After being simply blown away by the Dover Quartet's recent 2-disc set of Beethoven's Opus 18 String Quartets on Cedille Records, I wanted to hear more from them. I was terribly dismayed to find their 2018 disc of Schumann's Quartets was unavailable. Then, suddenly last week, it became available again from Amazon, and sellers such as ImportCDs. I ordered it immediately!
And it is just as good as their Beethoven.
I recently also acquired the 2017 disc of Schumann Quartets as played by Quatuor Modigliani on Mirare. As much as I admire this group (and the label, too), I just was not terribly moved by their Schumann. Oh, it is lovingly played and beautifully recorded, but I kept getting distracted, and found it difficult to get all the way through it. Trying these quartets again, this time from the Dover, was a different matter. It's hard to describe in words what's going on. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with the Modigliani, there is just something about the Dover Quartet. Something special - every time I hear them. It's a passionate simplicity. I know, that seems like a contradiction, but it's how I hear it. And it's similar to what I hear from the Juilliard String Quartet on their new SONY disc (see my review below).
The Dover plays with a complete absence of over-emoting or fussiness. And at the same time, there is an involving, natural outpouring of musical passion and uniform ensemble which are simply marvelous. And at all times, the singing lines are ravishing. What a sweet sound this quartet makes when the music calls for it. And they can make a large sound, too, when required, without ever sounding gruff or aggressive. Further, they retain a clarity of texture in these passages which prevents them from becoming thick and heavy. And then, in the next moment, they produce the most exquisite pianissimo. Ah...Magic!
Tempos play an important part in the overall enjoyment of Schumann in general, and particularly with these Quartets. Here, the Dover Quartet scores over their rivals with tempos that just feel right. Adagios never sag, the Andantes move along with a natural forward propulsion, and Allegros are gripping. Suffice it to say, the Dover Quartet elevates Schumann's String Quartets to a new level of masterpiece. If other recordings of them have left me slightly indifferent, the Dover has something new to say about them which changes that perception.
Finally, the production is first class, as is the recorded sound from Azica (a label new to me), which is simply superb - warm, rich, detailed, focused, spacious and airy, within the perfect acoustic. The jewel case is a 3-piece, cardboard fold-out affair, filled with lots of information about the music and musicians.
Dover's Beethoven set, along with JSQ's new disc, are my favorite chamber releases of the year, so far. Don't miss either of them. But also, do try to hear this Schumann.
I've always admired the Juilliard String Quartet (henceforth referred to as JSQ), though with the subliminal feeling they were not the most distinguished quartet around. But always a pleasure to listen to. I was actually surprised, perusing my shelves, to find just how many of their discs I have collected over the decades. I was equally surprised to read in the excellent booklet that this release marks the 75th Anniversary of the JSQ. And it is a knock-out.
I was enticed by this release because of the programing and also because they have a new first violinist. I was thinking both things would spark new heights of performance excellence from the group. And, happily, I was right!
Interestingly, this is the second new string quartet release which sneaks in Bartok's 3rd amongst other, seemingly unrelated quartets. The first was a 2020 disc from the Quatuor Modigliani on Mirare. Their Bartok is surrounded by Mozart and Haydn; and this one from JSQ by Beethoven and Dvorak. Weird. I personally find it difficult to acknowledge the Bartok being a good bedfellow with the others on either program. And I certainly don't hear it that way either (especially since the 3rd is actually my least favorite of the 6). But that's just me.
Beginning with the Beethoven Op. 59 #2, I was instantly captivated - engrossed by the energetic, thoroughly engaging music-making. The booklet confirms this is the debut recording of the group with its new first violinist, Areta Zhulla. I don't know how much that alone contributes to the outstanding performances, or how much SONY's absolutely SUPERB recorded sound does (I suspect both), but I have simply run out of superlatives to describe this Beethoven.
There is a unified, homogenous blend here - in both interpretation and ensemble - which is simply miraculous. Their precision of playing, musical expression, and articulation are wonderous to behold. Their tempos are perfectly chosen and dynamics are invigorating. I hear so many recordings of string quartets which either minimize dynamics to enhance richness of blend, or eschew musical values and go all out in fortissimos, turning unpleasantly aggressive. This group does neither. Dynamic contrasts are natural and realistically wide, yet their beauty of tone and blend remains constant at all volumes. It really is amazing, actually, because few groups can match it. And SONY's rich, warm, yet clean and detailed recorded sound compliments it perfectly. PERFECTLY. I can't emphasize this enough.
A few weeks ago, I encountered the Dover Quartet's sensational 2-disc set of Beethoven Op. 18 Quartets on Cedille, and I thought then that recordings of Beethoven Quartets simply don't come any better. Well, the JSQ (and SONY) match them in every parameter. So much so that I crave more Beethoven from both groups.
