This disc was sent to me gratis in consideration for a review.
Ms. Bilicka was born in Poland. She studied and earned her degrees there, with a further two years of study in Geneva, Switzerland. In 2019, she joined the piano faculty of the Caine College of the Arts at Utah State University, in Logan Utah. I have watched several of her YouTube videos and was impressed with her fluid sound and effortless, assured technique. Thus I was eager to listen to her debut CD, which appears on Centaur Records.
For this album, with its "Impressionistic influences" theme, Ms. Bilicka adopts a playing style which illustrates a marvelous, elegant touch and musical sensitivity. This works splendidly with much of the recorded program on this CD. Specifically, Scriabin's Poem in F-sharp Major, Ravel's Une Barque sur l'ocean and Szymanowski's Prelude in C minor simply shimmer with color and delicacy, and with lovely legato singing lines. These qualities also shine in her playing of Chopin. Here she plays for us his Ballade #4 (in F minor) and the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante in E-flat Major, all beautifully played with a rhapsodic freedom.
It is in her Chopin, though, where I wished her playing possessed a touch more authority and joie de vivre. As beautiful as it is, I longed for a bit more flare and dynamic range. The same applies to Ravel's Alborada del gracioso, which tends to sound a little too careful. However, again, there are many positive attributes as well. At a slightly slower (and more sensible) tempo than usual, she does manage to play more of those repeated triplets better than many pianists do, without suddenly slowing it down. (No such tempo change is indicated in the score.) So it's a tradeoff: play all the notes - and play them well - or dazzle us with a dashing tempo. I personally prefer the former because it's cleaner and closer to the printed score. However, a little more brilliance would have been welcome.
However, do not make too much of these observations. I make mention not to be critical, but to point out differences as compared to other pianists' recordings of these works. The competition in this music is fierce, but there is certainly a place for the more delicate touch that Elzbieta Bilicka brings to it. Especially when it is so musically involving and highlights the "Impressionistic influences" theme of this program. And let's not forget how lovely are the Scriabin, the Szymanowski, and Ravel's Une Barque.
All in all, I enjoy this pianist's playing. Her style for this album excels at light-and-shadow shading (thus the CD is perfectly titled), and her phrasing is at all times musical. For those who prefer their Chopin to be a little less grandiose and more singing, then this concert will fit the bill nicely.
Finally, the recorded sound is very fine. I initially thought the Scriabin started off sounding a touch boxed in, but the sound opens up naturally thereafter. Engineers Michael Palmer and Wesley Morrison have captured a realistic piano sound, within a warm acoustic.
This is a lovely debut and I look forward to more from this pianist. In particular, I'd love to hear her play some Beethoven.
It's time for a good rant. And a stellar example why I avoid most "major labels" completely and instead turn to the smaller, independent specialty labels for quality Classical music releases.
I'll be brief here. But I have to get this off my chest.
It's nice to have a comprehensive collection of Muti's early recordings. Recordings for EMI. Shame on Warner for once again taking credit for something they had nothing to do with. The title of this box set is an atrocity. "The Complete Warner Recordings"? NO! It's the complete EMI recordings. This is not a difficult concept. But Warner just loves its alternative facts and continues to perpetuate the lie.
Not only that, shame on Warner for once again doing nothing to update their endless reissues with any kind of fresh remastering on these EMI recordings. (Many of them desperately need it.) Typical of Warner, they simply repackage another label's previously released material, slap their logo on it, and release it as if it's their own and somehow new. It is neither.
Warner has done this exact same thing over and over since acquiring the EMI catalog. Their recent Previn set, just a few months earlier, is another prime example. Not to mention the endless glut of Karajan reissues, ad nauseum.
If there is any Classical music lover alive who doesn't already have every Muti (or Previn) recording they could ever want, then here is a place to start - albeit a very expensive one. For everyone else (most of us), these Warner sets are a disgraceful insult to EMI's legacy.
On the other hand...
SONY is a label I continue to support and enjoy. SONY shows this can be done with integrity, dignity, ethics and humbleness. SONY too likes to buy up other labels and reissue their material under their own umbrella. However, unlike Warner, SONY retains the original record label logo (RCA and CBS, and more recently, Conifer) on those releases and clearly identifies and justly attributes original recording provenance. And when they reissue, they do so with a purpose. And with the collector in mind - with low price compilations which are almost always newly remastered. And that's not all. They take it a step further and put some actual thought into it and do a little research and almost always find some rare, obscure, neglected recordings to include - giving them a new lease on life and adding just a spark of excitement to the jaded collector. Just think of all those budget box sets in their Masters series, and the complete conductor, pianist, violinist sets. All offered at great prices, newly remastered and often with never-before-released material. Now THAT'S how it's done. Bravo SONY! When was the last time you saw Warner put that much effort into anything?
