Time for a little interlude. I thought I'd jot down some thoughts about my listening and reviewing styles, and how this all got started, for anyone who might be interested.
I love Classical music. It is the very air I breathe. Along with that passion, there is the "hobby" side to it. And that is collecting Classical recordings. I currently own nearly 9,000 CDs and SACDs (95% of which are Classical), which I began collecting in 1986, shortly after CD was first introduced commercially. My very first CD purchase (which I still own) was Muti's Philadelphia Tchaikovsky Ballet Suites on EMI. And my jaw dropped with what I heard. I remember it like it was yesterday. The clarity! The dynamics! The drama! The complete silence in-between tracks! And the convenience of accessing individual tracks with just the push of a button on the remote! Never again would I return to the noise and distractions of scratched LPs or compressed, tape-hissy cassettes, or the cumbersome, infuriating inability to find different sections of a recording both formats excelled at.
But I soon realized that my cheap rack system from Sears (or was it Wards?) was not going to cut it. Thus in the early 90s, I reluctantly tip-toed into a real stereo store, fearful of what "the high end" was going to cost, and was blown away with the sound these systems produced. The majesty and presence of a symphony orchestra was laid out right there in front of me in the listening room. And there was no going back to a cheap sound system. And so began my endless quest to assemble a high-quality stereo component system which could reproduce this music in a realistic and musically satisfying way. (My first purchases included an entry level Marantz CD player and Rotel amplifier; and a couple years later, a pair of wonderful little Thiel speakers and MIT cables.) And during the ensuing years, I have foregone lavish trips and nice cars etc., as most of my expendable cash has gone toward music and stereo equipment. After a 30+ year stint in the workforce, I now have all the time in the world to listen to music. Retirement is good.
I typically buy CDs I'm interested in, not based upon reviews or any kind of marketing. I also usually avoid those from the major labels which push their latest hot "star" first and foremost above any musical merits said star might possess. More often than not, I buy discs which feature an ensemble, a soloist, or composer which I have found to be interesting, or has impressed me, in the past. One click leads to another and then to another, and before I know it my Amazon WishList is full of CDs! And I tend to favor those releases which are offered in the SACD format.
1. I usually listen to a new CD before reading the booklet. This allows me to make my own observations and form my own impressions of the playing and the music. This is especially important if I'm hearing new music. I don't want the composer's program notes or the label's booklet to "inform" my opinion of what I'm about to hear. Thus my written observations are entirely my own. Then I will read the booklet text and compare notes. Usually I am most interested in learning more about the composer, performers, and recording technical details, some of which I incorporate into a review.
2. If I don't like something, especially if it's new or unfamiliar music, I will wait a few days and listen again. Often times, a second hearing is more positive. I will rarely dismiss new music outright. I make every effort to give it a real chance of making an impression.
3. I almost always listen to a CD (or box set) straight through. If it's completely new music to me, I will often play a selection which I think might make the most positive impression - the easiest to enjoy - first, and then explore the remaining program. I rarely take notes (for use in a review) that first time through. Only those discs which move me - either in a positive way, or an annoying one - prompt me to begin taking notes.
4. I certainly listen for a level of proficiency and accomplishment from the musicians involved - as well as musical involvement. However, I can be forgiving of less than perfect playing if the music-making is committed and thoroughly engaging, or of musical importance (i.e. rare repertoire). I also tend to "go a little easier" on, say, a community orchestra or a local string quartet, as opposed to a big name outfit, from which perfection is assured, and indeed, expected.
5. However, I am not forgiving of mediocre recorded sound. My reviews will always take into account the sound quality as well as the performance. As I am an audiophile as well as a musician, the recorded sound - the realism of it - is just as important to me as the music-making itself. So if something sounds "off", it definitely affects my enjoyment and appreciation of the performance. With today's technology, and with 40 years of digital recording experience, record labels should be capable of producing a realistic, natural and enjoyable-sounding recording. Every time. So I am very critical when they fail to do so.
My main stereo system (2-channel only) is very detailed and fully resolves the acoustic in which the music is recorded. As described above, I have assembled high-quality electronics, speakers and wires/cables which, combined, specifically achieve this very result. However, it is not ruthlessly revealing. It is voiced to be full-bodied, rich in color, and just slightly warm and pleasant - just as I hear a real orchestra sounding in a good hall. It produces sound which, to my ears, comes as close to the "real thing" as I can afford. Thus I trust what I hear played on it, and I'm confident the system gives every recording the best possible chance of sounding good. And I believe it is representative of what most people will hear on a respectable stereo system.
6. However, if a recording just doesn't sound right, I will take it upstairs to a second system and listen again before completely dismissing it. My upstairs system is minimalist, consisting of just a high-quality SACD/CD player (with a headphone jack) and a good-quality pair of PSB headphones. This allows me to evaluate the recording characteristics on two very different systems so I can weigh the results and qualify my comments accordingly, if warranted. Again, I give each recording every possible chance to sound good.
7. Finally, the most fun part of this hobby is comparing a new recording with others in my collection. With nearly 9,000 CDs, duplication is inevitable (almost guaranteed), and along with firmly established favorites of any given piece, I often "rediscover" great recordings from the past which have been sitting forgotten on my shelves. What's most exciting is hearing a new recording which sweeps away those which have come before it - as if hearing a piece for the very first time. That's what usually gets my fingers flying across the keyboard!
In closing, I am a musician, not a writer. So putting what I hear into words does not come easy to me - especially when trying to describe new or unfamiliar music. I tend to gush when I really like something and gripe when I don't. But in every case, I try to be as honest as I can. I praise whenever possible, but I can't withhold criticism when it is merited.
