I received this disc gratis from Yevgeny Dokshansky, clarinetist and artistic director of the group Ensemble Next Parallel, in consideration for a review. I immediately accepted when seeing it offered such a varied program, which included such composers as Peter Schickele (yes, of PDQ Bach fame) and a new work commissioned by this group.
Eager to get to the new work first, it turned out to be one of the highlights of the entire program. Roger Henry's Trio #2 is imaginatively scored and colorful in its creativity. It is a substantial work in four full-length movements, each simply numbered, rather than bearing descriptive titles. It has plenty of variety - songful here, lighthearted there - and even some fun in the final section. (More below.)
But beginning with the Khachaturian Trio, I was not at all surprised to hear it so easily identifiable as being Khachaturian (his music always is). But I was surprised to hear just how free-flowing and rhapsodic it is, as played here by the Ensemble Next Parallel - especially the fabulous clarinet playing of Yevgeny Dokshansky, who has a real flair and feel for the "gypsy-style", Armenian flavor of this music.
The piece is well constructed and orchestrated. And Khachaturian doesn't turn on the Armenian flavor with too heavy a dose. It is melodious, with the tunes evenly spread across both violin and clarinet, with plenty of variety. (The piano does seem to have been assigned more of an accompanying role, though, rather than an equal.) The central Allegro is especially enjoyable, with its chugging propulsive energy.
After the somewhat serious concluding movement of the Khachaturian, the Milhaud Suite sounds distinctly lightweight - with sections of gaiety (pleasant enough), but a rather severe final modere. His scoring is less imaginative, with a strong emphasis on the high frequencies of the soloists in combination, and the piano is again, curiously, relegated to more of an accompanist. However, it is enjoyable enough, in a typically Milhaud way, and doesn't last too long.
The next work is certainly entertaining - the Schickele Serenade for Three. I am not at all surprised at how good it is. Though Schickele is most well-known as his pseudonym, PDQ Bach, he is really a very talented and creative composer of "serious" music. And this Serenade is proof of that - very imaginative and enormously high-spirited (and very difficult to play in places!). The 1st movement, Dances, is exactly as its subtitle suggests: "joyful, boisterous". The central movement, Songs, is beautifully played by these musicians, with lovely singing lines. And the final Variations - indicated as "fast, rowdy" - are just that: outrageously fun, but mercifully just short of turning truly rowdy!
This is obviously the most assured and accomplished display of orchestration for this specific combination of instruments on this program. At last, the piano becomes a truly equal partner with the others. And pianist Anna Nizhegorodtseva finally gets the chance to display her considerable "chops" in the finale, with its over-the-top, honky-tonk, ivory-tinkling writing, while Dokshansky easily shrugs off its virtuosic demands for the clarinet with effortless bravura. Great fun indeed. (And now that I think about it, maybe "rowdy" is the right description after all!)
Following the rowdiness, the Henry takes us to something instantly more serious, and also to another level of creative accomplishment (as noted above). The first movement (I) is a striking contrast to the Schickele, with its expressive, ardent outpouring, with strong Czardas elements. The central movements are varied - (II) is a lighthearted dance, while (III) is a plaintive song - a lovely duet for clarinet and violin. Violinist Enrique Reynosa really shines here with his sweetly singing legato. (IV) concludes the program on a light note, with the Czardas flavor now sprinkled with just a hint of a hoe-down.
The Ensemble Next Parallel plays well all though and this is a group of musicians who obviously enjoys making music together. It must be noted, however, that the clarinet is certainly the star of the show, primarily in the way these compositions highlight it. But also, Yevgeny Dokshansky is without doubt an outstanding player. His tone is consistently excellent, focused and controlled, with an impressive variety of color and dynamic shadings. And most of all, he has a real aptitude for this music. His playing was a delight to listen to all through.
This is a quality production on the Heritage-records label, complete with a well-written, informative printed booklet. The disc appears to be a CD-R, but it played perfectly on my notoriously finicky CD player and the recorded sound is excellent. Highly recommended to clarinet players, certainly, but also to anyone looking for something a little bit different. And something a little bit fun.
Two excellent discs from Pentatone. And a little story to go along with them.
The first shiny silver disc which begins this series of Mozart's late symphonies is a multi-channel SACD from 2019 (#40 & 41). The second one (#38 & 39), from 2021, is stereo CD only. Why is that? Why the change mid-series? I could site other examples where Pentatone has ceased releasing SACDs in an ongoing series, mid-stream, and converted to stereo-only CD. (I've also witnessed Chandos cutting back on the number of SACD releases, but they aren't arbitrarily brutal about it; there is a common-sense reasoning behind their decisions, with continuity and consistency in mind.)
Pentatone took a sudden turn a couple years ago when the once premium SACD label began issuing CD-only releases. I contacted Pentatone about this in early 2020 and they actually took the time to respond with an attempt to justify their change in direction. First, a rather simple explanation: "the number of customers with SACD players is relatively small and we get more and more complaints from distributors and retailers...that our products are expensive in comparison to other labels." And, then perhaps to assuage me a bit, expounded further: "We do, however, stick to SACD for repertoire where surround has the biggest added value (huge orchestral works, for example)."