After strongly criticizing Alpha Classics for their poor production (regarding layout, presentation and quality control) of the Belcea Quartet's 2019 complete Beethoven String Quartets, I am pleased to make an entirely positive report about this 2015 box of Faure chamber music. None of the problems with the Beethoven is experienced with this Faure. The music is sensibly laid out over 5 CDs (one each dedicated to the Piano Quartets and Quintets, and the rest, for smaller ensembles, logically spread over the remaining 3). The individual sleeves are printed with the correct information and are mercifully free of the sticky substance which lined the Beethoven sleeves. Finally, all the discs are present and accounted for and we're off to a great start. Fortunately, the music on offer is simply superb.
This set, ultimately, is recommendable for just one primary reason - Eric Le Sage at the piano. I could stop writing right here. Anyone who knows Le Sage from his fabulous, comprehensive 1998 recordings of Poulenc chamber music on RCA (reissued complete in a 2016 budget box set) will be happy to experience the same marvelous music-making in Faure. He has French chamber music in his very bones - not only the ultimate in musical interpretation, but also in supreme pianistic abilities. He makes everything sound so effortlessly beautiful, with an incredible variety of tonal colors, articulation and touch.
Moreover, Eric Le Sage attracts the most talented musicians to play with him. I'm not surprised; he's so good, I imagine every musician the world over wants to play with him. I am not familiar with many of them on this collection, although well-known names do appear, such as the Quatuor Ebene, clarinetist Paul Meyer and Flutist Emmanuel Pahud.
I am not extensively experienced with Faure's chamber music. However, I am familiar with the main works on offer (the Piano Quartets/Quintets), particularly from the recordings by the Schubert Ensemble on ASV (Quartets) and Chandos (Quintets). They are very good, certainly, and made enough of a positive impression that I wanted to explore other recordings.
With Le Sage, it's not just the natural outpouring of musical lines, without over emoting, it's also the moving tempos and heartfelt expression - all combining to make the most rewarding listening and lasting impressions. I hear his readings as sounding more rhapsodic, whereas the Schubert Ensemble is a bit more intensely passionate. His Piano Quartets in particular are glorious, with ravishing legato and rapturously soaring, singing lines (thanks especially to the gorgeous violin playing of Daishin Kashimoto). The Quintets are also well done, if without quite the same lightness of touch. The recording is just a bit more forward, and the playing of the Quatour Ebene a touch more intense. I was somewhat surprised to discover the Schubert Ensemble's tempos in the Quintets are actually just slightly faster in every movement (except for the 2nd - Allegro Vivo - which flies like a gossamer dandelion tuft in the breeze with Le Sage), but nearly identical in the Quartets.
But there is a lot more music in this box.
Disc 1 features the Cello and Clarinet Sonatas.
Disc 2 - the Piano Quartets.
Disc 3 - the Piano Quintets.
Disc 4 offers us the music for piano 4-hands, where Le Sage is joined on the bench by Alexandre Theraud. It's all delightfully played with charm and grace, and well recorded. This disc is filled out with even more music. There are three short works for flute (including the famous Fantaisie), and the Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello, which is revealed here to be an absolute masterpiece.
As wonderful as all this is, I do believe they saved the best for last. Disc 5 gives us the two Violin Sonatas, along with incidental selections, again featuring violinist Daishin Kashimoto (as in the Quartets). What a lovely, sweetly singing violin sound he produces. And what a wonderful pairing he and Le Sage make. The ebb-and-flow of musical phrases is a constant pleasure. Indeed, these Sonatas are so colorful, and brought so vividly to life here, Faure's level of accomplishment is elevated to new heights within my understanding of the composer. There is a sense of creative freedom and harmonic expansion that I would never have expected to hear from Faure. They are simply glorious in these magnificent performances.
All of these works are similar to Schumann's String Quartets in that they require a masterful interpretation to bring them fully to life. There is no tolerance for dragging tempos or excessive rubato. Nor can there be any thickness or heaviness in the playing. Natural expression is of utmost importance, as are light-and-shade variety of textures and exploration of tonal color. This set excels in every category. And, again, Eric Le Sage is second to none for these very qualities.
Recorded over a 3-year span (2011-13), the sound throughout is consistently excellent. It sounds fine-tuned and tailored to each set of works and corresponding number of musicians involved. And in each case, the result is perfect for Faure - warm and richly colorful, but well focused, detailed and "present". The musicians are realistically balanced and placed within a spacious acoustic. It really doesn't get much better than this.
