Nino Rota is one of those composers who offers such a variety of interesting music, I always enjoy every encounter. He's also a composer who is equally adept at writing standard "Classical" fare as he is at film music. And, outside his film scores, I rarely hear something of his and can immediately proclaim, 'Oh, that's Nino Rota!' He has his own voice, certainly, but it's not easily identifiable as being uniquely Rota. It's just fantastic music - period. This disc is a perfect example. Each work is so different from the others, so masterfully written and scored, and so thoroughly enjoyable, I listened to the entire CD straight through twice! And not for a moment did I feel it was getting to be kind of all the same.
And even though my headline above singles out Eric Le Sage specifically (and he certainly deserves it), I have to begin with the incredible flute playing of Emmanuel Pahud. If there was ever any question that he is one of the greatest living flutists, this disc confirms it. Beginning with the opening Trio for Flute, Violin and Piano, I was in awe of his playing. The richness of tone; the plump (but incisive) articulation; the breath control; and certainly the effortless and brilliant virtuosity. Just listen to the 3rd movement, Allegro vivace con spirito. I couldn't help but exclaim WOW! when it was done. (To be absolutely truthful, I exclaimed WOW several times during this piece.) I was a flute player back in the day and I still marvel at how well Pahud plays this at this tempo. What utterly fabulous flute playing this is. And not to slight the other two players partnering with him - violinist Daishin Kashimoto is one of my favorite chamber musicians, notably for his musical, sweetly singing tone, and here he displays his virtuoso abilities as well. And, Eric le Sage...well, he is simply beyond words.
After I recovered from being blown away by this performance, I was able to fully realize what an incredibly fantastic piece this is. It's the best 12 minutes I've spent in front of the stereo in a long time. And I suppose it's too soon to praise the recorded sound, and I'll get to that more later. But Alpha Classics must take a whole lot of the credit right from the get go. The sound is awesome in every way.
Two short piano solo interludes give us a chance to catch our breath, taking us to a charming little woodwind quintet, Piccola, followed by the famous Nonetto. I've always admired this piece, but never as much as hearing it played by this group. There is a spontaneity and energy that is rarely heard on record. Youthful exuberance is probably the best way to describe this performance.
As an aside, I recently acquired Oxalys's new CD, Nonetto, which includes the Rota too. It is fabulous certainly, but in a slightly different way from this one on Alpha Classics. Oxalys brings a touch more beauty and charm to the piece, whereas Pahud and friends are bustling with whit and enthusiastic verve. Both performances are equally valid and immensely enjoyable - the music is so good it can withstand a variety of approaches. In the end, these two examples are not vastly different from one another. But there is no denying the extra vitality on this Alpha Classics is simply thrilling, and even more engaging, than the wonderful reading from Oxalys. Once again, the recording quality must take some of the credit.
The Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano brings a bit of respite from the high energy, with Paul Meyer's wonderfully melodious clarinet tone - gorgeously dark and wooden - closely matching that of cellist Aurelien Pascal. A touch more richly Romantic in flavor, the piece is simply glorious, and I smiled at the unmistakable spikiness of Shostakovich in the Allegrissimo. The program then ends (rather oddly) with two more miniatures for solo piano from Le Sage.
Finally getting back to the recorded sound. This is yet another CD from Alpha Classics which has greatly impressed me recently. The first was the Faure chamber music set (reviewed elsewhere on this blog). For Rota, the sound is a little different from the Faure. It is more upfront and bold (but not forward) - immediate, well focused, warm and colorful, providing thrilling impact and presence. The players are spread out in front of the listener, where the intake of breath is easily heard (and some clicking of keys), making the experience one of great realism. It's appropriately a little more intimate a setting than in the more spacious Faure.
All in all, I simply can't say enough good things about this CD. I've heard (and reviewed) many wonderful new CDs already this year. And even in that exalted company, this one stands out and is surely a contender for my favorite of the year. Do not miss it!
After recently hearing (and thoroughly enjoying) this team's Respighi disc on CPO (see below), I didn't hesitate to acquire their newest offering, Mendelssohn's complete String Symphonies (plus the early Violin Concerto) on BR Klassic. And I'm just as impressed with this as I am with their Respighi.
The Munich Radio Orchestra, under its leader Henry Raudales, bring such life and freshness to these works, it's as if hearing them for the very first time. Precision is key, but with imaginative touches and musical phrasing infusing every bar. Dynamic contrasts and clean textures predominate. They have the forces necessary to bring plenty of vigor when called for, and also delicate pianissimos, keeping the listener engaged every moment.
