I have been collecting CDs of Kenneth Fuchs’ music over the years and have found much to enjoy. However, I often hear a pleasant sameness to it (not unlike how I would describe the music of Alan Hovhaness), sometimes lacking originality and inspirational creativity. There have been a few standouts, though, which keep me coming back for more. For example, his String Quartets #2-4 (played by The American String Quartet on a 2000 Albany CD) are exemplary. I also greatly enjoyed his 2016 Piano Concerto (played by Jeffrey Biegel) and a 2012 Naxos orchestral collection played by the LSO, which includes two terrific pieces, Atlantic Riband and Discovery the Wild. Fuchs has certainly benefited from the advocacy of the fabulous conductor JoAnn Falletta on the Naxos recordings. She can bring music to life in ways which make it instantly approachable, appealing and gratifying - affording it every opportunity to be accessible and enjoyed by many.
However, none of what has come before prepared me for the excellence heard on this new Chandos collection from John Wilson and his incredible Sinfonia of London. As good as the LSO sounds on Naxos, Chandos takes it to a whole other level of musical and sonic satisfaction. One is instantly immersed in the music - drenched in sumptuous orchestral color, zestful vitality and thrilling dynamics. This orchestra, as recorded by the Chandos engineers, shimmers with vibrancy and effervescent exuberance. And once again I must proclaim this string section to be completely unmatched by any other orchestra today. They are absolutely magnificent.
The music of Kenneth Fuchs has been described as the very essence of Americana. With scarcely a hint of the forefathers of American music (Copland, Gershwin, Still, et al), his music is descriptive and compelling - falling squarely into more contemporary styles without resorting to shallow, atonal modernism. The music contained on this collection is flavored with splashes of Michael Torke, the rhythmic insistence of John Adams, energy of Paul Creston, and chordal harmonies of Alan Hovhaness. His skills at orchestration are paramount. He can make almost anything (or almost nothing) engaging just with varied, colorful and interesting scoring. And with John Wilson on the podium, it all comes to life as never before imagined.
Starting off the program with a trilogy called Cloud Slant, we hear what is, in my estimation, a true masterpiece. Fuchs subtitles it “Concerto for Orchestra”, which I’m not sure necessarily fits. However, it certainly is a dazzling display featuring every section of the orchestra with swirling waves of sound alternating with rich washes of color and glimmering brilliance. The first movement, “Blue Fall”, reminds me very much of Torke’s vivacious Javelin, while the 3rd movement, “Cloud Slant”, is remarkably reminiscent of Britten's Four Sea Interludes. The central section, “Flood”, is even more uniquely Fuchs, featuring lush, shimmering strings vibrant with air and texture, brimming with anticipation. John Wilson can glean the slimmest of musical lines and coax his strings (and later, the horns) into making them soar. And the music simply blossoms.
If I had initially deemed the opening work Fuchs’ masterpiece, I was reevaluating that observation after hearing his magnificent flute concerto, entitled Solitary the Thrush (which references lines from Whitman’s elegy, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.) Knowing the composer’s primary instrument is (was) the flute, it’s perhaps odd that only now, some 50 years into his career, has he embarked on writing a flute concerto.
It’s not a traditional “concerto” though, at least not structurally. Rather than laid out in the typical 3 movements, it is instead cast in just one, with contrasting, continuous, free-flowing sections within it. Even more notably, it is scored for not just the regular “C” flute, but also the alto flute as well. The latter is featured in the expansive Adagietto central section and again in the final slow section at the very end.
This concerto strays even further from the traditional in that it’s not a vehicle for virtuoso fireworks. Rather, it is a lyrical, deeply felt, emotional outpouring, imbued with rich harmonies and atmospheres punctuated by interesting interjections from the orchestra. Fuchs has a gift for writing melodious lines; but even more, it is his ability to create atmosphere which is most impressive. All through I was captivated by the interplay between solo flute and orchestral players - from violins to the English Horn, and especially with the orchestral piccolo - as if engaged in ongoing conversations.
Above all, the playing of the solo part by Adam Walker is truly wondrous. I have noted before the vivid characterization in his playing and his glorious tone, and these qualities are everywhere in evidence here. The varied tonal colors and speed of vibrato, the vibrant pianissimos, the glistening upper octave and astounding dynamic range engage the listener in every phrase. And his sound on the alto flute is haunting without being noticeably dark, breathy or overtly “whoo-ey”, as is so often the case. His beguiling sound is consistent on both instruments - so much so that one almost doesn’t notice when he switches from one to the other, until we hear that plaintive lower range of the alto.
What a gorgeous piece of music this is. And what ravishing flute playing. I can’t remember the last time I was so affected by a new piece of music. As a matter of fact, I was so profoundly moved by it, I had to take some time before I could continue on with the rest of the program. This, along with his aforementioned early string quartets (1993-1998) and Cloud Slant, must surely be considered among Fuchs' very finest creations.
Pacific Vision is a short, spirited work for strings, which is certainly appropriate for this orchestra to play, given its marvelous string section. It is the most overtly “American” of the entire program, with an energetic, outdoorsy feel interspersed with sweetly singing, lyrical interludes. It displays some dashing violin writing, including the deliberate use of the open E string and rapid glissandos up to harmonic high Es, reminiscent of some good ol’ country fiddling. But it’s all in good taste - never crude like an Arkansas hoedown, but certainly evoking the fun times of the County fair. And honestly, it was heartening to hear these musicians let their hair down and revel in their singular virtuosity. Even in something this seemingly lighthearted, they still put their all into it.
Elsewhere, this string section shines with vibrant singing lines and airy textures, accentuated by crisp, articulate bowing. The shimmering vibrato Wilson elicits from this group is quite extraordinary.
The final work, despite its title, Quiet in the Land, is more serious – and very dramatic. It is much more symphonic in nature than anything else on the program, featuring the percussion and brass more prominently. There is an enormous dynamic range, with spectacular climaxes so massive they bring to mind a thunderstorm on the plains (ala Ferde Grofe) or perhaps a mighty storm at sea (Britten again.) But there are quiet passages too - the calm under a moonlit sky ominous with apprehension and anticipation. The piece ends with more of the incredible atmosphere Fuchs is masterful at portraying, and the still of the night takes us to the end of a wonderful concert.
I can’t emphasize strongly enough the contribution of this amazing orchestra to the success of this music. Their playing goes beyond the routine we typically hear in orchestral recordings today. Freshness and spontaneity permeate every note with an irresistible sense of discovering something new and wonderful.
The booklet goes into great detail as to the origins of each work - including who commissioned them, who premiered them and what inspired the composer to write them. I’ll not go into detail here as I’d encourage everyone who enjoys orchestral music to buy this disc and read about it at your leisure.
Finally, I cannot conclude without discussing the recorded sound. This is a multi-channel SACD (for those of us who still value such things) and is a stellar example of the superiority of the higher-quality format over standard CD. The effortless dynamic range, the lush acoustic, the massive power of a symphony orchestra at full tilt filling the hall, and the rich orchestral colors - all combine to produce a stupendous listening experience. This, along with this team's Rachmaninoff and “Hollywood Soundstage” albums, is a demonstration-worthy recording which simply exemplifies the state-of-the-art. They are among the very best-sounding full-scale orchestral recordings I have heard.
This disc should appeal to anyone who loves orchestral music. And even if the very idea of an entire program consisting of pleasant, tonal, approachable Americana isn’t really something you’d be drawn to, you should hear what a sensational recording this is. And even more, witness how a modern symphony orchestra should play. It harkens back to the day when orchestras still had character and enthusiasm, inspired by a conductor capable of molding them into something extraordinary. What an incredibly rare thing that is today.
There is something to be said for an established group - a Trio or Quartet, for example - playing as an experienced ensemble, presenting a unified vision to bring life and freshness to classic masterworks. As opposed to what we have here: 4 individuals thrust together for a recording session and hoping for the best. Predictably, each sounds determined to make their mark on what they play and stand out from the pack with their "uniqueness". In particular, this violinist and pianist seem to be trying to outdo one another with musical point-making - demonstrating who can be the boldest, the bravest, and the most daring to bedazzle us.
