What an intriguing release from Cedille Records. Paying attention to the marketing of it, though, it is important to note this is a reissue of Rachel Barton Pine's earlier, similarly titled 1997 CD release: "Violin Concertos by Black Composers of the 18th & 19th Centuries", but with one concerto excised (the Chevalier de Meude-Monpas) and a brand new recording appended in its place. And with that one new addition (the marvelous Concerto #2 by Florence Price), this album acquires new relevance and musical satisfaction. For that work alone is quite wonderful.
Would that I could say the same about the rest of the program. Though if I found the three works from the original release less musically gratifying, they are nonetheless important and worthy of a listen, certainly deserving a place on the collector's shelf.
Joseph Bologne's A-Major Concerto of 1775 is interesting in that it so unabashedly imitates Mozart. The first two movements remind one of the operatic Mozart (his Overture to Cosi Fan Tutte is recalled so often it's almost comical). The opening Allegro is very long (over 10 minutes) - the orchestral exposition alone goes on for 2-1/2 minutes before the violin finally enters with a delectable melody sounding just like Mozart. Before long, though, the tunefulness is supplemented with some mundane scalic/arpeggiated filler material. I was relieved when the Largo arrives, taking us firmly to the seriousness of a Mozart opera, with a beautiful tune played by our soloist just as an operatic soprano would sing it. This movement too goes on a bit long (nearly 9 minutes), with a lengthy, uninteresting cadenza near its end.
The best is yet to come, though. The 3rd movement, Rondeau, with a sudden lightening of mood, transitions into something more charming and musically pleasing - and so accomplished it could pass for a violin concerto by the master himself. It's a pity it lasts only 4-1/2 minutes.
Jumping ahead to 1864, we enter into a curious hodgepodge of Max Bruch juxtaposed with Paganini in Joseph White Lafitte's Concerto in F-sharp minor. Traditionally Romantic, serious in the first movement, dramatic in the 3rd, there is more than enough tuneful inspiration to be appealing (at least once through). The opening movement is pretentious, though; that orchestral tutti goes on for a full 3 minutes! When at last the violin enters, it really does sound too much like Bruch - while not quite living up to his illustrious level of accomplishment - for its own good, combined certainly with too much Paganini. There are simply too many notes surrounding the lyrical passages, with lots of double stops, scales and arpeggios sounding more like studio exercises than true musical inspiration. The finale has so much potential, with a truly wonderful melody. But alas, White/Lafitte just can't keep Paganini's finger exercises out of it.
The entire piece sounds to be extremely difficult to play and Pine tackles its interminable virtuosity with aplomb while managing to bring as much musical purpose as possible given the uneven source material.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is a composer I'm more familiar with, and his Romance of 1899 is characteristic of his writing. Tuneful and contemplative, it's ultimately a little too long, clocking in at 12-1/2 minutes. The opening romance section goes on for 6+ minutes before things perk up a little with a wonderful orchestral interlude. Unfortunately, Coleridge-Taylor then settles right back into what has gone on before with the return of the soloist, and the piece is pensive and reflective to the end. It's a heartfelt outpouring of song, confirming Coleridge-Taylor's gift for melody, but I longed for more variety.
Interestingly, I hear a bit of Bruch in this piece as well, which is actually more welcome here than in the preceding work. Pine gives it her all, with beautifully singing lines and ardent expression, making the piece quite nice, if ultimately not particularly memorable.
Florence Price's wonderful 2nd Concerto, written in 1952, instantly revives the program. Late Romantic and rhapsodic, with a distinctly Americana flavor, it is certainly the most "modern" piece here, securely placed in the 20th-Century. Pine plays it beautifully - not weighing it down with too much richness in her sound. Indeed her sweetly singing violin tone is perfect for its sweeping melodies. She keeps the tunes aglow with fervent graciousness and refrains from taking on too much of a spotlight, welcoming the orchestra as an equal partner in a way not apt for the previous three works. The rich and colorful orchestral contribution here elevates the piece above the others, and conductor Jonathon Heyward provides wonderfully sensitive and thoroughly involving support.
As with Coleridge-Taylor's Romance, Price's Concerto is laid out in a single movement, and both are of similar length. But Price offers much more variety and more accomplished orchestral writing. Its many moods draw the listener in, and its final flourish finishes off the program with an exciting ending which would surely bring an audience to its feet in a live performance. I immediately had to listen to it again.
Rachel Barton Pine's playing is fabulous all through. The playing of the Encore Chamber Orchestra (members of the Chicago Youth Symphony) in the earlier sessions is very good, if not quite that of a top-tier professional ensemble. In 2022, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is employed for the Price, but sounds to be of a reduced number of strings, resembling a very good chamber orchestra.
As to the production, the recorded sound in 1997 is more than acceptable. It is clear and clean, albeit a bit lean and 2-dimensional compared to the very best. The Price, recorded 25 years later, instantly transports us to a different acoustic - one which is slightly drier and smaller. It's not jolting, but noticeable. Curiously though, even here the sound remains somewhat 2-dimensional, lacking something in spaciousness.
I have to admit I was a little disappointed with some of the music contained in this release (as detailed above) and perhaps overly critical. However, despite the importance of the production, I must describe what I hear based upon its musical merits - good, bad and indifferent. Furthermore, I found Cedille's cover art (of this and its predecessor) to be unattractively bland - gray, unimaginative and unenticing. However, there is no denying how invaluable and supremely worthwhile this project is. And I applaud all involved in it. Musically, the Price Concerto is a real find and all by itself is worth the cost of the CD.