Also included is an enormous booklet with exhaustive information about this music. I have spent several days absorbing it all. But, sadly, there is nothing about the musicians. Surely that is an oversight. But I can't even think of finding fault. This is a wonderful box set in every way, and further highlights the blundered efforts with the later Beethoven box. Alpha Classics obviously knows how this should be done.
Finally, to anyone shying away, thinking that Faure chamber music is a little sleepy, I will say that it can be. But not here! Far from it. I was utterly amazed how musically glorious and passionately involving all this music is with Eric Le Sage in charge. I have enjoyed hours and hours of pleasure from it. I highly recommend it, along with the aforementioned Poulenc collection on RCA. French chamber music at its finest.
Dutilleux was my "composer discovery" of the year in 2020. I knew him primarily from his flute music. As a college flutist, I played all of it - attracted by its originality and difficulty. Plus his writing for the piano is equally challenging and interesting. (I also played the piano parts for many fellow flutists.) Last year, I discovered his orchestral music - the 2 symphonies, all those magnificent, descriptive, incredibly orchestrated tone poems, and his string quartet. I was enthralled with (and reviewed) the terrific 3-disc set of orchestral music played by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, recorded live on their own label. And I was hooked.
Exploring further, I also discovered the ballet, Le Loup (The Wolf), on a wonderful 2015 BIS SACD, conducted by Pascal Rophe. I was intrigued by it because it's much more traditional. It sounds more like Roussel than Dutilleux! And the orchestration is more traditional as well. Dutilleux hadn't yet expanded his palette into new territory, with its many new and fascinating orchestral effects and colors, that he later came to master.
So when John Wilson took up this composer with his fabulous Sinfonia of London, I obtained it immediately. And Chandos delivers another stunning SACD. My only disappointment with it is that, unlike most Chandos releases which typically offer 70-80 minutes of music, this one has just 56. It's so good, I want more! Surely they could have recorded just one more piece by this incredible composer.
The ballet in Wilson's hands is more extrovert, lively and dynamic than the colorfully descriptive one on BIS. This is partly due to the recording perspective. BIS is slightly softer, and is more delectably atmospheric. And it positively glows with orchestral color. Chandos is more up-front - bold and energetic.
But the differences are mainly due to the no-nonsense approach from Wilson. Wilson has the ability to lead a body of musicians from one arrival point (sometimes it's a climactic point) to another, without becoming wayward or lingering in between. His understanding of the overall scope of a piece is the key. And the orchestra takes it from there. But this straightforward, nuts-n-bolts direction leans toward the dramatically symphonic, optimizing impact. Listening again to Rophe, his is instantly more obviously "French" - more colorful, characterful, more balletic. (And surely more "authentic".) He also brings out more delicate inner detail. Overall he tells a more interesting story. Both readings are valid and enjoyable, and both orchestras play the score magnificently. Everywhere there is a freshness and spontaneity which is sorely missing on many orchestral recordings. Which one do I ultimately prefer? Definitely Rophe, although I wouldn't want to be without either.
3 soloistic works follow - played here not in their original scoring with piano, but with the orchestra - in new orchestrations by Kenneth Hesketh. Beginning with the Flute Sonatine, with which I am very familiar, I was not surprised I hear it as inferior to the original. It's a bit too Impressionistic in the orchestration. I miss the dynamic interjections and percussive articulation of the piano. And the communicative interplay between the two players is diminished with the orchestration. The piece is so masterfully written for flute and piano, I think it is even more colorful as originally conceived. This version isn't bad by any means. It's just...different. No complaints, though, with Adam Walker's playing of it. He is fabulous - as always. It's good to see him appear on yet another Chandos release (his 3rd so far).
The Oboe Sonate is better. Here, the extra color, texture and ambience created by the orchestra is completely beneficial. It works superbly. And it is played beautifully by Juliana Koch, principal oboist of the London Symphony Orchestra.
I am not at all familiar with the Sarabande & Cortege for bassoon, so cannot comment on the success of the orchestration. I can only observe it sounds excellent - if not really at all like Dutilleux. Chandos spotlights the bassoon to a slightly larger than life presence, and what an impact the piece makes as a result! It is expertly played by Jonathan Davies, principal bassoon of the London Philharmonic.
Oddly, the informative, expansive booklet makes no mention of the soloists. Surely a major oversight. The information I've provided above is the result of Google searches. One wonders if any, or all, of these three also assume principal positions with this Sinfonia of London orchestra for these recording sessions. We know this orchestra is comprised of principal players from throughout the greater London area, so it is a distinct possibility. But Chandos doesn't tell us. They do spend a lot of time on Kenneth Hesketh and his transcriptions. I lost count how many times his name is mentioned. There is also a 3-page transcript of an interview with him. I don't mean to belittle his contribution to this disc, but to highlight him so excessively at the expense of the 3 soloists just seems wrong.