Ok. Fair enough. So let's take a closer look at both of those statements.
Regarding pricing, why was Pentatone purportedly singled out for "complaints" about pricing? Their premium titles aren't any more expensive than those from Chandos and BIS and others. And is SACD in and of itself really the reason they are expensive? Presumably so. Because rather than reevaluate their pricing structure and internal operating expenses, Pentatone made the arbitrary decision to stop making multi-channel DSD recordings for many of their new productions. And they've completely stopped producing those interesting multi-channel reissues from other labels, such as the original quad mixes of old Philips mastertapes. And in one fell swoop, Pentatone went from being one of the premier Classical specialty labels, where excellence and consistency were assured and new releases were eagerly anticipated, to being just another independent CD label, albeit one among many good ones.
Interestingly, their "What we stand for" page has disappeared from new CD releases. You remember it right? - the page at the back of the booklet where they once proclaimed what was important to them, including the section about "Sound Excellence", which stated, in part: "Pentatone stands for premium quality. Recorded with the most powerful and nuanced audio technologies..."
But more to the crux of the issue - regarding their claim of "sticking to SACD for repertoire where surround has the biggest added value (huge orchestral works, for example)", let's take a gander at some of their recent SACD releases over the past two years and see how they're doing with that commitment:
- Mari Kodama plays Beethoven piano transcriptions "Kaleidoscope" (solo piano)
- Arabella Steinbacher plays Vivaldi and Piazzola Four Seasons
- Calefax Reed Quintet plays Bach transcriptions
- Handel Concerti
- Telemann transcriptions for violin
- American Song Album for voice and piano
- Annelien Van Wauwe plays French clarinet recital
- Grieg lyric pieces for piano solo
- Baroque music played on the sheng (mouth organ)
- Mendelssohn songs for cello and piano
Granted, I've cherry picked their releases to emphasize the glaring deviation from their stated criteria for SACD production, and to highlight some of the fluff which was inexplicably deemed worthy of the royal treatment. A mouthorgan recital? A reed quintet playing Bach? Really?
Now let's compare that to a list of some of their CD releases during the same time period, those productions which were deemed unworthy of SACD and were relegated to stereo CD-only:
- Gershwin's Porgy & Bess
- Mozart and Brahms Symphonies cycles
- Mozart/Bruckner/Stravinsky Masses
- Rene Jacobs's ongoing Schubert Symphony cycle (began on SACD, transitioned to CD mid-stream)
- Janowski's complete Beethoven Symphonies (individual releases were SACD, new box set compilation is CD only)
- Barnatan's complete Beethoven Piano Concertos
- The Oregon Symphony's Americana symphony series (began on SACD, transitioned to CD mid-stream)
It looks to me like there is an awful lot of small-scale (and solo) stuff in the SACD list which merited a multi-channel recording (but doesn't really benefit all that much from it), while a lot of "huge orchestral productions" were denied it. Why?
Does it simply come down to Pentatone promoting what they perceive to be a "big name" (STAR POWER!) like the big-boy labels love to do? Or the clever, gimmicky, eye-catching titles which they predict might garner more than average sales? Those are the only answers I can come up with to explain the disparity between these two lists.
But I digress. And it's time to face reality.
Such is our world today, where Classical music lovers are becoming a dying breed and physical discs have essentially become antiques, going the way of the 8-track and cassette tapes - a novelty that elicits mockery from the nieces and nephews when they see your CD collection. ("WHAT are those?" and "You still buy CDs? LOL!") So I understand that record labels have to keep afloat. And sometimes decisions must be made which may be deemed necessary by them, but don't always make sense to the collector.
Getting to the matter at hand, I am pleased to give praise when praise is due. This series of Mozart Symphonies from Manze and the NDR Radio Philharmonic is excellent. The performances are superb in both installments - fresh, alert and with more than a hint of "historically-informed" authenticity, without going all-out obnoxious about it, bringing crisp articulation, clarified textures and joyous tempos. And the sound is very good indeed. Yes, even on the second disc, despite it being CD only. I thank Pentatone for bringing these wonderful recordings to market.
So, aside from being dismayed that the higher resolution format's days are numbered, I guess my biggest issue here is with the change mid-stream. Couldn't this project (and others like it), once underway, be continued and completed as originally conceived? They can start the next new project with the change to CD-only, and keep some continuity and consistency (like Chandos is doing). It's the arbitrary, nonsensical decisions as to what gets it and what doesn't that irritate me most.
Now then - how do I file this Mozart CD?
1) With the SACDs, along with the first volume, because it's part of a series? Or,
2) With the CDs, far away from its companion?
Oh I know - this is the Virgo in me, fussing over where to put it on my shelves. And I'm sure I'm a bit unique (let's be nice), but with nearly 9,000 discs in my collection, my filing system is of utmost importance if I'm ever going to find what I'm looking for in the future. Perhaps it's time to downsize.
It's curious this new SONY release is priced as a CD-single. (I got mine from Amazon for $11.) It offers a rather generous 63' playing time.
I am not familiar with any of this music except for a quartet by Philip Glass which piqued my interest. And since I have admired the Attacca Quartet in the past and the price was attractive, I decided to try it. But despite its title, it's one of the most depressing programs I can ever remember hearing.
