I have read with amusement the mixed reviews of this disc on Amazon (and elsewhere). And I admit to having hesitations going in. But in the end, many of us (myself included) are thrilled to hear the magnificent Philadelphia Orchestra with modern recorded sound which finally does it justice. Others, however, just can't get passed the past.
Getting right to it: DG's recording is extremely good. It positively invites the listener to turn it up and luxuriate in the richness of it. No, it's not perfect. It is a LIVE recording after all, and that in and of itself presents all sorts of challenges. (Fortunately there is absolutely no audience noise.) I wish it had a bit more sparkle and glitter and glamour. But it's certainly warmer and richer than EMI could ever manage for Muti. And it has a spectacular dynamic range. Granted, they are now in their new home (Verizon Hall), and EMI didn't have that luxury. Nonetheless, the top-heavy, edgie, glarey brashness of EMI's Philadelphia is long gone. And DG has done a pretty darn good job, with warm, full, soaring violins and rich (but not muddy) lower strings and brass. Just what is needed for Rachmaninoff. And the power of the bass drum and tam-tam in both works is spectacular.
I think those who are still trying to compare this to the good-ol' Ormandy days are forgetting that CBS loved to spotlight, with a bunch of microphones everywhere. So, yes, there were things heard in his recordings that impressed more, and made more of an impact. Ormandy had Rachmaninoff in his very bones, but he also had a lot of help from the engineers in the control room. Put simply, DG's recorded sound in Philly is as natural and realistic as you'll hear these days - as well it should, after 60 years of advancements in recording technology/techniques.
And getting to the crux of the matter - the conducting. Nezet-Seguin certainly shows off his operatic pedigree. From beginning to end, I hear ardent singing lines. I also hear majesty. And I hear an enormous assemblage of musicians playing their hearts out. Perhaps there is a little less ostentatious drama than I've heard from others (including Ormandy). And I would never describe this music-making as being the most "Russian"-sounding around. But it sure is passionate and emotionally moving, and often exciting. And the playing is magnificent.
While I overall enjoyed the disc immensely, I do have just two reservations.
1) I know the first movement of Symphonic Dances is marked "non Allegro". But does it really have to be THIS non? There isn't quite enough Allegro for me; it is rather leisurely. I wished for a little more forward motion, and thus a little more excitement in this movement. (David Zinman in Baltimore is incomparable in this work, and the 1994 Telarc recording is absolutely spectacular. It is a pity Zinman never recorded the First Symphony.) The remaining movements are spot on, however, and the ending is thrilling - with the tam-tam allowed to resonate for the perfect length of time, with a most natural decay.
And 2), the finale of the Symphony simply failed to raise the roof in an overwhelming way. After the massive, spectacular tam-tam crash just before the final peroration, why is the timpani so backwardly balanced and anemic in the final measures? Is it DG's balance? Or is the timpanist tired? Glancing at the score, the timpani is marked ff with no accent markings, while the strings are fff with accents. Surely Nezet-Seguin isn't making a big distinction out of that? Regardless the reason, the ending lacked sufficient power because the timpani do not sound remotely ff.
The rest of the Symphony is spectacularly done, with perfectly chosen tempos. And even though the final section was a bit of a let down for me, I admire Nezet-Seguin for not drawing it out with an unnecessary (and unmarked) ritardando, which too many conductors can't resist doing. In fact, the score is marked con moto here. There is no rit. or rall.
Taken as a whole, I am impressed - especially with DG's sound, which is not always the case. (It's not even usually the case, frankly.) And I am thrilled this fabulous orchestra finally is receiving fabulous sound. I hope this team continues the series with Rachmaninoff's tone poems, although I suspect we'll be seeing the remaining symphonies next. And the Second, in particular, will be the real test.
At long last, Chandos, the premier Classical record label, welcomes a flutist of real caliber to its roster. Adam Walker (the youngest principal flutist to ever be appointed to the LSO, in 2009) appears in two new recordings, released simultaneously, one of which is the subject of this review.
Belle Epoque showcases Walker playing chamber music as a member of the Orsino Ensemble, partnered with featured pianist, Pavel Kolesnikov. This is a nice variety of French chamber works, for various wind instruments and piano. The music is wonderful, the playing is marvelous, and the sound is fabulous. And it comes on a multi-channel SACD.
Just one work features the entire woodwind quintet plus piano (Roussel Divertissement), and two minus the horn (Saint-Saens Caprice and Caplet Quintet). The remaining works are for solo instrument and piano.
Beginning with the latter, clarinetist Matthew Hunt playing the Debussy Premier Rhapsody is enjoyable enough, although his tone is slightly thinner than I'm used to hearing (especially up high) and I could do without his hints of vibrato. And while he certainly cannot be faulted for faithfully observing the pianissimo markings in the score, a little more air flow might have been beneficial. But, quibbles aside, this is a lovely reading of the piece, if not the most sumptuous. (I always miss the orchestra in the piano original, and it leaves absolutely nowhere for the clarinet to hide.)
Adam Walker is inspiring in Chaminade's ubiquitous Concertino. It is more gentle and sweetly singing than usual, although at a nicely flowing tempo. Similar to the Debussy mentioned above, it features playing which highlights the pianissimo extreme of the range. Walker plays with a well-supported, sustained tone, which is positively glowing and radiant. He also plays with a marvelous variety of sound - altering his vibrato speed and intensity as necessary to make beautifully shaped musical phrases. The same can be said for his Debussy Syrinx, which is less intense than usual. And again, his radiant sound is sheer loveliness and his dynamic range is remarkable.