All in all, this is a delightful concert. Anyone hesitant of Dutilluex should give it a try. Set those pre-conceived notions aside and enjoy an afternoon of French orchestral music, which is rather more Impressionistic than it is overtly "modern". It's not Ravel or Debussy, but it is reminiscent of Roussel and early Ibert.
Kitajenko at the ballet. A really dull Nutcracker coupled with a really terrific Divertimento from The Fairy's Kiss
OK, let me open up my Thesaurus and let's get this over with. Kitajenko's Nutcracker is simply unnecessary - lifeless, mundane, dull, unimaginative, long and boring. After recording all the Tchaikovsky symphonies for Oehms Classics, I suppose someone thought he should do the Nutcracker too. That ought to be a money-maker - collectors will want to complete their collections and will just have to buy it, right? I was enticed not because I've collected all of the symphony recordings (I haven't), but because I have heard Kitajenko do some good things in the past. And this was offered at a low price. And look at that wonderful cover art!
Reading in the booklet, I found it amusing that Oehms Classics states Kitajenko's set of the Tchaikovsky symphonies "is being treated as a reference recording". Uh-hem. Don't they wish. I have heard a couple of them, and I will admit they're better than this Nutcracker. But a "reference"? But I digress...
The Nutcracker is one of my favorite of all of Tchaikovsky's creations. I don't categorize it as "Christmas" music, and indeed, I listen to it year round - as evidenced by this review, written in June. The piece presents a real challenge for record producers. It's just too long to fit onto one CD (usually - Jarvi and Gergiev play it fast enough to manage it) and it becomes very short measure to spread out onto two. So decisions must be made as to timings, pricing and couplings/fillers. In this case, tempos are SO slow, one can only conclude the producers wanted to stretch this out to better fill up two CDs. And I'm dismayed Kitajenko agreed. There really is no musical justification for it.
I find it fascinating how many Russian conductors make Russian pieces sound so completely UN-Russian. Vasily Petrenko's recent survey of the 3 famous Stravinsky ballets is a good example. (See my review elsewhere on this bog.) Kitajenko's Nutcracker is another. It's not just the slow tempos (which are really slow). It's not just the smooth, lifeless recording (which lacks sparkle). It's not just the absence of enthusiasm from the orchestra (who are really snoozing through this). Yes, it's all of those things. But really, it's the essence of the score which is completely missing. It's the absence of imagination. Or wonderment. Or the spirit of the dance. Or even a child's delight at the holidays. I'm curious if Mr. Kitajenko really thinks his recording of this ballet would actually inspire anyone to choreograph it? Or want to dance to it? I'm not a dancer, but trying to listen to this, I just wanted to go read a book instead.
Getting into greater detail: After a rather deliberate Overture, the guests begin leisurely strolling in, and one realizes this isn't a holiday party at all, it's a wake! The March which follows is so unimaginably slow (it plods on for an eternal 3 minutes), it must be the arrival of the pallbearers.
(A quick aside here...upon hearing this incredibly slow tempo for the March, I initially perked up for a moment in anticipation that maybe - for once - we would get to hear the bassoons' 16th-note passages in the second half. (They play double 16th-notes along with the cello/bass pizzicatos during the recapitulation.) This little march is normally played so fast, no bassoonist in the world could manage to double-tongue those 16th-notes. Could it be Kitajenko noticed that little detail and played it at this tempo to allow his bassoonists to deliver it up for us? Nope, not a chance. The bassoons are completely buried in the mix, unnoticed, unheard, and no one cared whether they played the notes or not. Incidentally, the tempo indication in the score for it is Tempo di Marcia Viva.)
So then Christmas Eve drags on uneventfully, with no festivity or much interest. No one is having fun. No one notices the Christmas tree has been adorned. And I'm getting sleepy. But surely, the Mouse Battle will spark some life and drama into the evening, right? Again - nope, not a chance. It's simply more symphonic seriousness. And slow tempos continue to weigh it down. By the time we get to the Characteristic Dances, I've lost all hope. Tempos have picked up a bit, but there is no characterization to them. Just more of the same and it's much too serious.
I carp on the tempos for a reason. While timings aren't everything, the lack of enthusiasm that comes with them is a real problem. Just for fun, let's make a quick comparison with another recent recording: Neeme Jarvi's 2014 Chandos SACD.
