I have enjoyed several releases on the fantastic FARAO Classics label, including the 3 previous CDs from Ensemble Arabesques which I reviewed very favorably here on my blog. With each, I encountered superb music-making and superlative recorded sound. I couldn't wait to hear their new one and jumped right in.
Beginning with Ibert's Concerto for Cello and Wind Orchestra, instantly I recognize this group's characteristic blend which shimmers with color, glimmering on top with radiant flute tone. And what a glorious piece this is, showing Ibert at his most captivating and imaginative. Composed in 1925 (3 years after Escales), the piece exhibits Impressionistic roots while continually exploring ahead with modern tonalities and instrumental effects. I hear glissandi and overtone harmonics in the cello, replete with double stops and interesting bowing effects, particularly in the difficult 3rd movement cadenza. And the frolicking horn whoops along the way are an unexpected pleasure.
What I loved about the piece is that it isn't really a cello concerto, but rather a chamber work for the unique combination of wind instruments (double woodwinds plus a single horn and trumpet) and a cello, which brings an additional voice with its own color and texture. The soloist here, Emmanuelle Bertrand, plays with sheer loveliness (especially in the opening Pastorale), where her beguiling, silky tone - rich, yet delicate - adds bloom to an already glowing fabric. It isn't until the cadenza in the 2nd movement Romance that the cello attains a more soloistic role, a prominence which continues into the 3rd movement. The trumpet becomes more important there as well, adding a touch of triumphant jubilance to the jaunty Gigue.
The work is fairly short, keeping one's attention thoroughly engaged, and is highly entertaining from start to finish. I had not heard this piece before and would have been hard-pressed to identify its composer as Ibert - until the 3rd movement's swirling triplet figures, which immediately reminded me of the Allegro Scherzando of his Flute Concerto, which I played many times in college.
Once again Ensemble Arabesques does what they do best - discovering rare, unjustly neglected works and bringing them vividly to life. I initially thought it would have been nice if this piece had been included on the group's all-Ibert chamber music collection recorded 3 years earlier. However, as the theme of this current program is wind music which includes a cello (a characteristic common to all three works on this CD), it certainly makes a perfect concert opener.
I could single out individual players of the group for praise in this marvelous performance (1st flute, horn, trumpet), but would feel guilty for inadvertently overlooking the others - for every one of them is exceptional. Each displays character and individuality while combining as a group to play with marvelous precision of ensemble and immaculate blend. (If only another innovative group, the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective, would listen to the Ensemble Arabesques and emulate them. Moreover, the Chandos engineers could learn a thing or two from the FARAO team as well.)
I'm already thrilled with this CD and realize I have much more to get to. Next is Emil Hartmann's Serenade, which is similarly scored - for winds (single flute and oboe, pairs of clarinets, bassoons and horns) plus cello and contrabass, unisono. Instantly, I am struck with the clarity of the recorded sound and the purity of the clarinet's a cappella opening phrase, followed by Eva Maria Thiebaud's radiant, glowing flute. (I have noted her glorious tone on this group's previous CDs and am again enthralled with it here.)
This Serenade is a positively delightful piece - made more so by this group's characterful playing and precision of articulation. The piece sounds lighter and slightly smaller-scaled than the Ibert, and thus more intimate. Yet the glowing, blended beauty of their sound remains, punctuated by crisp articulation. And the FARAO engineers ensure the contrabass is perfectly balanced, never overpowering or bloated.
After a lovely pastorale opening, the central movements are infused with a breezy lightness of spirit, filled with vitality. While the Finale is cheerfully buoyant, bringing the piece to an exciting conclusion. This is yet another splendid discovery, not often recorded.
The Dvorak welcomes us to more familiar territory. The playing of it here is so fresh and alive, it's almost as if hearing it for the first time. The opening and closing Marcia theme, taken at a forward-moving tempo, is afforded a lightness of touch which sounds slightly less grandiose than usual - to great effect. And throughout, we hear a most graceful lilt to musical phrases, along with decisive articulation; and the old truly sounds new. The reading is notable for its engaging musicality and vivid characterization of the variety of moods. The cello, in particular, adds an intriguing and enticing texture which I don't remember hearing so clearly delineated before, including the occasional pizzicato passages (particularly in the Menuetto). And here again, the bass and contrabassoon are detailed and nimble - allowing the music to move with agility and grace, unencumbered by the slightest hint of heaviness. All combined, this is a most enjoyable and involving account, beautifully recorded.
FARAO certainly deserves much of the credit for the glorious sound of this group - the recording quality is simply superb. As in their previous recordings, there is a lustrous realism and palpable presence which emanates from an intimate setting perfect for chamber music - not too large a hall and not too reverberant. I quickly forgot I was listening to a CD in my home, so engrossed was I in the music. It was as if being transported to the space in which they played. This is a remarkable achievement for any recording engineer. Further, the balance is expertly handled. The brass are sufficiently commanding but never domineering, the cello is not spotlit, and the woodwinds are warm and colorful. This greatly increased the overall enjoyment of listening to this program.
Along with fabulous music-making and sound, the production itself is excellent. From the attractive cover to the booklet brimming with informative program notes and interesting pictures of the group in various settings, I continue to be thoroughly impressed with the FARAO Classics label. And once again, Ensemble Arabesques demonstrates it is one of the very best chamber groups of its kind.