Michael Collins seems to be stuck in a rut. This is his third recording of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. Why?
I suppose I could stop writing right here, because you probably know exactly where I'm going with this. But since I've started, I'll provide a little more detail on this release.
Michael Collins's first stab at the Mozart Concerto was, oddly, with Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra for DG in 2000. I have not heard it, as that seemed to be a dubious team for Mozart, and more importantly because its coupling is rather absurd - a transcription for clarinet of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. This release was a real head-scratcher.
Jump ahead 13 years and Collins records the Mozart again - this time with the terrific Swedish Chamber Orchestra for Chandos. And it is superb - one of the best performances of it I've heard. Not only that, the couplings are equally fabulous - Copland's Concerto (superbly idiomatic, jazzy and very exciting), plus a new work by Elena Kats-Chernin, Ornamental Air, which is really fantastic. This Chandos release has been my go-to for both the Mozart and the Copland Clarinet Concertos, replete with truly excellent clarinet playing, orchestral support and superlative sound.
So I was perplexed to see the Mozart showing up yet again from Michael Collins, in 2022 on BIS. After such a successful recording just 9 years prior, why take it up again - for the 3rd time?
Seeing it coupled this time around with the same composer's Clarinet Quintet (which Collins hadn't recorded before) sort of makes sense and I ordered it anyway. I was especially intrigued that the program also includes a new concerto written especially for him by cellist (and composer) Richard Birchall (b.1984), which looked very interesting.
I started with the Birchall and found it to be extremely accomplished and expertly orchestrated. The first movement, Metamorphosis, begins most promisingly with a palpable sense of anticipation. Hints of Copland's Clarinet Concerto appear along the way before the central Allegro takes flight. The energy builds with increasing momentum and some engaging interplay between soloist and orchestra ensues. I thought the occasional clarinet lip-slurs and growls were perhaps a bit overdone and out of character for the piece, but the imaginative and energetic orchestral contribution countered it.
The slow movement, Still Life, is a melancholy interlude which is perhaps a tad overlong. Thematic motifs, while melodic, are not quite melodious or musically memorable. It doesn't help that Collins's lowest register is not terribly beautiful in tone - there is an odd "honk" to it down there throughout. However, the colorful orchestration compensates, and some curious string glissandi and flute flutter-tonguing caught my attention. The finale, Impossible Construction, takes off in a motoric, perpetual-motion way. Its rhythmic, driving energy is instantly engaging and the jazz flavoring compelling. It sounds to be quite challenging to play and Michael Collins accommodates its difficulties with ease and bravura.
Taken as a whole, the work is interesting, colorfully orchestrated and musically rewarding - if ultimately not particularly memorable.
Anxious to get to the Mozart, which is the primary interest for me, I started with the Quintet. Sadly it is disappointing. Despite a sweetness to the string playing and some attractive ornamentation here and there, it ultimately is rather routine. Tempos are unremarkable and some musical point-making, particularly in the 1st movement, is a little fussy. I longed for more spontaneity, variety and unbridled joy in the playing.
Hoping matters would improve in the Concerto, alas, it is more of the same - routine and uninspired. The orchestra plays with a relaxed sweetness, but curiously sounds a little self-conscious about it. And I hear a bit of unsteadiness in some of the clarinet passagework as well - less rhythmically precise and crisply articulated than I'm used to hearing. It is an efficient read-through but precious little more.
At this point I was beginning to wonder if I had overrated Michael Collins's previous Mozart recording for Chandos. Revisiting the 2013 Chandos CD, one instantly hears the Swedish Chamber Orchestra usher in a fresher, much more crisply executed orchestral exposition, with more spontaneous and joyfully expressive playing. There is also a delightful graciousness and exquisite musical phrasing which the Philharmonia Orchestra can't match in the later reading. And at the clarinet entry, there is crisper articulation and a sense of joy and involvement not experienced on the BIS. Also evident is a lovely legato singing quality largely missing in the 2022 reading. Tempos seem livelier in all 3 movements, despite individual timings being surprisingly similar.
Furthermore, as good as the recorded sound is on BIS, it is even better on Chandos. There is a luscious, airy, atmospheric acoustic on Chandos which is not only extremely pleasing, but expertly defined and superbly detailed as well. (It is interesting to consider the Chandos is CD-only while the BIS is a multi-channel SACD.)
Going back to the BIS one more time, it just sounds a little "mushy" in comparison with regard to articulation and slightly sluggish tempos. And while it is musical, it is less spontaneous and involving. The 3rd movement Rondo fares best, but there needed to be more life and energy in the Allegro 1st. (The same goes for the Quintet as well.)
The inclusion of the concerto here seems to be a producer's logic for filling up the disc. However, with a contemporary concerto already on the program, there is every reason to believe another concerto other than the Mozart would have been appropriate and infinitely more rewarding. Even another chamber work would have been most welcomed.
Incidentally, Collins plays the basset-clarinet (with its extended lower register down to a low C), on all three recordings.
In sum, I am glad to have heard Richard Birchall's splendid Concerto for Basset Clarinet. But sadly, I'm not sure it alone is enough to justify the purchase of this disc.
So here's how I end up spending too much money on CDs. I hear a recording by an artist or group I really enjoy and then start exploring. And one thing leads to another and I discover a new composer or two. Such is the case with Richard Blackford. I stumbled upon a disc of his Violin Concerto and Clarinet Quintet played by members of Conchord, whose disc of Poulenc's chamber music I recently listened to. While not all that impressed with that disc of "serious" music, here I am with another disc of Blackford's music, which looks interesting and intriguing.
I was afraid this program would be rather gimmicky too. And there certainly is an element of that to it. But I was actually pleasantly surprised.
