This series has thus far been of limited appeal to me, musically, with only the third volume being of real interest. And what a marvelous disc that one is, with the music of Szymon Laks, spectacularly played by the ARC Ensemble (reviewed in detail elsewhere on this blog). Now comes the fifth installment, with premier recordings of music by Jewish-Ukrainian composer, Dmitri Klebanov, which I sampled online and decided to try. It's not quite as rewarding as the Laks collection, but there is some good music and at least one true masterpiece here.
The opening Fourth String Quartet is based upon melodies by Leontovych - yes that Leontovych, best known for the popular Christmas song, Carol of the Bells. And sure enough, the opening movement begins with a verbatim rendering of that very carol before moving on to something more interesting. (I wasn't ready for Christmas music yet - it's only October as I write this - so it wasn't as welcome as it might be in December.) And so it goes throughout all four movements - a series of pleasant-sounding arrangements of sing-song tunes, some familiar, most not. But there is plenty of variety - of mood and tempo - which manages to hold one's interest. The third movement is even reminiscent of Ravel's own String Quartet, with its delightful pizzicato scoring. It's all congenial and enjoyable for casual listening.
The Fifth Quartet, which comes last on this program, was written some 20 years later and is much more modern. It's thematic material is worlds away from the Fourth. It's not as determinedly "pleasant" for sure, especially in the first movement, which is stark (very much like Shostakovich) and with moments of dissonance (reminiscent of Bartok). The central movement's pensive viola song, played over pizzicatos, suggests an impending dread and is very moving, especially as played with such emotional involvement here by the ARC Ensemble. The finale is much of the same, with impassioned uneasiness - until the final vivace energizes the fervor with increasing tension. And with some imaginative scoring (wonderful use of glissandi, for example), the work comes to an almost triumphant conclusion.
However - there is a real gem lurking in between the two Quartets. The Trio #2, for Piano, Violin and Cello, is an absolute masterpiece. It is instantly appealing - richly rewarding musically, colorful in orchestration and truly inspired in composition. I hear even more Ravel here (especially his own Trio), with its impressionistic, yet forward-looking creativity and imaginative scoring. My listening notes are sprinkled with the words "glorious", "rapturous" and "colorful" over and over. I was rather stunned when it was over, requiring a few minutes to take it all in before listening to more.
As always, I find it difficult to describe new music. What I can say is this piece elicited a "Wow" from me at the end and I was emotionally moved and exulted by it. For anyone who loves the music of Ravel, this piece absolutely must be heard.
And, as in the earlier disc of chamber music by Laks, highest praise must be given to the glorious playing of the ARC Ensemble. And also to the fantastic recorded sound. This is yet another CD-only release from Chandos which is so completely successful I didn't miss it not being SACD at all.
In sum, Quartet #4 is pleasant enough and certainly worth a listen. And if I was not entirely convinced by the 5th Quartet the first time through, I was very moved by it during a second hearing - especially with the 2nd and 3rd movements. But it is the Trio which makes this disc worth the price. It is simply magnificent - especially as performed here by the fabulous Arc Ensemble.