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.
In an email to me, Keith Stanfield, first violinist of The Opus 76 Quartet, explains the origins of this miraculous live Beethoven set:
"We made these live recordings during the [2020 Covid-19] Pandemic, when there was no other live music happening. We had prepared 3 years for the 250th Beethoven Anniversary, and I wanted to wait and see what would happen, rather than cancel 3 months in advance. It turned out in Kansas City that our 6 week festival of all Beethoven’s String Quartets was able to take place on schedule. We had to use the Cathedral of the Immaculate conception, and were limited to 50 people in a marble encased massive church which has a normal capacity of 1300 I believe. It may be more.
KPR [Kansas Public Radio] who wanted to broadcast live would not send a recording engineer due to COVID concerns, so I had to buy the equipment, FaceTime the engineer to ask about placement of the stereo mic (we only had money for one Rode NT4 and the Tascam DR70) and handle the entire process ourselves.
I am not a sound engineer or record producer. But, we were able to capture radio level sound frequency ... by following their instructions - and what you hear is exactly what happened on those Saturday evenings. The broadcast version had some programme notes KPR wrote prior to each work. We were able to buy a massive rug to deaden some of the marble reverb and stick the microphone close to the group. We had no control over the air system - but it was so hot in August in KC that we would have given up the ghost many times during the cycle without it.
In any case, we were keen to make a statement and break out onto the real concert circuit as it were - and in particular I was determined that Beethoven, greatest of all composers - should be honored in his anniversary year, despite the most Beethovenian of circumstances. The recordings I guess are recordings in the most literal sense. Registrations of an event that will (hopefully) never be repeated - a 6 week live Beethoven Cycle in the middle of a global Pandemic - quite possibly the only one in the Nation in 2020. People came, many for whom this was their first classical experience (there was no other competition) and each night was sold out moments after being made available."
The above information is included here to provide a background to this set of recordings. I find it absolutely fascinating and quite incredible. Can you even imagine being the first violinist and suddenly finding yourself having to handle all the recording logistics yourself, including finding microphones, at the last minute, in order to make the recordings happen? And then have the wherewithal to sit down and actually play all this music. That is dedication!
Listening to the CDs, sonically I hear exactly what has been described as to the recording process. They are "live" in nearly every sense of the word, including applause before and after each and every quartet, plus an audible sense of "presence", as if sitting in the audience quite a distance away from the quartet, and with audible air conditioner blowers in the acoustic, etc. In many ways it reminds me of the days of vinyl LPs, with surface noise, clicks and pops, etc., all of which adds a sense of "being there". And other than the applause, the audience is otherwise absolutely silent, obviously in rapt attention to the music. There is mercifully no coughing. And any rustling between movements has been spliced out.
And there is definitely an air of "occasion" about it all.
There is also massive reverberation. But, for the most part, it does not swamp the musicians. There is sufficient focus and presence to give a reasonably clear vision of the performances. If anything, the huge acoustic lends a glowing warmth and blend to the group as a whole, which is not unattractive. And truthfully, the playing is so good, the acoustic can be easily overlooked.
But most of all, the one statement from Mr. Stanfield which strikes me as the most cogent is: "Beethoven, greatest of all composers, should be honored". And that is the single most prominent characteristic of these performances which predominates every measure of these scores - the Opus 76 Quartet exhibits an unending, profound love of Beethoven. It is evident everywhere in their playing.
If I had to describe this set in one word, it would be "smiling". There is a joy in the music - and enjoyment in the playing - which provides much pleasure. These may not be the most "commanding" readings (due in part to the rather distant recording perspective), but they are certainly some of the most musical. And gracious.
There is also an impressive overall accomplishment to the playing itself, from all four players. These were recorded over just a 6 week span (August 15 - September 19, 2020), and again, are live performances with no recording engineers on site. So there were no editing or patch-up sessions. Thus there is nowhere for less than perfect playing to hide. And I heard very few instances where a touch-up might have been beneficial.