Getting to it - Blackford's original music on offer here essentially sounds like movie music. It's descriptive and colorful and...well, perhaps not quite ready for the concert hall. The Great Animal Orchestra Symphony is comprised of 5 movements, which, taken as a whole, sounds very much like a good film score (music from John Williams to horror movie classics and everything in between came to mind frequently), combined with all sorts of pre-recorded wild animal and (mostly) bird sounds juxtaposed upon it. And when you know what to expect, and you know what's coming, it's not too objectionable.
A lot of the actual orchestral writing is very good - effective and interesting in a Jurassic Park kind of way, with all the bird calls. Unfortunately, the novelty of the animal sounds wears off quickly and becomes too much of a good thing real fast. And in the end, it simply goes on too long. What I did find objectionable, however, is the use of what the booklet identifies as a "Sampler" - some device which sounds very much like a flexatone - you know, that weird "percussion" instrument which sounds like a bowed handsaw, made popular in UFO movies from the 60s (and its unfortunate prominence in the slow movement of Khachaturian's Piano Concerto). The sound of it here seems out of place among nature and birds and a real orchestra. I thought it to be a completely unnecessary, additional noise intruding on the music.
However, if you can listen past it, this is an enjoyable 30 minutes, perfect for playing in the background while cooking dinner or dusting. I found myself listening up quite often actually. Its colorful orchestration and atmosphere make it interesting and quite pleasant. To be perfectly honest, I'd love to hear this score without all the extra sounds ("noises"). As purely orchestral music, it sounds to be imaginative and appealing. And colorfully orchestrated.
The gimmickry continues next with a new, perhaps unnecessary re-orchestration for full symphony orchestra of Saint-Saens's Carnival of the Animals, in which the duo pianos are eliminated and rescored into the standard orchestral compliment.
My initial thoughts on it are exactly the same as my feeling about "other" orchestrations of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition:
- 1. It couldn't possibly have been conceived without a prior, intimate knowledge of Ravel's version; and
- 2. Ravel's orchestration is so magnificent, it can't really be improved upon. So...why bother?
While I maintain Saint-Saens knew exactly what he was doing in this piece, this new version is actually better than expected. Blackford's accomplished and imaginative orchestration skills are on full display and many parts are quite effective. Others, though, not so much.
As this transcription may likely be the primary draw for many (myself included), let me provide some brief observations.
Sections which respond very well to the full orchestral treatment:
Introduction/Royal March of the Lion; Hens & Roosters; Kangaroos (delightful woodwind filigree); Aquarium (with a harp providing the arpeggiated accompaniment), Cuckoo; and the Finale (which mercifully doesn't become too big and pompous with the full orchestra in play).
And the ones that don't:
Wild Asses (awfully cumbersome); Elephant (substituting a contrabassoon for the Bass Viol was ill-advised); Persons with Long Ears (the use of harsh, fortissimo violin tremolos was completely unnecessary); Pianists (which loses all meaning and relevance without the piano - contextually and musically - when played by an orchestra); Fossils (which oddly eschews the xylophone and instead uses violins for the main theme, which eliminates the sonic equivalent of bones clanking around. Why?!); and The Swan (scored for a horn and harp, which simply can't match the elegance and grace of a cello).
Tortoises and Aviary are unremarkable.
While I can't see this version gaining favor with live orchestral programming, it certainly fits nicely with the theme of this CD. And as long as one doesn't take it too seriously, it's a lot of fun and a fascinating listen.
Two aspects of this CD make it work even better than it might otherwise have.
1. The orchestra (BBC National Orchestra of Wales) is excellent and the conductor (Martyn Brabbins) is thoroughly committed to bringing it off.
2. The recorded sound is convincing and more natural than would be expected, given the source material of animal/bird sounds mixed in with a symphony orchestra. Only the wolf howls in track 3 sounded comparatively contrived, with an unnatural ambience.
Finally, Nimbus appends the program with a final track consisting of 21 long minutes of recorded conversations between composer and "wild soundscapes" producer, Bernie Krause. So, setting that aside as immaterial on an orchestral disc, we are left with only 53 minutes of actual music. Rather short measure in my estimation. Also worth noting, this album appears to be a CD-R production; however, it played perfectly in my very finicky SACD player and sounded excellent.
This disc is an entertaining enterprise and I give Mr. Blackford kudos for imagination and innovation. It does one good to lighten up a little bit and listen to something a little different once in awhile. And while I admit I really was dusting at times while listening, I found myself smiling often while it was playing.
This team has been producing some very popular and highly entertaining releases over the past few years. Chandos has tapped into a goldmine with John Wilson and his fabulous hand-picked orchestra. I've enjoyed many of their recordings, including - especially - their previous outing for strings (2021, English Music for Strings). This latest one for just the strings isn't quite as nice.
Right out of the gate, the introduction of the Strauss Metamorphosen seems uneventful and rather passionless. John Wilson's characteristic no-nonsense, nuts-and-bolts style is not terribly well-suited for Richard Strauss, I'm afraid. The music moves along without much affection and I longed for more communicative intimacy.
And as it progresses, things start to get pretty intense - and busy during climactic sections. Wilson brings out much inner detail to the fore, which should be musically informative. Instead, it tends to become a loud and complex confusion of notes. And the recorded sound intensifies it further with forward, thick, roughly textured sound. I longed for more air and light-and-shadow contrast.
I don't know if this ensemble was perhaps trying too hard to sound "big" and missed the point of it all, or if Wilson just isn't a Strauss guy, but this piece (which admittedly is difficult to bring off) was disappointing.
Schreker's Intermezzo is a bit intense too in its thickly-scored central section. But the music is lighter in the outer sections and more colorfully Romantic. And lasting just 6 minutes, it is much more pleasing.