Pavel Kolesnikov's piano accompaniments are sensitive and responsive. His delicate touch mirrors the soloists' pianissimos beautifully, helped by a perfect balance/perspective from the Chandos engineers.
The larger works are expertly done and played with enthusiasm. I was struck by the individuality of each player, along with superb unity of ensemble - a winning combination. And I was aware of Adam Walker's ability to vary his flute tone to blend with the oboe, yet retain its glorious vibrancy and radiance. This is simply sensational flute playing.
Speaking of sensational flute playing, the Saint-Saens Caprice is a somewhat sappy set of themes and variations, complete with flashy outbursts for both the flute and piano. Walker and Kolesnikov certainly demonstrate their virtuoso chops with dazzling bravura. The Caplet Quintet, the longest work here by far, at nearly 30 minutes, is especially excellent. Its variety of tonal color and compositional resourcefulness are almost symphonic in nature. The Chandos recorded sound is full-bodied and robust, providing thrilling impact and presence.
On a programming note, it's odd that Syrinx, for solo flute, comes last on the CD. Just before it, the Allegro con fuoco of the Caplet provides a stirring finale, and would have been a terrific end of the concert. The melancholy Debussy encore didn't feel right for me. Next time I will program the player to play this track after the Chaminade, where it is better suited.
This Chandos disc was recorded in July 2020, but not released until February 2021, coinciding with the release of Walker's solo album, French Works for Flute (with pianist James Baillieu). Chandos is clearly celebrating their 'exclusive' recording partnership with him. It's interesting both albums are made up entirely of French repertoire. I would welcome another album in the near future featuring some difficult 20th-Century flute music. And Chandos could use such a collection in its catalog, played by such a master flutist!
After being simply blown away by the Dover Quartet's recent 2-disc set of Beethoven's Opus 18 String Quartets on Cedille Records, I wanted to hear more from them. I was terribly dismayed to find their 2018 disc of Schumann's Quartets was unavailable. Then, suddenly last week, it became available again from Amazon, and sellers such as ImportCDs. I ordered it immediately!
And it is just as good as their Beethoven.
I recently also acquired the 2017 disc of Schumann Quartets as played by Quatuor Modigliani on Mirare. As much as I admire this group (and the label, too), I just was not terribly moved by their Schumann. Oh, it is lovingly played and beautifully recorded, but I kept getting distracted, and found it difficult to get all the way through it. Trying these quartets again, this time from the Dover, was a different matter. It's hard to describe in words what's going on. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with the Modigliani, there is just something about the Dover Quartet. Something special - every time I hear them. It's a passionate simplicity. I know, that seems like a contradiction, but it's how I hear it. And it's similar to what I hear from the Juilliard String Quartet on their new SONY disc (see my review below).
The Dover plays with a complete absence of over-emoting or fussiness. And at the same time, there is an involving, natural outpouring of musical passion and uniform ensemble which are simply marvelous. And at all times, the singing lines are glorious. What a sweet sound this quartet makes when the music calls for it. And they can make a large sound, too, when required, without ever sounding gruff or aggressive. Further, they retain a clarity of texture in these passages which prevents them from becoming thick and heavy. And then, in the next moment, they produce the most exquisite pianissimo. Ah...Magic!
Tempos play an important part in the overall enjoyment of Schumann in general, and particularly with these Quartets. Here, the Dover Quartet scores over their rivals with tempos that just feel right. Adagios never sag, the Andantes move along with a natural forward propulsion, and Allegros are gripping. Suffice it to say, the Dover Quartet elevates Schumann's String Quartets to a new level of masterpiece. If other recordings of them have left me slightly indifferent, the Dover has something new to say about them which changes that perception.
Finally, the production is first class, as is the recorded sound from Azica (a label new to me), which is simply superb - warm, rich, detailed, focused, spacious and airy, within the perfect acoustic. The jewel case is a 3-piece, cardboard fold-out affair, filled with lots of information about the music and musicians. Highly recommended.
I've always admired the Juilliard String Quartet (henceforth referred to as JSQ), though with the subliminal feeling they were not the most distinguished quartet around. But always a pleasure to listen to. I was actually surprised, perusing my shelves, to find just how many of their discs I have collected over the decades. I was equally surprised to read in the excellent booklet that this release marks the 75th Anniversary of the JSQ. And it is a knock-out.
I was enticed by this release because of the programing and also because they have a new first violinist. I was thinking both things would spark new heights of performance excellence from the group. And, happily, I was right!
Interestingly, this is the second new string quartet release which embeds Bartok's 3rd amongst other, seemingly unrelated quartets. The first was a 2020 disc from the Quatuor Modigliani on Mirare. Their Bartok is surrounded by Mozart and Haydn; and this one from JSQ by Beethoven and Dvorak. Weird. I personally find it difficult to acknowledge the Bartok being an appropriate bedfellow with the others on either program. And I certainly don't hear it that way either (especially since the 3rd is actually my least favorite of the 6). But that's just me.