As is the lavish booklet, which is an absolute tour de force! The Cedille Records production team is to be commended. It contains an abundance of information - over 30 pages about the music, the performers, personal notes from Pine herself, and all the recording details you could ever want. The comprehensive article by Mark Clague about these composers and works is itself a masterpiece in music history and education. (I do not have the original CD, but assume this is newly written for this later release, as it includes much information about Price as well.) Clague is not only Professor of Musicology and Associate Dean at The University of Michigan, but also serves as Chief Advisor to the RBP (Rachel Barton Pine) Foundation's Music by Black Composers Project. His credentials are fully evident in his writing and this is essential reading. The personal notes by Pine herself, written especially for this release, are also enlightening.
This is a most worthwhile, informative and important release. Bravo to Rachel Barton Pine and the great folks at Cedille Records for bringing it to production.
This release immediately caught my eye - not only because of its attractive cover and interesting repertoire on offer, but it reminds me of another clever, innovative release from BIS - the 2021 album entitled "Divertissement!", played by the splendid c/o chamber orchestra. (Please see my review of it elsewhere on this blog.)
This new one contains music which is slightly larger-scaled and perhaps less overtly "modern" than the Divertimenti on the earlier collection. But despite the fuller orchestra, these Sinfoniettas are actually more delightful and light-hearted. And thoroughly enjoyable.
I am familiar with conductor Dima Slobodeniouk from his wonderful YouTube videos with the Orquesta Sinfonica de Galicia. (His Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique sticks in my mind above all the rest as being quite sensational.) He has built that orchestra into one which is almost - but not quite - among the top-tier orchestras. On this new SACD, he conducts the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, which sounds to be of similar caliber. Slobodeniouk was their principal conductor from 2016 - 2021 and this recording was made near the end of that tenure, in January 2021.
Up first is Poulenc's delightful Sinfonietta - one of his rare attempts at full-scale symphonic composition. The booklet reminds us he was not naturally inclined towards the genre and wrote little symphonic music. Nonetheless, his Sinfonietta is a mature work, energetically pleasing and very fun. The jaunty, short motifs, so characteristic of Poulenc's writing, are everywhere, strung together creatively but often not fully developed. In other words, unmistakably Poulenc. The end result though is entertaining and the variety of moods appealing. The first and third movements remind me very much of his Piano Concerto, which was to come 2 years later (in 1949). The molto vivace second movement is splendid, one of his very best creations, and the finale is most engaging. The orchestra plays it with boundless energy - and a smile - and Slobodeniouk ensures its lightheartedness is endearing.
The Prokofiev which follows it reveals an even more assured compositional accomplishment and musical creativity. Perhaps Slobodeniouk, born and trained in Moscow, has a greater affinity for this composer. But the orchestra plays with an extra involvement and the music-making takes on a soaring quality which brings the piece to life as rarely heard before. Even though written while Prokofiev was still in his teens, it is a marvelous work of remarkable inventiveness and musical substance. And I have never heard it brought off more convincingly than here.
The concluding Britten is another fascinating work and Slobodeniouk reveals its depth of musical abundance without allowing it to become heavy or serious. It was originally scored for double quintet (woodwind/string) and is played here in its 1929 revision for small orchestra - essentially the original score with an added second horn plus more string players. It is Britten's Opus 1, and like the Prokofiev, written while still in his teens. But it bears many hints of the Britten to come and is enlightening and fully developed structurally. The central set of Variations, for example, is wonderfully creative.
The recorded sound on this multi-channel SACD is excellent throughout. There is a marvelous soundstage and the orchestra is well focused within it. I often miss a bit of richness to massed string sound from BIS and this one is no exception. I suspect a reduced number of strings was utilized for these works. However it's not serious and the transparency is impressive, revealing much inner detail, just right for this music. It is refreshingly free from excessive heaviness in the bass which has been the case with many Chandos releases these days.
All in all this is a splendid release, very enjoyable from beginning to end, offering 3 wonderful pieces not often encountered. It is expertly played, conducted and recorded. Very highly recommended.
The Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective continues their relationship with Chandos with yet another mixed bag. The more players are involved, the worse the recorded sound becomes. And I am beyond frustrated. The music is so good but they make it difficult to get the most from it.
Beginning with Felix Mendelssohn's Sextet, I was astonished at the heaviness and pushiness of the music-making. And the muddiness of the acoustic. Details are buried within the overpowering bass and murky reverberation. Moreover, the piano is distant and sounds overpedaled. (I doubt it really is; it's just recorded that way).
These problems become apparent within the first few seconds. The bass viol is too closely mic'd and is boomy from its very first note. And a few bars later at the piano's first entrance, it is distant, dull and a little flat. And as intensity builds, the muddiness becomes unpleasant to try to listen through. It brings a clamorous rowdiness to this music which doesn't suit Mendelssohn.
By the time the third movement arrives, the piano has miraculously gained some prominence. But the flat, airless wall of sound simply becomes too much. The recording engineer is manipulating the soundstage and balance on the fly, overriding whatever the ensemble might be trying to achieve. It is very similar to what I heard in this team's previous recording of Coleridge-Taylor's Nonet. I was dismayed to hear no improvements here.
Performing my due diligence, I tried this on a different CD player with a pair of Grado Labs headphones which are known for clarity and a tight, almost lean bass. And the bass bloat was actually worse on them! And the muddy acoustic persisted.
Turning to Fanny Mendelssohn's wonderful Piano Quartet, which comes last on the program, I hear the complete opposite. The sound is airy, clean (yet warm), spacious and...delicate. Yes. There is a delicacy here to the playing and the recorded sound which is completely absent in the opening Sextet. And the result is the most glorious performance of this lovely piece I've yet encountered. It is smiling, singing and joyously energetic when called for. (The ending is positively thrilling.) I cannot ever remember enjoying it so thoroughly before. At last, Tom Poster's marvelous piano playing is allowed to shine with clarity and brilliance, quite a difference from being buried back in the murk in the Sextet and swamped in reverb in the Trio (below).