The highlight is certainly the Glass 3rd Quartet. The booklet goes into detail about how this program came about and states the group looked far and wide to find companions for the Glass. And listening to this CD, it is obvious the Glass was the main attraction and all the rest are mere "fillers".
One wonders, though, why any of these pieces were chosen for an album titled "Of All Joys". The program opens and closes with works by Avo Part (Summa and Fratres) and all the rest are 16th-Century Renaissance madrigals. And all of them are extraordinarily dreary (including the two by Part). And for some reason the Attacca Quartet plays ALL of this music sans vibrato, increasing the gloom and despair.
And one also wonders why they looked so hard to find more music to fill the disc, when another Glass quartet - or two, or three - would have filled it nicely. And would have been infinitely more interesting and rewarding than what they found instead.
I read in the booklet that this CD is the group's "attempt to recapture the joy missed during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns". This is baffling for there is no joy here - not in the music, nor in the playing. The entire disc caused me to feel so blah and depressed I could barely get through it. Maybe if it were titled "For Those Lost" it might - might - make a little more sense.
SONY's recorded perspective is upfront and one-dimensional, emphasizing the mono-dynamic, expressionless playing. This makes for a relentlessly stark and desolate soundscape which was difficult to endure. This disc actually bothered me, it was such an unpleasant experience.
I've been putting off listening to this 2013 CD release for years, actually. I stumbled across it today while doing some filing, still in the cellophane and covered in dust. The reason I bought it in the first place: James Ehnes. The reason for the neglect: Kirill Karabits. I have had very few positive experiences with this conductor's recordings. But I found myself in the mood for some Shostakovich and decided to open this up and have a go at it.
I love James Ehnes's gorgeous, rich, textured tone. But what works so beautifully in the Britten seems to work just as strongly against him in the Shostakovich. I'm not a violinist and therefore don't understand the mechanics of why this richness of tone seems to come at the expense of real muscle and bite.
I did listen to the Shostakovich first, and in a word, it is lovely. And rather bland. And that's just not what I'm looking for in Shostakovich. The rich tone can't help but be a thing of beauty to hear in the opening Moderato. But it's missing the angst. And the stark, foreboding poignancy. It's just...lovely. And the Scherzo and Burlesque which follow just don't have enough fire.
In all fairness, the problem here isn't really the soloist as much as it is the limp orchestral support. I have rarely heard Kirill Karabits muster up much life on the podium (at least on record) and I am perplexed why Bournemouth keeps him. How he can so consistently fail to inspire or lead his orchestra to a minimal level of musical involvement is a mystery. This Shostakovich isn't bad, there just isn't the slightest hint of Russian soul in it.
The Britten is much more successful - thanks to Ehnes's lovely singing lines and the beautiful recorded sound from Onyx. The orchestra can coast along through this one without much effort and Ehnes carries it nicely. (Although the Vivace, which bustles along, isn't as hair-raising as usual.)
In both works, the violin is placed at a natural perspective, neither forward nor recessed. The relaxed, colorful, lovely recorded acoustic suits the Britten beautifully but does the Shostakovich no favors.
I can't help but think Ehnes deserves a better partner. Or maybe not. Perhaps this lyrical, relaxed approach is exactly what he's going for and why he teamed up with Karabits. But whatever the reasons, I found this CD to be a mixed bag. The beautiful, atmospheric recorded sound from Onyx was definitely the highlight for me.
Eloquence has offered a treasure trove of glorious reissues over the years, from the 3 "Universal" labels (Decca, Philips and DG). That well may have begun to dry up, as evidenced by some sub-par releases over the past couple of years. Happily, they have recently taken an interest in the defunct ASV label. This box of Beethoven String Quartets is one of two reissues from the Lindsay String Quartet (later renamed "The Lindsays"), originally released on that label. (The other is the complete set of Bartok Quartets.)
I am dismayed to see the Decca logo emblazoned across the front, back and spine, implying these are something other than what they really are. Nowhere on the box is it revealed these originate from ASV. Inside, one will have to look hard to find ASV mentioned at all; it can only be seen - in miniscule print - on the bottom back of each sleeve, and in the booklet, buried within the recording details. Tsk Tsk. But I digress.
This is the Lindsay's first complete Beethoven set for ASV, recorded over a five-year period, from 1979 - 1983, in two different locations. The booklet lists a remastering engineer; however, it is not made clear if that was part of the original ASV team or newly remastered by Eloquence. In any event, I do not have the original ASV CDs to compare them to. The Lindsays went on to record a second set, but according to some (including the booklet writer), this earlier one is the better of the two. However, listening to it, I can't help but feel it is rather dated by today's standards.
First, the recorded sound is variable. Beginning with the Opus 18s (recorded in 1979), the quartet is placed at a fair distance from the listener, within a very reverberant acoustic, providing a warm, glowing blend somewhat at the expense of dramatic presence. It's not as clean and clear as we have come to expect now-a-days.
By the third series of sessions (1982, Opus 127-135), the digital recording comes closer to the traditional ASV house sound we remember, with a brighter palette and even a bit of edge to the first violin. And while there is more immediacy, the acoustic is still too reverberant. And in the Grosse Fuge, the violins sound like chalk-on-a-chalkboard and screech unpleasantly. The Opus 59s, the last to be recorded, sound to be in the alternate location and the acoustic here is marred with a bit of empty-hall echo. Sigh...