And Mozart gets lost in the free-for-all.
I try to be as favorable as I can in my reviews of new recordings. In the spirit of being supportive, I'll make an effort to temper my criticism of those I find fault with, honestly pointing out the deficiencies while countering with as many positives as are surely evident. But what I can’t do is be like Gramophone magazine (and others) and pretend everything is great. (I question whether they actually listen to some of the CDs they "review".) And on this latest Chandos Mozart release, there is no sugar-coating it.
The playing is so endlessly fussy I simply couldn’t tolerate it long enough to find many positives. Pianist Federico Colli is the worst offender by far, and starts in with it right from the opening measures of the G minor with idiosyncratic affectations. There are some awkward hesitations right from the get-go, and he goes even further by applying odd tenutos at the start of trills followed by ritardandos coming out of them. And these idiosyncrasies continue throughout, becoming downright pretentious in, for example, the opening of the Rondo. And he is very extravagant with frivolous embellishment and ornamentation as well.
The others follow suit in their own ways (most notably the violin) where hardly a phrase goes by without some obvious point-making - more tenutos, awkward hesitations, abrupt rubatos - masquerading as “expression”. And the endless ornamentation gets to be almost overwhelming after a while. (As a matter of fact, the violinist gets so caught up in it I noted a couple moments of insecurity in her playing, which surprised me.)
The Eb Major is marred further by overindulgent rubato in the piano. Tempos are barely established before Colli slams on the brakes at every opportunity - each time he plays alone or sees a dolce indication. Momentum is disrupted so frequently the opening movement hardly feels like an Allegro, while the final Allegretto is annoyingly twee.
Interestingly, I thought the viola and cello sounded rather more focused on Mozart and getting on with the matters at hand. And I couldn’t help but wonder if they found the experience frustrating trying to fit in with what this violinist and, especially this pianist, are doing.
As a group, there are positives for sure. Dynamics are good (although enhanced unnecessarily at times); tempos in the G minor are good (but never really settled in the Eb Major); and the playing is highly accomplished. These are hallmarks of what should make satisfactory readings. But there’s got to be more to it than that. How I wish these youngsters had just sat down and played Mozart rather than determinedly trying to do something to it. The genius of Mozart is the sheer perfection of his music, which doesn’t need all this “help”.
And Chandos doesn’t do them any favors. While the players are laid out in a realistic, relaxed perspective, with the piano expertly balanced, the strings sound thin (especially the violin) and a bit grainy. While this is a standard CD rather than the usual higher-quality SACD, there is no excuse for grainy string tone. And maybe Francesca Dego really does have a thin, wiry, slightly nasal tone (despite the booklet claiming she is "celebrated for her sonorous tone"). But I wonder if she actually likes how she sounds on this Mozart recording.
I know I’m being critical. But I was so annoyed with what they kept doing to Mozart, I couldn’t get past it. And unfortunately for all involved, it was just by chance I had just listened to the superb 2002 Hyperion recording of these masterpieces played by the wonderful Leopold String Trio and pianist Paul Lewis. And how glorious their playing is in every way – radiant, musical, effortlessly expressive and utterly natural. No fussiness; no musical point making; no “HEY LOOK AT WHAT I’M DOING!” going on from any of them. It’s just pure, unadulterated Mozart, played with consummate musicianship and life-affirming joy. And Paul Lewis’s pianism is truly a marvel. His leggiero in particular is a wonder to behold, along with exquisite delicacy, crisp articulation and natural, effortless musicality. He demonstrates with mastery exactly how to caress a phrase without slowing down the tempo or disrupting the spirit of an Allegro. And the trio of strings matches him, united in interpretation and inspiration. What a resplendent performance it is and beautifully recorded by the Hyperion team.
After a few days, I decided to give the Chandos another try. Listening to it again, I was still highly annoyed with their fussiness but was at least able to get all the way through it. However on a third day, I simply couldn’t tolerate it for more than a few minutes and turned it off. Consistent with all three encounters was the feeling this recording isn’t really about Mozart at all. It’s about these young, up-and-coming musicians - all Chandos regulars - making a show of it. And I’m usually all for it – within reason. But this isn’t the way to do it.
In closing, I don’t mean to diminish the achievement of these fine musicians. After all, they are recording with the premier Classical label and are well underway in establishing distinguished careers. However, I’m not sure they were quite ready to play chamber music together (especially Dego and Colli) without a little more experience playing as a team rather than individuals. I almost feel bad for Timothy Ridout and Laura van der Heijden getting strapped into this. And frankly, I’m disheartened that Chandos would produce it at this point.
This is the 2nd CD I’ve heard recently which contains largely forgettable new music, with the exception of incredibly imaginative creations by Michael Gilbertson. The first such album, the Verona Quartet‘s “shatter”, was memorable solely for Gilbertson’s marvelous String Quartet. And what a terrific piece it is. (My review of it appears below on my blog.)
I bought this disc at hand specifically for the new Gilbertson piece. But I was also intrigued by the relatively new phenomenon, the reed quintet - which sets out to reinvent the traditional woodwind quintet by replacing the flute and horn with other reed instruments, a saxophone and bass clarinet, supplementing the retained oboe, bassoon and clarinet. Hence, the reed quintet.
A group of Dutch high school musicians conceived the idea as long ago as 1985, officially creating the first group of its kind, the Calefax Reed Quintet, in 1997. The Detroit-based American group, Akropolis, was formed in 2009 utilizing the same complement of instrumentalists. Calefax has made several records for Pentatone, while Akropolis has 3 thus far, each on a different label. (There is also an earlier digital-download album, and they appear more recently on a vocal album relegated to accompaniment duties.) The CD under review here was released in 2021 on New Focus Recordings. Significantly, it features 5 new works commissioned by/for them.
I love this group and I love their sound. It is blended and textured in a way the traditional woodwind quintet can’t quite achieve. I’ve never heard anything quite like it, actually. Further, each member plays with an individuality which is characterful and enthusiastic. And I appreciate that the group specializes in original, contemporary works written specifically for the genre, while the Dutch group tends to play arrangements, often involving vocalists, on their Pentatone albums (which I have not been inclined to try). I like new music and I especially wanted to hear more from Michael Gilbertson, so I started exploring the genre with Akropolis's album, “Ghost Light”.
I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the music itself. And I made the mistake of listening to Gilbertson’s piece first - which is so fantastic, it tends to eclipse everything else on the program.
In the opening work, Stacy Garrop doesn’t always sound quite comfortable writing for this particular instrumentation in her Rites For The Afterlife. Its brooding soundscape is determinedly atonal and rather thick and unimaginatively scored. This, along with her penchant for lip slurs, gets tiring real fast. The clarinet and, especially saxophone, play an ongoing series of moaning phrases affected by endless lip slurs. The meager material outstays its welcome even in the opening movement which seems to last longer than its 5-minute playing time.
Hoping for some variety and relief from it, the 2nd movement continues exactly as the first, but now with some punctuated honking accompaniment from the bass clarinet. The 3rd movement picks up, though. It is more agitated and gains much needed momentum. But it almost gets away from itself as Garrop writes some extraordinarily difficult, extremely fast articulated passages which are nearly impractical for reed instruments. I have to give these musicians credit. They just manage to play all those double-tongued notes, though not without the uneasiness of a train about to fly off its tracks. Unfortunately, the music soon degenerates into some screeching lip slurring, now in both directions - up and down.
The lyrical finale, though, is quite wonderful. Aptly named “Field of Reeds”, it is pleasing and heartfelt, conjuring up the wide open spaces of the American Midwest with its melancholy hints of Copland. This was by far the most moving and memorable section of the entire piece.