Fantastic composer. Fantastic music. Fantastic playing. And 83 minutes of glorious Chandos sound at its finest. Wow.
Listening to this disc, and as the final notes faded into silence, I said to myself, "I really like this composer".
I just recently became acquainted with the music of Szymon Laks via a CD of his 3 published string quartets (#3-5), played by the Messages Quartet on the Dux label. And they are simply amazing. It is exciting to have another recording of #4 here on Chandos, especially when played with such character by the ARC Ensemble. And the rest of the music on this program just gets better and better as it goes. These are all premier recordings (although the Dux recording of all 3 String Quartets appeared the same year).
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory) is comprised of senior faculty of the Glenn Gould School in Toronto, Canada. This is the third volume in a series of chamber music discs recorded by this group for Chandos, each with the theme "Music in Exile". The other composers represented are Paul Ben-Haim (Vol. 1) and Jerzy Fitelberg (Vol. 2). I have only sampled the music on those first two discs and was not especially drawn to them. But this third disc, music by Szymon Laks, is another matter entirely.
Listening, I was completely enthralled by all this music. And I am utterly blown away by the superb playing of the ARC Ensemble, as recorded here. This composer could not hope to have better advocates for his music than this fabulous group of musicians. Their playing is so characterful, gracious, dancing, full of charm and bursting in vivid tonal colors, the music just comes alive! Just listen to clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas and bassoonist Frank Morelli in the Divertimento and, especially the Concertino. What marvelous players, both of them, with gorgeous, rich, wooden tone, and buoyant articulation. The clarinet is never bright or edgy (or worst of all, fruity) and the bassoon is always perfectly focused. The pianists are excellent as well. And all of this music-making has the benefit of superb Chandos recorded sound - even if it is "just" good old-fashioned CD and not the luxurious SACD treatment. This is one of the best CD-only recordings I've yet heard from the Chandos label.
The Divertimento for Violin, Clarinet, Bassoon and Piano is delightful. (There is also a version of it for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano.) But wait till you hear the Concertino for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon, which comes later. It's even better - quite virtuosic and reminiscent of Poulenc - bubbling with charm, whit and zest. And best of all, is the final work presented here, the Quintet for Piano and Strings - which is essentially a divertimento itself, utilizing Polish folk songs. Interestingly, this piece is a reworking of his Third String Quartet (some 20+ years later). I thought it sounded familiar! The Quintet version is less folksy, more gossamer, lighter textured and more colorfully orchestrated. And perhaps a little less emotionally moving in the Lento. Both versions are wonderful.
Laks was born in Warsaw in 1901. His music has strong Ravel influences, heard strikingly in the Fourth String Quartet (which is rhythmic and with faint jazz influences) and Divertimento. Elsewhere, especially in the Quintet, there can be heard a jaunty Jewish flavoring, where Laks really establishes an even more distinctive musical voice.
Remarkably, Laks is such an inspired and accomplished composer, all of his music is endlessly varied, individual and creatively unique. Listening to the 3 String Quartets on the Dux CD mentioned above, all the chamber works on this Chandos, and his Sinfonietta for chamber orchestra found on another recent Dux release, not once could I discern such similarities among them that I could positively identify the composer as being Laks. Each work is a unique creation, each with something interesting and musically inspired to say. This is a composer whose music speaks not only to the mind, but the heart as well.
Chandos once again delivers with unusual repertoire, outstanding playing, extremely generous playing times, and superb recorded sound. Remember when 75 minutes was the maximum length a CD could play? Well this disc plays for 83'04! I don't know how they do it, but it is simply marvelous from beginning to end.
Get ready to program your CD player or brush up on your French. This production is all-French. (But it's worth it)
If you're like me, you probably don't program your CD player very often, and when you find the need, have to remind yourself how to do it. My Yamaha CD-S2100 has many faults - fundamentally and operationally - and programming it is a tedious task. So when a disc like this one from Alpha Classics comes along, I groan at the thought of going to all the trouble. But unless you speak French, it really is necessary.
This is a splendid program of French music featuring duo pianos. That being said, one should be aware that everything about this release is in French - not just the music, but the booklet (there is no English translation anywhere) and the irritating narration, spoken in French. Oh I know, this is French music played by a French orchestra so I shouldn't expect the narrator to speak English. But to not even have translations in the booklet? That is odd.
Every section of The Carnival of the Animals begins with narration. And if my Google translator is right, the text is not the familiar one by Ogden Nash, but something new, written by our narrator here (Belgian comedian, Alex Vizorek). Fortunately each verse is separately tracked so I can program the CD player to skip it. (Of course one can simply press the skip button each time, if you're fast enough with the remote). Once accomplished (no easy feat - there are 30 tracks to sort through), musically, this is a splendid Carnival. It is very well played by what sounds like a reduced number of orchestral strings, along with the pianists and soloists. Thus it is not the original version for 11 players, but there is a chamber feel to it. The music-making is fresh and very well characterized. As if anyone really needs yet another Carnival of the Animals, this one is worth it - especially for track 24, "Pianists". This is a hilariously mistake-riddled, clumsy depiction of a student practicing their scales! Not only by the pianists, but the lack of coordination with the orchestra as well. And it sounds so spontaneous, I literally laughed out loud so hard I had to listen to it a second time! There are only a handful of other recordings which are similarly performed, and two come immediately to mind - the one from the Capucon brothers and friends on a 2003 Virgin CD and - the most hilarious one of all - the side-splitting account by I Musici de Montreal on a 1993 Chandos. What great fun it is to hear professional pianists bring this off so convincingly!