Fanny's Piano Trio, which appears in between, is not quite as memorable, and even this fine trio of musicians can't quite make it more so. Nonetheless, it is pleasant and often delightful. And so rewarding when played as beautifully as it is here! Alas, it is only reasonably well recorded. There is still a bit of muddiness here and too much reverberation, causing the piano to sound severely overpedaled. There is also an unnecessary touch of grain to the strings (made worse on the Grado headphones).
I am perplexed why producer/engineer Jonathan Cooper can't manage to do this group justice in larger ensemble pieces. He does just fine with some (but not all) of the small, intimate works. I have come to the conclusion that the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective likes this sound. It is consistent on all three of their albums, adding a rough texture and rambunctious intensity to their sound, especially when the full group is in play. It makes for a frustrating listening experience time and again. And I just don't understand why that is.
I have come to the realization this is precisely the sound they're going for and I shouldn't expect anything different on future recordings. So why do I keep buying them? That's a good question. And I guess the simple answer is for the repertoire. It's innovative, imaginative, somewhat rare, and thoroughly worthwhile music that isn't readily available elsewhere. So I cave in!
Two final comments: This is yet another CD-only release, which I can't help but think is part of the problem. If Chandos would afford this group the multi-channel SACD treatment they deserve, perhaps - just perhaps - the recorded sound would improve with some much needed spaciousness. And finally, I found it odd I had to import this title from Europe. I'm not sure why it's not readily available yet here in the U.S. It's just another mystery to ponder about these releases from Chandos and the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective.
I've been discovering some great releases on the resonus label lately. I hear consistently excellent recorded sound, from chamber music to full orchestra. So I was eager to hear these Haydn String Quartets, as played by a group new to me - the Dudok Quartet.
I have a couple of gripes to get out of the way. First, why are these Opus 20 Quartets not released in chronological order? (Disc One is laid out this way: #3, 2, 5; Disc Two: #1, 4, 6.) I am seeing this trend a lot, particularly from small independent labels and I simply do not understand it. I am getting used to having to do it myself, though. So I always have the remote control handy and plan on lots of up-and-down exercising and in-and-out stress incurred on my CD player's drawer mechanism.
Next, the first CD, recorded in 2019, is transferred at an unusually low volume level, requiring a significant boost in volume to achieve a sense of presence. The second CD (2020) is closer to normal, although still on the soft side. So I had both the Volume Control and CD remotes at my fingertips just trying to get through these 6 Quartets. It really shouldn't be this difficult. But alas, it is what it is.
I listened to these discs twice - on two different occasions, separated by several weeks. The first time through I was unmoved, proclaiming it well- played and -recorded, but ultimately nothing special. In hindsight I may have been more than a little annoyed with the layout and the effort required to listen to these marvelous works in order.
A couple weeks later, I was in the mood for some Haydn and decided to give these recordings another try (and really hoped to be motivated by them to write a review). This time I listened to each disc in its entirety, exactly as recorded. And it was rather enlightening.
Starting with Disc One, with its meek volume level, I heard playing which consistently matched it: lovely musicianship, precision of ensemble and a good dynamic range. But it wasn't quite engaging. Cranking the volume helped get a little more life to it, but the playing still sounded rather timid. Further, tempos are steady rather than energetic and I longed for more invigoration in the fast movements. The disc ended with me feeling a little blah about it, thinking it was, frankly, a little boring.
Disc Two, on the other hand, elicited a different reaction. I heard what sounds like a different set of musicians, more youthful and spirited. It's as if the producer gave them a little pep talk before the recording session, urging them to infuse a little more life and joy into it. And he dutifully assisted them with a little twist of the master volume knob. And things really do come to life on the second collection in a way not experienced on the first. There is more energy and incisive articulation, impressive dynamics, and truly engaging playing. And the extra touch of immediacy of the recorded perspective helped tremendously. It isn't a big change, just enough to give them more presence. And the sense of life and vitality which results is notable.
I don't mean to be too hard on that first disc. Taken on its own, it is well played, the sound is warm and pleasing, and it is enjoyable enough, if not at all remarkable. But it is the second disc which really distinguishes this young quartet as being rather special. And with it, I look forward to future installments in their Haydn series.
Trying something different can be fun. And inspiring. But not always. These attractive releases caught my eye and I thought I'd try a composer completely new to me. But alas, there are only a couple of really memorable works included here. I simply wasn't captivated by much of the rest.
Pierre Wissmer is certainly a very accomplished orchestrator, exploiting the full potential of a modern symphony orchestra. But the gift of melody is not his forte. I found much of his music to be steadfastly insipid, and often so unmelodious, it became little more than unpleasant background noise. I could not sit still for most of it, and found myself off dusting in another room while it went on and on.
But there were highlights. I began listening with what turned out to be by far the most enjoyable item on offer here - the delightful Divertimento (found on the 2021, 2-CD set). Deliciously scored, and more lighthearted than the rest, it reminded me of Poulenc. So did the Clarinet Concerto. But already, while it is mostly pleasant, I grew increasingly impatient with its lack of true melodic inspiration, particularly in the slow movement, which was far from gratifying. Despite some potential, the piece remains curiously unmemorable. The Guitar Concerto, however, is better. It is amiable and full of character, with a delicate scoring which suits the music just right. It is very well played here by guitarist Thibault Cauvin and the orchestra responds with an appropriate lightness of touch.
The Second Disc of this 2-fer is not terribly worthwhile. The recordings originate from 1965 and 1976 "public concert archives". (No other information is provided.) The 3rd Piano Concerto is a really long (going on for 30 minutes), endlessly meandering and pointless hodgepodge of nothing much going nowhere. And the Ballet Suite is mostly prosaic - its excessive length (another long 30 minutes) and obstinate lack of melodiousness making it far too serious and demanding. Making matters worse, the orchestral playing is less than first-rate, with some sour brass tone and moments of less than refined playing. Despite the definitive direction of the composer himself in the ballet, the inclusion of this second disc is especially lackluster after the much more modern recording, and more accomplished orchestra, on Disc One.