Skipping over the Gilbertson for a moment, I'll jump ahead to the 3rd piece on the program, Niloufar Nourbakhsh’s Firing Squad. According to the booklet, the group plays along with a previously recorded version of them playing the piece, “adjusted for effect” to act as a “mirror of acoustic sounds”. Cool. That is certainly novel and piqued my interest. But try as I might, I simply couldn’t hear any such effect on this CD recording. Perhaps that is intended just for live performances. Or maybe I was too distracted by his even more brazen use of lip slurs in all 5 instruments, slowly drawn out and exaggerated for maximum impact. The piece goes on relentlessly for 7-½ minutes with no relief from it. I am at a loss to understand why both these composers would utilize the lip slur so profusely.
Seed to Snag by Theo Chandler sounds much more promising. The first movement, “Sprout”, instantly creates an interesting, otherworldly atmosphere with its use of arpeggiated triads in various instruments. This goes on for quite some time before developing into scalic flourishes, followed by more atmosphere – now with trills replacing tremolos. It’s intriguing but ultimately goes on a little too long. (This movement alone is 7 minutes in length.)
“Stretch” (2nd movement) features the bassoon in what sounds to be a difficult solo, much of it in the highest register, expertly played here by Ryan Reynolds. (No, not that Ryan Reynolds! I was amused when googling the name, even followed by the word “bassoon”, Google still brings up the actor in the search results.) It is but a brief interlude before the final movement, “Sow”, at last reveals some real creative inspiration and purpose from this composer. This is wonderfully inventive and adeptly orchestrated. Chandler uses combinations of instruments, in separate groupings, with interesting underlying accompanying figures, creating rhythmic motivation and musical involvement. The music is interesting, engaging and, at times, positively delightful - brought marvelously to life by these fine musicians. This, along with the Gilbertson piece, is undeniably one of the most outstanding compositional accomplishments of the entire program.
Irritation set in as I attempted to maneuver through to the final work, Homage to Paradise Valley by Jeff Scott. The recording contains poetry readings preceding the 1st, 2nd and 4th movements. I am never a fan of spoken word or narration as part of a music program and was resistant right off the bat. And sure enough, the voice was instantly intrusive and annoying, disrupting the musical program. Making matters worse, there is no detailed track listing for this piece, making it nearly impossible to avoid it. I eventually discovered that the poems are in fact individually tracked, thus one could theoretically program the CD player to skip them. However, without an informative track listing providing the necessary details, it’s very difficult to figure out, especially as the pattern is inconsistent with the absence of a poem preceding just one of the sections.
Exasperated, I would have given up, but persevered for the sake of this review. And I almost didn’t make it through the opening couple of minutes, which is brooding, slow-moving and thickly scored. Just as I was reaching for the stop button on the remote, some shrill oboe trills interrupted the gloom and things began to perk up. What follows is some descriptive, interesting story-telling (and the booklet is helpful in describing what the composer is portraying). There are sections of lively animation - a sort of urban exuberance - alternated with heavy memories weighing it down with more darkness. The movement is surely too long at nearly 10 minutes, but there is sufficient variety to keep it interesting.
The 2nd movement is also a bit depressing with its very long, opening a cappella bass clarinet solo (which goes on for 2 whole minutes). It is expressively played with deeply felt emotion here by Andrew Koeppe, and despite the oppression of it, his gorgeous, textured tone kept me interested. Suddenly, he is joined by others invoking a lively, nightclub atmosphere which had me smiling. Soon though, the music takes us back to some longing nostalgia, including a brief (and quite wonderful) lyrical duet for the oboe and bass clarinet before it’s done. Overall, this movement is varied, imaginative and very enjoyable; another standout of the program.
The 3rd movement (mercifully sans poem) continues with more thoughtful contemplation, featuring a mournful bassoon. Very nice. Then…(quick with the remote to skip the next poem), the 4th movement raises our spirits in a lively and articulate finale filled with jazz and blues licks in an atmosphere reminiscent of the theater. The lip slur makes a brief (and welcome) appearance here, but is incorporated tastefully and appropriately within the context of the music, demonstrating exactly how it should be done! And what an entertaining conclusion to a fascinating and varied piece of music. If not for the intrusive spoken word (which really is unnecessary), I would have enjoyed the piece much more.
Saving the best for last, let's go back to Michael Gilbertson’s Kinds of Light. I don’t use the word amazing very often, but it is absolutely appropriate here. Ingeniously crafted and expertly scored for this specific instrumentation, it bursts forth with natural inspiration and true creativity. The music is positively energized with vitality - articulate, rhythmic, musically engaging and endlessly varied. Never weighed down with thick, dense tonal clusters, textures are airy, transparent and vivid.
Immediately in the 1st movement, Gilbertson employs groups of 3, then 4, then all 5, to create chordal harmonies even in busy, rhythmic passagework. His 2nd movement is a lyrical ballad imbued with rich harmonies as in choral music. Gilbertson has written a lot of choral music and he finds the same blended qualities here with the reed quintet. The 3rd movement is scintillating, with rapid-fire articulation back and forth among the players as if in conversation. The endless variety and descriptive characterization extends into the 4th movement, which opens and closes with hints of minimalism, while its central section erupts into a dazzling display of swing rhythms and jazzy chordal progressions, as if continuing the conversation started in the previous movement. Dave Grusin came to mind here, bringing much pleasure.
This piece is a tour de force, not only for its creativity and imaginative scoring, but also it is the perfect length. And this is important, especially as most of the companion works on this program are decidedly too drawn out for their own good. Gilbertson’s 4 concise, contrasting movements last just under 9 minutes total. It’s like an excellent short story written for maximum engagement and interest - a page-turner one can't put down until it's finished. Gilbertson’s Light is the musical equivalent - a wonderful little gem one can listen to again and again, especially as played so brilliantly here.
Considering this program as a whole, much of this music wasn’t instantly gratifying. Moreover, an 80-minute CD of it is rather too much for one sitting. However, I was constantly fascinated by the variety of sounds (when scored that way) and the gorgeous blend produced by this combination of wind instruments. Certainly the Akropolis Reed Quintet makes the strongest possible case for this type of ensemble. They are phenomenal musicians and I admired their playing at every turn.
Finally we come to what is perhaps the most salient characteristic of this CD - the excellent recorded sound engineered by Dave Schall Acoustic for New Focus Recordings. Clean, clear and colorful, it is impressive in its immediacy and realism. Listening to this CD, we don’t just encounter 5 inanimate instruments making sound. Rather, we are placed in the presence of living, breathing humans making real music in a palpable acoustic. Listening attentively, I hear the occasional intake of breath; the faint, but distinct clatter of saxophone keys (and I believe the bass clarinet as well); and the tangible position of each player spread across the stage. As a listening experience in the home environment (provided one has the benefit of a high-quality stereo system), the sound is stunning in its sense of being there.
New Focus Records extends the high production values to the enclosed booklet, chock full of informative and interesting notes about the music, the composers and musicians. And most of all to the amazing cover art, created by UK artist Ashton Springer, which is intriguing and captivating. It literally made me want to buy this CD. I am singularly impressed.
I saw Grazyna Bacewicz listed on the front of this CD and thought, oh, yet another Chandos release of her music. But I was happy to see another composer with whom I was not familiar, the Polish composer Joachim Mendelson, and bought it anyway. As I began listening to his String Quartet #1 (which comes first on the CD), I was struck by the free-flowing, spontaneous nature of the music. And was drawn in even more by the involving, characterful playing of the wonderful Silesian Quartet.
Mendelson (who, interestingly, was afflicted by "dwarfism") was born in Warsaw, trained there (and later in Berlin) before settling in Paris. And this is reflected in his music, which contains an interesting combination of Polish and French influences. He composed this string quartet while in Paris in the early 30s and the distinctive French flavoring is present throughout.
The 1st movement starts a little hesitantly, with some unexpected discord which sounds for all the world like clunkers - some wrong notes being played. While it’s a little unusual, one can be assured it’s all intentional; the Silesian Quartet surely doesn’t make mistakes! The music is playful, coquettish even, in an opening movement which is endlessly varied. In fact, there are no fewer than 14 different tempo indications prescribed in this movement alone! Curiously, the booklet writer goes into great detail describing this movement but then fails to even mention the following two movements, moving on directly to another work on the program instead. How completely odd.