Beginning with the Beethoven Op. 59 #2, I was instantly captivated - engrossed by the energetic, thoroughly engaging music-making. The booklet confirms this is the debut recording of the group with its new first violinist, Areta Zhulla. I don't know how much that alone contributes to the outstanding performances, or how much SONY's absolutely SUPERB recorded sound does (I suspect both), but I have simply run out of superlatives to describe this Beethoven.
There is a unified, homogenous blend here - in both interpretation and ensemble - which is simply miraculous. Their precision of playing, musical expression, and articulation are wonderous to behold. Their tempos are perfectly chosen and dynamics are invigorating. I hear so many recordings of string quartets which either minimize dynamics to enhance richness of blend, or eschew musical values and go all out in fortissimos, turning unpleasantly aggressive. This group does neither. Dynamic contrasts are natural and realistically wide, yet their beauty of tone and blend remains constant at all volumes. It really is amazing, actually, because few groups can match it. And SONY's rich, warm, yet clean and detailed recorded sound compliments it perfectly. PERFECTLY. I can't emphasize this enough.
A few weeks ago, I encountered the Dover Quartet's sensational 2-disc set of Beethoven Op. 18 Quartets on Cedille, and I thought then that recordings of Beethoven Quartets simply don't come any better. Well, the JSQ (and SONY) match them in every parameter. So much so that I crave more Beethoven from both groups.
Moving on. While I love Bartok's orchestral music, I admit with a little embarrassment I'm not a big fan of his chamber music, especially his String Quartets (although the Tokyo String Quartet's 1970s set, now on a 2013 Eloquence two-fer, almost convinces me otherwise). I can't really comment on this account of his 3rd with much expertise, other than to say it was a little more palatable and made more sense to my ears than usual. And again, SONY cannot be praised enough in this regard. Perhaps the plush sound polishes off the edges just a bit, but it allowed me to enjoy it a little more than I usually do. I just can't help but imagine it would be better appreciated in the company of other modern, 20th-Century quartets.
Rounding off the concert, we get an absolutely glorious Dvorak American Quartet, played with such enchantment, I was moved beyond words. The first movement flows with an exuberant Allegro (yet while still observing the non troppo indication), which drew me in more than usual. The two vivace movements are exhilarating, but never breathless. I don't ever remember the finale dancing quite this jubilantly. (I'm not one to dance around the room, but I found it difficult to sit still for this!) But I think what struck me the most about this performance as a whole, is the absence of over-emoting. The slow movement, for example, flows with such a natural outpouring of heartfelt expression, it really is quite wonderful.
Aside from all the specific descriptions above, I became aware of three notables while listening to this disc which most clearly illustrate my reaction to it. 1) I was not for a moment distracted (well, except maybe during the Bartok). I could hardly force myself to take notes, nor could I walk away from the stereo for an instant; 2) throughout the entire program, this group never goes out of its way to make a musical point. ("Just listen to what we're doing here!") No, their music-making is utterly natural in its simplicity and sheer musicality; and, 3) I kept turning the music up. Anytime I frequently grab the remote to turn the stereo down, I know something is amiss - either musically or technically, or both. But this SONY had me grabbing for the remote often - to turn it up. And every time, I became even more involved and drawn further into the music. The sound didn't just become louder, it became more engaging and real. The first violin never becomes bright or strident, and the cello never becomes gruff or bloated. It's just natural.
I have been listening to new releases mostly on smaller, independent and specialty labels lately, because I usually experience higher quality and more engaging performances from them. Therefore, I was absolutely thrilled that a major label like SONY can still produce such a fabulous-sounding recording such as this one. However, the complete absence of printed track playing times quickly reminded me of the inattention to important details often exhibited by the major labels (tsk tsk.) That quibble aside, I haven't been this excited about a new CD in a long time and I recommend it more highly than most. It is surely one of my favorite discs of the year so far.
I am certainly no expert when it comes to Beethoven's complete set of Bagatelles. However, I have played many of them over the decades, and I know how I like Beethoven to sound.
I am not familiar with pianist Christoph Scheffelt, but it became immediately apparent he has a special feel for Beethoven. Listening to a full hour of Beethoven miniatures might at first seem like too much of a good thing. However, this pianist plays with such a natural expression, and with endless variety - of mood, touch, tone and pedal - that I never felt this was an overlong concert. It was endlessly rewarding.
Last year, I had the pleasure of listening to, and reviewing, Volumes 1-6 (in an ongoing cycle) of Beethoven's complete Piano Sonatas, played by the marvelous pianist, James Brawn, on the MSR label. I was struck with his natural feel for Beethoven, in many of the same ways I am with Mr. Scheffelt's Beethoven. Further, both pianists have the rare ability to make the smaller, "lesser" works (the early Sonatas, and these Bagatelles) sound as important as the monumental ones. I like how Mr. Scheffelt describes these Bagatelles as "short jewels" in the excellent booklet. And jewels they are in his hands.
Both pianists benefit enormously from fabulous recorded sound. And that is nothing to take for granted. The concert grand piano has proven to be an almost insurmountable challenge for many recording engineers. In this instance, producer Martin Korn and recording producer, Andreas Werner, have gotten it absolutely right. The sound is realistically full-sized, portraying the scope and power of a full concert grand in a large hall, yet with the delicacy and "ringing" tone in more intimate passages, which make it sound real. The warm, wooden left-hand range of this piano is especially delectable.