Elsewhere, Persons with Long Ears is splendidly vivid, as played by the closely-mic'd dueling violin sections; the clarinet and flute solos are nicely done; and Aquarium features what sounds like a real glass harmonica - that is until the glissandi near the end, where it then suddenly sounds like a glockenspiel. The booklet makes no mention of the instrumentation used, so I can only guess that perhaps they had a glass harmonica-like device suitable for the simple notes in the first section, but had to resort to the glockenspiel for the full-octave scales later on. We'll never know for sure because the booklet doesn't tell us (at least not that I can see within its French-only text). In any event, it is an extraordinarily atmospheric, serene account, which truly does enable one to envision the tranquility of fish swimming around in an aquarium. Very nice!
Speaking of the booklet, it's odd it also fails to name the orchestral soloists. One can presume they are the principals of the orchestra, but again we'll never know for sure. Confusingly, the booklet lists the orchestral personnel, ascribing a single asterisk to those members playing the Saint-Saens. But no asterisk appears for any of the flute or double bass players, but there is one for the clarinet and cello. So it's a mystery.
Moving on to Poulenc's marvelous Concerto for Two Pianos, we are transported to an appropriately bigger soundstage - a larger hall acoustic, with more players, and a stronger, fuller orchestral presence. As a matter of fact, the first movement is weightier than usual (strictly observing the non-troppo part of the Allegro indication). It comes across a little choppy in its clipped, forceful articulation, and sounds a bit clownish - almost a caricature of the piece. But glancing at the score, that is exactly the way Poulenc scored it. Right from the opening, the dynamic marking is ff, and those pounding, orchestral 8th-note punctuations are marked "sec" (dry), and sff, and the string downbows a few bars later continue to be marked ff. So kudos to conductor Lucie Leguay for faithfully executing the score. And it works, as there are also many musical touches along the way. The recording helps too, with the pianos realistically spread apart, providing terrific 3-dimensional imaging in an ear-catching way.
The second movement goes along uneventfully, in a rather matter-of-fact manner. The finale then takes off with a vigorous tempo and high energy. And there is a most delightful interlude, just before the final peroration, which is full of color and atmosphere. The final section then dashes off in a flash to the end.
The recording engineers do not spotlight the pianos, but allow the orchestra a chance to make a full impact. And Leguay encourages an energetic contribution from all sections the orchestra, without ever swamping the pianos. The acoustic remains clear and uncongested even in climaxes.
This all-female Poulenc brings to mind another one featuring an all-female cast - the 2015 Capriccio recording with Mona & Rica Bard (pianists) and Ariane Matiakh conducting. Both performances are well-played and full of imaginative touches. But the Bards bring even stronger characterization to the variety of moods - more playful here, more musically expressive there. Their slow movement in particular is especially moving. (My review of it appears elsewhere on this blog.) However, the Alpha Classics is better recorded. The Capriccio provides plenty of gusto but is a bit unrefined on top and has a slightly unnatural acoustic. So it's a toss up and I wouldn't want to be without either.
As enjoyable as both these readings are, however, neither displaces my two current favorites of the work - the Jussen brothers on DG and Eric Le Sage on RCA - perhaps coincidentally, both with the benefit of Stephane Deneve conducting. Both versions display unsurpassed combinations of spontaneity, characterization, lyrical expression, precision of playing, superb orchestral support and dazzling bravura and vigor - making for thrilling experiences.
Rounding off this concert, the Danse Macabre comes as an anti-climatic afterthought which I could certainly do without. Annoyingly - VERY annoyingly, actually - it begins with yet more unwelcomed French talking by our narrator. Why? And when the music begins, it turns out to be a two-piano version rather than the famous orchestral one. (This is yet another important little tidbit of information the booklet, or track listing, fails to mention.) Oh it's played well and the arrangement is just fine. But coming after the ebullient double concerto, and with an unexpected French introduction, I was irritated by it. It surely should have been presented earlier in the concert.
But never mind my grumpiness. This is a most enjoyable concert - expertly played and superbly recorded. Just be prepared to relearn how to program your CD player before you sit down for a listen. You'll want to skip all the narration (unless you happen to speak French) and certainly should program Danse Macabre to come somewhere before the double concerto.
And still...the booklet bothers me, for all the reasons noted above.
I'm a little late in the game getting to this incredibly wonderful 2017 release from the Escher String Quartet. But I must chime in and echo the positive reviews found elsewhere.
I have only just recently discovered the fabulous Escher String Quartet, and I have reviewed several of their discs here on my blog. With every recording I hear, I come to the conclusion they are my latest "most favorite" string ensemble. I'm fickle, though...along the way, a few other groups have held that title. And I will always hold dear the Pacifica, Dover and Attacca Quartets. But the Escher really is something special. There is a spontaneity to their playing and a freshness of new discovery, plus an impressive dynamic range, a unanimity of articulation, and an immersive, palpable presence - from all four players - which must be experienced. Each of these four quartets is versatile and adventurous with recorded repertoire. The Pacifica and Attacca are especially dedicated to - and excel at - new, contemporary music; while the Dover and the Escher (and the Pacifica too, but less often) are better than anybody when it comes to the Classics.
Turning to the disc at hand, I can be brief. It's the joy and jubilance in the Dvorak; it's the airy, clarified textures and restrained passion in the Tchaikovsky; and it's the natural, unforced expression in the Borodin which make this concert so treasurable. Their playing is moving, uplifting and musically immersive. Music-making just doesn't get any better than this. And string quartet playing just doesn't get any better than this.