A couple of specifics regarding the playing and performers are worth noting. There is no denying the excellence of Keith Stanfield's leadership as first violinist. His tone is vibrant and rich, sweetly singing and rapturous, and his playing is assertive. Significantly, though, for these live performances, the two violinists traded off playing first and second variously throughout. While I could almost always hear when Mr. Stanfield was "back on first", it is remarkable how effortlessly and competently Zsolt Eder was in assuming the first position. (The back cover identifies them for each Quartet.) Also of note, especially in the Opus 59 Quartets, cellist Sascha Groschang certainly makes an impression with sweetly singing lines, with nary a hint of graininess. Lovely indeed.
In sum, The Opus 76 Quartet has indeed achieved their goal to "make a statement and break out onto the real concert circuit". The enthusiastic audience certainly thinks so, as evidenced by the applause heard on these recordings. This complete set is a major achievement, in so many ways. This group deserves a record label to bring their talents to a wider audience.
Finally, regardless of the order in which they were performed, the Quartets are helpfully laid out in chronological order, over 9 CDs. Complete sets often stretch out to 10. This tells us something about tempos. The Opus 76's tempo choices are just about perfect in every instance. Allegros are jubilant, Adagios are flowing with natural momentum, never sluggish, and all those in between are fresh and alert. Regretfully, there are no track listings or timings included, which I definitely missed. Nor are there any liner notes. But other than that, I have no complaints with the production, as each CD is clearly labeled with the works it contains. This set is available online at Opus76.org.
The awesome Aris Quartett joins my list of favorite string quartets with 4 CDs from Genuin Classics. Here's an overview of them all plus the other groups on the list.
The Dover. The Escher. The Pacifica. And, to a lesser degree, the Attacca (which is focused almost solely on contemporary music). And now I happily add another string quartet to my 'Favorites of All Time' list - the Aris.
I started this blog entry as a review of 4 CDs from the Aris Quartett on Genuin Classics. But it quickly evolved into a mini-overview of all my favorite string quartets. So bear with me. I will eventually get into more detail about this batch of recordings from the Aris.
Of these groups, four are, coincidentally, American. The Aris is German. And they all easily stand alongside one another in the lofty, ultimate group of today's supreme string quartets. Most are relatively newly assembled (the Pacifica being the exception, formed as long ago as 1994) and comprised of young(er) players. And that very singularity (and common thread) ushers in a new age of string quartet playing, with dazzling freshness of new discovery and exuberance to everything they play.
But there's more.
Unique among this younger generation of string quartets is a daring. Daring in dynamic range; in tonal color, variety and exploration; in precision of execution; and also in diversity of repertoire. They can play literally anything and everything equally well. And it gives each group the depth of character and musical insight enabling them to bring new life to every recording - with inspiration, natural spontaneity, vitality, and a communicative essence to their music-making.
And long gone are the days of the prominent first violin. Each member of these groups is an equal, bringing an individuality, strength, and effortless virtuosity, combining to make the entire group extraordinary.
With the Dover and Escher, I hear a firmness of strength and individuality from each and every player, resulting in a certain "muscularity" to their playing. With the Dover, it's this plus a phenomenal precision of ensemble and articulation which is so remarkable. With the Escher, it's this plus a richness of tone. Both groups exhibit playing - especially of the Classics - which is absolutely thrilling.
With the Aris, I hear much of the same. Their blend, in particular, combined with amazing tonal variety, affords them a sound which is simply seductive. (The Pacifica also comes to mind in this regard.) Highest praise must be given to the viola, Caspar Vinzens, for his beauty of tone which blends so gorgeously with the others - never sounding nasal or husky. The sheer musicality of their overall blend is enhanced by their variety of tone and vibrato. Time and again they will begin a passage from barely a whisper - sans vibrato - then, in the next phrase, add the vibrato and play with the utmost sweetness and singing lyricism, creating a striking contrast to the starkness which precedes it. This variety (plus the unanimity of execution) is breathtaking.
And then, with a tremendous crescendo, they can turn up the drama with a fortissimo which miraculously never sounds aggressive or gruff. So many times I have thought of this group as sounding positively symphonic/orchestral - not only in their endless variety of color and dynamics but in their stunning ability to create such a powerful sound. Not just loud; powerful. I am amazed there are only four players. (The same can certainly be said of the Dover and the Escher too.)