This is yet another terrific release on the first-class Prospero label (a co-production with SRF2 Kultur), the likes of which you simply do not find elsewhere. The CD comes in a hard-back, jewelcase-sized book, with very high-quality contents, complete with all the information you could ask for, plus interesting/entertaining art-work, recording data, etc. I look forward to more from this pianist.
The Flute Quartets are among my favorite Mozart creations. I listen to them so often, and have so many recordings of them, I decided I really should write up an overview. I cannot claim to have heard every recording available, but I have heard a lot of them. And it's fascinating to discover that these works seem to bring out the very best from so many of the flutists who've recorded them. Most are so enjoyable, it's relatively rare to encounter a truly bad recording of them (well, there are a few - see below). I have struggled with ranking them, but feel satisfied with this final list.
I will state emphatically that I am not a "period performance" fan. Therefore none of my recommendations includes any played on recorder or any which self-professes to be "original" or "original instruments".
Regarding the strings: I have listed ensemble names (in parentheses) if they are an established group (e.g. a string quartet), as opposed to individual players gathered for a recording session. And it is understood that named string quartets are missing their 2nd violinist, as only 3 players are utilized in these flute quartets.
And regarding couplings: these quartets are self-contained and life-affirming, and therefore can stand alone on CD, with an approximate/average playing time of around 50 minutes (depending on the observance of all the repeats, as well as tempos). However, some discs do offer a coupling. And as welcome as they are, they have not affected my ranking in this survey in any way. They are detailed at the very bottom, for informational purposes only.
The very best
1. Oxalys - Fuga Libera 2004 (reissued on Passacaille 2017) +
2. Karl-Heinz Schutz - Camerata 2014 (Japanese import) ++
3. Gary Schocker (Chester Quartet) - Chesky 1995 ++
#1 and #2 are notable for being as close to "authentically Mozart" as I can imagine - on modern instruments - without the extremes of so-called "period" performance practices being applied. They just sound so very right that it is difficult to hear them played any other way. Yet, what makes them so special is they don't go out of their way to be deliberately "unusual". They do not stand out from the crowd for being different, but for being absolutely right. They are utterly natural in every conceivable way.
The most salient characteristics of both performances are: 1) a variety of flute sound (the ability to adjust tone/tonal color and vibrato, as appropriate); 2) clarity of texture and purity of text, including a judicious employment of ornamentation, lending a stylistically authentic feel; 3) perfectly chosen, lively tempos; and above all, 4) an irrepressible sense of joy. And while these two performances are very similar in these regards, Karl-Heinz Schutz (Vienna Philharmonic solo flutist) adds one more level of sublime musical bliss - his is hands-down the most musical and gracious of any I have heard.
Schutz would be #1 for me if not for the consummate perfection of Oxalys. Oxalys is a chamber group which is used to playing together, not just assembled for this recording. Their unanimity of approach and ensemble is unmatched. But the real attraction is flutist, Toon Fret. He plays with dazzling variety - of tone, dynamics, expression and ornamentation. And his vibrancy of tone in piano passages, even when utilizing very little vibrato, is simply exquisite. This is the most uplifting and joyful Mozart I have ever experienced. All of which, combined with the most natural and realistic recording, secures their place firmly at the top.
Gary Schocker's recording came as a total shock (sorry...pun intended). He's completely unknown to me, and from what I can ascertain, based upon searches of his recording oeuvre, he appears to be something of a Folk artist. His albums all come with titles such as "Healing Music", "Flute Forest", "Airborne", "For Dad", etc. And then...there's Mozart! That this one appears on the Chesky label afforded it some credibility in my view, and I obtained a copy. Chesky is one of the early, great "audiophile" labels, specializing in digital recordings of new-age jazz ensembles and expertly remastered Classical material, mainly from RCA and Reader's Digest. This Mozart is an original Chesky digital recording, and it is stunning in its clarity and realism - bright, open, clear, detailed, and "present". And Schocker proves to be a formidable flutist, possessing a beautiful, crystalline sound and very stylish playing. It is abundantly clear from the very first note there is a sense of new discovery about his playing which is absolutely thrilling.
The very good (listed alphabetically)
William Bennett (Grumiaux Trio) - Philips 1969 *
Emmanuel Pahud - EMI 1999
Paula Robison (Tokyo String Quartet) - Vanguard 1978
William Bennett is the only "classic" flutist I can unhesitatingly recommend. His playing is notable for its simplicity; as is his tone, which is elegant, vibrant and resplendent. As a (former) flutist myself, Bennett has been one of my favorites through the decades, certainly eclipsing Rampal (and even Galway). Philips provides the warmth necessary to make his Mozart positively glow. Teaming up with the incomparable Grumiaux Trio makes for a match made in heaven.
If one can get past the Cosmo pose of Emmanuel Pahud on the cover, his readings are delightful, with characterful, articulate string soloists. His tone is sweet, his phrasing is musical, and his pianissimos are ravishing. His pillowy articulation, too, is always a marvel. Add in EMI's plush, reverberant acoustic and it's all a bit romantic (small "r" intentional).
Paula Robison brings boundless energy to these works, with exuberant tempos all through. If it's almost too robust for Mozart, there is no denying her ringing, vibrant tone is simply irresistible. The analog Vanguard sound exemplifies her sound gloriously, and the playing of the fabulous Tokyo String Quartet is beyond reproach. This one just misses the top category by a whisker.