Moving on. While I love Bartok's orchestral music, I admit with a little embarrassment I'm not a big fan of his chamber music, especially his String Quartets. (Although the Tokyo String Quartet's 1970s set, now on a 2013 Eloquence two-fer, almost convinces me otherwise.) So I can't really comment on this account of his 3rd with much expertise, other than to say it was a little more palatable and made more sense to my ears than usual. And again, SONY cannot be praised enough in this regard. Perhaps the plush sound polishes off the edges just a bit, but it allowed me to enjoy it a little more than I usually do. I just can't help but imagine it would be better appreciated in the company of other modern, 20th-Century quartets.
Rounding off the concert, we get an absolutely glorious Dvorak American Quartet, played with such enchantment, I was moved beyond words. The first movement flows with an exuberant Allegro (yet while still observing the non troppo indication), which drew me in more than usual. The two vivace movements are exhilarating, but never breathless. I don't ever remember the finale dancing quite this jubilantly. (I'm not one to dance around the room, but I found it difficult to sit still for this!) But I think what struck me the most about this performance as a whole, is the absence of over-emoting. The slow movement, for example, flows with such a natural outpouring of heartfelt expression, it really is a wonder to behold. And throughout, this group never goes out of its way to make a musical point. ("Just listen to what we're doing here!") No, their music-making is utterly natural in its simplicity and sheer musicality.
Aside from all the specific descriptions above, I became aware of two notables while listening to this disc which most clearly illustrate my reaction to it. 1) I was not for a moment distracted (well, except maybe during the Bartok); I couldn't force myself to take notes, nor could I walk away from the stereo for an instant. And, 2) I kept turning the music up. Anytime I frequently grab the remote to turn the stereo down, I know something is amiss - either musically or technically, or both. But this SONY had me grabbing for the remote often - to turn it up. And every time, I became even more involved and drawn further into the music. The sound didn't just become louder, it became more engaging and real. The first violin never becomes bright or strident, and the cello never becomes gruff or bloated. It's just natural.
I have been listening to new releases mostly on smaller, independent and specialty labels lately, because I usually experience higher quality and more engaging performances from them. Therefore, I was absolutely thrilled that a major label like SONY can still produce such a fabulous-sounding recording such as this one. However, the complete absence of printed track playing times quickly reminded me of the inattention to important details often exhibited by the major labels (tsk tsk.) That quibble aside, I haven't been this excited about a new CD in a long time and I recommend it more highly than most. It is surely one of my favorite discs of the year so far.
I am certainly no expert when it comes to Beethoven's complete set of Bagatelles. However, I have played many of them over the decades, and I know how I like Beethoven to sound.
I am not familiar with pianist Christoph Scheffelt, but it became immediately apparent he has a special feel for Beethoven. Listening to a full hour of Beethoven miniatures might at first seem like too much of a good thing. However, this pianist plays with such a natural expression, and with endless variety - of mood, touch, tone and pedal - that I never felt this was an overlong concert. It was endlessly rewarding.
Last year, I had the pleasure of listening to, and reviewing, Volumes 1-6 (in an ongoing cycle) of Beethoven's complete Piano Sonatas, played by the marvelous pianist, James Brawn, on the MSR label. I was struck with his natural feel for Beethoven, in many of the same ways I am with Mr. Scheffelt's Beethoven. Further, both pianists have the rare ability to make the smaller, "lesser" works (the early Sonatas, and these Bagatelles) sound as important as the monumental ones. I like how Mr. Scheffelt describes these Bagatelles as "short jewels" in the excellent booklet. And jewels they are in his hands.
Both pianists benefit enormously from fabulous recorded sound. And that is nothing to take for granted. The concert grand piano has proven to be an almost insurmountable challenge for many recording engineers. In this instance, producer Martin Korn and recording producer, Andreas Werner, have gotten it absolutely right. The sound is realistically full-sized, portraying the scope and power of a full concert grand in a large hall, yet with the delicacy and "ringing" tone in more intimate passages, which make it sound real. The warm, wooden left-hand range of this piano is especially delectable.
This is yet another terrific release on the first-class Prospero label (a co-production with SRF2 Kultur), the likes of which you simply do not find elsewhere. The CD comes in a hard-back, jewelcase-sized book, with very high-quality contents, complete with all the information you could ask for, plus interesting/entertaining art-work, recording data, etc. I look forward to more from this pianist.
[I have updated this survey as of 3/31/21, with a slightly revised ranking (including an additional category), and one late addition to the list (Jennifer Stinton).]
The Flute Quartets are among my favorite Mozart creations. I listen to them so often, and have so many recordings of them, I decided I really should write up an overview. I cannot claim to have heard every recording available, but I have heard a lot of them. And it's fascinating to discover that these works seem to bring out the very best from many of the flutists who've recorded them. Most are so enjoyable, it's relatively rare to encounter a truly bad recording of them (well, there are a few - see below). I have struggled with ranking them, but feel satisfied with this final list.
I will state emphatically that I am not a "period performance" fan. Therefore none of my recommendations includes any played on recorder or any which self-professes to be "original" or "original instruments".
Regarding the strings: I have listed ensemble names (in parentheses) if they are an established group (e.g. a string quartet), as opposed to individual players gathered for a recording session. And it is understood that named string quartets are missing their 2nd violinist, as only 3 players are utilized in these flute quartets.