Add in superb SACD sonics from BIS, and this is one of the best recordings of standard repertoire string quartet music I have yet heard. It's right up there with their marvelous set of the Mendelssohn quartets, also for BIS.
This is my third encounter with the fabulous Escher Quartet. First was on a CD of new music by Yuko Eubayashi, with flutist Carol Wincenc, on Azica. The second was their complete set of Mendelssohn String Quartets on BIS. Now comes this excellent new recording with guitarist Jason Vieaux, also from the amazing Azica label, on which I've enjoyed several new releases lately.
And just by coincidence, I had just listened to a brand new Naxos release featuring one of the same pieces as on this Dance CD - the brilliant Guitar Quintet by Castelnuovo-Tedesco. I actually have a 3rd recording of it as well, on a 2019 Cedille album entitled Souvenirs of Spain & Italy, with Sharon Isbin and one of my favorite string quartets, the Pacifica. Written in 1950, it is a popular work lately - and how lucky that is for us! It is a wonderfully entertaining piece, full of charisma, color and charm.
The Naxos recording features German guitarist Leonard Becker, with individual string players (rather than an established quartet). And like Cedille, with a well-known American guitarist, Azika also features an American - Jason Vieaux, teaming up with the marvelous Escher Quartet. What riches in just these three discs!
Comparing the three, it is impossible to declare one "better" than the others. All three are beautifully performed and preferences will likely come down to couplings and recording quality. I'm not a guitarist and do not pretend to be an expert on the subject, but there are observations I can make.
Isbin displays her characteristic gifts of lyrical, singing lines, with phenomenal legato and vibrato. Cedille affords her a beautifully atmospheric acoustic and the reading is full of charm. The Pacifica Quartet match her with their own sweetness of tone and expressiveness.
Becker, in stark contrast, is bolder - more "masculine", if you will - due in part to the much more upfront Naxos sound, mastered at a higher volume than the others. After the gorgeous acoustic of the Cedille, the Naxos sounds somewhat artificial and not quite natural - until the ear adjusts. But Naxos scores big-time with some superb flute playing from Chloe Dufossez in Tedesco's Sonatina for Flute and Guitar later in the program. What a wonderful work this is, and what jaw-droppingly gorgeous flute sound. Even if you already have the Guitar Quintet elsewhere, you should hear this Naxos for the Flute Sonatina.
Vieaux seems to fall in between the two, striking just the right balance of lyricism and vigor. He plays with a crisper, slightly more articulate technique, even in lyrical passages, especially when compared to Isbin's amazing legato. He receives the best recorded sound of all, with superb presence and dimensionality, without being at all forward like the Naxos. The hall ambience is captured beautifully, placing the quartet and the guitar in equal importance.
Moving on to the remaining program from Vieaux, we have a treat in the form of Aaron Jay Kernis's 100 Greatest Dance Hits (ahem...). It's actually a really cool piece (which I had not heard before) and isn't at all tawdry, as I had feared. It's a refreshingly creative work, with so many mood changes I can't possibly describe them all here. I will defer to the movement subtitles to tell the tale, and their descriptions are pretty close to what we hear: 1. Introduction to the Dance Party; 2. Salsa Pasada; 3. Easy Listening Slow Dance Ballad; 4. Dance Party on the Disco Motorboat.
A few details which make the work so uniquely entertaining are worth elaborating on. The Introduction begins with the guitarist making percussive sounds - knuckles and fingers on wood, joined by pizzicatos and strumming behind the bridge on the violins (and perhaps some percussive effects of their own too - it's difficult to tell for sure without seeing the score). This sets the stage for a segue into the Salsa movement, with some energetic grooving and a strong Latin flavor. Kernis quickly gets down to business with lovely melodies above an insistent, syncopated pulse below, heightening the momentum established in the Introduction. This movement is dazzling in its scoring and rhythmic propulsion, along with truly inspired, memorable tunes. The ballad is a sweetly romantic interlude, with some sentimental violin solo writing and tender accompaniment. And to the Disco party we go in the finale. There really is nothing "disco" about it, though - until the last few seconds or so, when the contemporary, rhythmic, energetic tension of the movement implodes with vociferous glissandi and scratching effects up into the highest reaches of the violins, invoking shouts (literally!) from the players - and at last we hear just a few bars of the disco beat taking us to the end. The party stops abruptly - and much too soon, just as it was really getting good!
The "Salsa" and "Slow Dance" descriptors are the most "spot on", musically, and I suppose all of it reminds one of a dance party. But there really is so much more to the piece than that. It is actually rather serious, but in a festive way. And it is seriously good. It's all great fun, the players are obviously enjoying themselves, and it's spectacularly played and recorded. There is nothing "gimmicky" about it when so expertly crafted, so professionally performed and so successfully pulled off, as in this performance. The piece would bring an audience instantly to its feet with abandoned applause and cheers.
Interestingly, a few years later (in 1998), Kernis reworked some of this music into a Concierto de 'Dance Hits' for guitar and chamber orchestra. It omits the Introduction and the Disco Boat, adding an entirely new first movement (Double Echo) and ending with Salsa Pasada. It has recently been released on Naxos, played by its dedicatee, guitarist David Tanenbaum. I found it even more engaging and musically compelling; a significant addition to the guitar concerto repertoire.
After the Dance Party, the Boccherini 4th Quintet is a bit of a party pooper. Oh it's a nice piece, and very well played here in the arrangement for guitar and strings. But remember, this was written in 1797, and, according to the very informative booklet, was originally conceived for piano and strings. Only later did the guitar come to replace the piano. (There was also a version for string quartet as well.) Even with all the jubilance these players afford the work, after the Disco boat it can't help but sound a bit stuffy and anticlimactic - and almost anything would. One wonders why it was decided to place this last on the program? It would have been terrific, and much more musically appropriate, coming first, setting the festive mood, and allowing the rowdy shouts from the disco motorboat to finish the concert. But I'm nitpicking. The entire disc really is fabulous. And I will program the CD player to play the Boccherini first next time through.