The good (listed alphabetically)
Sharon Bezaly (Salzburger Solisten) - BIS 1999
James Galway (Tokyo String Quartet) - RCA 1992/93 +++
Jean Claude Gerard - Naxos 1990
Ulf-Dieter Schaaff - Pentatone 2017 (SACD)
Raffaele Trevisani - Delos 2015 ++
I was surprised Bezaly fares as well as she does. I am not a fan of her characteristic deadpan, expressionless sound, and I dislike her recording of the Mozart Concertos intensely. However, for these quartets, she produces a more expressive sound. And, perhaps inspired by these most joyful of works, this is one of her happiest recordings. I like her dynamic contrasts and the characterful interplay she develops with the individual string players. The BIS sound is a bit odd, though, with a slightly unnatural acoustic "halo" around the players, and a weird bloat to the cello.
James Galway is his usual, reliable self, with his instantly recognizable, golden sound. But his wide, insistent vibrato can get to be too much by the end. And combined with rather leisurely tempos, this Mozart is more heavily Romantic than usual. The Tokyo String Quartet saved the day on this one, however. They are one of my very favorite string quartets and this is really their show. Galway is along to provide the glamour. And glamorous it is. RCA's warm sound is beautiful, but a bit too rich to do it any favors.
Jean Claude Gerard appears on one of my favorite labels. But Naxos wasn't as consistently excellent in the early 90s as they are today. And this one from 1990 is not one of their best. The recording sets the performers way back within a massively over-reverberant hall. The flute is fairly well focused but the strings are somewhat indistinct. It's a real pity, because Gerard's playing is sparkling, characterful and joyous. But the cavernous acoustic is a distraction. This one could have been included in the higher category with better recorded sound.
Ulf-Dieter Schaaff is just fine (see my full review elsewhere on this blog), but definitely not in the top tier. His playing is slightly detached and a little chilly, and his tone tends to lose vibrancy during soft passages. (He actually reminds me a lot of Bezaly in this regard). But his tempos are cheery and he has the benefit of superb SACD surround sound from Pentatone.
I have reviewed Trevisani's Delos CD in detail elsewhere on my blog, so I shall be brief here. He possesses a rich, Galway-esque sound (he is a Galway protege), which is gorgeous and mercifully less vibrato-intensive than Galway's. But he's recorded in a huge, swampy church acoustic (even more so than Gerard on Naxos). His playing is pretty fabulous, but the poor choice of recording venue is most unfortunate - and disappointing, coming from one of my all-time favorite audiophile labels, Delos.
The also-rans (listed alphabetically)
Lisa Friend (Brodsky Quartet) - Chandos 2017
Jean-Pierre Rampal - CBS 1969
The Nash Ensemble - Virgin 1988 **
There is really no reason to take Lisa Friend seriously, despite having the good fortune of being teamed up with the Brodsky Quartet on the premium Chandos label. The flute playing is average and the ensemble sounds a bit improvised. One wonders what Chandos was thinking with this one.
Rampal's bird-like, sing-song tone can be pleasing, but he almost always sounds to me like he's sightreading. And not in a good way (one which might add spontaneity or freshness); but rather in an under-rehearsed, hurry-and-get-it-over-with way. His 1969 recording of the Mozart quartets is a prime example. With very fast Allegros and slightly slack ensemble, it sounds almost frivolous. (He flies through these in a record 46 minutes!) The CBS recording doesn't help. I have it on the 1987 budget Odyssey CD, and the sound is cramped and 2-dimensional, and the strings are closely mic'd, leaving Rampal's flute sounding smaller and even more "birdy" than usual. There's also an odd nasal coloration all through. It's interesting to compare this dismal-sounding CBS with the glorious Philips for Bennett, both recorded the same year.
Nothing special from The Nash Ensemble. Their playing is just as plain-jane as can be, despite good, close-up recorded sound. And why does Virgin present the Quartets in such an odd order? The C Major, K285b (#3) comes first, followed by #2, 1, then 4. The booklet is no help in explaining it, and hilariously only mentions just two of them in the text!
And the disappointments
Jean-Pierre Rampal - CBS 1987
Jennifer Stinton - Collins Classics 1992
Carol Wincence (Emerson Quartet) - DG 2006
Rampal's 1987 remake (also for CBS, and again with Isaac Stern) has much more natural sound than his 1969 recording (although it's still a bit 2-dimensional). The sense of haste from the earlier readings is gone, replaced by a distinct feel of routine. He is not helped by the strings, who, despite the starry lineup, sound rather disinterested. There is nowhere near the joy or good spirits heard in the earlier recording, which, despite the serious limitations in recorded sound, is to be preferred over the rather lifeless remake. After two tries at them, I'm afraid Rampal just isn't as inspired by these quartets as most of the flutists in this survey.
I was looking forward to Jennifer Stinton's disc on Collins Classics, one of the great Classical specialty labels of yore. And it starts off promisingly, with beautiful flute tone and a most spacious acoustic. However, it doesn't take long before tempos begin to drag and it becomes a rather dreary listen. While timings are never the whole story, it's worth noting that Stinton (while observing just the standard repeats) takes a whopping 57 minutes to get through these quartets. Despite the wonderful recorded sound, this is the only recording in this survey where I actually lost interest before it was done. Ms. Stinton has a lovely sound, but that simply isn't enough. The lack of joy and inspiration is perplexing, and, frankly, left me feeling a bit depressed.