Fully engaged in the variety of moods on display, Debussy eventually makes an appearance and strongly influences much of this music, though there remains a prevailing con spirito feel. The Largo introduces us to a more lyrical side of Mendelson, although a truly memorable tune doesn’t quite develop. Instead we hear snippets of what are essentially a series of repeated motifs played in succession. And the sweetly singing, expressive playing of 1st violinist, Szymon Krzeszowiec, brings them together in a melodious, thoroughly gratifying way.
The finale is an engaging Scherzo giocoso, with quirky themes passed around among the players, almost as in a fugue. And a brief, extended tune soars in the high violin sounding very much like Ravel, whose influence can be heard throughout this section. The music continues with charming, articulate motifs before ending deliberately with some more “wrong” notes. This was most enjoyable and rewarding from beginning to end. It is a real find.
Immersed in the music, thinking what a wonderful composer this is, I was lulled into a relaxed state of contentment when I was startled by a sudden boost in volume as the CD continued playing the next track, presenting the same composer's Quintet. Obviously recorded in different sessions in a completely different acoustic, the overall perspective is thrust forward, now with a disconcerting closeness to the players. A piano has unexpectedly joined the group, sounding rather clanky (and with a touch of a hard glassiness) in the mix. Soon, an oboe also makes an appearance, surrounded by an unnatural halo of digital glare which was completely absent in the string quartet. Further, the acoustic is now swamped in a pronounced reverberation affording the music-making a somewhat noisy, clamorous quality (much like that heard in several Chandos recordings of the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective). This elicited quite a reaction from me and I grabbed the booklet for an explanation as to what on earth has happened here.
I quickly discovered what Chandos has done. The recording information reveals this release is essentially a compilation of some older (presumably abandoned) recordings used to fill up a disc of two more works by Grazyna Bacewicz to round out their ongoing series of recordings of her string chamber music. The Silesian Quartet has already recorded her 7 numbered String Quartets (2016) and 2 Piano Quintets (2018), and these unpublished string quartets on the current release supplement those.
What they've come up with is Mendelson's string quartet, recorded by the Silesians over 14 years ago (clear back in 2009), and his oboe quintet, recorded in 2015, as companions for the two new Bacewicz recordings (2022). The booklet does not make clear whether these recordings were Chandos originals or acquired from other sources. Regardless, the CD is entirely produced by Chandos. And putting them all together - voila! - we’ve got a CD lasting 56 minutes.
And this concept would be fine; but geez, Chandos, could you not have made any attempt whatsoever at level matching the various recording sessions? And make an effort to clean up the glarey haze around the oboe? Even in the digital realm, remastering techniques do exist and can be beneficial with a willingness to try.
More important, I am baffled why the recording of Mendelson's string quartet had never been released. It is a wonderfully inventive piece and well recorded. His oboe quintet is interesting as well, but is so poorly recorded I can understand why it had apparently been discarded. In this current compilation, the string quartet fits in perfectly well with those by Bacewicz. However, I found the oboe/piano quintet distinctly out of place here on this program of string quartet music.
Be that as it may, it is enjoyable enough if you can listen through the reverberation and glarey halo surrounding the oboe and adjust to the different instrumentation. The 1st movement Allegro scherzando is delightful actually, and the Lento which follows features a gorgeous, extended passage for just the cello and piano. It is Romantically inclined, richly melodious and intimately appealing. Interestingly, the recording in this passage sounds wonderful (and much more natural) before the oboe makes another appearance, bringing the glarey halo with it. And the muddy acoustic again distracts in the concluding Allegro con brio, which is imbued with the harmonic resourcefulness of Debussy. Despite the recording quality, it is an alluring creation.
Moving on to the main offerings Chandos really wanted to present, the recorded sound returns to their usual high standards and we enter the soundworld of Bacewicz, which is really quite different. Incidentally, these are unpublished scores which the composer rejected and did not include in her catalog of works. But the Silesians decided to record them anyway. And in the end, they're worth hearing.
The first string quartet is an early student work lasting just under 8 minutes. It is cast in 3 movements, though they all sound much the same. This is some of her most atonal music. There is an attempt at melodic invention in the 1st movement, but it just doesn’t quite get there. However, just as in the Mendelson, Krzeszowiec's playing almost convinces us otherwise - especially in the soaring second subject. I marvel at his sweet, expressive tone, which isn’t at all sentimentalized, but rather simple, lovely, often tender and utterly ravishing. I could listen to him playing just about anything all day long.
Fortunately this little piece doesn’t last too long. There is a very short adagio (1’34) followed by a difficult fugue occupying the finale - both of which reminded me of a Bartok string quartet.
The final quartet is a late work, coming 35 years later in 1965, just 4 years before Bacewicz's death. And it is a little weird – experimental in non-tonal sounds and sonorities, somewhat reminiscent of 1960s Penderecki and Ligeti, but without their revolutionary vision. The 1st movement Allegro is indisputably atonal and incorporates interesting ¼-tones and deliberate sliding from note to note, creating intriguing atmosphere and dissonance. Unfortunately, she also employs the use of dense note clusters which are unpleasant just for the sake of being unpleasant. I can find no compositional reasoning or musical justification for their inclusion. The Grave is much the same, but with even less forward motion. However, from within this desolation there emerges a brief rhythmic interlude which perked up my interest, followed by a fascinating passage of unusual glissandi creating a mesmerizing landscape through to the end of this section.
A brief Capriccioso takes the place of a true scherzo and is conspicuously light-hearted. With barely a hint of tonality, it is created with rhythm and articulation, punctuated by pizzicatos. Deliberately lightweight, it can come off sounding a bit trivial, but I have to admit I rather liked it. The final Maestoso is similar to the Grave - sounding even more like Bartok but with some interesting, advanced bowing effects.
There is so much in this final work which had the potential to be Bacewicz's masterpiece. If only she had thought enough of it to revisit it one last time before it was too late, I think it could have been exemplary with some revision (i.e. tightening up the structure, further developing the most progressive sections, and replacing the unpleasant tone clusters with true compositional substance). As it is, it remains a compelling example of her innovation and creativity.
In closing, I can conclude we’ve had enough Bacewicz now. Really, we have. The recent explosion of interest in her music has produced numerous recordings on a variety of labels. Those on Chandos alone have revealed much of her best (the Violin Concertos for example), and some not so much (her numbered string quartets are certainly difficult to enjoy) - and now they're even delving into her discarded, unpublished music. Let’s just leave it at that. On the other hand, this disc is revelatory in introducing us to the interesting, innovative and captivating music of Joachim Mendelson. Can we explore his music further, please?
This is the second recording I have encountered by the Polish Baltic Neopolis Orchestra on the wonderful Dux label. This one is special in that it presents a program of world premier recordings released on the occasion of the orchestra's 15th Anniversary. This is a smallish string ensemble (7/5/4/3/1), utilizing various soloists in a variety of combinations. They are recorded so skillfully by the Dux engineers they never sound "small" or undernourished. The group produces a vibrant, full, airy sound which is a pleasure to listen to.
The highlights of the CD for me are the first two pieces, for concertante combinations and string orchestra, rather more so than the two more “traditional” concertos which come later in the program.
Beginning with the fabulous 13 Variations on a Polish Melody (for violin, cello and string orchestra), Marcelo Nisinman introduces the theme, an old Polish Ave Maria, as a densely scored chorale, which, surprisingly, is a little schmaltzy. But that is thoroughly deceptive! In less than a minute, the variations take off in a totally different direction - instantly contemporary - with some jovial, festive dance music. A quirky jaunt is soon followed by a gypsy tango reminding me instantly of Piazzolla. Intrigued, I read in the booklet Mr. Nisinman is a bandoneon player (a specialized type of accordion used for tangos, also called a concertina) and he mimics that in his score with imaginative orchestration, punctuated with audacious string effects such as sharp glissandos and percussive pizzicato.
The music is ever-changing, each variation lasting only a minute or so before switching gears. Along the way we hear some slow interludes, others more dramatic - like movie music for a suspense sequence. There is a pizzicato movement, a high-energy rhythmic section, and even a glamorous Hollywood-esque variation which had me laughing out loud! So did the one which has the strings strumming like a banjo. A whirlwind of sul pont flurrying gains momentum and tension before submitting to the reappearance of the chorale theme, taking us to the end of this hugely entertaining piece.