On the 2022 single-disc follow-up release, matters certainly improve with regards to musical involvement. The Suisse Romande Orchestra can sight-read anything and their playing immediately impresses with its beauty of sound and ease of execution. The opening Symphonic Poem (The Child and the Rose) is pleasant enough. It is reminiscent of Roussel but lacks his story-telling prowess and the constructive building of momentum and excitement. It just does what it does and can go no further. Much the same can be said of the 3rd Violin Concerto; it isn't unpleasant (and is certainly well-played here) but just doesn't really get anywhere. And the lack of a true melody seriously inhibits enjoyment.
The concluding symphonic triptyque, Clamavi, is similar to the ballet suite on the first set - unmelodious, serious and lasting too long. I had had enough at this point and didn't try the Oboe Concerto, which typically isn't something I would especially look forward to in the best of circumstances.
The Claves Records production is first rate on both collections, with informative booklets, highly attractive cover art, and very good recorded sound (other than the disc of "historic archives"). They have taken Pierre Wissmer into the fold, with several discs devoted to him, giving this composer a real chance at making a go of it. Alas, despite good soloists and recorded sound, there just wasn't enough here that I would be compelled to listen to again, and more than enough to prevent me from wanting to explore this composer further.
I have new speaker cables. Going through the long break-in time with new cables can be painful and frustrating. And these huge Crescendos are particularly agonizing. But after 2 weeks, we're getting there! The sound is opening up, clearing up, and the soundstage is expanding into a wondrous thing of marvel and awe.
And what better recording to fully reveal their glories than a new Respighi CD! This one from Linn has many impressive moments of sonic splendor, but also some serious inadequacies, exposed all too clearly by my new cables. These top-of-line Straight Wire speaker cables are known for their complete absence of grain and glare, which is stunningly evident on this CD. (As a matter of fact, one would never know this isn't an SACD.) They are also known for their realistic portrayal of the enormity of a soundstage. And on the more atmospheric sections of this CD, these characteristics are fully revealed.
I began my listening with Brazilian Impressions, because - well, why would you put the Pines of Rome, with its thrilling, triumphant ending, first on any program? Expecting anything to follow it in a concert is unthinkable. So I dutifully programmed the player to play it last. Easy enough I guess.
I haven't heard the LPO (on record) in a long time; I can't remember the last recording from them I've acquired. But rarely have I heard them sounding so refined and colorfully gorgeous as in this marvelous reading of Brazilian Impressions. In particular, I have never heard this orchestra's strings sound so luscious - silky smooth and airy. I have to attribute this to the marvelous conducting of Italian newcomer, Alessandro Crudele, and to the accomplishments of the Linn recording engineers.
Crudele goes for atmosphere at all times, which works particularly well here and the first half of the Belkis suite which follows. He has a natural feel for this music, with elastic ebb and flow of rubato and dynamics, in an almost operatic way.
Even more notable, the hall sounds enormous - but not cavernous - and the orchestra is perfectly focused within it. I was struck by the layers and layers of rows of players within the hall - not only front-to-back, but side-to-side. Their presence fills the space, wall-to-wall, with spectacular definition. And the sense of space is uncanny - airy and spacious. Maybe it's the speaker cables working their magic, but they can't recreate something that isn't there to begin with. So I credit the recording engineers for this miraculous, realistic portrayal of a real symphony orchestra in a real hall.
This piece shows conductor and orchestra at their finest. Characterization of mood, vivid orchestral colors and steamy atmospheres perfume every measure. The playing is exquisite, with delicate textures and rich orchestral colors, full of life with fascinating inner details.
The opening sections of Belkis Queen of Sheba display more of these same extraordinary qualities and Crudele continues to impress with singing musical phrasing and ravishing textures. When at last the program turns up the heat and this orchestra gets a chance to flex its muscles in the War and Orgiastic Dances, we find Crudele holding them back with a strong hand (especially the brass), keeping them firmly in control, minimizing bombast, and allowing the strings to carry the day. I found it worked well enough within the context of the earlier passages, although I did miss the raw energy, unbridled power and sheer excitement found in other readings. (Geoffrey Simon on Chandos and Sascha Goetzel on Onyx come immediately to mind. There's also a good one on a Genuin Classics collection, Oriental Tales.) I wish Crudele had delivered more savagery in the War Dance and ecstatic abandon in the Orgiastic, allowing the percussion and brass to bring it.
Finally, going back to the beginning for the Pines of Rome (which will likely be the star attraction for many), it would be unfortunate indeed if one were to play it first, as presented on this CD. Because the ending here is a pretty big disappointment. After the subdued Dances in Belkis, I was afraid Pines would be similarly restrained. (And I wasn't wrong.) But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The opening Villa Borghese starts us off with all the sparkle, glitter and sheer energy that John Wilson's recent Chandos reading lacks. With Crudele, it is positively effervescent, dazzling with inner details. And he builds the entire section with a cumulative tension which is very exciting indeed.
The central movements return us to the rich colors heard in the companion works, and there is some expressive solo playing. However, here is where problems begin to appear.
The climatic section of Catacomb is heavy-laden, ponderous and plodding, and organ pedals are practically non-existent, denying us that massive, subterranean sumptuousness. And later, shockingly, the nightingale's song at the end of Janiculum is all but inaudible. The clarinet solo is much too loud for one thing (it is marked ppp by the end of the solo, but is played a solid mp). And the playback speakers of the recorded birdsong are so far away from any microphone that it is simply impossible to register. Listening very carefully with a boost of my volume setting, I could just hear maybe 2 or 3 very faint chirps - but no more. (Trying it on headphones was no better.) On the plus side, the string trills, which themselves are usually difficult to hear under the bird calls, are marvelously enchanting here with nothing to distract us from them.