Normally I wouldn't even think of digesting all 12 of these in one sitting. Yet that is exactly what I ended up doing. Such was the musical pleasure I was experiencing, I couldn't turn them off. Thus I listened to all 3 discs consecutively, concluding with the dramatic (and rather Mozartian) early Violin Concerto in d-minor. Raudales assumes the violin solo role here and proves to be a marvelous player, bringing much musical purpose and maturity to this early work. No, it's still not the famous e-minor Concerto, but it is certainly not to be discredited either. The finale in particular is infectious.
Fortunately, the recorded sound is excellent. The acoustic is reverberant, but fairly well controlled. It provides just enough ambience and fullness to lend the orchestra plenty of warmth without swamping it. Focus is secure and articulation is crisp and clean. And the orchestral playing is exceptionally good - at all times alert, stylish and musical.
Raudales is a real treasure. He is one of the few present-day conductors who exhibits real imagination and musical insight, and has the ability to inspire his players to make music sound new and fresh. Nothing here sounds remotely like it's just another ho-hum sight-reading session for a recording project. Far from it. This orchestra is kept constantly on its toes and spontaneity springs forth everywhere.
Highly recommended, especially for those who think these early, "lesser" works aren't really worth their time. You will be proven wrong! And richly rewarded.
The same can be said for their earlier Respighi disc, on a splendid SACD from CPO. Imaginative touches pervade every musical phrase, along with clean textures and strong characterization. The Birds, in particular, is one of the very best on record, and the sound throughout is superb.
I like Patrick Gallois's flute playing. And his 2004 Mozart Concertos recording for Naxos is particularly enjoyable. He plays a modern instrument (although it sounds like one made of wood rather than silver) but employs a quasi-period performance style - minimal vibrato, along with a liberal use of embellishments, and his own, original cadenzas (which are not at all "modern"). The music-making is fresh and charming, bursting forth with energy and joy. Tempos are alert, and Allegros are truly that. There are many individual touches along the way, which some may hear as mannerisms. I found them not at all bothersome, but on the contrary, hear them as spontaneous inflections. He plays with a vibrant tone and that "pillowy" (yet precise) articulation I just love. (I hear it from several modern-day flutists, including, notably, Emmanuel Pahud). Gallois conducts the Swedish Chamber Orchestra from the solo position in a 70-minute concert which includes both primary concertos and the double with harp. The orchestra plays with a delightful, light touch, airy textures, and crisp articulation. Naxos provides the recording on standard CD and also on multi-channel SACD. The sound is fabulous. This is one of my very favorite Mozart flute recordings.
His earlier, 1985 recording, reissued on this Saphir 2-fer, is a different story altogether. We get all three concertos, but spread out over 2 CDs with only the short Andante (K315) and Rondo (K184) added, totaling about 12 minutes of additional music. Thus it is a rather more expensive acquisition. But most notably different is that he plays what sounds like an authentic period flute (or a wooden reproduction). And the sound is immediately apparent. This flute sound has all the characteristics of such an instrument - a dead-pan, somewhat lifeless tone, very mellow and lacking sparkle. It sounds much more like a recorder than a flute. The French chamber ensemble, conducted by Emmanuel Krivine, lacks the incisiveness heard from the marvelous Swedish Chamber Orchestra in the remake, mirroring the lack of sparkle heard from the wooden flute. The over-warm, reverberant acoustic doesn't help matters.
So while on the face of it, having an "Integrale" collection of Mozart's music for flute and orchestra seems enticing, this collection on Saphir isn't terribly satisfactory. And at full price, it's not even good value. Go for Gallois's Naxos CD instead (or even better, the SACD if you can find it) and you'll gain infinitely better performances and sound and will only be missing out on the two inconsequential tidbits.
I've been discovering a lot of fabulous new music by female composers this year (including an orchestral collection, American Discoveries, and another of string quartets, Contemporary Voices, both reviewed elsewhere on this blog). And what I have found so endlessly fascinating is not only how enjoyable and rewarding all this new music is, but how different each composer's music is from the others'. This latest find, the talented Yuko Uebayashi, is certainly among the best.