The 2 soloists are skillfully incorporated into the overall fabric of the string orchestra rather than highlighted as if in a concerto. They essentially add extra layers of color, texture and variety to the music. This is a descriptive and highly imaginative piece which I absolutely loved.
I could say the exact same thing about The Second Space, for string quartet and string orchestra by Mikolaj Piotr Gorecki. (Not the Gorecki; Henryk’s son). While both works are exactly the same length in overall timing (just over 11 minutes each), the Gorecki is even more colorfully orchestrated, with interesting interplay between string quartet and orchestral strings. There are just enough players in the orchestra to illustrate the contrasts in color and texture between four and tutti.
The music starts hesitantly, with brief, episodic rhythmic pulses, before the rhythms become so restless and compulsive they can no longer be contained. Soon, a fervent melody played by the quartet begins to soar above it, adding ardor and tension culminating in an intense, climactic passage for all 4 players in unison. It ends abruptly with a hushed atmosphere created by the tutti strings transfixed in its wake. This is a spellbinding moment. The serenity continues, punctuated with articulate interjections by the quartet, combined in unison, in what is surely the most alluring passage in the entire program.
A lyrical passage follows, with an ardent solo from the cello, before the entire group again takes over with propulsive rhythmic energy. And so it goes to the end - atmospheric passages interrupted by impulsive rhythms, as if the composer is teasing us, inviting us, daring us to stick with him to the end, where a burst of energy concludes what has been an amazing experience.
I initially thought the piece had some compositional elements with origins in Minimalism, but the composer describes it as Spectralism. That is a musical form new to me and I had no idea what it was. After researching it a bit, I can say that is exactly what I’m hearing! And I paraphrase: a genre of electronic music which creates a rich, immersive experience through complex soundscapes and textures, often with elements of ambient, experimental, dreamy, ethereal sound.
That’s a lot of descriptors, but this music has so many of those characteristics, it fits. And what I love about it all is that there are residual hints of tonality in the atmospheric passages, which are "dreamy" and "ethereal" but have heart and emotion and inspiration too. This piece is worlds away from the monotony of Minimalism - just the opposite, actually. It is so varied, rhythmically propulsive and musically engaging, it’s mesmerizing. The playing of it here by the Baltic Neopolis Orchestra (BNO) is absolutely sensational. And it should be noted the piece was composed for them on commission.
Now to the concertos - the first for violin, the second for viola.
As might be ascertained from its title, Lukaszewski’s Neopolis Concerto was written with this orchestra in mind. And it suits the group and its soloist, concertmaster Emanuel Salvador, perfectly. There are 3 movements which bear no tempo or stylistic indications, other than simple metronome markings. The first and second movements are similar - both slow-moving and songful. The First aches with longing and solitude, while the Second is slightly more sanguine. But the music isn’t forlorn. And Salvador doesn’t over-sentimentalize it, keeping it simple and singing. He varies the intensity of his tone and vibrato judiciously, never weighing it down with too much richness. The 3rd movement is more lively, almost a Scherzo, yet continually infused with an attractive lyricism. And here too, Salvador’s lightness of tone brings out its best qualities.
This is a wonderful concerto - a pleasant alternative to the usual fireworks and dazzling bravura heard in the typical violin showpiece. This requires a bit more insight and thoughtful expression. (Even the cadenzas are mostly lyrical.) It is played most beautifully here in a sympathetic and persuasive reading.
Ewa Fabianska-Jelinska’s Viola Concerto rounds off the concert, featuring Ukrainian violist Andriy Viytovych (viola professor at London’s Royal College of Music and violist with the Royal Opera House). Its 3 movements are more varied than in the previous concerto, with an opening Vivo pesante and final Allegretto giocoso surrounding a central Adagio. However, there is a pervading darkness to it, even more so than in the violin concerto.
In the opening Vivo, a solo bass viol establishes the pesante indication in a ponderous minor key, continuing as the cellos join in a few bars later. Soon, the viola makes its first appearance, rhythmic and articulate above the gloom, setting forth a propulsive energy which predominates much of what follows. There is an extended, lyrical cadenza too, providing a moving respite from the rhythmic restlessness which inhabits the entire movement. It is an interesting solo part with much variety, marked by an occasional elongated glissando. A tutti declaration leads to an abrupt pause, taking us to the Adagio, which picks up where the cadenza left off with an a cappella viola. The atmosphere is hopeless now, especially when joined by the bass viol in a most unusual and intriguing duet. In the booklet, the composer describes this movement as “searching for a path of light” and an “escape from chaos”, but I don’t hear it that way. It seems to be resignation. However, the light begins to appear in the final Allegretto giocoso risoluto, beginning with another a cappella cadenza from the soloist. Soon, the entire orchestra joins in with everyone in an optimistic mood. But while subtle dance elements provide the giocoso, a pervading emotional reflection is never far away.
Much like Lukaszewski’s Violin Concerto, this work avoids flashy displays of brilliance, providing the soloist an outlet for deeper musical expression instead. It is skillfully written for the viola, often exploiting the lower register. And Viytovych relishes it with richly textured tone and effortless artistry in this moving performance.
I have enjoyed many releases from the Polish Dux label in recent months, featuring masterful performances of innovative repertoire. And this newest one continues the positive experiences. And, significantly, the recorded sound is excellent. As noted above, the BNO is presented with a richness of color and body of tone in a natural, relaxed perspective which is never forward or gruff. The booklet doesn’t tell us where this was recorded, but the acoustic is warm, detailed, airy and spacious - perfect for this music.
All in all, this is an interesting and rewarding program of some terrific new music. And I enjoyed it very much - especially the innovative and thoroughly imaginative two works at the beginning.
I have enjoyed several releases on the fantastic FARAO Classics label, including the 3 previous CDs from Ensemble Arabesques which I reviewed very favorably here on my blog. With each, I encountered superb music-making and superlative recorded sound. I couldn't wait to hear their new one and jumped right in.
Beginning with Ibert's Concerto for Cello and Wind Orchestra, instantly I recognize this group's characteristic blend which shimmers with color, glimmering on top with radiant flute tone. And what a glorious piece this is, showing Ibert at his most captivating and imaginative. Composed in 1925 (3 years after Escales), the piece exhibits Impressionistic roots while continually exploring ahead with modern tonalities and instrumental effects. I hear glissandi and overtone harmonics in the cello, replete with double stops and interesting bowing effects, particularly in the difficult 3rd movement cadenza. And the frolicking horn whoops along the way are an unexpected pleasure.
What I loved about the piece is that it isn't really a cello concerto, but rather a chamber work for the unique combination of wind instruments (double woodwinds plus a single horn and trumpet) and a cello, which brings an additional voice with its own color and texture. The soloist here, Emmanuelle Bertrand, plays with sheer loveliness (especially in the opening Pastorale), where her beguiling, silky tone - rich, yet delicate - adds bloom to an already glowing fabric. It isn't until the cadenza in the 2nd movement Romance that the cello attains a more soloistic role, a prominence which continues into the 3rd movement. The trumpet becomes more important there as well, adding a touch of triumphant jubilance to the jaunty Gigue.
The work is fairly short, keeping one's attention thoroughly engaged, and is highly entertaining from start to finish. I had not heard this piece before and would have been hard-pressed to identify its composer as Ibert - until the 3rd movement's swirling triplet figures, which immediately reminded me of the Allegro Scherzando of his Flute Concerto, which I played many times in college.
Once again Ensemble Arabesques does what they do best - discovering rare, unjustly neglected works and bringing them vividly to life. I initially thought it would have been nice if this piece had been included on the group's all-Ibert chamber music collection recorded 3 years earlier. However, as the theme of this current program is wind music which includes a cello (a characteristic common to all three works on this CD), it certainly makes a perfect concert opener.