Act One (including the Overture): Kitajenko - a whopping 51 minutes! Jarvi - 43'
Act Two: Kitajenko - 46' ; Jarvi: 41'
I know, I know...I highly criticized Neeme Jarvi's reading for being too fast. And it is. It is absurdly fast. He's in such a hurry to get it over with, the orchestra scrambles to keep up and no one on the planet could possibly dance to it. But at least it has some life. And energy. And the orchestra is definitely awake! It kept me on the edge of my seat just to hear if the orchestra could manage to keep up with him and play all the notes at those speeds. (Amazingly they do and they can, for the most part.) It is a frenzied whirlwind from beginning to end, completely devoid of charm. And as a musical experience, it is just as wrong as Kitajenko's - in opposite ways.
Is Tchaikovsky's beloved Nutcracker really that difficult to pull off? Every community ballet orchestra in the world can play it and delight their audiences year after year. So why is it so difficult to find a good recording of it? Will I ever be happy? Oh certainly. I've been happy for a long, long time - before any of these newcomers gave it a whirl. Any time I want a glorious Nutcracker, I turn to either of Antal Dorati's recordings (Mercury and Philips), or Rodzinski's incomparable Westminster recording (which still sounds amazingly good for its age), or for the digital era, Ozawa in Boston (DG).
The Gurzenich Orchestra Cologne plays well. None of this is their fault. But that alone can't salvage what is yet another irrelevant Nutcracker, destined to a life of obscurity collecting dust on the shelf. But wait! There's something more here.
This 2-CD set has a coupling. And it is marvelous. I can't begin to explain what happened, but miraculously everyone came to life and recorded an absolutely wonderful Stravinsky/Tchaikovsky Divertimento from The Fairy's Kiss. All of the charm and characterization missing in Nutcracker is vividly displayed here. Even the recorded sound has gained some life, with a little more sparkle, color and presence. It sounds like a different body of musicians. And, frankly, I was relieved to hear that Kitajenko really can lead an orchestra with inspiration and a creative spark. It is regrettable they didn't record the entire ballet. There was plenty of room on the discs for all of it.
Finally, it appears this 2-fer is priced as a single. (I picked it up for just $12!) Therefore it's a pretty good deal. Is it worth if for the Stravinsky alone? I think so. It really is that good. But you have been warned: don't expect the same from the main feature. It will sorely disappoint.
Oxalys is one of my very favorite chamber ensembles and I was excited to obtain this release, which I somehow had previously missed. It was released in 2019 on the passacaille label, produced by Oxalys themselves. This is the second Oxalys release I've seen on this label, the other being their magnificent Mozart Flute Quartets (+ the Clarinet Quintet), a reissue of an original Fuga Libera release. (See my extensive review of it elsewhere on this blog). Formerly, this group has enjoyed several releases on the wonderful Fuga Libera label, all of which are simply fantastic. That label has significantly reduced output in recent months, therefore I'm thrilled to see Oxalys continue making music for passacaille.
The present disc features music by French composer Jean Cras (1879-1932), with whom I am (was) not familiar. He was a direct contemporary of Debussy and Ravel. And listening to this disc, I was pleased to hear French Impressionistic music very much like the two masters. As a matter of fact, the Piano Quintet reminds me very much of Ravel's Piano Trio. And the Quintet for Harp, Flute, Violin, Viola and Cello reminds very much of Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. Similarities include scoring and orchestration, richly colorful, and a plethora of soaring melodies, lyrical and memorable.
However, we're not talking plagiarism here. Cras has a unique voice. He generally sounds slightly more Romantic than the more famous composers, a little less daring (in both creative expression and scoring), and certainly less prolific. But the similarities are striking.
The opening work, La Flute De Pan, features a soprano soloist and panpipes. I will reserve comment on the piece, as this isn't really my thing. (And fortunately it is a fairly short 13'). But the more substantial works which follow it (described above, lasting 33' and 22' respectively) are magnificent in every conceivable way.
The performances here by Oxalys are simply gorgeous. Words fail me as I try to describe the wonderment to be heard. The same can be said for the recorded sound. It is simply perfect for chamber music with regard to focus, color, presence and ambience.
So then, is Jean Cras a forgotten treasure? Based upon what I hear on this disc, I'd say yes. I absolutely loved this music. And it is so well-written and scored, I'd place his music in the same lofty heights as that of Ravel and Debussy. I will be seeking out more from this composer. Amazon's listings reveal a recording of Orchestral Works (including a Piano Concerto) and several others of his chamber music. They appear to be very expensive (at least in the U.S.), so I am on the hunt for affordable copies. Watch this space for future reviews.