These characteristics are displayed everywhere in their set of recordings for Geniun Classics, but are exemplified with perfection in their superb reading of the Schubert #14 in D minor. This reading stands out as being absolutely magnificent in every way - for dynamic extremes and control (from exquisite pianissimos to passionate fortissimos); tonal shadings and color; variety of texture and vibrato; musical immersion and sheer invigoration. This is undoubtedly one of the very best recordings of a string quartet I have ever experienced.
Their Shostakovich 8th is another stellar display of dynamic extremes, combined with richness of tone from all four players, which really is something to behold.
There is another recording of which I must make mention. That is the exquisite clarinet playing of Thorsten Johanns in the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. This Brahms disc (which also includes the 1st Quartet in C minor) is simply glorious from start to finish, but the Quintet is special. Johanns is not spotlit and does not play is if he's a featured soloist. Integrating with the overall blend of the quartet, the clarinet becomes just another member of the group, and thus blends beautifully with them - merely adding new color and texture to the sound. And what music they make together! I'm not sure I've ever heard the piece played as gorgeously as here. And I can only hope they combine forces again to record the Mozart Clarinet Quintet.
After watching the Aris Quartett's YouTube videos (Mendelssohn & Haydn), I was so impressed I wanted to buy their CDs - four discs on the Genuin Classics label. Interestingly, the first of these (Beethoven #9 and #14) was a "special prize" awarded to the Aris Quartett in the form of a free CD production from Genuin Classics as a result of being the 2016 Award Winner of the International ARD Music Competition. The CDs are handsomely produced, with very attractive covers and high-quality booklets.
And speaking of Genuin, I don't think I've mentioned yet how superb the recorded sound is - completely realistic in capturing the wide dynamic range and variety of tonal colors, well-focused (and dimensional) in a warm acoustic. It is simply miraculous how the group naturally and effortlessly fills the hall with sound in a most tangible, palpable way. All four recordings are simply marvelous, for all the reasons noted above.
I don't know if it's advancements in recording techniques/capabilities, or the unbelievably high level of accomplishment of today's young string players - or both, but I have never in my life enjoyed, or been so emotionally moved by, string quartets as much as I have listening to recordings from these 5 groups. They each bring similarities in the way in which they communicate musical involvement with the listener. They are equals in an elite group of superlative musicians. But each brings individual characteristics which make them uniquely memorable and musically enriching. And they certainly demonstrate the ultimate in achievement among today's string quartets.
If I had to prioritize these groups in any kind of order/ranking, I simply could not. They each offer such unique and treasurable gifts. And, it really depends on what they're playing. Three stand side-by-side at the top, however. The Aris, Dover and Escher are simply incomparable in everything they play - from contemporary music to the Classics. The Pacifica certainly excels at new contemporary music (bringing their characteristic sweetness of expression) but are rather more "traditional" in the Classics. (Although their Mendelssohn is very good, their Dvorak and Brahms are surprisingly commonplace). And the Attacca is thus far rather limited to contemporary music - where they are extraordinary.
Finally, we are indebted to small, independent, Classical specialty record labels for bringing such wonderful groups to the listening public, in state-of-the-art recorded sound: Azica, BIS, Cedille, Genuin and others. (The Escher and Pacifica have also recorded for Naxos in the past, and the Attacca has a brand new disc coming soon from SONY.) The excellence of recorded sound certainly plays a large part in the overall enjoyment of the music-making heard on these recordings. I eagerly look forward to every new recording from these groups.
Essential listening (alphabetical by group):
(This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but rather those recordings I have heard and can recommend without hesitation.)