Finally, the Appian Way begins superbly misterioso, at a steady tempo (not too fast), just as it should. And there is a splendid English Horn solo along the way, and a rich, reedy bass clarinet. But just as the volume begins to build in anticipation of a tremendously dramatic experience, we hear evidence that Crudele is in big trouble with this badly miscalculated crescendo. The brass, which Crudele held in check in Belkis, are inexplicably constrained too far here, sounding weak and lacking impact as we wait for any indication that a fortissimo is anywhere near.
When the first trombone fanfare appears just before Figure 21, it is marked f but is played a polite mp. And a few bars later, at Figure 21, all the brass are marked ff, but the trumpets obstinately remain mf. Making matters worse, the offstage brass, just like the organ and the little birdie, are miles away from any microphone and are extremely faint and muffled. Finally at Figure 22, marked fff, the orchestral brass sound tired and out of steam, with no help whatsoever from the anemic extra brass.
While it's nice to hear the strings more clearly than usual throughout this entire climactic section (and the percussion bang away with some heft), I sorely missed the power and majesty of a mighty brass section at full cry. And, again, an inaudible organ is no help. This is in no way a satisfactory ending and far from thrilling. Moreover, I was dismayed to hear the LPO brass struggling to rise to the occasion.
It is rare to find a recording of this piece which can match the overwhelming drama, majesty, extrovert exuberance and sheer power of Muti's Philadelphia Orchestra in their recording for EMI, or Dutoit's very exciting Montreal recording for Decca, with its awesome organ contribution. Surprisingly, those are nearly 40 years old now! While the EMI suffers from early digititis (glarey and brash), the Decca still sounds pretty impressive even today. And the performances absolutely can't be beat.
It is a great pity that Pines of Rome was included at all on this otherwise splendid Respighi disc from Linn. A more interesting piece (such as Three Botticelli Pictures) would have been infinitely more rewarding instead. But I understand from a record producer's logic Pines of Rome sells CDs and Brazilian Impressions does not. Fortunately, there are many better recordings of the Pines one can turn to. But new recordings of the other two works are not nearly as commonplace and they are enthusiastically welcomed here. Crudele is as good as anyone in them and Linn's recording is positively stunning in realistically capturing the atmosphere of mood and natural hall acoustics. Which leaves one to wonder what went so terribly wrong in Pines.
When trying to obtain this 2018 SACD box set recently, I was notified that Audite has deleted it from their catalog, after only 4 years. Isn't that nice. So if you're looking for a complete set of Beethoven's String Quartets specifically on multi-channel SACD, snap this up quick while some sellers/retailers still have some remaining in stock.
Aside from the technology, there is much musical enjoyment to be had from this very well played set by the Quartetto Di Cremona. If perhaps not the last word in insight, their playing is always stylish, fresh and engaging - alert and crisp, full of spontaneity - with impressive dynamics, musical phrasing and sensible tempos throughout.
However, as is so often the case, there is a serious issue with the production itself. Perhaps that's why it's being discontinued after such a short shelf-life.
The problem is the layout. This 8-disc box set is simply a repackaging of the original releases (dating from 2012-15), each with its original content, enclosed in a box sleeve. Thus the Quartets appear in the order in which they were recorded, rather than chronologically. There is no perceivable logic to it - just completely random. Thus if you want to listen to them in order, it requires a lot of searching in the booklet to discover where each one is located, followed by adroit remote control action and much up-and-down activity on the listener's part. It's an unnecessary workout for the disc player's drawer mechanism, but good exercise for me!
Overall, the sound is consistently clean and clear - crisply detailed, with articulate bowing projected from within a warm, but not over-reverberant, acoustic. And the playing is very musical. One review observed these readings to be "elegant". I hear that characteristic too, but also an energetic involvement - crisply articulate and dynamic. It's a very winning combination actually, often producing thrilling results. Production issues aside, I really enjoyed them very much. And the more I listen, the more I find myself drawn into the music.
I don't like to bash small independent labels. And this isn't really a bashing - at least it's not meant to be. It's just that there are some things which seem so reasonable to expect, I have difficulty understanding the logic of what they've come up with. To go to the trouble of issuing a box set just a few years after the initial releases, wouldn't it have been a great idea for Audite to put just a little effort into it and do it right? Reorganize the content into some semblance of order (chronological would certainly be best) and make this a real contender. Instead, here we are seeing it being deleted after just 4 years.
In conclusion, as a complete set of Beethoven String Quartets, this is extremely well played, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable - among some of the best available. And that's quite an achievement in such oversaturated repertoire. Which really makes one wonder what Audite is doing.
I recently discovered the two String Quartets of Ligeti and explored several recordings of them. They have made a profound impact on me and have expanded my musical horizons and created in me a newfound willingness to explore "modern" music. So it was with great interest that I came across and acquired two new recordings of the complete Penderecki Quartets, released within just a couple months of each other in 2021.
As with the Ligeti, these works are completely new to me. And I have similarly been resistant to both composers in the past. However, newer recordings of this music have caused me to investigate with new ears. An unbelievable level of accomplishment in string quartet playing and excellence in recorded sound quality have allowed me to fully appreciate this music in a way never before experienced.
Starting with Penderecki's first two Quartets, I found it interesting his Second reminds me of Ligeti's Second, while his First is so completely different. If I had initially thought Ligeti was a little "out there", I was in for a shock with Penderecki's First! Looking at the score, there aren't even notes. It's all notations, as one would see in a percussion part. Even rhythmic indications are vague. (There are no Key or Time signatures.) But what is so utterly amazing, at least in these magnificent performances, is that it is not noise. It is sound. And that is an important distinction.