This new CD instantly caught my eye. With a title "American Discoveries", played by an orchestra I've never heard of before, and on a label completely new to me, this is exactly something I would be most interested in.
And to clarify any confusion right up front - this sadly is not an SACD, as Amazon's listing describes it. It is CD only. I admit being further enticed by this release because of the SACD designation and was disappointed it was not, especially given its price (more on this later). I don't know if this is an Amazon blunder, or an incorrect product listing provided by the record label.
I couldn't resist reading up on this release before listening. All three composers whose works are featured here are 20th Century American women. These scores are part of a collection of over 22,000 titles in the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. The Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra (a suburb of Philadelphia) was originally founded in 1946 to provide music for the First Presbyterian Church of Lansdowne, PA. Subsequent conductors along the way have "raised its capabilities" and elevated it into a "distinguished community orchestra". (I'm summarizing the booklet notes).
And what a marvelous collection of music we have here. And it is, for the most part, reasonably well played and recorded. This community orchestra cannot match the lofty standards we hear from professional orchestras, particularly with regard to polish and beauty of tone. But the playing is accomplished and Reuben Blundell is a confident leader.
The shortest work, at just under 5', starts us off. Priscilla Alden Beach's City Trees paints a serene and majestic landscape, unmistakably reminiscent of Howard Hanson. It's interesting to learn that Hanson actually conducted its premier, in 1928. It is creative, pleasant and expressive, and sets the tone perfectly for this concert.
Following it, Linda Robbins Coleman's For A Beautiful Land is more substantial (lasting 10'), but displays a slightly less unique compositional voice. It sounds distinctly "American", with a feeling of wide open spaces and the great outdoors. Yes, there are hints of Copland, but not too much. Its memorable tunefulness, colorful scoring and sprawling, descriptive nature would make it a splendid ballet. The orchestral playing here reveals its "community" origins a bit more than in the preceding work. There is some exposed violin playing here and there, and the orchestral blend overall is a bit rough. But it isn't too serious and didn't inhibit musical enjoyment.
The final work is the real find. Alexandra Pierce's Behemoth, in five short movements is certainly the most assured, accomplished, substantial and musically interesting of the three. And it is expertly orchestrated. She possesses a unique voice, sounding neither particularly "American" or "outdoorsy". It's more overtly "modern" and demonstrative, with a rather restrained use of melody. It's more about color, texture and atmosphere. And the orchestration is impressive all through, particularly her skillful use of the percussion. I especially enjoyed the 4th movement, which features percussion predominantly. My only reservation of the work is with the final (5th) movement, with its unfulfilling, non-climactic ending. It simply just ends, as if in mid-sentence - without resolve or a sense of "arriving". I also don't hear this movement sounding at all "jazzy", as its tempo indication specifies. Nor does it sound even remotely like a "burlesque", as it's described in the booklet. It sounds to me more like very dramatic movie music. (Is the orchestra playing the right piece?) Criticisms aside, it is a masterful work which I greatly enjoyed. The orchestra plays it well and the recorded sound is good.
(I do wish this fine composer would take a stab at revising that final movement. With a more purposeful direction toward a satisfying ending, it would deserve to be played often, alongside other great works from modern composers, such as Jennifer Higdon.)
As to the production, let's get the one negative out of the way. My only complaint about this CD is the extremely short overall playing time of just 30 minutes. For a full-price release, this is simply unacceptable, especially knowing it's not an SACD, as Amazon incorrectly lists it. However, taking into account the adventurous repertoire and the humble origins of the musicians involved, I obviously decided to buy the disc anyway. And it is so rewarding musically, I'm really glad I did.
As to the recorded sound, it is pretty good. In the first two works (recorded in 2019), the sound is a bit 2-dimensional, with a close-up perspective in a rather dry acoustic, which, frankly, does this orchestra no favors. I wonder if that bit of exposed string playing I noted earlier may very well have been partly due to unflattering microphone placement. But it is sufficiently colorful and pleasant as to not hinder the music. The final work, recorded several months later, in 2020, is slightly better. It is a bit more 3-dimensional, and spacious, with the orchestra placed at a more natural distance from the listener. It affords the orchestra just a touch more color, blend and luster, which is all advantageous.
The label, New Focus Recordings, is one I had not encountered before. I read on its website: It is an "artist led collective label...started because we wanted to have creative control over all elements of the recording and post-production process." This is exactly the type of project I love to support. There is a well-written booklet, with lots of information about the composers, the music and the musicians. This disc is highly recommended, despite its short playing time and less than perfect orchestral playing.