I began listening to this CD before reading the liner notes. I kept hearing a wonderful combination of French Impressionism/late Romanticism along with the wide open spaces typical of American compositions. Wanting to explore further, I then read that composer Yuko Uebayashi was born in Japan and has lived and worked in France since 1998. That explains the French flavor, but not the touch of Americana. But it doesn't matter, her music is unique and absolutely glorious. And it's beautifully scored too.
The primary work, Misericordia, for solo flute and string quartet, was written for Carol Wincenc. According to the CD notes, it was composed with the legends from an old almanac in mind, which suggests "life began in March and consisted of ten months". Thus the work contains 10 separate, descriptive movements (or moments in time), with sub-titles such as Awakening, Bursting with Life, etc. The variety is endless, the music very descriptive and musical imagination wonderous. It is so brilliantly written for this combination, and so marvelously played here, I found it seductively alluring and thoroughly captivating.
Au-dela du Temps and Town Lights are for two flutes and piano. The former is a substantial work comprised of 4 descriptive movements. What makes them so remarkable is how utterly orchestral they sound! Uebayashi's scoring for just three players is so masterfully skilled and colorful, it sounds for all the world like a chamber orchestra. Full of charm, graciousness and richness, the work comes to life in a way I would never have expected from just 2 flutes and a piano.
Finally, I must praise Carol Wincenc's lovely flute playing on this album. At last, she proves she really can vary/modify her distinctive "whooey" tone and mega-vibrato for the right music and in the right circumstances (a rather rare event for this flutist). For these works, her sound is as varied and interesting - and utterly beguiling - as I have ever heard it. That is a significant contributing factor as to why this program is so colorfully descriptive - the endless variety of flute tone and colors.
Carol's friends play a large role in bringing this album to life as well. The playing of the Escher String Quartet in the main work is beautifully done. And flutist Tanya Dusevic is a marvelous duet companion. (I found it amazing how both flutists not only blend so perfectly with each other, but yet each plays with dazzling variety of expression and color.) Pianist Stephen Gosling is especially remarkable in his absolutely gorgeous, colorful playing in Au-dela du Temps.
This is the 4th CD I've encountered recently on the absolutely superlative Azica label. (Other discoveries include the Dover Quartet playing Schumann, and two terrific programs of string quartet music played by the fantastic Attacca Quartet - one of music by another fabulously talented contemporary composer, Michael Ippolito, and the other by that of John Adams.) All have been simply outstanding, in quality of playing, quality of production and especially in recorded sound. This latest one is no exception.
Azika's presentation is as impressive and professional as I've come to expect from this great label. It is a 4-part cardboard fold-out affair, with useful information on every surface, amounting to 5 full pages of information, plus high quality pictures. Everything is covered, from the composer, to the works and the musicians, and recording details. And the sound is as good as it gets.
All in all, I heartily recommend this album to any lover of flute music. Or to any music lover who is drawn to contemporary music with a twist - a unique blend of the Modern, Impressionistic and Romantic eras, with a strong French flavor, combined with hints of Americana. It's all here. It's all an interesting combination. And it is all absolutely wonderful.
I suppose I say it too often: "They are one of my very favorite string quartets". Yes I have several favorites. And, in all honesty, one can never have too many, right?
Well, the Pacifica is indisputably one of my all-time favorites. And even though some (most) of their members have been switched out over the years since their founding in 1994, the consistent excellence remains steadfastly assured. I'm sure we have the one constant, 1st violinist Simin Ganatra, to praise for that.
(The Pacifica Quartet has an esteemed history. They have been quartet-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, resident performing artist at the University of Chicago, and most recently named quartet-in-residence at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music in 2012.)
This latest disc is a knockout. I'm not familiar with two of the composers or their music, so I can only relate what I hear. These are all contemporary compositions by female composers and each is as different from the other as can be imagined. Interestingly (and perhaps coincidentally) I initially liked them in order from most to least in the same order in which they appear on the disc. But in a subsequent listen, I have decided I like them all fairly equally.
Still, the standout for me is undoubtedly the opening work - the substantial, four-movement String Quartet #3 by Shulamit Ran (subtitled Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory). Significantly, this is its premier recording. It is one of those pieces which instantly engages the listener and is appealing in a way which urgently has one searching for more. (I found several discs of her works on Amazon and immediately ordered a couple of them.) Ran is a true talent. There is no mistaking her creative genius - in organic, melodic inspiration, in organized structure, in skillful scoring and creating fascinating textures. Each movement is imaginative, individual and different from one another, providing endless variety and interest. Everywhere she exhibits a distinctly unique compositional voice, sounding like no other composer I could think of - except perhaps Dutilleux, in her use of incredible scoring techniques for strings (more below). Most of all, she has something important to say in every phrase.