More importantly, while the playing is congenial and musical, it simply can't begin to match the impeccable playing heard from most modern-day string quartets. There is no denying some insecure playing throughout (especially in the 1st violin), and in the Opus 127, for example, I was alarmed to hear the entire group sounding shockingly mediocre and dour. And the screeching violin playing in the Opus 133 (noted above) prompted me to turn it off altogether.
Perhaps I'm not being entirely fair to the Lindsays. I have been listening to some absolutely fantastic, new, digital complete sets from the likes of the Belcea Quartet on Zig-Zag/Alpha Classics, the Miro Quartet on Pentatone, the Dover Quartet (in-process) series on Cedille and the Tokyo Quartet on Harmonia Mundi. (Even the Tokyo's earlier set for RCA is excellent.) All of these recent recordings outclass the Lindsays in every way, particularly in technical accomplishment, freshness, dynamic range and musical involvement. And today's digital recorded sound is uniformly superior in clarity, color and realism.
I recently reviewed another complete set of the Beethoven Quartets (which is not commercially available), played by Kansas City's wonderful Opus 76 Quartet, on their own label. I was fascinated to hear many similarities between it and this one from the Lindsays, particularly with regard to the recorded sound and a smiling graciousness both groups bring to this music. But the playing of The Opus 76 is vastly superior - more accomplished, secure and musically involving. Their love of Beethoven is clearly displayed in the joy they bring to every phrase.
While I enjoyed exploring this set from the Lindsay String Quartet, it is not one I will ever return to in the future. The recorded sound is too reverberant and turns edgy and less natural as it progresses. Worse, intonation issues and screeching violin playing are impossible to ignore and distract from musical enjoyment. As good as the Lindsays may have been in their day, it is when compared to newer groups that one realizes just how far the art of string quartet playing has progressed over the past 3 decades. (Please see my previous blog entry where I discuss in detail my favorite groups and what makes them so special.)
While it is good to have this reissue, I hope the folks at Eloquence can unearth more worthwhile recordings from the great ASV label for future releases.
UPDATE: I also acquired the companion Eloquence set of the Bartok Quartets, recorded in 1981. I had high hopes for it based upon several older reviews which proclaimed the Lindsays were among the best in Bartok. Unfortunately I was quite unimpressed with it. The recorded sound is better than in their Beethoven, but I found the readings to be bland and uninvolving. I can't help but wonder if tempos played a big role in this, as this set stretches out to 3 CDs whereas most are fit onto just 2. The Bartok Quartets are somewhat difficult for me to enjoy anyway, so it takes a very special group indeed to allow me to appreciate them fully. The Lindsays just didn't do it for me.
This series has thus far been of limited appeal to me, musically, with only the third volume being of real interest. And what a marvelous disc that one is, with the music of Szymon Laks, spectacularly played by the ARC Ensemble (reviewed in detail elsewhere on this blog). Now comes the fifth installment, with premier recordings of music by Jewish-Ukrainian composer, Dmitri Klebanov, which I sampled online and decided to try. It's not quite as rewarding as the Laks collection, but there is some good music and at least one true masterpiece here.
The opening Fourth String Quartet is based upon melodies by Leontovych - yes that Leontovych, best known for the popular Christmas song, Carol of the Bells. And sure enough, the opening movement begins with a verbatim rendering of that very carol before moving on to something more interesting. (I wasn't ready for Christmas music yet - it's only October as I write this - so it wasn't as welcome as it might be in December.) And so it goes throughout all four movements - a series of pleasant-sounding arrangements of sing-song tunes, some familiar, most not. But there is plenty of variety - of mood and tempo - which manages to hold one's interest. The third movement is even reminiscent of Ravel's own String Quartet, with its delightful pizzicato scoring. It's all congenial and enjoyable for casual listening.
The Fifth Quartet, which comes last on this program, was written some 20 years later and is much more modern. It's thematic material is worlds away from the Fourth. It's not as determinedly "pleasant" for sure, especially in the first movement, which is stark (very much like Shostakovich) and with moments of dissonance (reminiscent of Bartok). The central movement's pensive viola song, played over pizzicatos, suggests an impending dread and is very moving, especially as played with such emotional involvement here by the ARC Ensemble. The finale is much of the same, with impassioned uneasiness - until the final vivace energizes the fervor with increasing tension. And with some imaginative scoring (wonderful use of glissandi, for example), the work comes to an almost triumphant conclusion.
However - there is a real gem lurking in between the two Quartets. The Trio #2, for Piano, Violin and Cello, is an absolute masterpiece. It is instantly appealing - richly rewarding musically, colorful in orchestration and truly inspired in composition. I hear even more Ravel here (especially his own Trio), with its impressionistic, yet forward-looking creativity and imaginative scoring. My listening notes are sprinkled with the words "glorious", "rapturous" and "colorful" over and over. I was rather stunned when it was over, requiring a few minutes to take it all in before listening to more.
As always, I find it difficult to describe new music. What I can say is this piece elicited a "Wow" from me at the end and I was emotionally moved and exulted by it. For anyone who loves the music of Ravel, this piece absolutely must be heard.