Carol Wincenc plays with enthusiasm and spirited tempos, but her "whoo-ey" tone and mega-vibrato are wholly inappropriate for Mozart. Despite the excellent playing of the Emerson Quartet, I couldn't tolerate it for very long. It's really incomprehensible why she can't (won't) modify her distinctive tone when the music absolutely demands it. Of all the flutists the Emerson Quartet could have teamed up with, this one is puzzling.
Many of the recordings listed herein are sadly out-of-print and are likely very difficult to find at this point (at least on a physical CD), even on the used market. Obtaining the unobtainable is part of the fun of this hobby. I do apologize if something I've described whets your appetite, only to find it's impossible to acquire.
I found this project particularly rewarding, enjoyable and enriching. But at the end of the day, after listening to these recordings over and over to compile this survey, there is just one which steadfastly remains my favorite. And that is the #1 selection in the list - the one from Oxalys. I never tire of it; it is always a life-affirming experience, no matter how often I hear it. It's the CD I pull from my shelves, without hesitation, every time I'm in the mood to just sit back and enjoy these wonderful quartets. And I can give no greater recommendation than that.
+ Clarinet Quartet
++ Oboe Quartet (transcribed for flute)
+++ Clarinet Quintet (transcribed for flute)
* Compilation reissue. Philips Duo: Mozart Works for Flute (including concertos)
** Compilation reissue. Virgin Two-fer: Mozart Various Chamber music
I received this CD directly from one of the featured soloists, gratis, in consideration for a review. Urtext is a Mexican label and this concert features a Mexican oboist, an American clarinetist who lives in Mexico, and a Mexican conductor and orchestra (based in Mexico City). All of whom are completely unknown to me. It offers us three concertos - one each for clarinet and oboe, and a double concerto for both, which is dedicated to the soloists on this recording.
I enjoyed this disc. But I must start with a minor caveat regarding the programming. I wish the two concertos by Classical composer Antonio Rosetti (1750-1792) had come first, rather than following the much more modern, richly Romantic, gorgeously orchestrated Double Concerto by Eduardo Alonso-Crespo (b.1956). This later work is so exquisitely colorful, joyful, playful and sparkling - and so thoroughly enjoyable, the very strict, traditionally Classical Rosetti items, coming immediately after it, come off as sounding rather stiff and serious.
That being said, listening to this CD on a different day, beginning with the Rosettis, I enjoyed them more. Rosetti is an almost exact contemporary of Mozart, but one would never mistake these concertos as being in the same league as Mozart or Haydn. They tend to favor scales and arpeggios over true melodic invention. However, this CD is valuable for bringing a welcome change from the usual recordings of Mozart's concertos for these instruments. And certainly, these soloists are committed advocates, making the most of these pieces.
Coming back to the Double Concerto which begins this program, we discover the real treasure of this disc. Alonso-Crespo has a real gift for melodic lines and command of orchestration. There is an appealing sense of joy which brought many smiles along the way. The outer movements are playful and dancing with life, while the central Gymnopedie is richly expressive. The soloists are clearly enjoying the bright and sunny atmosphere, playing with appealing musicianship. But it's the orchestration which impresses most, with gorgeous string writing and sparkling details running through the orchestra. The Camerata de las Americas, and their conductor Ludwig Carrasco, really know this music and bring an obvious love and involvement to it.
The recording from Urtext is excellent, fully portraying the richness and color of the score. It is recorded within a beautiful acoustic which allows the strings to shimmer and inner details to titillate. It also provides a presence and focus which is most realistic - portraying the orchestra in a believable, 3-dimensional setting. The soloists are clearly outlined, but never unnaturally spotlit. For the Rosetti concertos, the sound is clean, clear and articulate.
Finally, the entire production is thoroughly first class. I was most impressed with the beautiful, glossy booklet - complete with high-quality, imaginatively captured pictures, and lots of information about the composers, the music, the soloists and the conductor. (Only the orchestra was slighted, with no bio included).
One simply does not encounter this level of quality and creativity from most record labels. This one is rewarding, not only for the unusual repertoire, but specifically for the glorious concerto by Alonso-Crespo.
I'm finding this recording rather late in the game. It was recorded in 2006 and released the following year. But better late than never; it is glorious in every way.
I almost always hear good things from Analekta. And I've enjoyed several discs from the wonderful Gryphon Trio (Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Dvorak on Mirare and Analekta, etc.). So I was shocked I had not yet heard this 2007 Schubert offering. And I couldn't be happier with it - or more moved by it. It is emotionally involving music-making of the highest possible order. And the recording simply could not be bettered - and that can't be taken for granted. Placing a small ensemble at just the perfect perspective (distance), within the perfect acoustic, with perfectly focused sound, is not an easy task. And too many engineers don't get it right. But Analekta has made a specialty of recording chamber music, and get it right they most certainly do.