By far the most enjoyable music here is Korngold's Symphonic Serenade for Strings. We know Wilson has a special affinity for Korngold based upon his previous two discs of that composer's music, and it is immediately apparent here. We hear deeper musical involvement, meaningful dynamic shadings and wonderful musical phrasing. The writing is endlessly varied and interesting, which responds very well to Wilson's straight-forward approach.
The lilting opening movement is delightful in Wilson's hands, and the strings display a lyrical sweetness missing in the Strauss. The pizzicato 2nd movement is marvelously atmospheric and full of character, and the finale is very exciting and dramatic. Just listen to the opening motif on the low strings, which is quite arresting with its heavy bow-on-string presence - made perhaps larger-than-life by the close microphone placement.
And about the Chandos sound...it's still a bit over-rich in the midrange and thick, even boomy, in the bass. But overall, it is improved over the previous works - more spacious and not quite as uptight.
There are not many recordings of the Korngold and comparisons are interesting. Somewhat surprisingly, I actually prefer the recorded sound on the 1996 Chandos CD for Matthias Bamert and the BBC Philharmonic. It is at once fresher, more relaxed, lighter and infinitely cleaner. Another recording of the work I remember enjoying is a 1989 CD from Werner Albert and the Northwest German Philharmonic on CPO. However, listening to it again, despite it being very satisfying musically, it is not as well played or recorded as either Chandos.
So while some of this music is somewhat unnecessarily intense here (there is no better word for it), the Korngold is quite wonderful. I am puzzled, though, why Chandos strayed from the marvelous recorded sound heard on their English String Music SACD just a year earlier. This orchestra did not need any "help" from the engineers. Still, the program itself is enticing and the couplings unique. I always welcome new recordings of music not often encountered.
I will try to be as succinct as possible so as to not drag this out any more than necessary.
These two Mozart releases are intriguing in that they combine major Piano Concertos (#20-24) with the two Piano Quartets and the 3rd Trio, all composed during the two years represented on each 2-disc set. But that's the extent of the attraction. Alas, they are about as disappointing as you might expect coming from a major label intent upon promoting "star power". (Look no further than the cover art to affirm where the primary focus lies.)
Not that Leif Ove Andsnes isn't deserving of "star" status. He's a fine pianist. And he's dabbled in Mozart before (some of the middle Concertos for EMI in the early 2000s were actually pretty good). But I'm just not sure what he's trying to do here. He teams up with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (which was likely much more conducive to his recent Beethoven Concertos project) and produces Mozart which sounds for all the world as if Mahler himself would have approved. This is Mozart on a grand scale, which is quite out of fashion these days. "Grand" in and of itself isn't necessarily bad, but Andsnes takes it too far into the Romantic period with dramatic heaviness, while SONY fattens it up with overripe recorded sound. One would never know this is a chamber orchestra. It's "big band" all the way, the likes of which Karajan would produce. And it weighs down the tempos and most definitely the mood. Just try getting through Concerto #24, for example, which is downright oppressive.
To be fair, this terrific orchestra plays with a reasonable amount of precision and articulation, but I'd never describe it as "crisp". Or transparent. And tempos are far from "alert". This is serious, pretentious Mozart - with a Mahlerian scale to it. And despite excellent piano playing, Andsnes seems determined to make this "old-fashioned" in all the wrong ways.
Surely the chamber music fares better. Nope. It's almost worse. Not only are all the characteristics described above evident here, but the lack of joy and musical involvement is astonishing. SONY doesn't help, providing an up-close, airless, flat wall of sound, slightly grainy and diffuse, within a reverberant acoustic.
There is one high point, though. Just one. Among 4 CDs packed full of Mozart, we are rewarded with 8 minutes worthy of the master - the finale of Concerto #23. After a lugubrious Adagio, (good lord, I have never heard it this lethargic), the music finally springs to life in the Allegro assai and at last I can describe the playing as crisp, alert and joyful. And with all that surrounds it, it is a glorious moment indeed. But it's but a brief respite.
I know I'm being terribly hard on these recordings. But this is Mozart we became accustomed to (and learned to accept) back in the 70s. Today, in 2021/22, when these were issued, we deserve something more from a modern recording of these masterworks. Something fresh. With something relevant to say. Unfortunately, these SONY releases are none of that.
This 2-CD set of Poulenc's chamber music is not a new release but was assembled and released in 2011. However, I've just acquired it and the label (Champs Hill Records) and this group (London Conchord Ensemble) are both new to me. And what a pleasant surprise it is!
Eric Le Sage's landmark complete set for RCA has long been my go-to choice for all things Poulenc. Most of it was recorded in 1998; the Concertos in 2003. The set is incomparable for its completeness (it includes all the chamber music, solo piano music and the concertos) and for its vivid, characterful and musically involving playing from pianist and soloists alike. The entire set (6 CDs in all) has been reissued in a 2016 SONY budget box with 24-bit high resolution remastering and it remains the standard by which all others are judged. Thus it's difficult to find other recorded accounts which can match it.
Pianist Julian Milford and the London Conchord Ensemble make a commendable stab at it. And much of it is quite rewarding. Making this set particularly special, aside from the fabulous playing, is the superb recorded sound from Champs Hill. As good as the RCA set is, it has its occasional moments of "digititus". (I borrow that word from Stereophile magazine writers who sometimes use it to describe early digital recordings or inexpensive CD players.) In this case, there is just a hint of digital edge here and there and occasionally a touch of glassy hardness to the piano tone. However, overall, it has stood the test of time, musically and sonically, and is the Poulenc I turn to for sheer enjoyment.
Listening to this newer collection from Champs Hill, it is instantly apparent this is state-of-the-art digital CD sound. It is at once more relaxed, colorful and atmospheric than the RCA, yet with a believable dimensionality and communicative intimacy. There are times, though, when I still prefer the bold, dramatic presence of the RCA, which is superbly involving and can't help but provide a tremendous impact. But generally, the newer set sounds positively lustrous and most pleasing for repeated listening.