This is the latest in a series of incredibly good releases I have heard from the fantastic Azica label. Of all the great independent, specialty Classical labels I enjoy, Azica stands out - with innovative repertoire, professional presentation, first class production qualities and, especially, consistently superb recorded sound. There is no better representation of state-of-the-art CD sound quality than what this label produces.
I will always be on the lookout for more on this label, regardless of what it is. They always have something interesting to offer and I've not been disappointed yet. This latest one featuring the Escher Quartet in dance mode is a knockout.
I recently discovered the composer Szymon Laks via a fascinating disc of his 3 published string quartets (#3-5), played by the wonderful Messages Quartet on the Dux label. It is such great music which I so thoroughly enjoyed, I sought out more by this Polish composer. I stumbled upon this SACD of music for string orchestra, which includes a work by Laks, and immediately ordered a copy. It also appears on Dux (Dux Record Producers), which is based in Warsaw, Poland.
This program features music for string orchestra by Polish and Hungarian composers, beginning with the 1936 Sinfonietta by Szymon Laks. It is a really nice piece, essentially a string serenade in all but title, in four contrasting movements: Overture, Serenade, Rondino and Finale. It is tonal, pleasant, interesting and full of inspiration - written by an obviously very talented and accomplished composer. I hear hints of the British countryside rollicking around the vivacious Overture, while the central movements are brimming with charm. The Finale develops into a compelling Fugue and Variations, again displaying British overtones. I ultimately find his string quartets to be even more rewarding - more creative and possessing a more individual and unique compositional voice, but this airy, light-hearted Sinfonietta is nonetheless very enjoyable.
The Miklos Rozsa Concerto for String Orchestra, however, is not. I just could not get into this piece, even though it comes from a well-known, well-established composer. From the very opening phrase, the first movement is annoyingly unmusical and gruff, based on an unmelodious motif. It fails to develop into much of anything of substance or purpose. The second movement tries harder with some pleasant violin themes, but still falls short of developing a truly memorable tune. Even the opening viola solo is not terribly melodic. Not until the 3rd movement Allegro giusto did the piece finally make a positive impression. Its rhythmic propulsion and energy were engaging and proved to be quite good - and certainly the best part of the piece. I hasten to add that my tepid response to the work has nothing to do with this performance of it. (More on the excellent playing of the Erdody Chamber Orchestra later...)
I admit to just casually listening to this disc up to this point, not in reviewer mode at all, moving about the house completing monotonous tasks while keeping an ear tuned to the music coming from the stereo. Until, that is, the next piece began. I was drawn back into the music room to listen more closely to what I was hearing.
Gyorgy Orban is a composer completely unknown to me, and his Sopra canti diversi turns out to be one of the highlights of the disc. The booklet tells us this is the third movement of a much larger cycle, which is dedicated to the marvelous Erdody Chamber Orchestra, who plays it here. It's comprised of three descriptive movements, subtitled 1. Christmas Song; 2. Snowstorm; 3. Fly Bird, Fly. As in the Laks, I hear hints of a British string serenade about it, especially in the first movement (which, incidentally sounds nothing like "Christmas" music). One immediately recognizes that Orban is a masterful orchestrator, with more variety in the writing than in the previous two works. The scoring is rich in harmony, punctuated with pizzicatos all through the orchestra. The second movement, curiously, sounds nothing like a "snowstorm". Rather, it is a lyrical interlude, with gorgeously singing strings (first the violins, then the violas, then together in octaves). The finale doesn't quite fly like a bird, but does return us to the open, airy spaces of an English landscape, which reminded me once again of the Laks. The piece overall is picturesque, with Bartok-influenced folksong elements adding to its appeal. It is beautifully scored and delightfully entertaining.
The final work, however, is the real discovery. And it ended this concert with a "WOW" from me. Wojciech Kilar is a name which is obstinately, vaguely familiar to me. But I simply could not place it. Listening to the piece made me even more curious...Where do I know this composer from? Well, searching the booklet, I read that Kilar is a composer of avant-garde music and, like Rozsa, gained popularity for his film music. Ah-ha! Searching Amazon, I discover exactly where I know him from. He wrote a film score that I have always loved - the wonderful, somewhat minimalist music, based on a catchy, simple, indelible motif, for a movie I like very much: The Ninth Gate, starring Johnny Depp. (He also wrote other memorable scores such as Bram Stoker's Dracula and Death and the Maiden.) Listening to his Orawa recorded here, the similarities to The Ninth Gate are unmistakable. It is minimalist at first, reminding me a bit of Philip Glass, but several minutes in, it expands into a symphonic rhapsody, with full-scale cinematic orchestration reminiscent of John Adams. Again from the booklet: "The title Orava (or "Orawa", as it appears on the track listing) is a small mountain stream flowing through the northern areas of the former Orava County." The music begins as a trickle, but soon develops momentum, erupting into white-water rapids, about to flood over its banks. (I was reminded of Adams' Two Fanfares for Orchestra, which starts so simply with Tromba lontana, then grows and grows until reaching an overwhelming climax in Short Ride in a Fast Machine.) But not quite. The music is firmly rooted on solid ground and the piece ends with a shriek of string glissandos into the highest register, culminating with a shouted exclamation from the orchestra members. And then, from me: "Wow". And it was done.