Her orchestration, though, is really something to behold. We know something awesome is about to happen right from the opening violin statement, which is played con-sordino, answered by a second violin non-sordino. Later, suddenly the quartet plays a chord on harmonics - are those flutes? No, it's just the string quartet. Soon, tremolos sul-pont bring another color. And so it goes, all serving to adorn memorable melodic phrases, which themselves are played sometimes with vibrato, sometime sans.
The variety of the music itself continues to amaze as well. Just listen to the second movement, which at one point is interrupted by an audacious Waltz, followed by a tune played in unison on harmonics while simultaneously being whistled! The third movement introduces col legno (always a favorite of mine), then an intensely passionate, sorrowful song bursts to the fore, followed by true anguish. (The Pacifica Quartet's playing is simply overwhelming in this passage.) The finale is more stark, taking us again to the other-worldly sound of mature Dutilleux, replete with harmonics, as if all just a memory.
What an incredible piece this is. Ran is simply in a category of her own - for true inspiration, creative prowess and masterful orchestration.
Jennifer Higdon's Voices is good, in a more decidedly "modern" way. I read in the booklet this is one of her early works (1993); nonetheless it sounds exactly like Jennifer Higdon. I generally like her music and find it interesting. But I often hear it originating as from a formula - she knows what works, she knows what makes for interesting listening, she knows all the ingredients to get from start to finish, taking an interesting, coherent path. I don't mean this as faint praise. She is very good at it. But I don't hear the same inspiration as I hear from some of her contemporaries. Voices is typical of her work, the heartfelt final movement showing her at her best. The piece is laid out in 3 contrasting movements, beginning with an energetic blaze of notes in Blitz; slowing things down in the middle section, Soft Enlacing; and relaxing to a calming conclusion in Grace. The piece is dedicated to the Pacifica Quartet.
The final work is very different. An alto saxophone joins the quartet of strings in Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's Quintet. Interestingly, the movements themselves are not titled, but are simply supplied with metronome markings. However, I love the variety of moods and styles. And I like how the composer describes her chamber music as being a "conversation among equals". This is exactly how I hear her Quintet. I was expecting the saxophone to be prominently featured, concerto-style. It is not. It simply is added color and texture, as if an additional string player. Otis Murphy plays it perfectly; he blends his tone with the strings in a most delicate manner. But not always - there are passages where he adds a little extra spice and takes on a soloistic role when called for. But other times, one has to really listen to ascertain which line is played by the sax and which is a member of the string quartet. It's all about color. And I found the work enormously interesting to hear.
The first movement begins with a melancholy saxophone song, but soon turns lively and energetic, with unmistakable hints of Stravinsky. It is so expertly scored, it sounds almost symphonic in scope and color. The second movement combines Stravinsky with a very strong jazz influence. This one has the Pacifica positively swinging to the music! The final movement begins much like the first, with a plaintive saxophone tune, but jazz soon predominates and infuses every phrase. And with such masterful orchestration, the strings assert an answer for every saxophone comment, and the animated conversation continues to the very end. As in the Ran Quartet, the playing of the Pacifica Quartet cannot be praised highly enough in its ability to bring this music to life.
The recorded sound is excellent (although the microphone placement is not quite perfect in the Zwilich, allowing the lower register of the saxophone to "honk" a bit in the more spirited passages). The group is well focused and projected within a resonant acoustic, with superb presence. This is the second CD I've heard recently which sounds every bit as good as the best SACD. I'm thrilled to hear the CD medium continuing to be relevant and sound exceptionally good. The booklet is equally excellent, with liner notes for each work written by its composer. What insight that provides!
This disc is highly recommended for the adventurous listener looking for something a little different. Yes the works are contemporary, but none of them is atonal or deliberately "modern" (well, perhaps the Hidgon is a little bit), and each is musically important and endlessly interesting. I enjoyed all three works very much, but certainly the magnificent String Quartet by Shulamit Ran is a true masterpiece. The sensational playing of the Pacifica Quartet, along with the excellent recorded sound, make this an outstanding concert in every conceivable way. BRAVO!