I could single out individual players of the group for praise in this marvelous performance (1st flute, horn, trumpet), but would feel guilty for inadvertently overlooking the others - for every one of them is exceptional. Each displays character and individuality while combining as a group to play with marvelous precision of ensemble and immaculate blend. (If only another innovative group, the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective, would listen to the Ensemble Arabesques and emulate them. Moreover, the Chandos engineers could learn a thing or two from the FARAO team as well.)
I'm already thrilled with this CD and realize I have much more to get to. Next is Emil Hartmann's Serenade, which is similarly scored - for winds (single flute and oboe, pairs of clarinets, bassoons and horns) plus cello and contrabass, unisono. Instantly, I am struck with the clarity of the recorded sound and the purity of the clarinet's a cappella opening phrase, followed by Eva Maria Thiebaud's radiant, glowing flute. (I have noted her glorious tone on this group's previous CDs and am again enthralled with it here.)
This Serenade is a positively delightful piece - made more so by this group's characterful playing and precision of articulation. The piece sounds lighter and slightly smaller-scaled than the Ibert, and thus more intimate. Yet the glowing, blended beauty of their sound remains, punctuated by crisp articulation. And the FARAO engineers ensure the contrabass is perfectly balanced, never overpowering or bloated.
After a lovely pastorale opening, the central movements are infused with a breezy lightness of spirit, filled with vitality. While the Finale is cheerfully buoyant, bringing the piece to an exciting conclusion. This is yet another splendid discovery, not often recorded.
The Dvorak welcomes us to more familiar territory. The playing of it here is so fresh and alive, it's almost as if hearing it for the first time. The opening and closing Marcia theme, taken at a forward-moving tempo, is afforded a lightness of touch which sounds slightly less grandiose than usual - to great effect. And throughout, we hear a most graceful lilt to musical phrases, along with decisive articulation; and the old truly sounds new. The reading is notable for its engaging musicality and vivid characterization of the variety of moods. The cello, in particular, adds an intriguing and enticing texture which I don't remember hearing so clearly delineated before, including the occasional pizzicato passages (particularly in the Menuetto). And here again, the bass and contrabassoon are detailed and nimble - allowing the music to move with agility and grace, unencumbered by the slightest hint of heaviness. All combined, this is a most enjoyable and involving account, beautifully recorded.
FARAO certainly deserves much of the credit for the glorious sound of this group - the recording quality is simply superb. As in their previous recordings, there is a lustrous realism and palpable presence which emanates from an intimate setting perfect for chamber music - not too large a hall and not too reverberant. I quickly forgot I was listening to a CD in my home, so engrossed was I in the music. It was as if being transported to the space in which they played. This is a remarkable achievement for any recording engineer. Further, the balance is expertly handled. The brass are sufficiently commanding but never domineering, the cello is not spotlit, and the woodwinds are warm and colorful. This greatly increased the overall enjoyment of listening to this program.
Along with fabulous music-making and sound, the production itself is excellent. From the attractive cover to the booklet brimming with informative program notes and interesting pictures of the group in various settings, I continue to be thoroughly impressed with the FARAO Classics label. And once again, Ensemble Arabesques demonstrates it is one of the very best chamber groups of its kind.
This is an expensive CD from Prospero - well over $20. It's certainly impressively packaged, in a thick, hard-back cardboard enclosure which includes a lavish 34-page booklet complete with glossy pictures and flattering commentary. If only the music-making and sound were as glamorous.
I read in the booklet that conductor Ivor Bolton is a Baroque/Classical specialist. And my first impression listening to this recording was that he's seriously out of his element in these richly orchestrated, highly dramatic symphonic poems by Saint-Saens. But reading further, I was shocked to learn he's also conducted a lot of opera. So I'm bewildered why this music, which should lend itself readily to someone with so much opera experience, seems to elude him. I hear none of the drama, dynamism, or passionate soaring lines one typically encounters with opera.
The Basel orchestra is fine - in an efficient, rather dispassionate way. Tempos are also fine, often with good momentum, but the orchestral playing is a bit cautious and lacks panache. Drama is minimized and even the climactic sections of the Bacchanale and Danse Macabre fail to generate much adrenaline or excitement, leaving the listener unmoved.
Which brings me to the recorded sound. The orchestra is set back in a slightly distant, over-reverberant acoustic which lacks something in sheer presence and impact. There is an empty hall tubbiness to it, which tends to muddy inner details and blunt sparkle. Worse, dynamics are curiously restrained - confined to a p - f range - and climaxes simply fail to expand into the acoustic. Orchestral colors too are a bit lackluster - the opposite of vivid and vibrant. These observations have me thinking that, given Bolton's credentials, the lack of dynamic range and musical involvement are likely more the fault of the recording engineer rather than the conductor.
Perplexed by it all, I tried listening to this CD again on a different day and have concluded the recording itself is indeed largely to blame for much of the blandness heard on this program. And it seems to affect some tracks more than others. For example, Phaeton is surely one of the better readings here, aided by a judicious boost of the brass (and a quick tempo), finally bringing some life to this orchestra. While Hercules and Omphale's Spinning Wheel, which feature a lot of soft playing, suffer the most from a lack of involvement. The two most familiar tracks, Bacchanale (from Samson & Delila) and Danse macabre are merely perfunctory readings, especially when compared to countless other recordings.
The production proudly proclaims these to be "World premiere recordings" based on new critical editions. Whatever. I heard absolutely nothing new, revelatory or remotely interesting in any of them.
Despite the extravagance of the production, this is a disappointment musically. And when you consider the total playing time is just 49 minutes, it's extremely poor value as well.
I wanted to review the Verona Quartet as I love discovering new groups. I was attracted to their first CD, "Diffusion", specifically because it appears on the great, Cleveland-based label, Azica. I have experienced excellent recorded sound in the past from this label, and notable releases have included the likes of the Dover and Escher Quartets.
While the Verona doesn't quite match the exalted heights of those other two American string quartets (and honestly, no other group does), they are awfully good. And they bring their own gifts of musicianship and individuality to delight listeners.
I love the program (and cover art) on the Azica disc, which includes two pieces less familiar to me, the 2nd Quartets of Janacek and Szymanowski, combined with the ubiquitous one by Ravel. It was with the Ravel I began listening, as I had just heard (and reviewed here on the blog) the recording of it by the fabulous Quatuor Van Kuijk on Alpha Classics. The Verona is rather more "traditional" in their approach - beautifully played and slightly less dynamic and eye-opening than the French group. However, they display a delectable variety of tonal color and musical subtleties which I greatly enjoyed. They possess a relaxed, glowing blend, permeated with a beguiling expressiveness which benefits this music perfectly. For instance, there is a seductive tenderness and freedom of tempo in the first movement which is captivating. Yet they characterize Ravel's variety of moods without being quite so melodramatic about it. The finale is exciting, but lighter, less muscular and definitely not as hair-raising as the Van Kuijk (though with an identical timing of 4'51).
They are perhaps even more impressive in the other two Quartets. Their reading of the Szymanowski is a revelation. Less wayward, with more purpose and direction than I'm used to hearing, I discovered the piece anew. Not only from the overall scope and clarified compositional structure, but their silky blend evinces a variety of sounds which is thoroughly intoxicating. The atmosphere in the first movement creates a marvelous sense of anticipation, and its Moderato dolce indication affords the group an opportunity to display some of the most lovely dolce playing imaginable - especially the sweetly singing lines from the 1st violin. Their con sordino tone in this movement is positively creamy. But that's not all; there are amazing contrasts of mood and dynamics too which extend vividly into the vivace 2nd movement as well. And the desolation of the Lento is very moving, and generates tremendous momentum and power in the central climactic section.
In the Janacek, I love how they bring out the Dvorak influence without downplaying its modernism. It's interesting to consider Janacek was just one generation ahead of Dvorak but how much more innovative his creativity was to become. It's a delightful combination in his 2nd string quartet - almost as if Dvorak was composing well into the 20th Century. This reading from the Verona is insightful and intriguing - so much so it has me anxiously waiting with anticipation for the Escher Quartet's new recording of both Janacek Quartets due this month on BIS.