And regarding couplings: these quartets are self-contained and life-affirming, and therefore can stand alone on CD, with an approximate/average playing time of just under an hour. However, some discs do offer a coupling. And as welcome as they are, they have not affected my ranking in this survey in any way. They are detailed at the very bottom, for informational purposes only.
The very best
1. Oxalys - Fuga Libera 2004 (reissued on Passacaille 2017) +
2. Karl-Heinz Schutz - Camerata 2014 (Japanese import) ++
3. Gary Schocker (Chester Quartet) - Chesky 1995 ++
#1 and #2 are notable for being as close to "authentically Mozart" as I can imagine - on modern instruments - without the extremes of so-called "period" performance practices being applied. They just sound so very right that it is difficult to hear them played any other way. Yet, what makes them so special is they don't go out of their way to be deliberately "unusual". They do not stand out from the crowd for being different, but for being absolutely right. They are utterly natural in every conceivable way.
The most salient characteristics of both performances are: 1) a variety of flute sound (the ability to adjust tone/tonal color and vibrato, as appropriate); 2) clarity of texture and purity of text, including a judicious employment of ornamentation, lending a stylistically authentic feel; 3) perfectly chosen, lively tempos; and above all, 4) an irrepressible sense of joy. And while these two performances are very similar in these regards, Karl-Heinz Schutz (Vienna Philharmonic solo flutist) adds one more level of sublime musical bliss - his is hands-down the most musical and gracious of any I have heard.
Schutz would be #1 for me if not for the consummate perfection of Oxalys. Oxalys is a chamber group which is used to playing together, not just assembled for this recording. Their unanimity of approach and ensemble is unmatched. But the real attraction is flutist, Toon Fret. He plays with phenomenal variety - of tone, dynamics, expression and ornamentation - which is endlessly enthralling. And his vibrancy in piano passages, even when utilizing very little vibrato, is simply exquisite. This is the most uplifting and joyful Mozart I have ever experienced. All of which, combined with the most natural and realistic recording, secures their place firmly at the top.
Gary Schocker's recording came as a total shock (sorry...pun intended). He's completely unknown to me, and from what I can ascertain, based upon searches of his recording oeuvre, he appears to be something of a Folk artist. His albums all come with titles such as "Healing Music", "Flute Forest", "Airborne", "For Dad", etc. And then...there's Mozart! That this one appears on the Chesky label afforded it some credibility in my view, and I obtained a copy. Chesky is one of the early, great "audiophile" labels, specializing in digital recordings of new-age jazz ensembles and expertly remastered Classical material, mainly from RCA and Reader's Digest. This Mozart is an original Chesky digital recording, and it is stunning in its clarity and realism - bright, open, clear, detailed, and "present". And Schocker proves to be a formidable flutist, possessing a beautiful, crystalline sound and very stylish playing. It is abundantly clear from the very first note there is a sense of new discovery about his playing which is absolutely thrilling.
The very good (listed alphabetically)
William Bennett (Grumiaux Trio) - Philips 1969 *
Emmanuel Pahud - EMI 1999
Paula Robison (Tokyo String Quartet) - Vanguard 1978
William Bennett is the only "classic" flutist I can unhesitatingly recommend. His playing is notable for its simplicity; as is his tone, which is clear, elegant and resplendent. As a (former) flutist myself, Bennett has been one of my favorites through the decades, certainly eclipsing Rampal (and even Galway). Philips provides the warmth necessary to make his Mozart positively glow. And the playing of the fabulous Grumiaux Trio is an enormous benefit.
Pahud's readings are delightful, with characterful string soloists. His tone is sweet, his phrasing is musical, and his pianissimos are ravishing. His pillowy articulation, too, is always a joy to behold. Add in EMI's plush, reverberant acoustic and the Cosmo-style centerfold pose of Pahud on the cover, and it's charming and a bit romantic (small "r" intentional).
Paula Robison brings boundless energy to these works, with exuberant tempos all through. If it's almost too robust for Mozart, there is no denying her ringing, vibrant tone is simply irresistible. The analog Vanguard sound exemplifies her sound gloriously. This one just misses the top category by a whisker.
The good (listed alphabetically)
Sharon Bezaly (Salzburger Solisten) - BIS 1999
James Galway (Tokyo String Quartet) - RCA 1992/93 +++
Ulf-Dieter Schaaff - Pentatone 2017 (SACD)
Raffaele Trevisani - Delos 2015 ++
I was surprised Bezaly fares as well as she does. I am not a fan of her characteristic deadpan, expressionless sound, and I dislike her recording of the Mozart Concertos intensely. However, for these quartets, she produces a more expressive sound. And, perhaps inspired by these most joyful of works, this is one of her happiest recordings. I like her dynamic contrasts and the characterful interplay she develops with the individual string players. The BIS sound is a bit odd, though, with a slightly unnatural acoustic "halo" around the players, and a weird bloat to the cello.