What an enticing title and program we have here. I am familiar with the composers, but had not heard these quintets before. Therefore I approached them with great interest. And this appears to be the debut recording by a group called the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective, which (according to the booklet) "operates with a flexible roster featuring many of today's most inspirational musicians". I'm further intrigued!
Amy Beach's Quintet starts off promisingly, with a passionate and rhapsodic opening movement. It is made up of a variety of tempos and moods, reminding me quite a lot of Tchaikovsky. And it is immediately apparent the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective is a fabulous group of musicians, playing with assertive individuality along with a uniform interpretation. Their dynamic range is extremely impressive, but never aggressive. The Adagio which follows is a heartfelt outpouring of expression, which is instantly reminiscent of Dvorak's New World Symphony's slow movement. By the time the 3rd movement arrives, things perk up considerably. And even more variety in scoring and texture is a welcome relief - with pizzicatos and delicate pianistic filigree. (There is no denying this is otherwise a rather thickly scored work.) In the end, I thought the work goes on a bit too long (each of its three movements is nearly 10 minutes a piece) - not helped by the Chandos recording, which is bit fatiguing. It's a touch ill-focused and, if not quite grainy, there is some roughness to it. But not to make too much of it, the Quintet is an important work in this composer's output and I'm glad to have this recording of it. (Interestingly, there is an earlier, 1999 Chandos recording of it, played by a group called The Ambache, which I have not heard.)
Skipping the Barber, which is written for solo baritone voice and string quartet, which is totally not my thing, the Florence Price Quintet is just the relief I needed after the passion of the Beach. After a dramatic opening statement, Price soon ushers in airier textures, more variety in the scoring, beautifully singing lines and just enough drama to keep it interesting. The first movement is glorious, with delightful light-and-shadow shadings. It even has sections which feature the 1st violin in soloistic passages which could actually be the beginnings of a violin sonata (brilliantly played here). Price's second movement also has hints of Dvorak's New World in it. But the piece, thus far, reminds me more of Brahms on a good day. "A good day" being Brahms at his very best - with brilliant scoring and memorable melodic lines. It is a bit more lighthearted than Brahms, though. Let's call it Brahms with a smile.
All is well, that is, until the 3rd movement arrives. After the two opening movements of serious, legitimate and thoroughly engaging music-making, Juba - suddenly without warning or any kind of context - transports us to a square dance in the middle of an Oklahoma musical. I read in the booklet that "juba" is a popular stomping dance. OK...excellent. But in the middle of a serious string quartet? It is so completely out of place that I couldn't decide whether to laugh it off or shake my head in amazement. (Interestingly, Price inserts a 'Juba' movement into her 3rd Symphony as well. It must have been something important to her with which to mark her works.) The finale brings vigorous high spirits, with just a whiff of the hoedown lingering. It is short, but energetic and very exciting. The ending would surely bring down the house in a live performance.
So, while that one section is perplexing, the Price is nonetheless the highlight of the concert for me. And Chandos proudly proclaims this is its premier recording. The Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective has provided an engaging program with performances of the highest caliber, making this disc most worthwhile and thoroughly rewarding. I hope they record more.
This Chandos release is CD only. I'm a huge fan of the label, but, as noted above, it is not their best recording. However, it is not serious; it's just surprising, coming from such an esteemed label, and may explain why it didn't merit an SACD.
I can never get enough John Williams. I have no trouble admitting he's by far my favorite living composer and I listen to his music more than any other. Fortunately, there is such an abundance of it. I can l hear much variety of his music in numerous recordings of collections and symphonic settings, outside the original soundtracks.
That being said, I'm picky about my John Williams. I am of the belief that absolutely no one does John Williams like John Williams himself. I own all his recordings made throughout the years, from the soundtracks to all the collections and compilations for Philips and SONY, etc. I also have collected just about every symphonic rendering from various other conductors and labels (Telarc, DG, Varese Sarabande, Silva, et al), as well as recent recordings from the Boston Pops on their own label (Keith Lockhart), the LA Phil (DG) and the LSO (Decca.) All are enjoyable and sit proudly on the shelf alongside those of the master himself. But ultimately John Williams knows how his music should go, and his recordings are indisputably the best.