The Verona's Azica disc was recorded in 2019 but not released until 2021. It is so good I was eager to acquire their newest disc (2023), "shatter" - this one independently recorded and marketed/promoted/distributed by Bright Shiny Things. Comprised entirely of new works by new composers, it is unfortunately a mixed bag. While excellent playing and recorded sound abound, the program is of uneven quality, as is the production itself. There is no booklet and the simple, folded cardboard enclosure provides minimal printed information about the music. I find this unacceptable for a CD containing completely new music by unknown composers played by a relatively new quartet - precisely when in-depth program notes are needed the most. (There is, however, a QR code one can scan, if so inclined.)
With nothing to prepare me for what I was about to hear, I began listening to the quartet by Reena Esmail. Just as I was getting acquainted with its unusual soundworld, I was suddenly confronted with some awful Hindu wailing. This was an unpleasant intrusion which I wasn't expecting. Grabbing the CD enclosure, I noticed on the back in miniscule print, in an extremely faint light gray font: "featuring Hindustsani (sic) vocalist". Hoping it affected only the first movement (Fantasie), I tried the second movement Scherzo, wondering if/how this vocalization would be incorporated there. Well, it isn't a scherzo at all; it's simply more of the same listless meanderings of the first movement. And soon enough the hideous wailing begins again, just as it did before. Not only did I wonder how this section could possibly be considered a "scherzo", I also wondered why on earth a string quartet would ever schedule such a piece on their program. I found it intolerable and turned it off.
Undeterred, I forged ahead to the next work by a relatively unknown composer where matters improved significantly - at least musically - with Julia Adolphe's Star-Crossed Signals. I was curious about the origins of the title and its two movements, named "Delta X-Ray" and "Kilo Kilo". But alas, about this piece, the CD enclosure merely states: "Adophe (sic) juxtaposes issues of empowerment and the assertion of dominance with an ardent yearning for connection". Um...ok. I still have no concept what the titles mean and how they relate to that. And it is simply astonishing they managed to misspell the composer's name.
But at least the music is interesting. The first movement is intense at times and rather stark, which is attractive in its way. But it ebbs and flows for over 8 minutes without really getting anywhere. The second movement is similar - even more desolate and sparsely scored - and I wished for more contrast from that heard before. I found myself drawn into the yearning character of the music, but it ultimately went on too long for its material despite the Verona Quartet's committed and involving reading of it.
Out of curiosity, I Googled Ms. Adolphe and found her very impressive bio lists numerous orchestral commissions from major orchestras to her credit. I therefore surmise she excels at full-scale orchestral composition and is enjoying some acclaim. Her string quartet music here is intriguing, if not really memorable. It might be interesting to explore her creativity further.
At last we come to the raison d'etre for acquiring this CD - the wonderful Quartet by Michael Gilbertson. Instantly I hear Caroline Shaw's 2011 Entr'acte, with its impulsive, hesitant rhythmic pulses, but in a register 2 - 3 octaves higher up, affording it a glistening quality quite distinctive from Shaw's piece. And this character persists throughout the first movement, Mother Chords. Gilbertson develops it uniquely as his own, and it is wonderfully heartfelt and expressive. The second movement, Simple Sugars, is completely different and provides a refreshing contrast. The music here positively dances with infectious rhythms and jazz-influenced chordal harmonies. Yet it's refined and sophisticated. Here again, I would have loved to understand the meaning behind the titles, especially after reading the brief synopsis in the cardboard enclosure describing the work as "a personal need for comfort and catharsis following the 2016 US Presidential election while mirroring society's alarming dependence upon instant gratification". Interesting...and I have no idea how his titles fit in with that burdensome subject matter. (I tried the internet and not even the group's nor the label's websites provide the liner notes. Why?)
Nevertheless, I loved the piece. It is imaginative, captivating, inspired and inspiring, resourcefully orchestrated and spectacularly played and recorded. After a bit of research of my own, I see Mr. Gilbertson has written a lot of choral music, plus a few concertos and a bit of orchestral music as well. (And just like Shaw's Entr'acte, his Mother Chords has been rescored for string orchestra.) Based on his marvelous Quartet, he is definitely a composer to watch.
Final production comments - spelling errors and lack of program notes aside, there are no individual track timings provided and the total playing time is just 57 minutes. Disregarding the opening work from consideration (which goes on for an astonishing 26+ minutes), that leaves just 31 minutes of worthwhile music on offer here. While the CD can be found for slightly less-than-full-price (on Amazon), it's still an extravagant outlay for just the Gilbertson Quartet, which alone lasts just 15 minutes.
This is my 4th disc of music by Roberto Sierra. Therefore I shouldn’t be surprised by what it offers – high energy, insistent rhythms and colorful orchestration.
I had especially high hopes for this music with Onyx’s new star conductor, Domingo Hindoyan, at the helm. After all, Onyx gives him star billing, far and above the composer. It’s Hindoyan’s picture on the front and back, and his name appears in an enormous font, adorned in color; while Sierra is given a decidedly unassuming presence - his name relegated to small, unimposing, white letters.
While I am disconcerted to see Classical specialty labels stoop to "Star Power!" marketing such as this, Hindoyan certainly merits praise. I loved his debut album for Onyx last year of French ballet music. (See my review elsewhere here on my blog.) And in the music of Sierra, to conjure up this much energy to conduct it all, and even more significantly, to coax his orchestra to play with such enthusiasm and commitment for this long (the CD lasts 65 minutes) is absolutely astonishing. All of it is brilliantly played and well recorded. And, as I noted in the ballet collection before it, I marvel at how rejuvenated this orchestra sounds under its new, inspired conductor - in striking contrast to earlier recordings with their previous music director (Vasily Petrenko).
But make no mistake, much of this program is comprised of high-octane, rhythmic energy which can get a little relentless after a while. So have some coffee and be ready for the ride! The variety of moods and especially the fascinatingly imaginative and colorful orchestration are irresistible and definitely worth the effort, keeping the listener engaged and drawn into the music. Though it’s interesting to glance at the track listing throughout this program and see so many sections with titles like Alegria ("happiness"), Animado, Ritmico, Vivo, Rapido, Fandangos etc. And this gives a fair indication of what you’re going to hear. But there are contrasts too. For example, the first of the Two Pieces is a lamento and there is an Expressivo section in the music for string orchestra.
The program starts right off with music infused with prominent rhythms typical of folk and popular music of the Caribbean, in a delightful little piece, Alegria. But it isn't hard-driven; it's pleasantly playful and enormously entertaining. Following it, the Two Pieces for Orchestra are very serious indeed, quite uncharacteristic of this composer. The First is heavy and somber, while the Second is lightened somewhat with a rhythmic underpinning, but turns rather pretentious (and dissonant) at times, sounding a bit like a dramatic orchestral movie soundtrack. But Sierra's orchestral prowess certainly reveals itself here.
The Sinfonietta for Strings and the concluding Sinfonia #6 were both written for Domingo Hindoyan - the former in 2020 for a concert with the Detroit Symphony (during the Covid pandemic), and the latter a year later for his inaugural concert as music director in Liverpool. The work for strings is the polar opposite of Two Pieces, with much more light and shade variety. We hear aching violin tunes, gorgeous viola solos, pizzicato interjections - all colorfully interspersed among the persistent rhythms. Its four movements are endlessly fascinating and Hindoyan is spectacular in bringing them to life with vivid characterization.
Fandangos is probably Sierra's most well-known work, and though it is entertaining, its insistent rhythms can become a bit much. I find it relentless and rather noisy in both recordings of it I have heard. (The other being on Naxos, with the Nashville Symphony). It's a party piece for sure, which orchestras probably enjoy playing and delighting audiences with. But for me, its endless, nagging rhythms eventually sound trite before it's finally done. (It goes on like this for over 10 minutes.)
Matters improve significantly with the Sinfonia ("Symphony #6") which comes last. It is cast in 4 rather short movements and is infinitely more interesting, varied and musically rewarding. Here we have truly creative craftsmanship, superbly atmospheric and colorful orchestration, and nuanced dynamic contrasts.