Comparing these two fantastic recordings is most enlightening. I am obviously not an expert in these Quartets, but I can make some general observations on what I hear in these performances of them.
The short story is this - the Tippett Quartet on Naxos are more matter-of-fact, with wider dynamic extremes and a recorded perspective which is more close up and immediate than the Chandos. The Silesian Quartet on Chandos are often subtler, more atmospheric, creating otherworldly soundscapes, with a more opulent, almost lush recording.
The Tippetts tell us what's on the printed page, revealing more clearly how all those sounds are created, while the Silesians cause us to wonder - what is that we're hearing? And how do they do that? The Tippetts seem to focus more on the sound effects, taking full advantage of extreme dynamic contrasts to generate maximum impact. The Silesians seem more intent upon discovering musical elements hidden within these sounds, and thus are often more mysterious - inviting the listener to join them in experiencing something unimaginable. And extraordinary.
Both are superbly played and recorded and both are equally compelling. And totally mesmerizing. The observations I've made are generalizations and probably unintentionally exaggerated and oversimplified to help clarify the differences I hear. But the differences are real. And musically meaningful.
Which do I prefer? It's difficult to decide and depends on my mood. If I'm acutely interested in details, with more immediacy and vivid storytelling, then it's the Tippetts. If I'm looking for a more atmospheric experience to lose myself in for a few minutes, I might favor the Silesians. As I write this review, I'm listening to them both, back to back, and continue to hear new things each time. I can only conclude both recordings are simply awesome. And I could not part with either.
In addition to the excellent recorded sound, I enjoyed the booklets from both labels and learned an enormous amount from reading them. The liner notes on Chandos, written by Tim Rutherford-Johnson, were especially informative, providing extensive details about this music, complete with an introduction and in-depth look at each Quartet. His detailing of some of the notations and innovative playing techniques required to play this music is fascinating. For example, Penderecki's indications for the strings to play col legno, sul pont, sans vibrato, etc, are actually the "easy" ones! A glance at the scores confirms both Quartets require so many other, completely new techniques that a separate glossary describing them is included. This knowledge allowed me to better appreciate the incredible abilities of these players and understand more fully the musical content.
For instance, the beginning of the Second Quartet calls for the players to whistle while playing. With the Tippetts I wondered if those sounds were string harmonics. But with the Silesians I knew instantly it was humans whistling (in part because they whistle a little more than what Penderecki actually asks for). But they incorporate it musically into the texture along with actual string harmonics which creates an intriguing interplay between the two sounds. Another good example, again in the Second Quartet, is a passage which sounds like a giant mosquito buzzing very near the listener's ear as played by the Tippetts. With the Silesians, it was less close, less specifically identified as coming from one player or another - "is there a mosquito somewhere in the room?" Checking the score, it is merely a matter of interpretation - all those non-musical markings (wavy lines, etc.), with precious few dynamic indications.
And so it goes, each quartet bringing out different elements of these scores, making for endlessly fascinating listening. The Tippetts continue to excel at dynamic extremes, and create an apprehension and anticipation which are compelling and irresistibly unsettling. Moreover, the precision of bowing of the Tippetts is simply jaw-dropping. On the other hand, the Silesians are, again, more otherworldly, with crisp pizzicatos and sound-effects punctuating the fabric with startling effect.
Studying the scores is an overwhelmingly fascinating experience. How exactly do musicians actually play what's on the printed page? To make sense of it all and bring it to life is a mind-boggling wonder to behold. On these recordings, they are so superbly played that I listen in awe - and marvel at the accomplishment of both these groups of players. And at the realism of the recorded sound from both labels.
I focus on these first two works not only because they are so unique, unimaginable even, but because they are so similar to each other, in brevity and utter absence of tonality, and so dissimilar to the 3rd and 4th. They are comprised of sounds and sound-effects used solely to create atmosphere. Only rarely are actual notes given any importance, especially in the First, and nowhere is there any pitch, much less any hint of melodic inclination. However, in the Second, Penderecki does begin to introduce actual notes and pitches, even utilizing quarter-tones with great effect.
The Third and Fourth Quartets are entirely different. Here Penderecki enters into a much more mature phase, welcoming melodic invention into his creative process which sounds nothing like his earlier work. And they are remarkable too, in completely different ways.
The Third, written some 40 years (!) after the first two, is much more substantial, lasting 17+ minutes. It is a fascinating combination of the more melodious, but not quite tonal style of the String Trio (see below), plus a tunefulness indicative of Penderecki's Polish heritage and his childhood exposure to Jewish culture. It is a marvelously varied work, with many mood changes within each section, including a brief waltz and a moving Notturno. The final section incorporates a kolomyika folk melody from the Hutsul region of Galicia, giving it its distinctive flavor.
The Fourth is short, like the first two, and encapsulates a somewhat bleak viola recitative (not unlike the Clarinet Quartet - more below), a melodramatic central section, and a return to folk music in its conclusion.
If the four String Quartets weren't enough, both of these collections give us something more, each offering a different coupling. The Tippetts give us the String Trio of 1990, while the Silesians are joined by clarinetist Piotr Szymyslik for the Clarinet Quartet of 1993. Both works are remarkably similar, not only in length (about 14 minutes each), but in that their origins are less derived from sound effects but now comprised of notes. They are far from tonal, however, but at least now we can begin to ascertain the genesis of melodic invention.
The Trio is divided into two sections, both rhythmic and energetic, the second of which sounds very much like Bartok. (Ligeti once again comes to mind, this time his First Quartet). The playing of the Tippett Quartet here is more atmospheric than in the earlier works, while still retaining their marvelous dynamic contrasts and incisive articulation. This piece is very much equal in importance and substance to the Quartets.