Before getting to the music, I have a few issues with the production to address.
First, I am aware that at least half of the music contained here was originally released on ASV in 2007. Champs Hills Records label was founded in 2010. Presumably they acquired these tapes from ASV, but nowhere in the booklet is this information disclosed.
Second, no less than three clarinetists are listed in the roster of performers, but the booklet fails to identify which one is playing in which piece. I suppose it doesn't really matter, as they are all equally fantastic. But it would have been nice to know.
And while I'm at it, I suppose I have a third issue as well - that pianist Julian Milford is not more prominently credited for his inestimable contribution here is lamentable. This really is his collection, as he is featured on almost every piece, much of it very difficult music. Alas, he is merely listed as a member of the group.
Quibbles aside, as to the music itself, the playing is uniformly excellent by all involved and the music-making thoroughly rewarding (with a couple exceptions - see below.)
Let's start with the highlights.
Along with the fabulous piano playing throughout, the clarinet playing is dazzling everywhere it occurs - in the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, the Sonata for Two Clarinets, Sonata for Clarinet and Bassoon and in the Sextet. Variably, these are played by either Barnaby Robson or Maximiliano Martin (or both). A third clarinetist, Richard Hosford, is also listed as a "guest artist". I'm not sure why one was needed and there is no indication as to which piece he is involved with.
In the main Clarinet Sonata, we hear an amazing display of tonal variety, dynamic contrasts and the most exquisite pianissimo legato. There is no fading in and out, or any hint of a hesitancy of the tone to "speak". Here is a miraculous technique which produces rare beauty and control in clarinet playing. This is precisely why it sure would be nice to know who is playing it.
Another highlight is the outstanding horn playing of Nicholas Korth in the Sextet. His commanding focus of tone and articulation, along with an arresting dynamic range, are extraordinary - and very impressive indeed.
Speaking of the Sextet, this account is extremely enjoyable overall. There are several really good recordings of it which I know well, but this one is so memorable it had me whistling its many tunes for days afterwards! It is notable for strong characterization of the many moods and ever-changing tempos, a pronounced observance of articulation markings (accents, etc.) and striking dynamic contrasts. And of course, that the horn steals the show tickles me no end.
The Sonatas for Oboe and Cello are also excellent (played by Emily Pailthorpe and Thomas Carroll, respectively), and the expert recording team affords each of them an impressive immediacy, increasing musical involvement. I can't remember enjoying them more than here.
A couple oddities are included, neither of which is technically "chamber music". The short, melancholy Sarabande for Solo Guitar is beautifully tender, played with an amazingly sustained, singing legato by guitarist Tom Ellis. I had never heard it before and would never guess it comes from the pen of Francis Poulenc. I enjoyed it very much and wished there was more to it. The same goes for the one-minute-long Un Joueur de Flute, its haunting, "whooey" sound reminiscent of Debussy's Syrinx. There's also one that Le Sage omits: Villanelle for Piccolo and Piano (originally written for bamboo pipe, the "modern" rival to the recorder in the 1930s). Lasting just 2 minutes, its loveliness was over much too soon.
Unfortunately, the remaining three Sonatas are somewhat disappointing. The one for Trumpet, Horn and Trombone is a weird little piece that I've never much cared for. And listening to it here I'd surmise these players don't either. They tread carefully (almost hesitantly) in the first two movements, exhibiting some moments of insecurity and precious little musicality. The short, vivacious finale is better suited to this instrumentation and the trio sounds to be in more comfortable territory. I don't know...if I were the producer I might have scrapped this altogether.
In the Flute Sonata we encounter flute tone which is decidedly mellow and insipid. Curious, I read in the booklet that flutist, Daniel Pailthorpe, is a "keen advocate" of the modern wooden flute. Ah - that explains the lack of sparkle and brilliance to his sound. It's one thing to champion such an instrument for Bach, Telemann, Mozart (et al), but to my ears it doesn't do justice to 20th-Century flute repertoire. Pailthorpe's playing displays a pleasing degree of graceful elegance, and his musicianship is never in question. But the quirky capriciousness of Poulenc's writing is minimized.
And finally - the Violin Sonata. Maya Koch plays sweetly and musically, but her sound is small and rather timid. There is minimal bite to bow on string and dynamics are limited. Conversely, this very piece is one of the supreme achievements on the RCA set and comparing the two is striking. Violinist Kolja Blacher, partnering with Eric Le Sage, is instantly more assured and commanding, with a more invigorating and powerfully moving musical involvement. His muscular articulation and wide dynamic range produce a positively thrilling experience. He is helped somewhat by the closer perspective from the recording engineers; the Champs Hill is especially laid back in this piece. (It was not part of the original ASV release and that may account for the slightly more distant perspective.) While this is probably the most difficult, technically, of all Poulenc Sonatas, Ms. Koch certainly accommodates all the notes with ease. But her performance is simply too polite compared to the best. I did enjoy her sweet, singing lyricism, though, and Julian Milford matches her approach beautifully.
In all, this is an enjoyable collection of Poulenc's chamber music. And if not all the performances are primary recommendations, many of them are, and there is no denying all of them are extremely accomplished and beautifully recorded. The recordings were made over a period of 10 years (2001-2011), all within the wonderful acoustics of the Music Room, Champs Hill, Sussex, UK. It's unfortunate the source of the recordings is not disclosed. Nonetheless, I am grateful to have them assembled in one collection.
I will always love Eric Le Sage's RCA set. And while this new one doesn't displace it, it has nonetheless created a soft spot in my heart and I can't wait to listen to it all again.