*All four reviewed here (Beethoven/Brahms/Schubert/Shostakovich)- Genuin (2017-21)
*John Adams (complete) - Azika (2013)
Orange (music of Caroline Shaw) - Nonesuch (2019)
*Songlines (music of Michael Ippolito) - Azika (2017)
*Beethoven - ongoing series (two installments now available) - Cedille (2019-21)
Mozart (K 589/590 + Quintet K 406) - Cedille (2016)
*Schumann (complete) - Azica (2019)
Voices of Defiance (music of Laks, Shostakovich, Ullmann) - Cedille (2017)
Clarinet Quintets For Our Time (with clarinetist David Shifrin - music of Ellington and Rogerson) - Delos (2019)
*Mendelssohn (complete) - BIS (2015-16)
*Dvorak "American"/Tchaikovsky 1st/Borodin 2nd - BIS (2017)
*Dance (with guitarist Jason Vieaux) - Azika (2019)
Misericordia (with flutist Carol Wincenc - music of Uebayashi) - Azika (2019)
*Mendelssohn (complete) - Cedille (2005)
Ornstein 2nd + Piano Quintet - Cedille (2014)
*Contemporary Voices - Cedille (2020)
Souvenirs of Spain & Italy (with guitarist Sharon Isbin) - Cedille (2019)
*the best of the best
I'm not familiar with American pianist Jeremy Denk. And according to a review on Amazon which claims "Everybody knows everything Jeremy Denk plays is pretty amazing", I guess I'm out of the loop and need to catch up! That this release comes from the Nonesuch label gives me the incentive to do so. Nonesuch doesn't release much any more, and over the decades has provided many interesting titles, often of unusual repertoire in consistently good sound. So it's time I discover whatever is all abuzz about Jeremy Denk.
Well, "amazing" he may be, but I find his Mozart distracting.
It starts off well in the C Major Concerto with an alert tempo and a freshness which is uniquely attractive. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra plays with precision, minimal vibrato and sparse textures - almost "historically informed performance" characteristics - revealing much inner detail which is also very attractive. And Denk certainly has the chops for Mozart, with crisp fingerwork and a spontaneity which is often missing on record. But Denk can't just play the music; he simply has be AMAZING! And ostentatious. He adds embellishments and flourishes and ornamentations almost everywhere, which, after awhile, are just distracting. Just when you get into the musical line, here comes a trill, or a turn, or a scale, or a flashy flourish which disrupts the music. At first, it's ear-catching and intriguing, but it ends up being too much of a good thing. By the time we get to the second concerto on the CD, I am nervous and anxious, unable to really enjoy it, just waiting for what he's going to DO next to dazzle us.
And there are similar distractions with regard to tempo and dynamics, especially in the D minor Concerto. The constant swells up and back down (in both dynamics and tempos) in the opening Allegro reminded me of grandpa driving the car with his foot constantly depressing then letting up on the gas pedal. And I was getting queasy before it finished. And then the Romance which follows is so relentlessly fussy with tempo fluctuations (and the constant, irritating embellishments) I'd had enough.
Denk's style suits the Rondo in A minor, which separates the two concerti on this program, somewhat better. Without an orchestra trying to stay with him, his waywardness becomes a rather free-flowing, rhapsodic improvisation. Mr. Denk reveals a musical side which, while not unattractive, is not particularly Mozartian. I see he's recorded some Bach too. I can't even imagine what he does to Baroque music.
Great recorded sound. Great orchestral playing. Interesting piano playing - except for all the showing off.
The Opus 76 Quartet, "Kansas City's string quartet", reached out to me with an offer of promotional CDs in consideration of a review. I was eager to hear them and accepted. I didn't realize at the time that their CDs are not commercially available, but are produced on their own label and can be purchased as downloads or on CD-Rs only from their own website. This is not normally something I would review, but after watching some of their excellent videos on YouTube, I wanted to give them a try. And in due time, a package arrived and I dug in.
These are CD singles. Each disc contains just one work, lasting 31 and 37 minutes respectively.
Beginning with the Mendelssohn 3rd Quartet, it is immediately apparent this is a very accomplished, professional and musical group. Their playing bubbles with joy, spirit and sweeping lines. This is a smiling account of the first movement, with a sunny, almost pastorale feel. I found myself humming along with its loveliness. After the jubilant exposition, the tempo eases beautifully for the second subject - but not too much - and the joyfulness bursts forth again with the recapitulation. The performance gains even more strength as it reaches the finale, where the playing soars with exuberance. The tempos in all four movements are perfectly chosen and there is an effervescent sense of spontaneity which pervades the entire performance. I enjoyed it very much.
This first violinist, Keith Stanfield, is certainly excellent, and leads with a gloriously vibrant, full-bodied tone and singing legato; the violist, Ashley Stanfield (his wife) impresses with her rich, husky tone adding much character to the group; and cellist, Daniel Ketter, plays with authority - but isn't at all gruff, as is too often the case in these particular Quartets. (I do not intentionally slight the second violinist, Zsolt Eder, by not singling him out.) The entire group plays with unanimity and an assured musical approach. There can be no complaints whatsoever about the marvelous playing.
