfections in the playing nowhere to hide. A little more richness would have benefitted this string section. But once the ear adjusts, the immediacy and sheer energy of the music-making are most satisfactory.
The production is first class, with a beautiful, substantive booklet, complete with pictures and plenty of details regarding the music and performers.
Summing up, the competition in these concertos is dauntingly fierce. And indeed, I listened to this disc immediately after the marvelous complete set from Bavouzet on Chandos. The magnificence of those recordings puts subsequent recording at a distinct and unfair disadvantage. However, any reservations I might have had going into this were quickly forgotten and the music-making proved the old adage to be absolutely true: "Don't judge a book by its cover". Mr. Albulescu is a real talent. His piano playing is fabulous, and his leadership of this chamber orchestra is assured. The life and joy he brings to these concertos is refreshing.
I listened to this 2015 Naxos disc several years ago, but just discovered I never got around to posting a review of it here. Listening to it again, I can understand why. It is enjoyable in its way, but not in any way motivating or inspiring.
The Royal Scottish National Orchestra plays well enough and Lance Friedel leads them competently. But, it all sounds as if their hearts are not really into it. Friedel establishes perfectly acceptable, sensible tempos. And it's clear the orchestra is sight-reading; they scramble a bit here and there, with less than perfect ensemble. Unfortunately none of this lends a feel of spontaneity as it should. Rather, there's a curious sense of ho-hum detachment, almost disinterest, all through this program. Quite simply, it lacks the sheer verve and unbuttoned high spirits that Arthur Fiedler (Boston Pops) and Leonard Bernstein (NY Phil) brought to this repertoire. (They both recorded nearly all of these overtures in the late 50s/early 60s for RCA and CBS, respectively - all of which are readily available on various compilation CDs.)
The sound on CD is good, without being excellent. It needs a little more spaciousness and air. By the end, I was tiring a bit of the somewhat cramped, cavernous acoustic and slightly congested textures. A quick sampling of some 50-year-old Fiedler and Bernstein CDs highlights it even further.
I was intrigued to hear Naxos's companion Blu-ray release of this very same program. In sum, it does sound better than the CD. It is less brash, more refined, spacious and natural. The Blu-ray offers DTS surround and 2-channel PCM. Unfortunately, the improvement in sound does nothing to improve the readings themselves. They still sound routine.
The title of this disc, "Great Comedy Overtures", actually illustrates exactly what's missing here: these do not sound in the slightest comedic, or even very much fun. It's all perfunctory and determinedly serious. Still, it does fill a gap in modern digital recordings of this repertoire. And it is enjoyable enough to listen to while, perhaps, cleaning the house or preparing dinner. So it has its place. But do go for the Blu-ray if you have the necessary equipment.
I read a review on Amazon which described these readings as small-scaled, and therefore "different", simply because a chamber orchestra is used. Listening to these SACDs, I found the Swedish Chamber Orchestra to be perfectly satisfactory in body and presence. The full-bodied, dynamic Chandos sound more than compensates for the reduced number of string players. And their precise, incisive playing is spectacular. The same applies to Bavouzet's incredible piano playing. It's so refreshing to hear such clarity, detail and precision, with minimal pedaling.
Tempos throughout are sensible, energetic, crisp, alert and alive. I'd even go so far as to say jubilant. The feel of spontaneity and new discovery is ever present. (The 1st movement of the 5th, taken at a true Allegro, sounds positively exhilarating.) And mercifully, slow movements do not drag, but sing in a most natural, flowing way.
The glorious Chandos recording affords this group plenty of body, color, energy and dynamic impact - without weighing it down and muddying the piano, as is so often the case. The resultant soundstage reveals one big advantage to using a chamber orchestra: the engineers did not need to spotlight the piano. It's naturally placed right there in the midst of the players. Taken as a whole, the sound, perspective, clarity, hall acoustic, and especially the playing from all involved, are most impressive. These are just about the best recordings of these concertos I can ever remember hearing.
The only negative I observed is a slightly out of tune piano on certain notes in the right-hand range (most notably in mvts. 2 & 3 of the 1st). It's not excruciating, but enough to let you know your tweeters are doing their job.
The Grand Quintet for piano and winds, which fills out disc 3, was an absolutely splendid choice and a thoroughly delightful addition to the usual canon. Indeed, it's the highlight of the set for me, being played and recorded as beautifully as it is. For once, the horn does not overpower, and the entire performance brings much pleasure. I found myself smiling all through it.
So perhaps what others may hear as "different", is simply hearing more of Beethoven. More energy, more life, more detail, more precision, more singing lines and more natural expression. Compared to the usual run-of-the-mill, mass-produced releases from the big labels, this indeed is different. In the best ways imaginable. And it is certainly a vast improvement in every way over Pentatone's 2019 set with Inon Barnatan, who is let down by plodding orchestral support under Alan Gilbert and shockingly mediocre CD-only recorded sound by Pentatone.
This is the set of Beethoven Piano Concertos for a new generation of listeners. But don't stream it; don't YouTube it; don't MP3 it. Buy the discs, especially while Chandos is still giving us SACDs. It is simply wonderful in every way.
I can be brief.
Look carefully before laying down your heard-earned money for this one. The front cover implies more than it is. The back cover reveals this is a mish-mash, cobbled-together, bleeding-chunks excerpt from the ballet, lasting a whopping 43 minutes. At full price.
Record companies cry that no one is buying CDs these days. Well...this is a perfect example why.
Shame on Signum Classics.