This big box from Eloquence offers Neville Marriner's Haydn Symphonies for Philips in the late '70s/early '80s. And what a glorious collection it is! This is Marriner at his very happiest. He obviously loved Haydn and a joyous outpouring is apparent everywhere. One laments that he (and Philips) didn't commit to recording all of them. But we can be grateful for the ones we do have.
These are fresh, alert, crisp and lovely readings of the 33 "named" symphonies. Tempos are perfectly chosen throughout - not only in the swift, vivacious outer movements, but also in the quick, smiling Allegrettos and Menuets, which simply bubble with charm and joy. And, mercifully, Adagios (and Andantes) never drag, but move along with a natural singing momentum which feels just right. The size of this chamber orchestra is perfectly suited for this music, and the acoustics of the various halls in which the recording sessions took place are consistently pleasing.
Eloquence lists a remastering engineer for this reissue. So I dutifully compared a couple Paris Symphonies back-to-back with my 1993 Philips Duo release. (Specifically #82 & 83, as #84, 86-7 are DDD.) The sound between the two is very close but subtly freshened on the newer issue. It is just slightly cleaner, brighter and airier, with a better front-to-back definition of the orchestral ranks layered back into the hall. However, I emphasize it is a very subtle difference, likely not even noticeable on all but the very best stereo systems (or perhaps on high-quality headphones).
Regardless, the remastered analog sound is consistently excellent - clean, warm and positively gorgeous, but not too rich or reverberant. In addition to the crisp articulation, just listen to the slow movements in the earlier symphonies (pre-Paris), especially those which use muted strings. What ravishing, positively creamy violin sound! Oh my goodness, it is absolutely delectable. So is the vibrant flute sound. (I smiled seeing in the booklet William Bennett, one of my favorite flutists ever, listed as soloist in at least one symphony, and I wonder if he was also the principal flutist in many of these sessions.)
I could listen to this orchestra all day long and never tire of the beauty of it - especially the strings. And actually, getting through this box set, I did just that! It's worth noting, however, the few digital recordings from 1981 are slightly leaner and less glowing - to be expected from early digital.
Eloquence gathers these recordings together for the first time, in the original layout, using the original album cover art. However, there are significant drawbacks to this lovely idea. It means an outlay of 15 CDs, most with just 2 symphonies and an average playing time of about 40-50 minutes each. Thus it's a great big box to find room for on the shelf, containing many more CDs than was necessary.
Worse, the Symphonies are not in chronological order. (Not even all the Paris Symphonies are grouped together.) Instead they are laid out over the multitude of CDs more-or-less in the order in which they were originally released and coupled. I would have preferred the discs to be filled up (thus making the box half as big), with the Symphonies presented in numerical order for easy access and convenience. But that's just me.
I can't really fault Eloquence for doing this. It seems to be all the rage these days and all the major labels are doing it. And Decca just can't resist jumping on the bandwagon. I personally don't understand the reasoning behind it - making a set with as many CDs as possible when virtually no one is buying CDs these days. (And many labels are transitioning their back-catalogs to Download only). Plus one would think it wouldn't be cost-effective to produce a set with twice as many discs as necessary.
But whatever. This collection is fabulous, and the sound is too. I enjoyed every minute of it and will be returning to it often.
At last, the completion of Alexandre Kantorow's Saint-Saens Piano Concertos series. And what a magnificent set it is.
Well, I guess I've already revealed the verdict about this pair of recordings in my title above. But they really are so fabulous, I must write a few words.
What a splendid and astute idea/decision it was to combine the talents of father and son Jean-Jacques and Alexandre Kantorow for this set of the Saint-Saens Piano Concertos. Conductor/violinist Jean-Jacques has already proven himself quite a champion of Saint-Saens, having made a remarkable series of recordings of his music for BIS, including, most recently, the Violin Concertos and all 5 symphonies. Teaming up with his son for the Piano Concertos, #3, 4 & 5 were released in early 2019. And after a 3-year hiatus, it is cause for celebration the follow-up disc is finally here. For this is simply the best set of these concertos I have yet heard.
These are not easy concertos to bring off. And it's particularly difficult for a single pianist to make all 5 equally marvelous. The problems I encounter with most recordings lie mainly with tempos and the ability to illuminate the unique importance and musical riches of each one. To site one recent example, Louis Lortie's accounts for Chandos (CD-only, 2018/2020) are played so absurdly fast, the resultant melee renders the music breathless, flippant and rather unmusical. Edward Gardner is partly to blame, readily wrangling his orchestra along to keep up with the scramble every step of the way. As I noted in my review of it on this blog, just because you can play this music this fast doesn't mean you should! And to make matters worse, the Chandos recorded sound is not great, curiously returning to their 1980s bathtubby house sound, which I had hoped was gone forever. I don't know what went wrong there, but what a technical (and musical) blunder!
So it is with extreme pleasure that I turn my attention to the incredible pianism - and incomparable musicianship - of Alexandre Kantorow, who, incidentally, went on to become the first French pianist to win the gold medal (as well as the Grand Prix) at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2019. He restores all the integrity and artistry to these marvelous concertos that Lortie blatantly eschews. And he proves beyond a reasonable doubt that sensible, intelligently chosen tempos make all the difference in the world for musical correctness and satisfaction.
And the BIS engineers provide superb SACD recorded sound.
In addition to the 5 Concertos, BIS also offers us substantially more music than the companion set on Chandos. Disc One lasts 80+ minutes, and the second disc, with all the extras, contains an amazing 85 minutes of music! The Concertos are joined by Wedding Cake, Africa, the Allegro appassionato and Rhapsodie d'Auvergne. (The Chandos set sadly omits the first 2 of these.) And they certainly are not mere fillers. They are substantial works, performed with as much depth of musical appreciation and importance as the main offerings.