The Erdody Chamber Orchestra is a splendid group of about 20 string players, conducted by its leader/concertmaster, Zsolt Szefcsik. Their playing is fabulous - thoroughly involving, robust and dynamic - brimming with energy and musical insight. There is something extravagant about getting to hear new music played by a committed, accomplished group of musicians, which brings the invigoration of new discovery. Dux lavishes the production with the full multi-channel SACD treatment and the sound is excellent. It is warm, detailed and dynamic, providing the group a full-bodied presence which never sounds "small". Even in climaxes, the sound expands effortlessly and naturally without manipulation from the recording engineers.
What began as a casual listen just for enjoyment turned out to be an engrossing musical experience which immediately prompted me to write this review. That doesn't happen often, which says something for this particular release. With the exception of the Rozsa, this music is enlightening, enriching and musically rewarding - and the Kilar, in particular, is really fantastic. With excellent playing and recording, this disc is highly recommended.
I have a fondness for Mendelssohn's String Quartets. And I have a love/hate relationship with most recordings of them. I usually hear them sounding either too gruff, slightly aggressive, or a little chilly and detached. Sometimes it's because of the playing itself (a gruffness usually the fault of the cellist; a chilly detachment a simple case of lacking spontaneity); sometimes it's the recording (too close and course); and, worse, sometimes both. Other times, a group seems to want to make these wonderful creations something more than they are - something larger than life; something more profound, to the point of bringing a Beethovenian seriousness and heaviness to them, which doesn't work for me. But then - THEN - every once in awhile the planets align and the heavens smile down on a recording session, and everything comes together with an exceptional group of musicians combined with the perfect recording perspective (which, for some reason is a rare event for these quartets), and magic happens! And it is a wonderous experience to behold. And there is none better than the magnificent 2005 set from the Pacifica Quartet on Cedille Records (see my review elsewhere on this blog).
And now there's the Escher String Quartet. Their set, on 3 separate BIS SACDs, is, in a nutshell, excellent. Better than most. All 3 discs were recorded in Potton Hall, Suffolk England, but each at different sessions over a period of 13 months. And the series just gets better and better as it progresses.
The first disc, offering #1 & 4 (plus the Quartet in E flat major), was recorded in April 2014. The playing is immediately impressive. But there is no denying these are closely mic'd and upfront (but not aggressive). While providing tremendous impact, the sound is just short of being almost too forward. But I must emphasize "just short" though...it is just acceptably kept at the plane of the speakers without being aggressively thrust out into the room. And it is very clean and clear, with a glorious acoustic providing plenty of ambience and warmth. It is mastered at a higher volume level than usual, though, which necessitated me adjusting the volume down several notches to compensate.
Once adjusted, the sound is very good and the playing is excellent. Make no mistake - with the recording being this closely mic'd and hyper-analytical, there is absolutely NOWHERE for anything less than perfect playing to hide. And there is absolutely nothing here which is less than perfection.
As recorded by BIS, this first disc is not quite as inviting and lovely as my reference recordings from the Pacifica Quartet. It is just a touch more intense. However, the playing is in no way chilly, slightly detached (and slightly aggressive) as another set I didn't like as much - that from the Manderling Quartett on Audite. The Escher's #1 and #4 are what I would describe as "commanding." Despite the recording perspective, these are still enjoyable because the playing itself is not at all "aggressive". It is at all times musically involving, and the performances are gripping.
Turning to the next installment, recorded 5 months later (in September 2014), things get even better. #2 and 3 are bursting with joy and exuberance. And the recording is just a touch more natural. The engineers seem to have made slight adjustments for a slightly more relaxed presentation, which is all gain. The mastered volume level is a couple notches lower and the quartet is now slightly less bold - but even better focused. A more expressive quality emerges to great effect. Rather than demanding one's attention, these readings positively invite one to come listen. They are fully the equal of the incomparable Pacifica's.
The final disc, recorded in May 2015, is the finest of all. #5 in particular is infused with a sweet, freely singing, soaring quality combined with infectious verve, making it very special indeed. I had thought their performances of #2 & 3 were highlights of the entire set until I listened to their #5, which is simply marvelous. The same can be said for #6. In this brilliant performance, there is a maturity and foreboding which seems to foreshadow what's to come (Mendelssohn died a month after its completion). The work blossoms into one of the true masterpieces which marks his life. And the recording is absolutely superb. Truly, this final disc is magnificent.
Tempos in all 6 works are perfectly judged. Allegros are dazzling and spring from the speakers with life. Slow movements never drag, but unfold with a moving, naturally flowing musical expression - which is a hallmark of every string ensemble I cherish. And everywhere there is a sense of freshness and spontaneity, as if in a live performance.
Of the two additional works included here, the Opus 81 Four Pieces for String Quartet (assembled after his death) are especially rewarding, despite being split over 2 discs due to maximum playing time confines.
I think I can summarize this set by stating it sounds the most like Mendelssohn of any I can remember. I kept thinking all through, "this sounds like Mendelssohn at his best." And in my book, that's the highest compliment I can pay the Escher Quartet.
I have several "favorite" string quartets on my list now. The Pacifica and the Dover have consistently topped that list, recently joined by the Attacca. Now the Escher joins the ranks as well. Can I have four favorite groups? When they are all this fabulous, yes, absolutely.
As a die-hard Mozart/Beethoven/Tchaikovsky kind of guy, I have a hard time describing new music. I know what I like and what I don't. But I can say without hesitation I certainly like this music for string quartet by American composer Michael Ippolito. And he could not have better advocates than the incredible Attacca Quartet and the Azica record label.