So when I saw this 2-CD set from Prospero, a label with which I have been most impressed recently, I didn't hesitate to acquire yet another John Williams collection. It is a beefy, hard-back book style double disc production, complete with exhaustive notes about the music, the orchestra, the soloists, the conductor, the composer and recording details. I found it especially interesting reading some history and origins of John Williams's youth and musical career, some of which I did not know. One simply does not see this kind of outlay and expense from most record labels. All extremely professionally done and VERY impressive.
As to the music - Disc 1 concentrates on the big scores; Disc 2 on the more intimate sections of a film which feature soloists. At first glance, I was excited (and immensely relieved) that this isn't just a collection of the usual "greatest hits". However, they aren't entirely ignored - we get themes from Superman, Jurassic Park and the Cowboys. Slightly less famous fare too: from Raiders, it's the End Credits from Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom (which has more than enough of the famous march theme included), and from Hook, the Flight to Neverland. And the rest gets more interesting still. Four selections from three Harry Potters and two from Tintin. Stars Wars is mercifully represented not by the first film, but from VII - The Force Awakens. This actually is my least favorite of all the Star Wars scores, but it is nonetheless a welcome change from the usual suite that everybody plays.
Jumping ahead to Disc 2, solo trumpet is featured in themes from JFK and Born of the Fourth of July - gloriously played here by featured soloist Reinhold Friedrich. The familiar suite from Catch Me If You Can comes off nicely (featuring Valentine Michaud, alto saxophone), as does Paul Meyer's clarinet solo in Viktor's Tale from The Terminal. An interesting chamber ensemble plays Tintin's Opening Credits, followed by the triple woodwind choir playing Nimbus 2000 (from Harry Potter), bringing the concert to a delightful conclusion.
So that's the program. Disc 1 plays for about 65'; disc 2, a little short at just 35'. But with a total of 100 minutes on offer, averaged out it's roughly 50' per disc, and I'm more than OK with that. (Although this set is quite expensive, being an import at this point in time.)
I've waited until the end to get to the really important bits - the performances and sound. And I am absolutely thrilled to report both are great! The Lucerne-based City of Light Symphony Orchestra has been playing film music from its very first concert in the autumn of 2018. It regularly features several conductors, including Kevin Griffiths, who conducts for these recordings. They play this music as if it's in their very nature (which it obviously is) and display all the characteristics required of a John Williams score - soaring strings, rapturously singing tunes, richly colorful blend, boundless energy and resplendent brass. And Kevin Griffiths certainly understands this music. Oh, he may miss just that last ounce of flair and inspiration that Williams himself can entice out of an orchestra in his own music. But Griffiths gets very, very close. Certainly closer than Dudamel manages in his live LA Phil concert (on DG) and more even than the maestro himself could coax from the Vienna Phil (also on DG), who just don't have this music in their bones.
In the more dramatic cuts on Disc 1, Griffiths brings a touch of symphonic splendor to the music - but not too much as to weigh it down (as is sometimes the case). Tempos are spot on (i.e. vigorous), articulation is crisp, dynamics are bold, and it's all very exciting - without ever turning audacious. Disc 2 displays plenty of heartfelt musical expression, establishing an intimate atmosphere between the soloists and orchestra. The orchestral playing everywhere is effortlessly accomplished, and the music-making bursts with freshness and spontaneity and, especially on Disc 2, sensitivity. And hats off to the trumpets for playing so much of the time in the highest range and not sounding the least bit strained.
The recorded sound is very good, but not quite natural compared to the best Classical orchestral recordings. On Disc 1, it sounds like the strings are given a boost from the engineers, and there is some unnecessary highlighting throughout the orchestra. But it isn't applied all the time and isn't too distracting when it is. While this is not the most natural balance, it brings the music vividly to life and the spot-mics succeed at bringing out more orchestral details than usual without being too obvious about it.
Disc 2 is even better in this regard. It is more natural and realistic. Take, for example, the wonderous trumpet solos mentioned above. Friedrich's trumpet rings out into the hall, resonating from wall to wall, transporting the listener to the recording location. And elsewhere, the violins are simply luscious in intimate passages, with a silky, gossamer texture which is most pleasing.
Overall I couldn't be more pleased with this set - and that's actually saying a lot coming from this die hard (and sometimes jaded) mega-fan! I will conclude with singling out my favorites of the set: Disc 2 in its entirety; and from Disc 1, Duel from Tintin and the three Harry Potter selections. And speaking of - surely, the flutist deserved a special mention in the credits for the fabulous solo in Witches, Wands and Wizards (The Prisoner of Azkaban). It sounds very difficult and is played with incredible bravura. Wow! (Presumably it is played by principal flutist of the orchestra, Christian Madlener.) And ultimately, if that's the only fault I can find, then...BRAVO Prospero!