And, as in the earlier disc of chamber music by Laks, highest praise must be given to the glorious playing of the ARC Ensemble. And also to the fantastic recorded sound. This is yet another CD-only release from Chandos which is so completely successful I didn't miss it not being SACD at all.
In sum, Quartet #4 is pleasant enough and certainly worth a listen. And if I was not entirely convinced by the 5th Quartet the first time through, I was very moved by it during a second hearing - especially with the 2nd and 3rd movements. But it is the Trio which makes this disc worth the price. It is simply magnificent - especially as performed here by the fabulous Arc Ensemble.
In an email to me, Keith Stanfield, first violinist of The Opus 76 Quartet, explains the origins of this miraculous live Beethoven set:
"We made these live recordings during the [2020 Covid-19] Pandemic, when there was no other live music happening. We had prepared 3 years for the 250th Beethoven Anniversary, and I wanted to wait and see what would happen, rather than cancel 3 months in advance. It turned out in Kansas City that our 6 week festival of all Beethoven’s String Quartets was able to take place on schedule. We had to use the Cathedral of the Immaculate conception, and were limited to 50 people in a marble encased massive church which has a normal capacity of 1300 I believe. It may be more.
KPR [Kansas Public Radio] who wanted to broadcast live would not send a recording engineer due to COVID concerns, so I had to buy the equipment, FaceTime the engineer to ask about placement of the stereo mic (we only had money for one Rode NT4 and the Tascam DR70) and handle the entire process ourselves.
I am not a sound engineer or record producer. But, we were able to capture radio level sound frequency ... by following their instructions - and what you hear is exactly what happened on those Saturday evenings. The broadcast version had some programme notes KPR wrote prior to each work. We were able to buy a massive rug to deaden some of the marble reverb and stick the microphone close to the group. We had no control over the air system - but it was so hot in August in KC that we would have given up the ghost many times during the cycle without it.
In any case, we were keen to make a statement and break out onto the real concert circuit as it were - and in particular I was determined that Beethoven, greatest of all composers - should be honored in his anniversary year, despite the most Beethovenian of circumstances. The recordings I guess are recordings in the most literal sense. Registrations of an event that will (hopefully) never be repeated - a 6 week live Beethoven Cycle in the middle of a global Pandemic - quite possibly the only one in the Nation in 2020. People came, many for whom this was their first classical experience (there was no other competition) and each night was sold out moments after being made available."
The above information is included here to provide a background to this set of recordings. I find it absolutely fascinating and quite incredible. Can you even imagine being the first violinist and suddenly finding yourself having to handle all the recording logistics yourself, including finding microphones, at the last minute, in order to make the recordings happen? And then have the wherewithal to sit down and actually play all this music. That is dedication!
Listening to the CDs, sonically I hear exactly what has been described as to the recording process. They are "live" in nearly every sense of the word, including applause before and after each and every quartet, plus an audible sense of "presence", as if sitting in the audience quite a distance away from the quartet, and with audible air conditioner blowers in the acoustic, etc. In many ways it reminds me of the days of vinyl LPs, with surface noise, clicks and pops, etc., all of which adds a sense of "being there". And other than the applause, the audience is otherwise absolutely silent, obviously in rapt attention to the music. There is mercifully no coughing. And any rustling between movements has been spliced out.
And there is definitely an air of "occasion" about it all.
There is also massive reverberation. But, for the most part, it does not swamp the musicians. There is sufficient focus and presence to give a reasonably clear vision of the performances. If anything, the huge acoustic lends a glowing warmth and blend to the group as a whole, which is not unattractive. And truthfully, the playing is so good, the acoustic can be easily overlooked.
But most of all, the one statement from Mr. Stanfield which strikes me as the most cogent is: "Beethoven, greatest of all composers, should be honored". And that is the single most prominent characteristic of these performances which predominates every measure of these scores - the Opus 76 Quartet exhibits an unending, profound love of Beethoven. It is evident everywhere in their playing.
If I had to describe this set in one word, it would be "smiling". There is a joy in the music - and enjoyment in the playing - which provides much pleasure. These may not be the most "commanding" readings (due in part to the rather distant recording perspective), but they are certainly some of the most musical. And gracious.
There is also an impressive overall accomplishment to the playing itself, from all four players. These were recorded over just a 6 week span (August 15 - September 19, 2020), and again, are live performances with no recording engineers on site. So there were no editing or patch-up sessions. Thus there is nowhere for less than perfect playing to hide. And I heard very few instances where a touch-up might have been beneficial.
A couple of specifics regarding the playing and performers are worth noting. There is no denying the excellence of Keith Stanfield's leadership as first violinist. His tone is vibrant and rich, sweetly singing and rapturous, and his playing is assertive. Significantly, though, for these live performances, the two violinists traded off playing first and second variously throughout. While I could almost always hear when Mr. Stanfield was "back on first", it is remarkable how effortlessly and competently Zsolt Eder was in assuming the first position. (The back cover identifies them for each Quartet.) Also of note, especially in the Opus 59 Quartets, cellist Sascha Groschang certainly makes an impression with sweetly singing lines, with nary a hint of graininess. Lovely indeed.