I first got to know this composer from his wonderful new Divertimento, just released on BIS (along with other Divertimenti) played by the c/o chamber orchestra. (My review of that disc appears elsewhere on this blog.) There were hints of Bartok which I enjoyed, along with an obvious natural creative ability and a gift for orchestration. This disc of string quartet music confirms this is a composer of real talent and a masterful orchestrator. I don't hear Bartok here, though. This composer displays a distinct, unique musical voice all his own. It's obviously contemporary, but yet tonal, with compositional structure based upon musical motifs (not just rhythmic ones). And so much colorful writing.
Let's start with orchestration. Listening to the second track, Trace, I was absolutely certain there were more than just 4 players. So much dove-tailing, and variety of tone-colors, there had to be additional players included here, right? Well, not according to the booklet. There is no mention anywhere of additional players joining the Attacca Quartet. So with that fact firmly established, I listened to it again. And I am simply amazed at the sounds this composer can produce from just 4 players. The use of double stops is skillfully (and very cleverly) accomplished. And the music itself is simply fascinating. I'm a fan of short-stories, and this short work would seem to fall into the musical equivalent of that. The musical content and emotional impact contained within this piece lasting just under 6 minutes is simply miraculous.
Big Sky, Low Horizon perks us up a bit, sounding the most identifiably "American" of all the works on this program. I even hear hints of a fiddler's violin here and there, with the jaunty bouncing around of open 4ths and 5ths in one section. Smoke Rings returns us to the soundworld of Trace. There is a gorgeous, harmonious trio, first for the 2 violins and viola punctuated by cello pizzicatos, and later the orchestration switches it around to a lower register, with a violin taking over the pizzs. Soon the entire quartet takes up the chorale, played largely sans vibrato, with sharply bowed accents interjecting with dramatic effect. The Attacca makes it beautiful, with or without vibrato. This is another "short story" which is so descriptive, it makes a perfect 6-1/2 minutes of music.
Coming to the String Quartets at last, they are the most substantial works on the program, and likely the major attraction for many collectors. #3 comes first on the disc, a single movement chorale, lasting 10 minutes, with a variety of moods. The subtitle, Songlines, perfectly describes it. I heard it as a song throughout its entirety. ("Songlines" actually came to mind throughout this entire disc.)
But the 2nd Quartet is the real masterpiece. It is quite substantial, in three movements, lasting 25'. From the dramatic opening Allegro energico, I was instantly drawn in, on the edge of my seat, with the intensity of the opening unison for all 4 players. Shostakovich came to mind briefly here. The second movement reminds one of the sounds in Smoke Rings. It is more intensely dramatic, with a very passionate cello solo mid-way, handing off to the violin, then with the entire quartet crying out in an almost tragic tone. What an emotional experience this is! And then they fade into nothingness in the final bars (without the aid of the recording engineers). What glorious playing here by the Attacca.
In the final Allegro molto, I hear some more Shostakovich - some Russian angst - in the opening minutes. But that is soon forgotten, becoming pure Michael Ippolito at his very best. It really can be written by no one else. Just listen to the glissandi at the 4' mark, and the sul ponticello viola and cello at 6'. Otherworldly yes, but what an incredible story-teller this composer is! The intensity continues to build and tighten, with the lower two players arguing back and forth with the violins (some double-unison polyphony, which I really liked), and the clamor culminates in a final outcry from all. And at this point I'm emotionally drained. And I can only state emphatically that this work is simply magnificent. It can stand side-by-side with my other recent masterpiece discovery, the 3rd Quartet by Shulamit Ran (contained on the disc, 'Contemporary Voices', played by the marvelous Pacifica Quartet, also reviewed on my blog). Both are emotionally moving, stimulating musical experiences; endlessly fascinating works worthy of the highest esteem.
This Circle concludes the program, providing the calming respite needed to recover from that which precedes it. It's another short story, this time for string trio (minus the 2nd violin), with singing lines - poignant and melancholy, with an underlying, impending despair and uncertainty. And it ends with harmonics evaporating into the rafters.
I am simply bowled over by this music. And certainly by the playing of the Attacca Quartet. Overall, this is a fantastic disc which is so endlessly interesting, varied, colorful and emotionally moving and musically rewarding, I can hardly stop listening to it. And each time I hear something I missed before - not just technically (as in construction and orchestration), but a deeper meaning to it all. I would encourage anyone hearing this music to read the interesting booklet, which includes substantial program notes by the composer, for a much better understanding of each piece.
Finally, this is yet another fantastic release from the great Azica label. The production is first class and the recorded sound is stunning in its clarity and realism. The quartet is recorded up-close and the disc is mastered at a higher volume than usual. I had to turn the volume down several notches for comfortable listening. But it provides the group tremendous presence and impact. It also allows absolutely nowhere to hide anything less than perfect playing. And I heard none. Anywhere.
This wonderful disc must be heard by anyone interested in excellent new music written by a true master; and by any lover of outstanding string quartet playing. I have several favorite groups, but the Attacca is right up there with the Pacifica in a category of exceptional accomplishment all their own.
I admit I was a bit skeptical with this. I was not overly impressed with James Gaffigan's 2014 Dvorak disc with this orchestra on this label (6th Symphony and American Suite). Oh it's very good and very well played, but just not particularly memorable. And I thought harmonia mundi didn't help him out any with sound which is a bit stuffy. So an Americana program from this same team made me hesitate. But, I needn't have worried. James Gaffigan has this music in his very bones and brings the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra to life and keeps them on their toes all through. And harmonia mundi's sound is more open, dynamic and lively than in the earlier Dvorak.