The recorded sound is a little distant and over-reverberant compared to the very best recordings. (I have been listening to a lot of string quartet music on esteemed labels such as BIS, Chandos and Cedille lately, and I get spoiled by their state-of-the-art sound quality.) The Opus 76 sound like they were recorded in an empty hall with the listener placed mid-way, or even further, back. But it is well focused and sufficiently "present", and the acoustic bathes the ensemble in a warm glow (which isn't unappealing) - but somewhat at the expense of immediacy. Once the ear adjusts, however, the music-making soon reigns supreme and the acoustic is forgotten.
The next CD I received is the Brahms Piano Quintet. And many of the positive musical attributes made above apply here as well. The playing itself is appropriately more muscular for Brahms, with more authority from the strings and sensitive piano playing from Julie Coucheron. It is worth noting the piano does not dominate this reading, but is an equal with the quartet - just as it should be.
Tempos are such an important aspect of any Brahms performance, and they are particularly well chosen here - at all times moving, flowing, dramatic, often very exciting - and never sluggish. The Scherzo, in particular, is impressive, with a very quick tempo, high energy (and high spirits), and, later, some positively ferocious bowing, without ever becoming aggressive. The violins are awesome here! And I couldn't help but react with a "Wow!" And then the second subject which follows is the most sweetly singing musical expression; the first violin again soars with rapturous singing lines. The opening of the finale, with its aching ardor, is as emotionally moving as I've ever heard it, and the Allegro which ensues is invigorating. This is an outstanding performance and I can't remember enjoying the piece as much as this.
Coincidentally, I happened to hear another recording of the Brahms playing on Sirius FM a day later, and was so utterly bored by it I went on about my business tidying up the house while it continued on and on. (The announcer later stated it was in fact played by Christoph Eschenbach and the Amadeus Quartet.) What a striking contrast to the Opus 76's performance, where I was never once, not for an instant, distracted - much less bored! There is a freshness and involvement about their playing which is usually only experienced in a live performance.
Unfortunately, the recording is not ideal. The rather distant perspective here also brings just a hint of thinness of tone and a touch of grainy texture to the strings which were not evident on the Mendelssohn. But I must stress once again, it is not detrimental to the overall enjoyment of the performance - as evidenced by my overwhelmingly positive comments above.
The observations above were made based upon listening on my primary stereo system (the specifics of which are detailed on the homepage of this blog). For comparison, I also listened to these CDs on my second, headphone-based CD player, and was less bothered by the distant perspective. And only occasionally did the excessive reverb create cause for concern. However, the slight thinness in the Brahms was evident there as well. I suspect the download versions may be best of all. (I do not have that capability and therefore did not try it.) Certainly, the YouTube videos are impressive, including the sound.
My impression of the Opus 76 String Quartet is that they deserve a record label (such as Naxos) to do them full justice and bring their music making to a wider audience. This is a group to watch.
As noted earlier, these discs are CD-Rs and come in a slim-line case with just a single page front insert. However, there is room on the inside to include not only the track listing and personnel, but a concise, informative liner note about the music and the ensemble as well. They are available at www.opus76.org.
Kantorow continues his Saint-Saens survey for BIS with the complete Symphonies on SACD. The first 4 are excellent, but...
It's great to see Jean-Jacques Kantorow continue his Saint-Saens survey for BIS. Over the years he's conducted the Piano Concertos and Africa, variously with different pianists (Ogawa, Mikkola, and more recently, his son, Alexandre Kantorow), and two of the early Symphonies (#2 and the F major 'Urbs Roma'); and performed as soloist in the Violin Concertos. And just this year, he's turned his attention to a complete set of the Symphonies on SACD, with successful remakes of the earlier two readings dating from 1996.
Beginning with the early Symphony in A major, and the first 2 numbered ones, he's off to a fantastic start. He's finished up with the Organ Symphony on the companion disc. And unfortunately it is a different matter entirely.
But, as usual, I'm getting way ahead of myself.