Suffice it to say these are just about the most glorious, musically rewarding performances of the Schubert Piano Trios I've ever encountered. With perfectly chosen tempos everywhere, their playing blossoms with the most exquisite phrasing and musically singing lines, full of insight from beginning to end. My previous favorite, the classic 1970 Stern/Rose/Istomin recording on RCA, betters it for sheer vigor and precision of articulation. And the RCA recording provides thrilling presence - placing the group a bit closer to the listener than does Analekta. However, both are equally rewarding, albeit in slightly different ways.
But this one has a distinct advantage over most others: couplings. These two Trios, combined, are just too long to squeeze onto a single disc (usually 80+ minutes). So we usually get them spread over two discs, resulting in short playing time for each one. Analekta has the perfect solution, and an invaluable one at that.
On disc one, after the main offering, we hear 'Piano Trio in One Movement in B-flat', written when Schubert was just 15. The excellent booklet describes it as being "a charming Allegro imbued with Mozartian elegance". That's exactly how I hear it, and it is a real find. And a real treasure. I immediately listened to it a second time.
Disc two gives us another rarity, the 'Piano Trio in E-flat', an Adagio subtitled, "Notturno". The booklet tells us this was likely a discarded slow movement for the Trio No. 1 in Bb. And it would be a shame if it had indeed been discarded, never to be heard again. For it is also wonderful - and substantial, lasting a full 10 minutes.
And bravo to the production team which had the foresight to consider these two extras to be of such importance - and interest - they write about them first in the booklet.
In sum, this is an invaluable release. Not to be missed (like I almost did).
I couldn't resist listening to another disc on the Prospero label, which the producer graciously sent to me. An entire disc played by Trio Eclipse, a clarinet, a cello and a piano, isn't something I would normally go for. And I wouldn't expect it to be consumed all in one sitting. But as it turns out, it's just what I needed on a dreary snowy day here in Colorado.
It's one of the most interesting programs I've had the pleasure of hearing in a long while. Even though each piece is scored identically, each is completely different from the one which precedes it, providing endless variety. And almost all are completely unknown to me. So each track brought a different reaction - a smile here, a raised eyebrow there; but all had me searching the booklet for more information - always a good sign!
Speaking of the booklet, this is one of the most impressive, lavish productions I've ever seen. It comes in a hard-back, CD-sized book, with over 45 pages of printed material (in several languages). Information about the composers, the music, the performers, and all the pertinent recording information is included, along with high quality glossy photographs of the composer and musicians. You won't find this level (quality or quantity) of information in most releases from other labels. This is a Martin Korn Music Production, a co-production with SRF2 Kultur.
I skipped over the first track (an arrangement of Gershwin's An American In Paris) because I thought it would be hokey. (I was wrong.) Jumping right into Nino Rota's Trio, I was not disappointed. This is a substantial, well-constructed, almost symphonic work in 3 movements, written specifically for this combination of instruments. If one is familiar with the composer, this piece speaks the same musical language as his more established orchestral creations. It is musically skilled and full of character, in a more traditionally Classical way, than are the remaining works on this program.
The next three works are completely different - and obviously more contemporary. From Thomas Demenga (b. 1954), his Summer Breeze II, after a very somber opening, switches gears and begins an almost smooth-jazz feel. But then that is soon gone, taking on a bit of minimalist pulse to it, and finally blossoming into a clarinet rhapsody. It is just a touch cool and suave, just as the title might suggest.
Following it, we have Siena, by Simon Heggendorn (b. 1982). It's laugh-out-loud fun, and instantly reminded me of a 1970s, pre-disco, TV show theme (ala "The Love Boat" - ha!). But, it's so much more than that. I've got to think that in a performance less professionally committed than this from Trio Eclipse, this music could veer close to becoming over the top. But it never gets that far here. It was fun, though. The booklet tells us Mr. Heggendorn has roots in classical and jazz. And there are many moments where a jazz influence can be heard, especially in the free-style clarinet writing.
Sean Hickey (b. 1970) takes us into much more modern, and serious, territory with his Tiergarten. This is a substantial work (lasting nearly 12 minutes), with a distinct variety of moods. It features the clarinet and piano most prominently, with the cello often supplying an accompanying role. I was surprised to read in the booklet that Mr. Hickey is "closely associated with the electric guitar", and continues a strong interest in Rock and Pop music. Nevertheless, this piece was so well crafted, I had to research him a little bit. I was pleased to find two major Classical CDs of his music have been released on one of my favorite labels from the past, the invaluable and much-lamented Delos label. A disc of concertos (one each for cello and clarinet), and another of piano and chamber music, can still be obtained from Amazon.
Wrapping up this program, we come to my favorite piece on this disc. Daniel Schnyder (b. 1961) explores A Friday Night in August. Right from the get-go, the furiously swirling sounds remind me of a buzzing swarm of insects in late summer. But it soon begins an irresistible, rhythmic dance, allowing these players the opportunity to display their virtuoso chops. Yet the plaintive clarinet song in the central section has just a hint of Gershwin's Summertime to it, interspersed with Rhapsody In Blue-style lip-slurs (glissandi). Finally, a jaunty, rhythmic, jazzy celebratory dance breaks out to end the night, and I find myself longing for summer.