Beginning with a disclaimer - I received this disc gratis from the soloist in consideration for a review. I normally would have passed on a disc of solo viola music, as it is far outside my realm of expertise. However, I recognized his name and wanted to give it a try. And opening the booklet, I recognized his face from the moment I saw it - this is Masumi Rostad, the violist from the Pacifica Quartet, whose videos I've seen and thoroughly enjoyed many, many times on YouTube. The Pacifica is one of my very favorite string quartets and I own several of their CDs. In fact, in reviewing their set of Mendelssohn Quartets on this blog, I concluded "this is the set to have". So this disc from their former violist intrigued me further.
Masumi Rostad graduated from Juilliard, performed with the Pacifica Quartet until 2017, and is now Professor of Viola at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester.
I am no expert by any means on solo viola music. And I admit right upfront I've never heard any of this music before. And, in all honesty, I can't say that I appreciated all of it. But I certainly admired it. And truly enjoyed a lot of it. This disc is comprised entirely of music for solo viola (except for the final track, Etude I by Mico Muhly, which is accompanied by an electronic track). No quartet. No duets. No piano. Just viola. So, for me, I couldn't take it all in one sitting. But broken up into smaller bits, over several days, I found it interesting and musically rewarding. The playing of Mr. Rostad is beyond reproach. He plays a 1619 Amati and his tone is gorgeous - wooden and rich, but not dark. Most notable, though, is his assured technique and secure intonation. For some reason, I often hear suspect intonation with some violists. But not so here. It is the most professionally executed viola playing I have ever heard.
As to the music, it ranges from Bach to Caroline Shaw, with everything in between, including Vieuxtemps, Stravinsky, Reger, and Elliott Carter and others. I loved two works over and above all the rest, and was pleasantly surprised to discover one of them was by Caroline Shaw, in manus tuas. I have recently discovered this composer's music (via the Attacca Quartet and the vocal group, Roomful of Teeth) and recognized its creative hallmarks here. It is certainly the most unusual and interesting piece on the disc, with its "scratch tones" effects, wide dynamic range and almost imperceptible vocalizations here and there by the player. It is immaculately played. Incredible actually. Another track of great interest is the one I expected to like the least, that final track mentioned above with an electronic accompaniment. It is actually very pleasant - it sounds rather like an electronic organ or keyboard; it is musical (not noise) and tonal (sort of). Hearing it, I actually longed for another piece or two with accompaniment interspersed throughout the program.
This album was recorded in 2020 at the Eastman School. I can't find a record label on this CD, but Amazon lists it as CD Baby. It is a high quality production, complete with glossy pictures and a comprehensive booklet written by the soloist. The recorded sound is bold and mastered at a high volume, making tremendous impact. I had to cut back the volume several notches to find a natural level. Once obtained, it is realistic within a natural acoustic.
In summary, this was a difficult disc to review, coming to it from inexperience. I can only relate what I heard and what I liked. But what was easy is to praise the flawless playing of Masumi Rostad. I hope we will see more recordings from him in the future.
Focusing on the main attractions of this release, the two Concertos, this is my first encounter with violinist Sebastian Bohren. And it couldn't be more positive. His Mozart is simply...glorious. It...dances! I could barely sit still listening to it. Not in an antsy way, but swaying-to-the-music kind of way. His interaction with the chamber musicians is communicative and animated in a way rarely heard on record. There is a sense of joy and inspiration which is awe-inspiring. And what a singing tone he produces! I could not stop smiling all through these concertos. I can't remember being this excited about a new violinist since discovering Kristof Barati (on Brilliant Classics).
Adding to the marvelous music-making, Avie (again, speaking of the concertos) have produced a recorded sound and balance which are among the best I've heard in a violin concerto. This is a good old-fashioned CD (no SACD here), proving the medium is still alive and well. This one is simply sensational. I have often noted that Avie's house sound is rather forward and bold. But this Mozart is utterly natural. What is especially remarkable is the warm, reverberant hall, which has been masterfully controlled. What we hear is an intimate group of musicians performing in the most perfect acoustic, and the listener gets the best seat in the house - mid-hall back, with the musicians laid out right at the front of the stage.