In sum, The Opus 76 Quartet has indeed achieved their goal to "make a statement and break out onto the real concert circuit". The enthusiastic audience certainly thinks so, as evidenced by the applause heard on these recordings. This complete set is a major achievement, in so many ways. This group deserves a record label to bring their talents to a wider audience.
Finally, regardless of the order in which they were performed, the Quartets are helpfully laid out in chronological order, over 9 CDs. Complete sets often stretch out to 10. This tells us something about tempos. The Opus 76's tempo choices are just about perfect in every instance. Allegros are jubilant, Adagios are flowing with natural momentum, never sluggish, and all those in between are fresh and alert. Regretfully, there are no track listings or timings included, which I definitely missed. Nor are there any liner notes. But other than that, I have no complaints with the production, as each CD is clearly labeled with the works it contains. This set is available online at Opus76.org.
The awesome Aris Quartett joins my list of favorite string quartets with 4 CDs from Genuin Classics. Here's an overview of them all plus the other groups on the list.
The Dover. The Escher. The Pacifica. And, to a lesser degree, the Attacca (which is focused almost solely on contemporary music). And now I happily add another string quartet to my 'Favorites of All Time' list - the Aris.
I started this blog entry as a review of 4 CDs from the Aris Quartett on Genuin Classics. But it quickly evolved into a mini-overview of all my favorite string quartets. So bear with me. I will eventually get into more detail about this batch of recordings from the Aris.
Of these groups, four are, coincidentally, American. The Aris is German. And they all easily stand alongside one another in the lofty, ultimate group of today's supreme string quartets. Most are relatively newly assembled (the Pacifica being the exception, formed as long ago as 1994) and comprised of young(er) players. And that very singularity (and common thread) ushers in a new age of string quartet playing, with freshness of new discovery and dazzling exuberance to everything they play.
But there's more.
Unique among this younger generation of string quartets is a daring. Daring in dynamic range; in tonal color, variety and exploration; in precision of execution; and also in diversity of repertoire. They can play literally anything and everything equally well. And it gives each group the depth of character and musical insight enabling them to bring new life to every recording - with inspiration, natural spontaneity, vitality, and a communicative essence to their music-making.
And long gone are the days of the prominent first violin. Each member of these groups is an equal, bringing an individuality, strength, and effortless virtuosity, combining to make the entire group extraordinary.
With the Dover and Escher, I hear a firmness of strength and individuality from each and every player, resulting in a certain "muscularity" to their playing. With the Dover, it's this plus a phenomenal precision of ensemble and articulation which is so remarkable. With the Escher, it's this plus a richness of tone. Both groups exhibit playing - especially of the Classics - which is absolutely thrilling.
With the Aris, I hear all of these superlatives. Their blend, in particular, combined with amazing tonal variety, affords them a sound which is simply seductive. (The Pacifica also comes to mind in this regard.) Highest praise must be given to the viola, Caspar Vinzens, for his beauty of tone which blends so gorgeously with the others - never sounding nasal or husky. The sheer musicality of their overall blend is enhanced by their variety of tone and vibrato. Time and again they will begin a passage from barely a whisper - sans vibrato - then, in the next phrase, add the vibrato and play with the utmost sweetness and singing lyricism, creating a striking contrast to the starkness which precedes it. This variety (plus the unanimity of execution) is breathtaking.
And then, with a tremendous crescendo, they can turn up the drama with a fortissimo which miraculously never sounds aggressive or gruff. So many times I have thought of this group as sounding positively symphonic/orchestral - not only in their endless variety of color and dynamics but in their stunning ability to create such a powerful sound. Not just loud; powerful. I am amazed there are only four players. (The same can certainly be said of the Dover and the Escher too.)
These characteristics are displayed everywhere in their set of recordings for Geniun Classics, but are exemplified with perfection in their superb reading of the Schubert #14 in D minor. This reading stands out as being absolutely magnificent in every way - for dynamic extremes and control (from exquisite pianissimos to passionate fortissimos); tonal shadings and color; variety of texture and vibrato; musical immersion and sheer invigoration. This is undoubtedly one of the very best recordings of a string quartet I have ever experienced.
Their Shostakovich 8th is another stellar display of dynamic extremes, combined with richness of tone from all four players, which really is something to behold.
There is another recording of which I must make mention. That is the exquisite clarinet playing of Thorsten Johanns in the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. This Brahms disc (which also includes the 1st Quartet in C minor) is simply glorious from start to finish, but the Quintet is special. Johanns is not spotlit and does not play as if he's a featured soloist. Integrating with the overall blend of the quartet, the clarinet becomes just another member of the group, and thus blends beautifully with them - merely adding new color and texture to the sound. And what music they make together! I'm not sure I've ever heard the piece played as gorgeously as here. And I can only hope they combine forces again to record the Mozart Clarinet Quintet.
After watching the Aris Quartett's YouTube videos (Mendelssohn & Haydn), I was so impressed I was eager to explore their CDs - four discs on the Genuin Classics label. Interestingly, the first of these (Beethoven #9 and #14) was a "special prize" awarded to the Aris Quartett in the form of a free CD production from Genuin Classics as a result of being the 2016 Award Winner of the International ARD Music Competition. The CDs are handsomely produced, with very attractive covers and high-quality booklets.