James Galway is his usual, reliable self, with that instantly recognizable, golden sound adding more Romanticism to Mozart than usual (and his insistent vibrato can get to be too much by the end). But it's actually the Tokyo String Quartet which makes these special. They are one of my very favorite string quartets and this is really their show. Galway is along to provide the glamour. And glamorous it is. RCA's bright, warm sound compliments it nicely.
Ulf-Dieter Schaaff is just fine (see my full review elsewhere on this blog), but definitely not in the top tier. His playing is slightly detached and a little chilly, and his tone tends to lose vibrancy during soft passages. (He actually reminds me a lot of Bezaly in this regard). But his tempos are cheery and he has the benefit of superb SACD surround sound from Pentatone.
I have reviewed Trevisani's Delos CD in detail elsewhere on my blog, so I shall be brief here. He possesses a rich, Galway-esque sound (he is a Galway protege), which is gorgeous and mercifully less vibrato-intensive than Galway's. But he's recorded in a huge, swampy church acoustic. His playing is pretty fabulous, but the poor choice of recording venue is most unfortunate - and disappointing, coming from one of my all-time favorite audiophile labels, Delos.
The also-rans (listed alphabetically)
Jean Claude Gerard - Naxos 1990
Jean-Pierre Rampal - CBS 1969
The Nash Ensemble - Virgin 1988 **
I've included Gerard's CD on this list because it appears on one of my favorite labels. But Naxos wasn't as consistently excellent in the early 90s as they are today. And this one from 1990 is one of their rare failures. The recorded sound is murky and distant, with the flute set way back within a massively over-reverberant hall. It literally sounds as if recorded in the local high school gymnasium. It's a pity, because Gerard's playing sounds characterful and joyous, with sparkling tone. But it's difficult to hear it through the cavernous acoustic.
Rampal's bird-like, sing-song tone can be pleasing, but he almost always sounds to me like he's sightreading. And not in a good way (one which might add spontaneity or freshness); but rather in an under-rehearsed, hurry-and-get-it-over-with way. This Mozart is a prime example. With very fast Allegros and slightly slack ensemble, it sounds almost frivolous. The CBS recording doesn't help. The sound is cramped and 2-dimensional, and the strings are closely mic'd, leaving Rampal's flute sounding smaller and even more "birdy" than usual. I have it on the 1987 budget Odyssey issue and I'm not sure a fresh remastering would help it. It's interesting to compare this CBS with the glorious Philips for Bennett, both recorded the same year.
Nothing special from The Nash Ensemble. Their playing is just as plain-jane as can be, despite good, close-up recorded sound. And why does Virgin present the Quartets in such a completely random order? The C Major, K285b, comes first, followed by #2, 1, then 4. The booklet is no help in explaining it, and hilariously only mentions just two of them in the text! So terribly odd.
And the ones to avoid...
Lisa Friend (Brodsky Quartet) - Chandos 2017
Jennifer Stinton - Collins Classics 1992
Carol Wincenc (Emerson Quartet) - DG 2006
There is really no reason to take Lisa Friend seriously, despite having the good fortune of being teamed up with the Brodsky Quartet on the premium Chandos label. The flute playing is average and the ensemble sounds a bit improvised. One wonders what Chandos was thinking with this one.
I was looking forward to Jennifer Stinton's disc on Collins Classics, one of the great Classical specialty labels of yore. And it starts off promisingly, with beautiful flute tone and a most spacious acoustic. However, it doesn't take long before tempos begin to drag and it becomes a rather dreary listen. Despite the wonderful recorded sound, this is the only recording in this survey where I actually lost interest before it was done. Ms. Stinton has a lovely sound, but that simply isn't enough. The lack of joy and inspiration is perplexing, and, frankly, left me feeling a bit depressed.
Carol Wincenc plays with sufficient life and joy, but her "whoo-ey" tone and mega-vibrato are wholly inappropriate for Mozart. Despite the excellent playing of the Emerson Quartet, I couldn't tolerate it for very long. It's really incomprehensible why she can't (won't) modify her distinctive tone when the music absolutely demands it. Of all the flutists the Emerson Quartet could have teamed up with, this one is puzzling.
One final comment
Many of the recordings listed herein are sadly out-of-print and are likely very difficult to find at this point (at least on a physical CD), even on the used market. Obtaining the unobtainable is part of the fun of this hobby. I do apologize if something I've described whets your appetite, only to find it's impossible to acquire.
+ Clarinet Quartet
++ Oboe Quartet (transcribed for flute)
+++ Clarinet Quintet (transcribed for flute)
* Compilation reissue. Philips Duo: Mozart Works for Flute (including concertos)
** Compilation reissue. Virgin Two-fer: Mozart Various Chamber music
I received this CD directly from one of the featured soloists, gratis, in consideration for a review. Urtext is a Mexican label and this concert features a Mexican oboist, an American clarinetist who lives in Mexico, and a Mexican conductor and orchestra (based in Mexico City). All of whom are completely unknown to me. It offers us three concertos - one each for clarinet and oboe, and a double concerto for both, which is dedicated to the soloists on this recording.