Bernstein's very familiar West Side Story Symphonic Dances sets the stage (so to speak), and Gaffigan brings energy and fabulous characterization. While always the ultimate in refinement, he does encourage this orchestra to "let loose" in the rambunctious sections, and they deliver - if not quite to the level that the composer himself achieved with the New York Phil back in the early 60s. But the brass do give it the gusto and the strings dig in with impressive authority. Most of all, though, the lively percussion and impressive bass drum wallops make a splendid impact. And the gentler passages are expressive with beautiful, singing, melodic lines. Gaffigan maintains a certain symphonic control over the proceedings, enhancing the structure of the work. He also affords this music a bit more atmosphere, bringing out more inner detail than usual. It is a vivid portrayal of the stage work and it comes off splendidly, especially with harmonia mundi's immediate, focused, airy sound.
The only other recent recording that comes to mind as being in the same league is on a splendid 2017 all-Bernstein collection with Christian Lindberg conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on BIS. Lindberg is just a touch more rambunctious (reminiscent of a pit orchestra) and BIS provides him a more upfront, edgy presentation, which comes even closer to matching Bernstein's own. But Gaffigan is better recorded (more refined and sumptuous), despite being on standard CD vs Lindberg's SACD. Both these readings are a far cry better than another recent attempt that I had the misfortune of hearing, that from Santtu-Matias Rouvali on a 2018 Orfeo set (combined oddly with various violin concertos), which is tame (lame) and seriously under-characterized in comparison.
Charles Ives's Third Symphony is based on 3 of his original organ preludes utilizing familiar hymn tunes. The booklet reminds us the work was not immediately welcomed and wasn't premiered until some 35 years later (in 1946). And, frankly, it's still not a great symphony, sounding rather like expanded symphonic arrangements of church hymns. Nonetheless, the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra's tonal richness and beauty of blend suit it perfectly and Gaffigan's choice of tempos ensures it keeps moving along without dragging. It is pleasant and I enjoyed it more than usual, aided by the beautiful recording.
Time to wake up, though, for Barber's School for Scandal Overture which bursts into the room next. This is one the most vivacious accounts of the piece I've heard in recent years, reminding me of David Zinman's incomparable 1992 account with the Baltimore Symphony for Argo. Once again, the bass drum makes its presence known (and felt) to stunning effect. I couldn't decide if I would have preferred it coming first on the program rather than immediately after the solemn Ives. But no matter, it is a stupendous account and once again reveals spectacular recorded sound.
I was not impressed with Ruth Crawford's Andante for Strings. Even the booklet seems to have a rather hard time making it sound interesting ("...a heterophony of dynamics--a sort of counterpoint of crescendi and diminuendi.") There's just not much to it, compositionally or musically. And I was glad it doesn't last long (4 minutes).
Finishing the program, Barber's Toccata Festiva gives the engineers a chance to really show off. It is well played, of course, and the sound is very impressive. The organ is not given a prominence which would allow it to swamp the orchestra, but is naturally balanced, just as one would experience live. And it provides a triumphant conclusion to the evening.
Hats off to James Gaffigan for a fabulous concert - superbly played by his orchestra, with excellent sonics from harmonia mundi. I normally would lament the absence of SACD, but when standard CD sounds this good, there is no cause for complaint.
After completing my comprehensive survey of Mozart's Flute Quartets earlier this year, I've been listening to a few recordings of his Flute Concertos lately. I rediscovered how much I enjoyed Patrick Gallois's 2002 Naxos recording of all three [#1 in G, #2 in D and the Double with Harp]. (See my review elsewhere on this blog.) His Mozart is uniquely fresh and filled with originality and spontaneity. I wish he had recorded the Quartets.
A flutist who has is Raffaele Trevisani (2015 Delos). His recording made it to the "Good" category in my survey, but would have been much higher had it not been spoiled by being performed in an enormous, empty church, in which the Delos engineers failed to control the wildly over-reverberant acoustic. Such a pity.
I've since discovered Trevisani's 1998 recording of the three Concertos for Hanssler Classics (reissued on a 2005 budget CD). He has a glorious, uplifting feel for Mozart, amply displayed in both his Mozart recordings. There is a stylish freshness, with alert tempos and crisp articulation, plus an infectious sense of joy. However, in the Concertos, recorded nearly 20 years before the Quartets, Trevisani was intent upon showing off his "Galway Sound". Yes, he was a Galway protege, and yes, he sounds just like him. He even tends to honk his low notes just like Galway loves to do. Unfortunately, in 1998 Trevisani couldn't (wouldn't) contain that mega vibrato that comes with that golden tone. And it permeates every note, every phrase, every where. It's not all bad; it does add a delicious golden glow to his playing in the Allegros. But the problem is that he doesn't tone it down for the slow movements. Quite the contrary; he actually seems to turn up the power of it, and it mercilessly weighs down the music with an overbearing, unrelenting intensity. His sound is positively voluptuous, which is just too much for Mozart. Fortunately, by 2015, he had lightened up a bit, eased up on the vibrato a notch, and his playing is quite lovely in the Quartets. He still sounds like Galway, but in a more appropriate way for Mozart.
Trevisani is a fabulous player and the fast movements of the Concertos are delightful. Significantly, he plays cadenzas which are substantially different from the norm (composed by Edwin Roxburgh [G major]; Johannes Donjon [D major]; and Karl Hermann Pillney [Double]). And how enjoyable they are.
The recorded sound is excellent, as is the alert, crisp orchestral support under the direction of Patrick Strub. The 2005 budget reissue (which I have) is a bare-bones affair, attractive enough, the booklet containing nothing more than a simple track listing and recording details.