I have listened to the first disc many, many times over the past 3 years and its wonders never cease to amaze. There are very few recordings in my collection which I turn to again and again for sheer musical pleasure. This is one of them. There is an emotional involvement rarely encountered on a recording. And the sound quality is equally rewarding.
Listening with great eagerness to the new disc, I began with Wedding Cake and immediately smiled ear to ear upon hearing the unmistakable, sensational "ping" of a Steinway grand piano recorded with such accuracy and realism. What a remarkable and glorious sound this is to experience from a recording! It is this very quality which most record companies fail to capture realistically. The transient ping is either minimized (or dampened altogether) or reproduced with a glassy hardness, making the piano sound clanky or clangy. Not so here; BIS absolutely nails it. The percussive articulation of sound is created by a felt-covered hammer (not a hard wooden one) and the resulting "ping" resonates naturally from within the big wooden soundbox, cushioned on air, creating a most delectable sound ever so close to what one hears on a real, live Steinway.
Another big smile occurs with the first entry of the strings, singing with such an airy sound! This is another area where so many record companies fail - the airiness of string texture. The Tapiola Sinfonietta may be a chamber orchestra, but BIS captures their body of sound most realistically, providing a satisfying fullness combined with an airy transparency, placed within a spacious acoustic. The strings may be fewer in number but they're not thin. They are silky and richly textured. And surrounded by air. This is a difficult feat to accomplish, not only for the engineers but for the average stereo system to reproduce. But when everything is up to snuff, it is positively glorious.
I detail these sonic impressions as I listen to Wedding Cake, but can assure you these qualities are consistent throughout the entire set. (Only in the Second Concerto, recorded last, is the sound perhaps slightly less exemplary. But I'm being overly critical now.)
Regarding the set as a whole, musically, everything is simply marvelous. And let me just say that the piano playing is extraordinary. Even as one beholds the awesomeness of accomplishment and consummate musical interpretations on display, there is one word in particular which comes to mind over and over while listening to this gifted pianist: Leggiero. I don't want to get too technical here, but let me just quote the Groves Dictionary of Music for an illustration of what I mean:
LEGGIERO (Ital., also Leggieramente):
Lightly. The word is usually applied to a rapid passage, and in pianoforte playing indicates an absence of pressure, the keys being struck with only sufficient force to produce the sound. Leggiero passages are usually, though not invariably, piano, and they may be either legato or staccato; if the former the fingers must move very freely and strike the keys with a considerable amount of percussion to ensure distinctness, but with the slightest possible amount of force.
Fleet, ethereal and breezy also come to mind as descriptors of Kantorow's command of the keyboard, especially during difficult passages. His playing never sounds labored or heavy, but rather so utterly effortless, natural and musical. His legato is a marvelous expression of sweetly singing lines, reminding me more of a singer than a piano. It's actually difficult to describe, and is somewhat unique to Kantorow's style and technique, but leggiero seems the best musical term for it I can think of.
This is not to imply there is a lack of power and drama. Far from it. Those qualities burst forth as required, for everything about his playing is driven first and foremost by the spirit and letter of the score. Nor do sensible tempos imply a lack of adrenaline. Just the opposite actually. Rather than being possessed by a wild, out of control abandonment, which creates an uneasy foreboding the entire thing is about to fly off the rails (or worse, a flippancy which demeans the piece entirely), the firmness of control and authority, plus an absolute command of tempo, actually produce more exciting results than simply playing it as fast you possibly can.
Interpretatively, father and son are perfectly in agreement everywhere with regard to tempos, phrasing and overall scope. The interplay between soloist and orchestra and the perfection of ensemble are absolutely marvelous. The only instance which may initially cause a raised eyebrow is the finale of the Second, which really does seem too fast. However, checking the score, it is marked Presto. And it is the only movement in all 5 concertos which is. And when played with such gossamer adroitness and energetic bravura, I can't fault this pianist for taking advantage of the opportunity to fly free. And fly he does! And incredibly, this magnificent string section keeps up with him with phenomenal execution, power and sheer energy. And there is no denying it is dazzling. Elsewhere, as noted above, tempos are perfectly chosen - and exactly right - in every movement.
In sum, this is without doubt the best recording of these concertos (and showpieces) I have ever heard. Of the 5, I enjoyed #1, 3 & 5 the most, for their depth of musical expression and involvement, interaction between pianist and orchestra, and sheer excitement. And there is never any question as to this pianist's capabilities; he plays with a natural bravura without ever sounding ostentatious or flashy. But most of all, he and his father together engender an emotional impact I have not experienced from these concertos before.
I have read mixed reviews of this team's earlier recording of the Liszt Piano Concertos (2015, BIS). I have that disc in my collection but, curiously, have no recollection of its merits and can only assume I considered it rather unmemorable. But I can assure anyone who may have been disappointed with it (and are therefore hesitant to explore this pianist further), these Saint-Saens Concertos are in an entirely different league of excellence. They are simply magnificent in every way.
It is interesting comparing this Ravel collection to the one from John Wilson on Chandos, issued just 2 months earlier. (See my review of it elsewhere on this blog.) While I had some issues with the Chandos production for Wilson, I found his music-making very good, if perhaps a little too-matter-of-fact for Ravel and lacking some love. Oramo, in stark contrast, is everything John Wilson isn't; and BIS provides even more flattering sound for him than Chandos does for Wilson.
It is worth noting both releases are multi-channel hybrid SACDs - not to be taken for granted these days.
In general, Oramo and BIS are simply seductive in this music; whereas, Wilson and Chandos are a bit more extrovert, straight-forward and bare-bones. Both are valid approaches and one might prefer one over the other depending on one's mood. I tend to prefer Oramo across the board, especially given the sumptuous recorded sound from BIS. It is more atmospheric and sensuous than the Chandos, and possesses a stunning dynamic range. Oramo also creates a more seductive atmosphere, taking his time to bring out more color in the orchestration. And his orchestra responds with a richness of musical expression which is alluring.