I enjoyed this disc. But I must start with a minor caveat regarding the programming. I wish the two concertos by Classical composer Antonio Rosetti (1750-1792) had come first, rather than following the much more modern, richly Romantic, gorgeously orchestrated Double Concerto by Eduardo Alonso-Crespo (b.1956). This later work is so exquisitely colorful, joyful, playful and sparkling - and so thoroughly enjoyable, the very strict, traditionally Classical Rosetti items, coming immediately after it, come off as sounding rather stiff and serious.
That being said, listening to this CD on a different day, beginning with the Rosettis, I enjoyed them more. Rosetti is an almost exact contemporary of Mozart, but one would never mistake these concertos as being in the same league as Mozart or Haydn. They tend to favor scales and arpeggios over true melodic invention. However, this CD is valuable for bringing a welcome change from the usual recordings of Mozart's concertos for these instruments. And certainly, these soloists are committed advocates, making the most of these pieces.
Coming back to the Double Concerto which begins this program, we discover the real treasure of this disc. Alonso-Crespo has a real gift for melodic lines and command of orchestration. There is an appealing sense of joy which brought many smiles along the way. The outer movements are playful and dancing with life, while the central Gymnopedie is richly expressive. The soloists are clearly enjoying the bright and sunny atmosphere, playing with appealing musicianship. But it's the orchestration which impresses most, with gorgeous string writing and sparkling details running through the orchestra. The Camerata de las Americas, and their conductor Ludwig Carrasco, really know this music and bring an obvious love and involvement to it.
The recording from Urtext is excellent, fully portraying the richness and color of the score. It is recorded within a beautiful acoustic which allows the strings to shimmer and inner details to titillate. It also provides a presence and focus which is most realistic - portraying the orchestra in a believable, 3-dimensional setting. The soloists are clearly outlined, but never unnaturally spotlit. For the Rosetti concertos, the sound is clean, clear and articulate.
Finally, the entire production is thoroughly first class. I was most impressed with the beautiful, glossy booklet - complete with high-quality, imaginatively captured pictures, and lots of information about the composers, the music, the soloists and the conductor. (Only the orchestra was slighted, with no bio included).
One simply does not encounter this level of quality and creativity from most record labels. This one is rewarding, not only for the unusual repertoire, but specifically for the glorious concerto by Alonso-Crespo.
I'm finding this recording rather late in the game. It was recorded in 2006 and released the following year. But better late than never; it is glorious in every way.
I almost always hear good things from Analekta. And I've enjoyed several discs from the wonderful Gryphon Trio (Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Dvorak on Mirare and Analekta, etc.). So I was shocked I had not yet heard this 2007 Schubert offering. And I couldn't be happier with it - or more moved by it. It is emotionally involving music-making of the highest possible order. And the recording simply could not be bettered - and that can't be taken for granted. Placing a small ensemble at just the perfect perspective (distance), within the perfect acoustic, with perfectly focused sound, is not an easy task. And too many engineers don't get it right. But Analekta has made a specialty of recording chamber music, and get it right they most certainly do.
Suffice it to say these are just about the most glorious, musically rewarding performances of the Schubert Piano Trios I've ever encountered. With perfectly chosen tempos everywhere, their playing blossoms with the most exquisite phrasing and musically singing lines, full of insight from beginning to end. My previous favorite, the classic 1970 Stern/Rose/Istomin recording on RCA, betters it for sheer vigor and precision of articulation. And the RCA recording provides thrilling presence - placing the group a bit closer to the listener than does Analekta. However, both are equally rewarding, albeit in slightly different ways.
But this one has a distinct advantage over most others: couplings. These two Trios, combined, are just too long to squeeze onto a single disc (usually 80+ minutes). So we usually get them spread over two discs, resulting in short playing time for each one. Analekta has the perfect solution, and an invaluable one at that.
On disc one, after the main offering, we hear 'Piano Trio in One Movement in B-flat', written when Schubert was just 15. The excellent booklet describes it as being "a charming Allegro imbued with Mozartian elegance". That's exactly how I hear it, and it is a real find. And a real treasure. I immediately listened to it a second time.
Disc two gives us another rarity, the 'Piano Trio in E-flat', an Adagio subtitled, "Notturno". The booklet tells us this was likely a discarded slow movement for the Trio No. 1 in Bb. And it would be a shame if it had indeed been discarded, never to be heard again. For it is also wonderful - and substantial, lasting a full 10 minutes.
And bravo to the production team which had the foresight to consider these two extras to be of such importance - and interest - they write about them first in the booklet.
In sum, this is an invaluable release. Not to be missed (like I almost did).
I couldn't resist listening to another disc on the Prospero label, which the producer graciously sent to me. An entire disc played by Trio Eclipse, a clarinet, a cello and a piano, isn't something I would normally go for. And I wouldn't expect it to be consumed all in one sitting. But as it turns out, it's just what I needed on a dreary snowy day here in Colorado.
It's one of the most interesting programs I've had the pleasure of hearing in a long while. Even though each piece is scored identically, each is completely different from the one which precedes it, providing endless variety. And almost all are completely unknown to me. So each track brought a different reaction - a smile here, a raised eyebrow there; but all had me searching the booklet for more information - always a good sign!