And speaking of Genuin, I don't think I've mentioned yet how superb the recorded sound is - completely realistic in capturing the wide dynamic range and variety of tonal colors within a warm and dimensional acoustic. It is simply miraculous how the group naturally and effortlessly fills the hall with sound in a most tangible, palpable way. All four recordings are simply marvelous, for all the reasons noted above.
I don't know if it's advancements in recording techniques/capabilities, or the unbelievably high level of accomplishment of today's young string players - or both, but I have never in my life enjoyed, or been so emotionally moved by, string quartets as much as I have listening to recordings from these 5 groups. They each bring similarities in the way in which they communicate musical involvement with the listener. They are equals in an elite group of superlative musicians. But each brings individual characteristics which make them uniquely memorable and musically enriching. And they certainly demonstrate the ultimate in achievement among today's string quartets.
If I had to prioritize these groups in any kind of order/ranking, I simply could not. They each offer such unique and treasurable gifts. And, it really depends on what they're playing. However, three stand side-by-side at the top. The Aris, Dover and Escher are simply incomparable in everything they play - from contemporary music to the Classics. The Pacifica certainly excels at new contemporary music (bringing their characteristic sweetness of expression) but are rather more "traditional" in the Classics. (Although their Mendelssohn is very good, their Dvorak and Brahms are surprisingly commonplace). And the Attacca is thus far rather limited to contemporary music - where they can be extraordinary.
Finally, we are indebted to small, independent, Classical specialty record labels for bringing such wonderful groups to the listening public, in state-of-the-art recorded sound: Azica, BIS, Cedille, Genuin and others. (The Escher and Pacifica have also recorded for Naxos in the past, and the Attacca has a brand new disc coming soon from SONY.) [UPDATE: Their new SONY release sadly turns out to be a great disappointment. See my review elsewhere on this blog for details.] The excellence of recorded sound certainly plays a large part in the overall enjoyment of the music-making heard on these recordings. I look forward to every new recording from all these groups.
Essential listening (alphabetical by group):
(This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but rather those recordings I have heard and can recommend without hesitation.)
*All four reviewed here (Beethoven/Brahms/Schubert/Shostakovich) - Genuin (2017-21)
*John Adams (complete) - Azika (2013)
Orange (music of Caroline Shaw) - Nonesuch (2019)
*Songlines (music of Michael Ippolito) - Azika (2017)
*Beethoven - ongoing series (two installments now available) - Cedille (2019-21)
Mozart (K 589/590 + Quintet K 406) - Cedille (2016)
*Schumann (complete) - Azica (2019)
Voices of Defiance (music of Laks, Shostakovich, Ullmann) - Cedille (2017)
Clarinet Quintets For Our Time (with clarinetist David Shifrin - music of Ellington and Rogerson) - Delos (2019)
*Mendelssohn (complete) - BIS (2015-16)
*Dvorak "American"/Tchaikovsky 1st/Borodin 2nd - BIS (2017)
*Dance (with guitarist Jason Vieaux) - Azika (2019)
Misericordia (with flutist Carol Wincenc - music of Uebayashi) - Azika (2019)
*Mendelssohn (complete) - Cedille (2005)
Ornstein 2nd + Piano Quintet - Cedille (2014)
*Contemporary Voices - Cedille (2020)
Souvenirs of Spain & Italy (with guitarist Sharon Isbin) - Cedille (2019)
*the best of the best
I'm not familiar with American pianist Jeremy Denk. And according to a review on Amazon which claims "Everybody knows everything Jeremy Denk plays is pretty amazing", I guess I'm out of the loop and need to catch up! That this release comes from the Nonesuch label gives me the incentive to do so. Nonesuch doesn't release much any more, and over the decades has provided many interesting titles, often of unusual repertoire in consistently good sound. So it's time I discover whatever is all abuzz about Jeremy Denk.
Well, "amazing" he may be, but I find his Mozart distracting.
It starts off well in the C Major Concerto with an alert tempo and a freshness which is uniquely attractive. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra plays with precision, minimal vibrato and sparse textures - almost "historically informed performance" characteristics - revealing much inner detail which is also very attractive. And Denk certainly has the chops for Mozart, with crisp fingerwork and a spontaneity which is often missing on record. But Denk can't just play the music; he simply has be AMAZING! And ostentatious. He adds embellishments and flourishes and ornamentations almost everywhere, which, after awhile, are just distracting. Just when you get into the musical line, here comes a trill, or a turn, or a scale, or a flashy flourish which disrupts the music. At first, it's ear-catching and intriguing, but it ends up being too much of a good thing. By the time we get to the second concerto on the CD, I am nervous and anxious, unable to really enjoy it, just waiting for what he's going to DO next to dazzle us.
And there are similar distractions with regard to tempo and dynamics, especially in the D minor Concerto. The constant swells up and back down (in both dynamics and tempos) in the opening Allegro reminded me of grandpa driving the car with his foot constantly depressing then letting up on the gas pedal. And I was getting queasy before it finished. And then the Romance which follows is so relentlessly fussy with tempo fluctuations (and the constant, irritating embellishments) I'd had enough.