Getting into more detail, the two programs are not identical. But there are 3 duplications, inviting back-to-back comparisons.
Beginning with La Valse, Wilson is a little careful with his footing, whereas Oramo positively lifts the music afloat, with more elasticity and rather more energetic involvement. This music really dances in his hands and BIS's wider dynamic range pays dividends here.
Wilson makes Alborada del Gracioso a thrilling showpiece. Oramo keeps it closer to the piano original, with a steadier tempo and more crisply articulated pizzicatos and with sharply executed accents. Both are equally good in slightly different ways. And both have the benefit of a wonderful bassoon soloist, neither of which is identified in the booklets. tsk tsk.
Pavane is a toss-up.
There are standouts in the remainder of both programs. Wilson serves up a fabulous Vales Nobles et Sentimentales, showing him at his absolute best. Oramo gives us a wonderful Une barque sur l'ocean and a Le Tombeau de Couperin which includes the two extra movements of the original piano version which Ravel never orchestrated. Fugue and Toccata are here played in orchestrations by Kenneth Hesketh. And fabulous they are. These extra sections have been recorded before but in different orchestrations. Vladimir Ashkenazy, in his 2003 recording with the NHK Symphony Orchestra (Tokyo) on Exton, plays "arrangements" by Michael Round, which I actually prefer, other than his use of the trumpet in moments of Toccata which doesn't befit the music, sounding labored and clumsy. Otherwise it is crisp, fleet and as close to the original as possible. Hesketh is instantly more rhapsodic and colorful. And that works surprisingly well too. (Incidentally, the name Kenneth Hesketh may sound familiar from his orchestration of 3 Dutilleux wind Sonatas, recorded by John Wilson on a 2021 Chandos release, also reviewed elsewhere here on my blog.)
Getting back to the recorded sound (which makes such an important contribution in Impressionistic music), in addition to the spectacular dynamics, the BIS SACD is more naturally balanced than the Chandos. From top to bottom, the orchestra shimmers in a gloriously airy and spacious acoustic, and climaxes expand effortlessly into the hall. In comparison, the Chandos struggles just a bit, sounding slightly cramped and "tubby" in the bass.
I found both collections rewarding and, curiously, enjoyed them more during a second listen. It is good to have new recordings which can stand alongside those classics from Ozawa and Boulez.
I'd love to see both conductors record more Ravel - particularly a complete Daphnis and Chloe from John Wilson and everything else from Oramo.
Chandos is on a roll with John Wilson and his Sinfonia of London. And for good reason. This current release is no exception, offering a whopping 83+ minutes (!!) of Ravel's greatest hits, gloriously played by the fabulous Sinfonia of London.
But I've got some issues with Chandos on this one. So let me get to the main one right upfront so we can move on to the music.
On the back insert, in small print, Chandos claims that this Ma Mere L'Oye (Mother Goose) and Bolero are each a "Premier Recording of This Edition". Oh really? And what edition is that?
Before listening to a single note, I scoured the extensive booklet looking for details about these potentially exciting, newfound editions that, apparently, Mr. Wilson alone is privy to. And other than a simple listing on the back page of the publication dates of the scores - ummm......Crickets. There is not a word from the booklet writer about these "new editions". Not one single mention of any kind. Of Bolero, there is merely a brief comment: "John Wilson has meticulously restored many details of the score which have become lost...". So it's not really a "new edition", but rather Wilson simply follows the printed score? And if these details are contained within the published score, were they ever really "lost"?
Listening first to Mother Goose, I hear absolutely nothing new, different or unusual about it. It sounds exactly like it always does, with regard to content, orchestration, dynamics, tempos, etc. As to Bolero, I was delighted to hear Mr. Wilson does indeed follow the score a little more closely than most conductors (well, for the most part). First, he encourages his two saxophone players to actually execute the lip slurs, as printed in the score, which almost every conductor on earth inexplicably ignores. Not only is it interesting to hear (and adds marvelously to the bolero flavor), it makes the trombone's glissandos, which come a few bars later, much more musically appropriate. They're no longer just raspberries by a showoff trombonist, but rather now completely in line with the essence of the music and intentions of the composer, being played in the same manner as the saxophones do before it.
I also detected a brighter, more ringing sound to the first saxophone solo and suspect that Wilson's soprano sax player actually found and plays the rare Sopranino sax (in F), as dictated in the score. Also, I thought the English Horn solo, earlier in the piece, sounded a little sweeter and more singing than usual, with exquisite vibrato. I was actually surprised to discover, looking in my score, that Ravel in fact writes that solo for the oboe d'amore. And I do believe that's what is played on this recording.
That sums up the entirety of what I heard as being notable, or somewhat different from the norm. And I congratulate Mr. Wilson for taking the time and trouble to observe those aspects of the printed score (which, by the way, are all there in my 1988 pocket score). But still, I come back to Chandos and ask: Does that make this a "New Edition"? Granted most conductors do not bother with these minor details - after all, it's Bolero, not to be taken all that seriously, and typically programmed merely to get people to buy tickets and/or CDs. But is Mr. Wilson really the first one to observe them? I have heard the saxophone lip slurs before (although not very often), and I'm pretty sure I've heard the oboe d'amore solo before. Perhaps maybe not the Sopranino sax. However, since when does following the printed score make it a "premier recording of a new edition"? I am perplexed by this.
And speaking of faithfulness to the score, Wilson (along with virtually every conductor since Ormandy) still manages to bury the fascinating arpeggiated pizzicatos in the 2nd violins and violas at Figure 9. It's all but inaudible, as usual. That would have been a nice detail to bring out, which would have had many folks reaching for their scores to discover what it is. And the second snare drum called for at Figure 16 is hardly noticeable unless specifically listening for it.