This sinfonia (which is really more of a suite or symphonic poem than a symphony) is programmatic, reflecting memories of the composer’s childhood in Puerto Rico. And what an inspired piece it is. The opening movement, Urban Life, has the vitality of city living but isn’t noisy or bombastic. It’s colorful and vividly characterized, instantly drawing the listener in. It is followed by the most delectable music of the entire program - a slow movement (and what a relief it is), At Night, which is gloriously picturesque. We hear a multitude of percussion sounds back in the distance, along with piccolo bird songs and pensive solos for various woodwinds (clarinet, oboe, flute), creating a most fragrant atmosphere depicting the sounds of nighttime in the tropics - which is positively alluring. The colorful orchestration continues with some luscious muted violins and contrabassoon rumblings, and a distant melancholy trumpet on Harmon mute. Some hints of Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain make an appearance before the onslaught of a ferocious Hurricane in the 3rd movement. This is organized cacophony, replete with furiously scurrying strings increasing the tension. And later, trombone raspberries alternate with a menacing contrabassoon, again reminding me of an action sequence in a movie score. However, what sets this apart from some of the music heard earlier, it has a real sense of purpose and scope, and is certainly successful in its musical depiction of a dizzying whirlwind. Best of all, there is a brief, imaginative central respite with string overtone harmonics creating an awesome calm within the eye of the storm. All the while, the contrabassoon continues to growl way down low, a constant reminder we're not out of danger just yet.
Suddenly the storm stops. And after an abrupt silence, the Finale begins with more insistent rhythms, but in a slightly lighter mood. It's described in the booklet as “a celebration of the rhythms of the Caribbean”. The highly descriptive orchestration includes some more intriguing trombone glissandos and a variety of percussion keeping the rhythmic momentum going. Soon though, the scene transitions to a wonderful interlude with alternating solos for piccolo, trombone, contrabassoon, clarinet etc., perhaps depicting various individuals with stories to tell. The celebrations start to get a little rowdy but the violins keep them in check, taking charge with some intense, soaring melodic passages, hampering the good times. Until even they can't help but join the festivities with some bustling, articulate flourishes followed by chattering woodwinds and cackling flutes and piccolos. And with some pounding rhythms announcing the evening is done, this terrific piece comes to a conclusion.
I’m happy to have this new CD of Sierra’s music in my collection, along with two on Naxos (Symphony #4 + Carnaval, etc., and his Concierto for Guitar, which, peculiarly, is completely nonsensical), plus an interesting 1994 collection of his earlier orchestral works on the defunct KOSS label (Zdenec Macal/Milwaukee Symphony). This new Onyx fares better than most of them – notably for the fabulous orchestral playing and spectacular recording. But also for this selection of music, much of which shows the composer at his most creative and inspired. And most of all for Hindoyan, who is positively dazzling. This is definitely a conductor to watch.
First a disclaimer: I was sent these 2 CDs gratis from the producer, Michal Bryla, in consideration for a review.
“I think it's important to mention that I do all the projects myself, from recording, editing and mastering to the release itself. I have control over the entire production process, so the releases are something special for me.”
And one can instantly detect the pride he fosters in them from the outstanding production qualities they exude.
Featured on both CDs is Mr. Bryla’s wife, violinist Aleksandra Bryla, who is also the 2nd violinist in the Meccore String Quartet. And keeping it in the family, the harpsichordist on the Bach album is Bryla’s mother, Maria Banaszkiewicz-Bryla.
This recording of 4 Mozart Violin Sonatas utilizes a Fortepiano, of which I admit to not being an expert or an admirer. And I have even less experience with (or love for) the Bach Sonatas with harpsichord. Therefore, my comments about these CDs will be entirely subjective and based upon personal observations. They are so visually enticing and of such obviously high quality, I approached them with an open mind and an eagerness to learn something new. Did I enjoy listening to them? Absolutely. Did they make me love the fortepiano (or Bach) more than I did previously? I’m afraid not. However, I have gained a new appreciation for both (especially Bach).
Beginning with the Mozart, this is an incredibly impressive hardback (cardboard) CD package - including a substantial booklet complete with extensive text and numerous pictures of the performers, and a gold CD recorded in 192 kHz/24bit digital encoding/mastering. All produced, engineered, edited and mastered by Michal Bryla himself. Very impressive indeed! (And don’t forget he also plays viola with the Meccore Quartet.) Ms. Bryla plays Krzysztof Krupa’s 2012 copy of a 1675 Ruggieri violin, and Ms. Wozniak plays Paul McNulty’s reproduction of an 1805 Walter&Sohn fortepiano.
Listening to the music, I found myself having to adjust to the compact, rather deadpan sound of the fortepiano compared to a modern concert grand pianoforte I am accustomed to hearing. But after a while, I didn’t mind it, especially as the music-making was so engaging. Only in the very first track, the Allegro vivace of KV 296 (C Major) was there any cause for concern musically, where Wozniak is a bit mannered in the 2nd half of the opening phrase and each time it occurs thereafter. She applies a slight tenuto to the trills followed by some odd hesitations in the ensuing scalic figures, which sound a bit awkward. It's hardly worth mentioning, except that it becomes so pronounced in the recapitulation (5 minutes in) I actually wondered if a key on her instrument was sticking. Fortunately, this affectation occurs only occasionally and Ms. Bryla never mimics it in the violin line.
Overall, I was pleased with the music-making throughout. Their playing is lively, joyous and alert, and tempos are spirited, increasing musical involvement. I particularly enjoyed Ms. Bryla’s violin playing, which is at all times appropriately light and sweet, with just enough natural warmth and judicious use of vibrato to prevent it from sounding coldly “authentic”. There is never the slightest hint of the steely iciness heard so often in period performance style and her tone has a pleasant fullness of tone without being at all “rich”.
I really enjoyed their reading of the G major (KV 379), especially the Allegro which is exhilarating at this speed, with very impressive piano playing. I was taken aback at how thrilling it is while at the same time sounding not at all hectic or breathless. As a matter of fact, there is a gravitas to their approach here, and in the E minor (KV 304) which follows, which sounds positively Beethovian! I wasn't expecting this kind of vigorous weight to Mozart.
The recorded sound is very good. Reverberation is perfectly judged - just enough to be warm, but never muddy. Ultimately there could be just a bit more spaciousness to the acoustic, however the musicians are palpably present within an intimate setting, and the violin is well focused out in front.
After immersing myself into this recording, I was interested in going back to one of my favorite recordings of these marvelous Sonatas for comparison. I have gained endless enjoyment from the early '90s set played by Isaac Stern and Yefim Bronfman on SONY. I was pleased to hear Stern's lightness of tone so closely matched that of Bryla's. However, I was instantly gratified with the brighter, more resonant sound of a modern Steinway and was surprised at how it actually sounded lighter and more lively than the fortepiano does. Their faster tempos in Allegros and SONY's delightful, airy acoustic helped in this regard as well.
Listening next to the Bach, the violin is even more forwardly placed (but not unnaturally so) and the harpsichord is afforded a more appealing, melodious sonority than the fortepiano in the Mozart, which I found very attractive. As I mentioned before, Bach is not really my thing, but I found myself enjoying this music despite that, due in large part to the excellence of the playing by both musicians. There is an endearing musicality to their playing which drew me in. In particular, there is a glorious singing quality to the violin which I simply loved. Yet she keeps it simple - clean and light - but expressive. And the harpsichord playing is crisp, musical and utterly natural. Although I couldn’t listen to the entire CD in one sitting, I didn’t grow tired of it, and actually looked forward to hearing the second half on another day.
While this is not a "gold CD" as is the Mozart, and it comes in a more conventional 3-way folded cardboard enclosure, the entire production is excellent - as is the recorded sound. Incidentally, these artists have already recorded the first three Bach Violin Sonatas for the Dux label in 2018, which would explain why they started (or continued) with #4 - 6 here for Prelude Classics.
These recordings constitute an auspicious launch of a new record label. They are currently available as digital downloads or on CD directly from PreludeClassics.com.