BIS is one of those labels which consistently puts out quality product. On my shelves sit disc after disc of beautifully recorded music on this label, often of non-standard repertoire, played by less well-known performers/ensembles. This latest disc continues the tradition of high quality, with a truly enticing program selection.
This release has so much going for it, it's difficult to know where to begin.
First, the repertoire is adventurous and imaginative. It features 4 works, each carrying the name Divertimento or Divertissement.
Second, it is played by a group unknown to me - the Berlin-based "c/o chamber orchestra". In addition to their very clever name, they play without a conductor. And the booklet states: "It is both a single group and a collection of individual artists...coming from throughout Europe, from over a dozen different countries." They play with individuality, but also as a collective whole, with a unified approach as one would hear from, say, a seasoned string quartet. The playing is absolutely first-class in every way - accomplished and musical, and imbued throughout with a freshness of new discovery.
Third, the recorded sound is excellent. Daringly, the chamber orchestra plays in an enormous hall (Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin), with an inherently voluminous acoustic and corresponding reverberation. But BIS's recording engineers are so skilled, the orchestra is perfectly focused and realistically placed within it, sounding spacious, "present" and 3-dimensional. That reverb is masterfully controlled and never swamps or blurs the music-making. Indeed, one is transported to the best seat in the house, with the orchestra laid out realistically in front of the listener.
And finally - again - the playing is marvelous.
Beginning with a piece I am not terribly fond of, I was relieved to hear the group not make too much of the silliness in Ibert's Divertissement. Given its moments of outrageous scoring (including whistles, and trombone slides, etc.), and with Mendelssohn's Wedding March interjected here and there, the piece can often sound disjointed and over-the-top. But not so much here, aided by BIS's refined sound. Still, there's no getting around its attempt at humor still sounds rather silly (at least to me). The c/o makes the most out of it, however, and I found it rather more fun than usual.
Eager to move on, I discovered a real find - the double woodwind quintet by Emile Bernard. It is a wonderfully imaginative work, in 3 contrasting movements which are substantial, colorful and interesting. The booklet describes it as having "symphonic ambitions", and that is spot on. As a matter of fact, it is so well constructed and scored, it took me quite awhile before I realized there were no strings! After a quick search on Amazon, I found only one other recording of it, which makes this BIS all the more valuable.
Next, the strings take the stage in Bartok's wonderful Divertimento. Wisely, the c/o's string section is supplemented with reinforcements for this work. Their numbers are nearly doubled, which is reasonable (and essential) for the piece. I'm very impressed they realized its importance and took the necessary efforts (and expense). My definitive standard of the Bartok is Solti's superlative 1990 Decca recording with the Chicago Symphony string section. And what an impressive piece it is with a full complement of strings at play. And of course, Solti is incomparable in Bartok, with incisive articulation and spectacular dynamic range. But the c/o nearly matches it, aided by the large acoustic and with the additional players (as noted above). I did detect that this work sounds slightly recessed and more atmospheric compared to the others recorded here. And a quick glance at the booklet reveals it was indeed recorded at different sessions, two years later. But no matter, it sounds terrific.
The highlight of the program, though, comes last - a new work (2017) by Michael Ippolito. I was immediately captivated. Ippolito is a master of orchestration, and this work reminds me of Bartok in places - not only of his Divertimento which precedes it on this disc, but also his Concerto for Orchestra. As a matter of fact, the work is so substantial and colorfully scored, I kept thinking of it as a miniature 'concerto for orchestra'. His orchestration is such that each section of the orchestra has moments in the spotlight. It is structured in 4 substantial movements, each contrasting and strongly characterized. It is so well written - and enjoyable and entertaining - I look forward to more music from this enormously talented composer. (In the meantime, I luckily found an Amazon listing for a recording of his string quartet music, played by the Attacca Quartet, on Azica Records.)
On a technical note, it sounds like there was a slight adjustment in the mics for the Ippolito, giving it a slight boost in impact and presence. While mostly beneficial, the basses take on a bit of unnecessary boominess which was not present before. I mention it not to nit-pick, but merely as an observation from an audiophile perspective. Those with small speakers may not be bothered by it at all.
Finally, I really like how the concert opens and closes with works for full (chamber) orchestra, with a work for winds, then one for strings, sandwiched in between. Once again, BIS scores with imaginative and logical programming. The entire production is thoroughly first class, up to the usual high standards we expect from BIS. The terrific liner notes are written by composer Michael Ippolito.
This is a CD-only release. Why? Are they going to issue this on multi-channel SACD at some time in the future, after many of us have already purchased the CD? They've done this before; therefore I'm REALLY hesitant to buy this.
It's also interesting to learn this was recorded in 2016. And is just now seeing the light of day.