Speaking of the booklet, this is one of the most impressive, lavish productions I've ever seen. It comes in a hard-back, CD-sized book, with over 45 pages of printed material (in several languages). Information about the composers, the music, the performers, and all the pertinent recording information is included, along with high quality glossy photographs of the composer and musicians. You won't find this level (quality or quantity) of information in most releases from other labels. This is a Martin Korn Music Production, a co-production with SRF2 Kultur.
I skipped over the first track (an arrangement of Gershwin's An American In Paris) because I thought it would be hokey. (I was wrong.) Jumping right into Nino Rota's Trio, I was not disappointed. This is a substantial, well-constructed, almost symphonic work in 3 movements, written specifically for this combination of instruments. If one is familiar with the composer, this piece speaks the same musical language as his more established orchestral creations. It is musically skilled and full of character, in a more traditionally Classical way, than are the remaining works on this program.
The next three works are completely different - and obviously more contemporary. From Thomas Demenga (b. 1954), his Summer Breeze II, after a very somber opening, switches gears and begins an almost smooth-jazz feel. But then that is soon gone, taking on a bit of minimalist pulse to it, and finally blossoming into a clarinet rhapsody. It is just a touch cool and suave, just as the title might suggest.
Following it, we have Siena, by Simon Heggendorn (b. 1982). It's laugh-out-loud fun, and instantly reminded me of a 1970s, pre-disco, TV show theme (ala "The Love Boat" - ha!). But, it's so much more than that. I've got to think that in a performance less professionally committed than this from Trio Eclipse, this music could veer close to becoming over the top. But it never gets that far here. It was fun, though. The booklet tells us Mr. Heggendorn has roots in classical and jazz. And there are many moments where a jazz influence can be heard, especially in the free-style clarinet writing.
Sean Hickey (b. 1970) takes us into much more modern, and serious, territory with his Tiergarten. This is a substantial work (lasting nearly 12 minutes), with a distinct variety of moods. It features the clarinet and piano most prominently, with the cello often supplying an accompanying role. I was surprised to read in the booklet that Mr. Hickey is "closely associated with the electric guitar", and continues a strong interest in Rock and Pop music. Nevertheless, this piece was so well crafted, I had to research him a little bit. I was pleased to find two major Classical CDs of his music have been released on one of my favorite labels from the past, the invaluable and much-lamented Delos label. A disc of concertos (one each for cello and clarinet), and another of piano and chamber music, can still be obtained from Amazon.
Wrapping up this program, we come to my favorite piece on this disc. Daniel Schnyder (b. 1961) explores A Friday Night in August. Right from the get-go, the furiously swirling sounds remind me of a buzzing swarm of insects in late summer. But it soon begins an irresistible, rhythmic dance, allowing these players the opportunity to display their virtuoso chops. Yet the plaintive clarinet song in the central section has just a hint of Gershwin's Summertime to it, interspersed with Rhapsody In Blue-style lip-slurs (glissandi). Finally, a jaunty, rhythmic, jazzy celebratory dance breaks out to end the night, and I find myself longing for summer.
Finally, I force myself back to the first track that I skipped over. Gershwin's mega-popular orchestral work, An American In Paris, is arranged here specially for Trio Eclipse by Stefan Schroter. I dutifully pressed play, knowing in my heart it was going to be completely unnecessary, and wondering, 'why?' But guess what? I was so completely wrong! Those preconceived notions turned out to be utter nonsense. It is so well orchestrated for this specific ensemble, and so idiomatically played by these fabulous musicians, I was amazed how well it works. Ultimately, though, after awhile one does wish for a change in tonality in the upper registers, as the bright clarinet dominates for such long stretches. But, it is nonetheless a fascinating arrangement.
Unusually, I have listed birth years here for the younger composers for a reason - to illustrate the wealth of talent and treasures to be discovered and explored from 20th- and 21st-century composers. Long gone are the bleak generations of composers who tried so desperately to validate and legitimize exploratory non-music, atonality, serialism, 12-tone rows, minimalism, etc. etc. And I couldn't be happier that we've moved on from all that noise. This enterprising disc from the fabulous Prospero label, and these fine musicians, provides great insight into what's out there these days. And I found all of it to be not only worthwhile, but richly rewarding musically - and endlessly entertaining. It is tonal, musical, inspiring and bursting with true creativity. And I loved the subtle jazz influences found in many of these pieces.
I can't finish this review without commenting further about these musicians and the recorded sound. The quality of music-making from these three young musicians is impressive. They consistently bring this new music splendidly to life, with enthusiasm, a unified approach, and individual personalities. The booklet says it better than I can when it describes the Trio Eclipse as possessing "the perfect balance between the liberties of solo playing and the unity of their performance". That is spot on. And they "coalesce into a homogenous ensemble". Again, spot on. These qualities make them special.