The Clarinet Quartet is rather similar to the Third String Quartet. The outer movements are desolate and bleak - the first an uninhabited world, the last a contrapuntal exposition reminiscent of Shostakovich. And while all through this disc I admire the Silesians for their silky, wooden string sound (which is often positively ravishing), this clarinetist's tone is just the opposite - bright and a bit edgy rather than wooden and rounded. It works well enough, but I would be interested in hearing it played with a richer tone, better integrated into the trio of strings, less spotlit by the microphones.
Both works are interesting and important, bridging the earlier and later styles of this composer's evolution. It is fascinating to consider the works on these recordings span a 60-year compositional progression. My only regret is that both of these releases don't include both the additional works. Timings would have easily permitted it. But I'm just being nit-picky now.
In closing, I am continually amazed by the supreme accomplishment of today's string quartets, who have the ability to bring difficult contemporary music to life as never before. As much as I have tried in the past to approach some of this music, it wasn't until I heard the fabulous Quatuor Hanson playing Ligeti and Dutilleux and the fantastic Tippett Quartet playing Penderecki that I am finally able to begin to understand, fully appreciate and indeed love these incredible works.
Both of these sets are monumental achievements and magnificent musical triumphs in every conceivable way. They open up a whole new world of musical enlightenment and enrichment.
Chandos is one of those labels I admire in part because they manage to squeeze more music onto a disc than almost any other. (BIS and sometimes Pentatone are also really good at it, and other labels, such as Naxos, are catching on as well.) So when surveying this cycle of Mendelssohn's String Quartets (and an additional disc of the Quintets), I am perplexed.
The 6 Quartets are divided into two releases - of two CDs each. All of the music would easily fit onto just three, as every other label in history has accomplished, but Chandos inexplicably spreads them out over 4. Then, a 5th disc was produced (last) with the two String Quintets. What a great idea it would have been to release a 4-disc box of the 6 Quartets plus the 2 Quintets. But instead, we have 2 two-fers (with musical content presented in no apparent order) and an additional single.
Now, I could have understood all this if doing so had some logic to it, such as presenting the Quartets in chronological order, or if it allowed for additional music to be included. But no. They didn't even manage to do that. So let's take a closer look at what we have here.
Let me first emphasize that these are all standard stereo CDs - not multi-channel SACDs.
Volume 1 (2018)
Disc One has Quartet #1 and #6 coupled. Why? (total playing time 52 minutes)
Disc Two - just Quartet #5 (total playing time 34'33).
Volume 2 (2021)
Disc One - Quartets #2 & 3 (playing time 60'54)
Disc Two - Quartet #4 (playing time just 28 minutes)
A single disc (2022) gives us the two Quintets (playing time 61'31)
I can't come up with any reason why someone at Chandos would conceive the brilliant idea to break up these recordings in this manner. And given that the doubles are priced essentially as singles, I can't imagine this being economically practical to produce either. But whatever, ultimately it's not really that important; it's just annoying.
So let's get to what matters most - the music.
Requiring some extra remote control action and up-and-down activity on my part, I listened to these Quartets in chronological order. And in a nutshell, this is congenial Mendelssohn, warmly expressive and gracious. It reminds me very much of the sweetly singing set from the Pacifica Quartet (3 CDs, Cedille Records, 2005). Both sets are superbly played and very well recorded.
The Doric play with a unified lightness of articulation and infusion of musical phrasing, with a natural dynamic range. They do not demonstrate the dramatic invigoration and powerful presence of the superlative Escher Quartet on their magnificent set for BIS (3 SACDs, 2015-16), which reigns supreme in every way. That simply is not the Doric's way with Mendelssohn. They opt for a simpler, more pleasant approach, in a rather laid-back way - less commanding and less demanding of one's attention. Again, it's very similar to the wonderful Pacifica Quartet. And Chandos matches them beautifully with warm, yet detailed recording, within a natural acoustic.
Where I find the Doric coming up just short of the very best is in Allegro vivace movements, which are not quite vivace enough and a bit lacking in sheer jubilance and spontaneity. Their playing continues to smile, and dynamics are excellent, but rarely does it express outright joy. The Pacifica Quartet are all smiles too, but they also are joyous when called for. And the Escher are the most jubilant of all.
After satisfactory and uneventful readings of the 1st and 2nd Quartets from the Doric, the outer movements of the 3rd left me longing for more incisive articulation and a more soaring lift to the lines. I'm not a string player, but it sounds too much "on the string", where I wanted more bow separating the notes, providing them lift - more detache. But far be it from me to be critical, this is merely a matter of taste. Others may prefer the more earthbound lyricism of their playing.
I have more serious concerns with the 4th. In the opening movement, the appassionato marking is curiously interpreted. The first violin makes an awkward, sickly-sounding downward portamento at the end of the opening phrase (which didn't sound at all passionate). And the section which immediately follows it scrambles off like a jet, again distinctly lacking in passion. The somewhat queasy, ill-advised violin portamento recurs intermittently here and there, which just doesn't sound "appassionato" to me. The Scherzo, oddly, turns a bit aggressive with some gruff playing quite out of character from everything surrounding it. And despite a nicely executed Finale, as a whole, the piece just doesn't quite "gel" with a unified vision.
If this reading of the 4th didn't exactly do it for me, the 5th is a different matter. This is certainly one of the highlights of the entire set, where lightness of touch is matched with more articulate bowing in a spirited and sparkling reading, illuminating one of Mendelssohn's most delightful creations. The Adagio is beautifully singing, not in the slightest burdened with heaviness, and the finale is brilliantly con fuoco without turning at all aggressive. Other than a cringe-worthy moment in the opening Allegro vivace (at the 8'00 mark), where a brief, exposed blush of ecstasy from the 1st violin did not come off terribly well, the reading of this Quartet is very enjoyable.