Denk's style suits the Rondo in A minor, which separates the two concerti on this program, somewhat better. Without an orchestra trying to stay with him, his waywardness becomes a rather free-flowing, rhapsodic improvisation. Mr. Denk reveals a musical side which, while not unattractive, is not particularly Mozartian. I see he's recorded some Bach too. I can't even imagine what he does to Baroque music.
Great recorded sound. Great orchestral playing. Interesting piano playing - except for all the showing off.
The Opus 76 Quartet, "Kansas City's string quartet", reached out to me with an offer of promotional CDs in consideration of a review. I was eager to hear them and accepted. I didn't realize at the time that their CDs are not commercially available, but are produced on their own label and can be purchased as downloads or on CD-Rs only from their own website. This is not normally something I would review, but after watching some of their excellent videos on YouTube, I wanted to give them a try. And in due time, a package arrived and I dug in.
These are CD singles. Each disc contains just one work, lasting 31 and 37 minutes respectively.
Beginning with the Mendelssohn 3rd Quartet, it is immediately apparent this is a very accomplished, professional and musical group. Their playing bubbles with joy, spirit and sweeping lines. This is a smiling account of the first movement, with a sunny, almost pastorale feel. I found myself humming along with its loveliness. After the jubilant exposition, the tempo eases beautifully for the second subject - but not too much - and the joyfulness bursts forth again with the recapitulation. The performance gains even more strength as it reaches the finale, where the playing soars with exuberance. The tempos in all four movements are perfectly chosen and there is an effervescent sense of spontaneity which pervades the entire performance. I enjoyed it very much.
This first violinist, Keith Stanfield, is certainly excellent, and leads with a gloriously vibrant, full-bodied tone and singing legato; the violist, Ashley Stanfield (his wife) impresses with her rich, husky tone adding much character to the group; and cellist, Daniel Ketter, plays with authority - but isn't at all gruff, as is too often the case in these particular Quartets. (I do not intentionally slight the second violinist, Zsolt Eder, by not singling him out.) The entire group plays with unanimity and an assured musical approach. There can be no complaints whatsoever about the marvelous playing.
The recorded sound is a little distant and over-reverberant compared to the very best recordings. (I have been listening to a lot of string quartet music on esteemed labels such as BIS, Chandos and Cedille lately, and I get spoiled by their state-of-the-art sound quality.) The Opus 76 sound like they were recorded in an empty hall with the listener placed mid-way, or even further, back. But it is well focused and sufficiently "present", and the acoustic bathes the ensemble in a warm glow (which isn't unappealing) - but somewhat at the expense of immediacy. Once the ear adjusts, however, the music-making soon reigns supreme and the acoustic is forgotten.
The next CD I received is the Brahms Piano Quintet. And many of the positive musical attributes made above apply here as well. The playing itself is appropriately more muscular for Brahms, with more authority from the strings and sensitive piano playing from Julie Coucheron. It is worth noting the piano does not dominate this reading, but is an equal with the quartet - just as it should be.
Tempos are such an important aspect of any Brahms performance, and they are particularly well chosen here - at all times moving, flowing, dramatic, often very exciting - and never sluggish. The Scherzo, in particular, is impressive, with a very quick tempo, high energy (and high spirits), and, later, some positively ferocious bowing, without ever becoming aggressive. The violins are awesome here! And I couldn't help but react with a "Wow!" And then the second subject which follows is the most sweetly singing musical expression; the first violin again soars with rapturous singing lines. The opening of the finale, with its aching ardor, is as emotionally moving as I've ever heard it, and the Allegro which ensues is invigorating. This is an outstanding performance and I can't remember enjoying the piece as much as this.
Coincidentally, I happened to hear another recording of the Brahms playing on Sirius FM a day later, and was so utterly bored by it I went on about my business tidying up the house while it continued on and on. (The announcer later stated it was in fact played by Christoph Eschenbach and the Amadeus Quartet.) What a striking contrast to the Opus 76's performance, where I was never once, not for an instant, distracted - much less bored! There is a freshness and involvement about their playing which is usually only experienced in a live performance.
Unfortunately, the recording is not ideal. The rather distant perspective here also brings just a hint of thinness of tone and a touch of grainy texture to the strings which were not evident on the Mendelssohn. But I must stress once again, it is not detrimental to the overall enjoyment of the performance - as evidenced by my overwhelmingly positive comments above.
The observations above were made based upon listening on my primary stereo system (the specifics of which are detailed on the homepage of this blog). For comparison, I also listened to these CDs on my second, headphone-based CD player, and was less bothered by the distant perspective. And only occasionally did the excessive reverb create cause for concern. However, the slight thinness in the Brahms was evident there as well. I suspect the download versions may be best of all. (I do not have that capability and therefore did not try it.) Certainly, the YouTube videos are impressive, including the sound.
My impression of the Opus 76 String Quartet is that they deserve a record label (such as Naxos) to do them full justice and bring their music making to a wider audience. This is a group to watch.
As noted earlier, these discs are CD-Rs and come in a slim-line case with just a single page front insert. However, there is room on the inside to include not only the track listing and personnel, but a concise, informative liner note about the music and the ensemble as well. They are available at www.opus76.org.