The Symphony, recorded 2 years earlier, is a little less successful. The playing of it is delightful - full of charm and with many uniquely individual touches, particularly with regard to dynamics (especially at the pianissimo level). But it seems oddly out-of-place on this disc. I would have much preferred a 3rd concerto. And what worked so wonderfully in the Concertos, the Symphony ultimately needs a few more string players than this very small group comprises. And it sounds like the Avie engineers may have tried to "help" them a bit. The spacious acoustic remains intact, but now the cellos/bass seem more closely mic'd and pushed a bit forward, while the remaining strings sound a little lean. Inner details and articulation are clearer and cleaner than usual, though, but the balance just isn't quite right here. Fortunately, none of this is too serious. The music-making is engaging. And perhaps if it had come first on the disc, rather than sandwiched in-between the concertos, it might have been more welcome.
Searching the booklet, I discovered quite a disparity in recording dates, which may explain some of the differences I hear between the Symphony and the Concertos. The symphony was recorded first, in 2018, and the concertos came two years later, in June 2020. Reading further, it was interesting to learn the concertos were recorded with the musicians spaced apart, observing social-distancing protocols during the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only that, they recorded them twice! Mr. Bohren did not like what he heard after the first round of recording sessions and convinced all involved to re-record both concertos in their entireties. What makes this all so incredibly fascinating, is that the final results are so outstanding, in both interpretation and recorded sound. This is some of the freshest Mozart I've heard in a long while; and the sound is as good as it gets.
I sincerely hope this is only the first in a series; I really want to hear the remaining three Concertos from this incredibly talented violinist and the wonderful CHAARTS Chamber Artists - IF Avie can continue the results heard in the 2020 sessions.
This disc was sent to me gratis in consideration for a review.
Ms. Bilicka was born in Poland. She studied and earned her degrees there, with a further two years of study in Geneva, Switzerland. In 2019, she joined the piano faculty of the Caine College of the Arts at Utah State University, in Logan Utah. I have watched several of her YouTube videos and was impressed with her fluid sound and effortless, assured technique. Thus I was eager to listen to her debut CD, which appears on Centaur Records.
For this album, with its "Impressionistic influences" theme, Ms. Bilicka adopts a playing style which illustrates a marvelous, elegant touch and musical sensitivity. This works splendidly with much of the recorded program on this CD. Specifically, Scriabin's Poem in F-sharp Major, Ravel's Une Barque sur l'ocean and Szymanowski's Prelude in C minor simply shimmer with color and delicacy, and with lovely legato singing lines. These qualities also shine in her playing of Chopin. Here she plays for us his Ballade #4 (in F minor) and the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante in E-flat Major, all beautifully played with a rhapsodic freedom.
It is in her Chopin, though, where I wished her playing possessed a touch more authority and joie de vivre. As beautiful as it is, I longed for a bit more flare and dynamic range. The same applies to Ravel's Alborada del gracioso, which tends to sound a little too careful. However, again, there are many positive attributes as well. At a slightly slower (and more sensible) tempo than usual, she does manage to play more of those repeated triplets better than many pianists do, without suddenly slowing it down. (No such tempo change is indicated in the score.) So it's a tradeoff: play all the notes - and play them well - or dazzle us with a dashing tempo. I personally prefer the former because it's cleaner and closer to the printed score. However, a little more brilliance would have been welcome.
However, do not make too much of these observations. I make mention not to be critical, but to point out differences as compared to other pianists' recordings of these works. The competition in this music is fierce, but there is certainly a place for the more delicate touch that Elzbieta Bilicka brings to it. Especially when it is so musically involving and highlights the "Impressionistic influences" theme of this program. And let's not forget how lovely are the Scriabin, the Szymanowski, and Ravel's Une Barque.
All in all, I enjoy this pianist. Her playing is crisp and clean, while bringing out the most wonderful singing lines. Her style for this album excels at light-and-shadow shading (thus the CD is perfectly titled), and her phrasing is musical. For those who prefer their Chopin to be a little less grandiose and more singing, then this concert will fit the bill nicely.
Finally, the recorded sound is very fine. I initially thought the Scriabin started off sounding a touch boxed in, but the sound opens up naturally thereafter. Engineers Michael Palmer and Wesley Morrison have captured a realistic piano sound, within a warm acoustic.
This is a lovely debut and I look forward to more from this pianist. In particular, I'd love to hear her play some Beethoven.