Pianist, Benedek Horvath, in particular, is most accomplished (more than compensating for the lack of an orchestra in the Gershwin, for example), and plays with a delicacy of touch that is highly attractive throughout. Lionel Andrey's clarinet playing is always characterful, sounding clear and bright (almost too bright). His tone is less dark and wooden than we typically hear in more traditional Classical fare, but it suits this music. The highlight for me, though, is the beautiful, smooth, absolutely grain-less sound of cellist Sebastian Bruan. What a gorgeously singing legato he produces. Magnificent.
Finally, the recorded sound is excellent - clear and close-up in an appropriately intimate way. It affords the group tremendous presence, within a spacious acoustic. If I had to find fault, the balance tends to spotlight the clarinet rather too much. The brightness I attribute to the clarinet tone may very well be, at least partially, caused by the microphone placement.
This is the second disc from Prospero I have heard recently, and it proves to be another highly professional production in every way. I can unhesitatingly recommend it for something a little different; a little new; and a whole lot of fun.
I loved the Quartetto di Cremona's previous Italian-themed CD, "Italian Journey", which appeared in 2012 on a most unusual label, Klanglogo - a "shared brand" of Trust Your Ears (as described on the back cover). That disc treated us to Respighi's rare Quartet, along with music of Puccini and Boccherini, plus the absolutely best ever reading of Verdi's Quartet. The sound is fabulous, although a bit on the robust side of reality, but giving the group enormous presence and dramatic impact, perfect for the music.
Their follow-up disc, "Italian Postcards", comes this time from a more established label, Avie. And it's a bit of a disappointment, I'm afraid. The Wolf Serenade starts us off in familiar territory, and is nicely played and recorded, if ultimately not not terribly special. Next is an odd choice: Mozart's very first quartet, the "Lodi". Some parts of this quartet were apparently composed while the young Mozart was visiting his father in Milan. OK, so that's the connection with our Italian theme. The players adopt a quasi-period playing style here, with minimal vibrato and a thinner tonality. That's all fine and good for Mozart in theory, but it sounds a bit dour coming immediately after the sweetly singing, richly colorful, Romantic Wolf. Therefore I found the Mozart to be terribly out of place. Perhaps if it had come first, it might have been more acceptable.
The highlight of the program is most certainly Borenstein's Cieli d'Italia, which was commissioned by this quartet and presents its world-premier recording. Mr. Borenstein exhibits a unique music voice, tonal, yet undeniably contemporary. I like how he begins to establish a theme, with a defined time signature, but then veers off in an unexpected direction and takes us elsewhere. "Stay with me here", the composer seems to say, and this thought came to mind a number of times. I stayed with him, and found the piece to be thoroughly involving, interesting, intriguing and most enjoyable. It certainly receives a compelling performance here, with absolutely glorious playing and great sound. (As a matter of fact, the piece is so good, I want to explore his music further, and ordered his 2017 Chandos disc of orchestral works, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.)
So far so good.
But then comes the Tchaikovsky Sextet, Souvenir de Florence. Only 2 players are added to the quartet, but for some reason the recording engineers decided to make the group of 6 sound massive, like the entire Philadelphia Orchestra's full string section. The group is literally thrust out into the room, well in front of the speakers, using thick, sawing, long-bows (sounding aggressively crude), and with a sudden increase in volume. After the more intimately scored Borenstein, this instantly sounds vulgar. I can't fathom what anyone involved with this project was thinking, or could possibly be going for. I actually could listen to only a few brief sections of it before I could take no more and turned it off.
Taken as a whole, this new disc is a disappointment, especially after the success of their earlier disc, nearly a decade ago. While it's worth keeping for the Borenstein alone, the rest is rather routine and/or downright off-putting. Fortunately, we can continue to enjoy their first Journey in the series; that disc is a knockout.
I've not been a fan of Trevor Pinnock's. I'm not fond of, or sold on, "period performances", particularly those which produce thin, wiry, gratingly unpleasant violin screeching, and lifeless wind tone. Not that Trevor Pinnock is the biggest offender in this regard, but his leanings toward this playing style have never appealed to me.
I took a chance on this new one from Linn, though, for several reasons. This is an SACD. And it's from Linn, from which I have enjoyed excellent recorded sound in the past. And finally, the Royal Academy of Music is far from being a period specialist group, and their youthfulness would almost certainly provide a freshness and spontaneity not always heard.
This Linn delivers on all counts!
Concentrating on the main offering here, Mozart's Gran Partita, I'm thrilled to report the SACD sound is superlative. Clear, clean, warm, articulate and with beautiful tonality.
Second, the Academy does indeed play with a joy of new discovery. What's more, the playing is absolutely as accomplished and professional as you'll ever hear in this work. Two notables among these musicians: 1) the lovely, rounded tone of the basset horns. With some players, bassets can sound rather gray and bleak. And honky. Not so here; they sound like lower-pitched clarinets, with beautiful, rich, melodious tone. And 2) this contrabassoon is never thick or woolly. It is splendidly focused like a bassoon, only lower, and is blended perfectly with the rest of the group. This is not often the case, actually. And many times a bass viol is utilized instead. But I always prefer the contra bassoon, if it's played and recorded as expertly as it is here.