Finally, I force myself back to the first track that I skipped over. Gershwin's mega-popular orchestral work, An American In Paris, is arranged here specially for Trio Eclipse by Stefan Schroter. I dutifully pressed play, knowing in my heart it was going to be completely unnecessary, and wondering, 'why?' But guess what? I was so completely wrong! Those preconceived notions turned out to be utter nonsense. It is so well orchestrated for this specific ensemble, and so idiomatically played by these fabulous musicians, I was amazed how well it works. Ultimately, though, after awhile one does wish for a change in tonality in the upper registers, as the bright clarinet dominates for such long stretches. But, it is nonetheless a fascinating arrangement.
Unusually, I have listed birth years here for the younger composers for a reason - to illustrate the wealth of talent and treasures to be discovered and explored from 20th- and 21st-century composers. Long gone are the bleak generations of composers who tried so desperately to validate and legitimize exploratory non-music, atonality, serialism, 12-tone rows, minimalism, etc. etc. And I couldn't be happier that we've moved on from all that noise. This enterprising disc from the fabulous Prospero label, and these fine musicians, provides great insight into what's out there these days. And I found all of it to be not only worthwhile, but richly rewarding musically - and endlessly entertaining. It is tonal, musical, inspiring and bursting with true creativity. And I loved the subtle jazz influences found in many of these pieces.
I can't finish this review without commenting further about these musicians and the recorded sound. The quality of music-making from these three young musicians is impressive. They consistently bring this new music splendidly to life, with enthusiasm, a unified approach, and individual personalities. The booklet says it better than I can when it describes the Trio Eclipse as possessing "the perfect balance between the liberties of solo playing and the unity of their performance". That is spot on. And they "coalesce into a homogenous ensemble". Again, spot on. These qualities make them special.
Pianist, Benedek Horvath, in particular, is most accomplished (more than compensating for the lack of an orchestra in the Gershwin, for example), and plays with a delicacy of touch that is highly attractive throughout. Lionel Andrey's clarinet playing is always characterful, sounding clear and bright (almost too bright). His tone is less dark and wooden than we typically hear in more traditional Classical fare, but it suits this music. The highlight for me, though, is the beautiful, smooth, absolutely grain-less sound of cellist Sebastian Bruan. What a gorgeously singing legato he produces. Magnificent.
Finally, the recorded sound is excellent - clear and close-up in an appropriately intimate way. It affords the group tremendous presence, within a spacious acoustic. If I had to find fault, the balance tends to spotlight the clarinet rather too much. The brightness I attribute to the clarinet tone may very well be, at least partially, caused by the microphone placement.
This is the second disc from Prospero I have heard recently, and it proves to be another highly professional production in every way. I can unhesitatingly recommend it for something a little different; a little new; and a whole lot of fun.
I loved the Quartetto di Cremona's previous Italian-themed CD, "Italian Journey", which appeared in 2012 on a most unusual label, Klanglogo - a "shared brand" of Trust Your Ears (as described on the back cover). That disc treated us to Respighi's rare Quartet, along with music of Puccini and Boccherini, plus the absolutely best ever reading of Verdi's Quartet. The sound is fabulous, although a bit on the robust side of reality, but giving the group enormous presence and dramatic impact, perfect for the music.
Their follow-up disc, "Italian Postcards", comes this time from a more established label, Avie. And it's a bit of a disappointment, I'm afraid. The Wolf Serenade starts us off in familiar territory, and is nicely played and recorded, if ultimately not not terribly special. Next is an odd choice: Mozart's very first quartet, the "Lodi". Some parts of this quartet were apparently composed while the young Mozart was visiting his father in Milan. OK, so that's the connection with our Italian theme. The players adopt a quasi-period playing style here, with minimal vibrato and a thinner tonality. That's all fine and good for Mozart in theory, but it sounds a bit dour coming immediately after the sweetly singing, richly colorful, Romantic Wolf. Therefore I found the Mozart to be terribly out of place. Perhaps if it had come first, it might have been more acceptable.
The highlight of the program is most certainly Borenstein's Cieli d'Italia, which was commissioned by this quartet and presents its world-premier recording. Mr. Borenstein exhibits a unique music voice, tonal, yet undeniably contemporary. I like how he begins to establish a theme, with a defined time signature, but then veers off in an unexpected direction and takes us elsewhere. "Stay with me here", the composer seems to say, and this thought came to mind a number of times. I stayed with him, and found the piece to be thoroughly involving, interesting, intriguing and most enjoyable. It certainly receives a compelling performance here, with absolutely glorious playing and great sound. (As a matter of fact, the piece is so good, I want to explore his music further, and ordered his 2017 Chandos disc of orchestral works, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.)
So far so good.
But then comes the Tchaikovsky Sextet, Souvenir de Florence. Only 2 players are added to the quartet, but for some reason the recording engineers decided to make the group of 6 sound massive, like the entire Philadelphia Orchestra's full string section. The group is literally thrust out into the room, well in front of the speakers, using thick, sawing, long-bows (sounding aggressively crude), and with a sudden increase in volume. After the more intimately scored Borenstein, this instantly sounds vulgar. I can't fathom what anyone involved with this project was thinking, or could possibly be going for. I actually could listen to only a few brief sections of it before I could take no more and turned it off.
Taken as a whole, this new disc is a disappointment, especially after the success of their earlier disc, nearly a decade ago. While it's worth keeping for the Borenstein alone, the rest is rather routine and/or downright off-putting. Fortunately, we can continue to enjoy their first Journey in the series; that disc is a knockout.