The final Quartet's outer movements are very well done, but the inner movements are uncomfortably slow. I also heard a touch of thinness to string tone I hadn't noticed anywhere else in the set. All said, this one is a mixed bag.
Throughout all six, Andantes are flowing with a marvelous forward momentum and sweetly singing lines, and slow movements in general are kept moving without the slightest heaviness or excessive weight. So, all in all, tempo relationships are expertly managed and the lightness of style suitably appropriate for Mendelssohn. In this regard, I can hardly fault the Doric in any way.
Taken as a whole though, as good as the Doric are, they can't match the Escher for musical involvement, inspired insight and sheer invigoration. But to be fair, I have yet to hear a group which can! The Pacifica are certainly excellent too in these masterpieces (in a different way), and the Doric, with the exceptions noted, come close to matching their achievement.
It is worth noting that both the Escher and the Pacifica give us substantially more music on their 3-disc sets than the Doric do on their 4. In addition to the main works, we get the early Quartet in E-flat Major (1823) plus the "Four Pieces for String Quartet" (Opus 81) - nearly 50 extra minutes of very worthwhile music.
Finally, the most recent CD containing the two Quintets is arguably the best of all - thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish. The quartet is joined by violist Timothy Ridout, who seems to have brought a spark of energy to the group. Their lightness of touch remains, but supplemented with the extra bit of richness from the 2nd viola makes for very winning accounts of both works, replete with positively glowing sound from Chandos. Rarely have these Quintets sounded so lovely as played here - remaining firmly in the Mendelssohn style and steering clear of Brahms. Very nicely done.
The 'American Classics' series from Naxos is an amazing and invaluable treasure trove of musical riches. From women composers, to music from black composers, to wind band music, and so much else, often utilizing local musicians and orchestras, Naxos continues to give and give. I can think of no other label which consistently offers such a wealth of diversity and musical innovation.
This newest release is another terrific example. What a marvelous composer was William Grant Still! And this collection gives us another insightful look at his musical genius.
Naxos proclaims all these selections as "world premier recordings". However some of this music has been recorded before, but in different versions than these. Some were originally written for piano, or soloist and piano, and have subsequently been transcribed for various instruments and recorded. For example, there is a collection of arrangements for flute and piano of Summerland, Quit Dat Fool'nish, Pastorela and portions of the Violin Suite, recorded for Koch Records in 1994. On this Naxos CD, they are presented in versions for violin and orchestra, and they are glorious in this guise. All the remaining works are indeed, to the best of my knowledge, completely new to the collector, never before heard.
Every time I hear the music of William Grant Still, I find myself drawn into it in a way not usually associated with American music. I am reminded of another side of Americana, completely different from that of Aaron Copland, and much more similar to George Gershwin. Still's music has less of the wide open spaces of Copland, and none of his characteristic "hoe-down" evocations. It is more songful and mournfully expressive, reminiscent of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Indeed the selections here which feature the violin were written around the same time as Porgy (1938).
There are also hints of the jazzier side of Gershwin (his American in Paris, for example) in the opening track, Can't You Line 'Em, and the Dance movement of American Suite.
If Copland is most known for his use of folksong, Still, in his own distinctive compositional voice, favors the deeper emotions of Spirituals, with endless singing lines which are sometimes hopeful with anticipation, other times mournful, with the burden of anguish. And in general, there is less of the jazz and blues influences heard in Gershwin.
For this Naxos release, mother and daughter (violinist Zina Schiff and conductor Avlana Eisenberg) team up to provide a thoroughly enjoyable concert, full of variety and imagination, in expressive and thoroughly idiomatic performances. The program is equally divided between the purely orchestral and those for solo violin and orchestra.
The opening piece for orchestra is lively and outdoorsy, before settling in for the more contemplative thoughtfulness which follows. Solo violin is featured in Summerland and Fool'nish, which are perfect companions, delightfully contrasted in mood - the former songful, the latter animated and cheerful. Pastorela and the Violin Suite are substantial works for the violin, with endless tunes, much variety and expansive development. Schiff plays all this music with a natural expressiveness which doesn't become overly passionate or dramatic, but displays a simple, sing-song sweetness of tone which is just perfect for this music.
Conductor Avlana Eisenberg takes control for the delightful American Suite and Serenade for orchestra, both of which invoke the very essence of American music, with beautiful, memorable tunes and colorfully descriptive atmospheres. The final work is an impressive tribute to Sibelius, which is indeed reminiscent of that composer. I loved how Still invokes Sibelius while infusing it with his own unique sound.
Many listeners will be familiar with William Grant Still via his fantastic Afro-American Symphony, which is probably his most famous (and most frequently recorded) work. Naxos has released several discs of his Symphonies, but this latest program provides a glimpse into Still's lighter side. What impresses me most about this music is not only its creativity and heart-felt tunefulness, but its symphonic splendor. Still was a highly skilled orchestrator, showcasing his melodic prowess to great advantage.
Overall, this composer could not have better advocates than what we have here. The playing of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is, as ever, superbly accomplished and musically involving, and they are expertly led by Avlana Eisenberg. Violinist Zina Schiff met Still in her youth and brings an obvious love and authenticity to the proceedings. And the ever-reliable Naxos label provides excellent recorded sound throughout. I did note a more relaxed and atmospheric spaciousness to the purely orchestra works, and a decidedly more upfront immediacy to those with violin soloist, which is perhaps too closely mic'd. (Track 10, for instance, jolts one alert with quite a volume level boost after the serene Serenade). It's not serious, just unnecessary.
In sum, this is a thoroughly delightful and musically enriching CD. I enjoyed it so much I've listened to it, in its entirety, 3 times already! And that almost never happens with a new release. I recommend it with the utmost enthusiasm.