Third, Trevor Pinnock's leadership is most impressive. The sense of joy he draws from these players is awe-inspiring. And his chosen tempos are spectacular! One is reminded in the first movement, after the slow introduction, the tempo indication is Allegro molto. The molto is usually missing. But molto it is here! Yet it's never breathless, or fast just to be fast. It makes musical sense. And these young players accommodate the tempo with thrilling effortlessness. The Adagio, too, is more moving than usual, and again, makes so much musical sense one can't imagine why it's so often played slower than this. The Allegretto 4th movement, and the Theme and Variations 6th movement are, again, more forward-moving than usual, yet with such musical phrasing and natural, flowing expression, they make perfect sense. Mr. Pinnock really understands this piece and the relationship of tempos of each movement. And it goes without saying, the finale is most certainly molto Allegro here, and as exhilarating as ever.
Only one other recent recording comes to mind as being in the same league as this one: the 2017 recording from the LSO Wind Ensemble on the LSO Live label. This is also an SACD, with warm, beautiful sound. And it features playing of the utmost refinement, unified ensemble, and joyful, alert tempos. They use a bass viol rather than a contrabassoon, which is the only regret I have with it.
This new one from Linn, though, has another potential advantage over the LSO Live: a coupling. Here we get Haydn's Notturno #8 in G Major. Many of the characteristics regarding tempo and freshness noted above apply here. However, one is immediately confronted with the dreaded thin, lifeless string tone, sans vibrato. This was not an issue in the Mozart, of course, as that piece is for winds only. But the Haydn calls for 6 string players along with a handful of winds. However, once the ear adjusts, and the winds take a more prominent roll, the music reigns supreme. And Linn's beautiful recorded sound helps to minimize the thin string tone. I was not familiar with this piece, and I enjoyed it very much, despite the unpleasant violin sound.
All in all, this release is recommended most enthusiastically. It's absolutely one of the most uplifting and exciting performances of the Gran Partita you're likely to hear. And the recorded sound doesn't get any better than this.
This disc was sent to me (along with a few other titles from Prospero) by the record label producer, Martin Korn, and it instantly rose to the top of the queue. I love Poulenc chamber music. And if Jean Francaix's music is slightly less well-known, I am warming to it with every encounter. His Trio for flute, cello and piano, which opens this program, is a lovely piece, brought magnificently to life in this performance of it. The wonderful Divertimento for flute and piano, which comes later, is even finer. In between these, comes two short pieces for cello and piano, and Poulenc's Flute Sonata. The programs concludes with Poulenc's Cello Sonata.
Most of this music should be fairly well known to most, and I can be brief regarding the performances here. They are gloriously done, both in performance and recorded sound. But two factors are worth noting in more detail.
First is the absolutely wonderful playing of flutist Sarah Rumer. She is the principal flutist of the Suisse Romande Orchestra. This is my first encounter with her and she instantly won me over. As a flutist (well, former flutist), I am often critical of recorded flute music. But not so here. I have nothing but the highest praise. It's not just her stylistically musical interpretations, it's also her sound, and, especially, her articulation. (And that's not just a flippant remark. I always found articulation to be somewhat of a challenge, depending on the music.) Ms. Rumer possess a radiant, glowing, perfectly focused, round, positively golden sound. No, not like Galway's (as I typed the word golden, his 1970's album, "Man With the Golden Flute" suddenly came to mind; Bleh!). This sound is uniquely hers - instantly recognizable in the very best way. But it's her articulation which stays with me. It's difficult to describe in words - it's focused and articulate, yet cushioned on air. So it's precise, but never hard. And it's the opposite of mushy, or breathy. At the same time, it's the body of tone behind the articulation which makes it special. There is some seriously good breath support going on here. And I simply cannot stop listening to her playing.
As a matter of fact, I had to force myself to continue on with the Cello Sonata! If I can't come up with as many superlatives for it, I can say without hesitation I enjoyed it as much here as ever before. The playing of cellist Joel Marosi and pianist Ulrich Koella is first-rate in every way - always musical and technically beyond reproach.
The second most notable characteristic of this CD is the recorded sound. It is immediate, without being forward. It is colorful, full-bodied and rich, without being muddy or thick. The acoustic is marvelously captured, clear and focused with the perfect amount of hall ambience, without ever clouding or crowding the musicians. As a matter of fact, it's so realistic, it sounds like the players are literally in the room with me. It's almost spooky in its realism.
I will summarize by saying this. You will rarely hear this level of musicianship or recorded sound from the major labels. It's just that simple. The days of dominance from the likes of Decca, EMI (sadly Warner now, what a joke), DG, and the rest, are long over. In fact, I rarely purchase any new titles on those labels. For quality Classical music, I turn to the small independent labels which still care about it all. It is refreshing to be rid of star-power marketing and instead, see and hear a dedication to what really matters - the music. And excellent recorded sound. This title from Prospero/Martin Korn Music Productions (a coproduction with Radio Television Suisse Espace 2) is a perfect example. The entire production is outstanding in every way: the music, the sound, and the professional, extremely attractive and informative booklet.