Otherwise, this is as uneventful a Bolero as one typically hears. The hypnotic tension is curiously missing and I didn't think the slow, building intensity of the crescendo is executed all that successfully. And like many before him, Wilson takes it too fast. Coming in at 14 and 1/2 minutes, it's one of the fastest on record. Ravel himself stated, "it is a piece lasting 17 minutes..." Only Riccardo Muti comes to mind as faithfully observing that specification in his 1982 Philadelphia recording for EMI, which clocks in at 17:09.
All that being said, I am happy to report the rest of the music-making on this program is terrific.
The concert opens a little carefully, with a rather ordinary La Valse, although the rollicking horn writing is a delight. I enjoyed Mother Goose more. While there's nothing "new" about this edition, I found Wilson's characteristic no-nonsense, bare-bones approach to suit this piece particularly well. There is no lingering, or caressing a phrase; there is no love bestowed upon it whatsoever. It's just notes on the page for Wilson to get through. And this group of fabulous musicians does all the rest. It's as straightforward as can be, which actually allows Ravel's inspiration to shine through unadulterated. There is an attractive simplicity to it which, for me, works handsomely.
Time to be alert for Alborada del Gracioso, which Wilson turns into a true showpiece that only an orchestra can deliver. No pianist could ever play all the repeated triplets or the dramatic scalic flourishes at this speed. But with this brilliant orchestra at hand (and in a rare display of unbuttoned exuberance), Wilson brings the gusto. And it is positively thrilling - full of flair and effortless bravura, along with the most songful, expressive bassoon solos in the central section.
And with the Pavane following it, we come to my other complaint with the Chandos production. Neither the bassoon or horn soloists are named. And that is a pity, because both are quite wonderful.
Finally, the highlight of the disc is most certainly Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. I was utterly astonished to hear Wilson - at last - take his time and lavish such love and sheer loveliness on this music. Tenderness abounds, along with exquisite phrasing, quite unlike anything I've encountered from John Wilson before. And this glorious string section delivers it for him big time, with positively silky string tone - lush and airy, yet transparent too.
And despite my reservations with Bolero, it closes the concert with a bang.
The Chandos house sound is, as ever, very good - although just a little stuffy and bass-rich this time compared to their very best. (They have yet to match the fantastic sound they achieved in the Korngold Symphony.) But it's a multi-channel SACD, which is always cause for celebration these days. And as noted above, the string sound is ravishing when it needs to be.
In closing, I wish Chandos had not implied there was more on offer here than there actually is. Simply utilizing newly published scores, without any mention of any differences they may or may not possess, creates expectations left unfulfilled. But that aside, this is yet another enjoyable concert from John Wilson and company.
I wasn't really in the mood for Mozart's Flute Quartets when I inadvertently loaded this CD into the disc player. Expecting something completely different after pressing Play, instead the most joyous flute tone rang out, singing one of Mozart's most delightful creations. And I stopped in my tracks and sat myself down, completely transfixed.
This is certainly the best recording of Mozart's Flute Quartets I've come across in a long while. And from a name completely new to me, making it all the more exciting!
Finnish flutist, Sami Junnonen impresses in every conceivable way in Mozart, as does his superb trio of string players, who are members of the Chamber Domaine.
Readers of this blog may remember seeing my comprehensive survey of the Mozart Flute Quartets in May 2021 (17 recordings in all). I had not heard this newer (2018) recording at the time or it surely would have been included in the top-most category along with the other lofty residents: Oxalys (flutist Toon Fret), Karl-Heinz Schutz and Gary Schocker. Putting this newcomer into perspective within that context, Junnonen combines the amazing variety of tone and vibrato of Fret (Oxalys), with the most gracious musical phrasing of Schutz, and the joyful invigoration of Schocker. That is quite an achievement! And a miraculous combination.
Not only that, Junnonen has the advantage of playing with some of the most inspiring, musically involving string players on record. They play with the utmost musical phrasing, spontaneity and crisp articulation, bringing life and jubilation everywhere. And listen to their marvelous pizzicatos in the Adagio of the D Major - so tuneful, colorful and harmonically chordal, yet delicately phrased, while Junnonen's flute sings resplendently above it. And the tempo doesn't sag (as it so often does); it has a natural, forward-moving expression just perfect for the music. I don't ever remember hearing such loveliness from this movement before.
As to Sami Junnonen, he possesses a clear, sparkling, radiant tone which is a joy to listen to. But he varies it, along with his vibrato and articulation, to bring endless variety, interest and musical purpose. And best of all, his tone remains vibrant and expressive even at pianissimo and with minimal vibrato. It never wilts or becomes deadpan as can happen when some flutists attempt this. It truly is marvelous flute sound.
Also notable are his dynamic range and supreme breath control. He can play complete phrases - and then some - without breaking for a breath. It is amazing how long he can sustain a phrase, and it sounds so musically right to hear such considered and competent phrasing.
Fortunately, Resonus Classics provides lovely recorded sound - clean, clear, richly colorful and perfectly focused; the group is realistically placed within a warm acoustic, with just the perfect amount of reverberation. There is also an excellent booklet with informative notes about the music and musicians, along with high-quality, glossy photos.
To sum up: this is some of the most joyful Mozart I've come across - at all times fresh and sparkling, full of life and spontaneity, and supremely musical. Mr. Junnonen truly delivers the best of the best in flute playing in this music, and I enjoyed it from beginning to end even though I've listened to recordings of these quartets literally hundreds of times.
I look forward to more recordings from this wonderful flutist on this label and will definitely be looking for more recordings from Chamber Domaine as well.