Many of RR's recent issues have been abysmal as recordings. However, their Kansas City SACDs have been pretty good. So why has this one been lying in obscurity for so long? And why, after the wait, is it CD only? Reference Recordings is up to their old tricks again, me thinks. And I'm not getting suckered into it this time.
Maybe it's because there are so many fabulous recordings of the 3 classic Stravinsky ballets; or maybe it's the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic's rather dry, airless acoustic Onyx has to deal with; or, more likely, maybe it's both. But the fact of the matter is these are rather routine readings with somewhat mediocre sound. But let's not rule them out just yet, because Petrenko has an ace up his sleeve in the form of some imaginative and worthwhile couplings.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Let's get the technical details out of the way first. The Firebird and The Golden Cockerel were recorded in 2016; all the rest in 2017. It's odd that Onyx waited until 2020 to release the 3rd disc (Petrushka and La Boutique). But all have the same sonic fingerprints. The orchestra is set within a rather dry, airless acoustic, flat and somewhat cramped in dimensionality. More seriously, warmth and bass fullness are limited. That being said, the sound is sufficiently colorful and detailed, and the orchestra plays with precision. It's just a little lackluster, and far from the most sumptuous sound you'll hear from a modern digital recording of a symphony orchestra.
So getting down to business: Vasily is certainly no Kirill. Oh I know, they are not related; but comparisons are irresistible given they share the same last name and both have Russian roots. But clearly, Vasily doesn't have the Russian fire in his blood that Kirill almost always brings to the podium.
There is nothing wrong, really, with these Stravinsky readings. They just aren't distinguished or in any way memorable. Most striking, though, is they don't sound the slightest bit "Russian", tending to be civilized and proper in a very British way. The Rite in particular is lightweight, denying us the menacing primitiveness (and horror) of the storyline. However, its very fleetness allows it to sound more than usual like an actual ballet. And there are arguments to be made in favor of that. In particular, the final Sacrificial Dance is VERY fast and incisively articulate, and dances its way to a thrilling climax. As a matter of fact, I am reminded of Seiji Ozawa's first recording of this piece, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1968, RCA), which brings out the spirit of the dance like no other. However, it must be said, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is no Chicago Symphony. Nonetheless, this is an enjoyable Rite in its own right. (Sorry...pun intended).
The Firebird is actually pretty good, if only the recording was more lush and spacious, and it is played in its original 1910 version. I normally prefer Stravinsky's original scores over the revisions. However, in this case, the misguided scoring of a sustained trumpet high D (or a C#, if played on a Bb trumpet) through the final fanfare is annoyingly harsh and grating. Nothing wrong here with the RLP's principal trumpet player; it's just one of the rare Stravinsky missteps, which the revision mercifully eliminates.
Now to the couplings. While the somewhat airless, cramped recording quality remains, the extra music seems to come alive more, and is even more colorful. Perhaps this orchestra hasn't played these pieces in awhile, bringing a sense of freshness to the fore. I was particularly pleased to at last have a wonderful new recording of Rimsky's Le Coq d'Or (Golden Cockerel) Suite in modern digital sound. It is splendidly played and much more colorful and refined than we've heard on previous recordings of it. It's also very exciting. On the companion disc, Debussy's Printemps is beautifully done. And if Rachmaninov's Vesna (Spring), in which the orchestra is joined by the RLP Chorus, is a bit out of place surrounded by purely orchestral music, these seem appropriate as couplings for the Rite of Spring - if in name only.
Unfortunately, Onyx did not save the best for last. The 3rd disc offers up an unexceptional Petrushka, similar to its companions, lightweight and fleet (almost flippant). And its coupling should have been a delight, but isn't. Rossini/Respighi's La Boutique Fantasque is played here in its trivial and pointlessly truncated "suite", compiled (butchered) by Malcolm Sargent. The playing time is not especially generous (54'), so the entire ballet would have easily fit. I suppose I shouldn't lament all the missing music, for what remains is determinedly earthbound. And irritatingly, Petrenko insists on making musical points here and there, with some weird hesitations and unmarked subito-piano crescendos. It sounds as if he's trying to bring symphonic weight and seriousness to this music. I can't for the life of me understand why.
(P.S. I refer to Stravinsky's second masterpiece here as Petrushka, rather than the usual Petroushka, simply because that is how Onyx lists it on this CD. They also state it is the original 1911 version.)
I recently praised Oehms Classics for combining two less-than-stellar releases and reissuing them as a very inexpensive 2-fer. Onyx really should do the same with these Petrenko discs. They would make a splendid 3-pack, if priced right.