Disc One gives us three of the four early, lesser-known Symphonies - 75+ minutes of glorious music. Kantorow brings them to life as never before, helped by the excellence of the BIS SACD sound. There is such variety of textures, articulation, color and spirit. He brings real inspiration and importance to these works, revealing them to be mature, fully developed and musically pleasing in a way that Martinon - as good as his were - didn't quite achieve in his wonderful, pioneering 1975 survey for EMI.
The same applies to the early Symphony in F ('Urbs Roma') on the second installment. We are treated to a beautifully atmospheric and highly energized account of it. And what a terrific Symphony this is in Kantorow's hands!
In all fairness, the recorded sound plays a large part in the success of Kantorow over Martinon in these early works. And it really is exceptionally good. But that's not all. Kantorow's readings sparkle with joy and charm, singing tunefulness, and drama and excitement when called for. The slow movements, in particular, are beguiling in their musical and tuneful expressiveness. And the Scherzos are simply delectable.
As to the Organ Symphony, composed some 30 years later, the competition on record is crushing. But good modern recordings of it are surprisingly hard to come by. While I have no use for yet another recording of it, I had high expectations of this one from Kantorow and the experts at BIS.
The opening Allegro moderato starts promisingly and is actually pretty good. It is played with rhythmic precision and develops a great sense of drama. And so far, the sound is perfectly fine.
The Adagio, then, is a foreboding of what's to come later in the finale, when the initial organ entry, as recorded here, has no audible pedal tones. They simply do not exist. I listened to this recording on my main system (which employs large, full-range speakers which are powerful down to 35hz, and pretty respectable even at 32hz, the low C on the piano) and on a high-quality headphone system - both with the same results. The entire bass range is mysteriously absent. But mercifully, the tempo is not funerial, as it so often is; Kantorow understands it still must have momentum and a singing line. And despite the missing tummy-rumbling pedals, this is a tender, moving account of it. The strings are simply lovely, actually.
The Allegro which begins the Second Movement (often mistakenly referred to as the third movement) brings results similar to the opening - crisp articulation, with a good tempo, but ultimately unexceptional. It could use more bite and power from the strings - they are a bit too distantly mic'd. But the woodwinds are excellent in those articulated, double-tongued 16th notes, helped by a closer microphone placement. And later, the orchestra plays some exquisite pianissimos.
And then comes the Finale. And the organ is flat - or more accurately, the orchestra has tuned itself sharp - or not at all - to the organ. And, oddly, perhaps sensing the dull organ sound, the engineers give the organ a sudden boost of the microphones, with a twiddle of the knobs, on the fourth chord of its ff main theme (1:14-1:15 in), where the upper fundamentals are audibly turned up mid-phrase. Yes, here on a modern digital recording, we hear the engineers twiddling/fiddling with the volume knobs during the music. And even then, the organ is still rather anemic and distant and takes on a rather sour, nasal timber. And as feared, there are no pedal tones - not even octave-overtones that I can hear. Nor is there much presence in bass range from the orchestra. The bass drum contributes nothing more than a hard "thud", the timpani are not deep or powerful, and the cymbals are clangy. Louder passages become congested and it sounds like the acoustic is overloaded.
The final straw comes at the very end, where in the final two bars, the timpani (marked with accents in the score) are backwardly balanced and sound miles away from the nearest microphone - thus denying us the drama and thrill of a triumphant conclusion. It all seems to fizzle out as if everyone is tired and just wants to get it over with.
I realize this is not an Organ Concerto, and an unusual prominence of the organ is not necessarily what Saint-Saens had in mind. However, "The King of Instruments" should surely make more of an impact than what it manages here. I literally was reminded of an electronic Hammond church organ rather than a mighty pipe organ in a major symphony hall. If not afforded an immense, powerful presence, at least full-range bass pedals shouldn't be too much to ask of a new digital recording from a major label. Furthermore, BIS does give the organist top billing on the front and rear covers, and in the booklet, as if it actually were an organ concerto. Just saying...
I have been listening to some superb recordings lately from BIS, of chamber ensembles and full symphony orchestras alike. Thus I am perplexed by the recorded sound on this one. And the DSD/SACD format seems to have helped none at all. (For the record, the multi-channel mix is 5.0 - i.e. there is no sub-woofer channel - so the missing bass isn't hiding there.)
I've heard many dismal recordings of this Symphony over the years. The swampy, outrageously bass-heavy mess on the 2015 Reference Recordings in Kansas City immediately comes to mind as being one of the worst ever, but for entirely different reasons than this BIS. And while this one isn't as bad as that, it's not very good. And that is a real pity; Kantorow is a wonderful interpreter of Saint-Saens and the Royal de Liege is an accomplished orchestra. The early Symphonies are revelatory and splendid in every way. But this Organ Symphony is a lamentable conclusion to an otherwise outstanding set.
This is the debut recording from French violinist Brieuc Vourch, in two big, Romantic violin sonatas. And while Vourch deservedly gets top billing, pianist Guillaume Vincent impresses mightily as well. What a magnificent team they make. But I'm getting ahead of myself - as usual.
From the very first notes, I was struck by the stunning clarity of the recorded sound. This recording appears on the FARAO Classics label, which I have only encountered once before - on an equally splendid CD of wind concertos by Henri Tomasi. And let's be clear right upfront, this is one spectacular-sounding recording. The listener is transported to the hall in which the recording was made, with the players literally placed right in front of you - the piano slightly farther away than the violin. The realism and presence are remarkable. I was reminded of the superb recorded sound coming from another small independent label I've been enjoying lately: Azica.
Besides the clarity, the next things which struck me were the balance between piano and violin, in an utterly natural acoustic, and the piano itself. The piano does not dominate, yet sounds realistically full-sized. The recording accurately captures the enormity of its wooden body. But not just that. The clarity reveals not only the attack of the percussive transient, but the sustained resonance which follows each note - from the strings and the wooden body itself. I go into this much detail because the full concert grand piano is one of the most difficult to record and reproduce on a home stereo system. The FARAO engineers certainly get it right. The booklet does not tell us what piano this is, but it sounds rather unlike a Steinway; a little less brilliant, more wooden and warm. Perhaps a Fazioli? Or just a magnificent Steinway as recorded by an extremely capable and attentive recording engineer.
Then there is Vourch's sweetly singing violin. Ah, his glorious tone - which certainly contributes to making this recording so special. He plays a 1690 Ruggeri, and this doesn't sound like your typical Strad. There is a purring texture to it - the sound of the bow across the string which accompanies the sweetness of tone in a way rarely heard on record. And then, in forte passages, Vourch digs in with heavy bow and unearths an amazing, wonderfully rugged, rich, hearty tone. His variety of tonal colors and overall sound are really something to behold.
All of these observations - and I've only gotten through the first movement of the Strauss!
In addition to the tonal characteristics described above, the dynamic range is amazing - keeping in mind the piano never overwhelms the violin. It is ever so slightly recessed, allowing Vourch's radiant tone to shine. Just listen to his ravishing pianissimos.
As to the music-making, I hardly need to mention how wonderful these performances are. But I must. The Strauss impresses with its subtle inflections, musical phrasing, wide dynamic range and variety of tonal colors - not just from the violin, but the piano as well. But most of all, I think it's the natural outpouring of musical expression, without ever over-emoting, which brings this music fully to life. There is a sweeping direction to the music; tempos have a natural ebb-and-flow, without ever sagging or losing concentration; and there is not a moment of heaviness to this richly Romantic music. This is surely the most successful account of the piece I've yet heard.
The same can be said of the Franck. The opening movement isn't at all fussy; the usual hesitations - interruptions in the momentum - are non-existent. Instead, it's a natural expression without an unnecessary need to "say" something. The music unfolds on its own. The second movement is played at a true Allegro, but the piano is less bold in the opening than is often heard - partly due to the recorded balance, but also the marvelous leggiero touch Vincent utilizes so brilliantly. Vourch's entry, though, sounds a bit closer and louder than previously heard. I suspect he leaned into the mic a bit to produce a true fortissimo here. It wasn't necessary; his rugged, intense G-string tone speaks for itself without any help whatsoever. But never mind this minor observation, a few bars later everything returns to normal and Vourch's vibrant tone continues to inspire. This is a moving, rather than extrovertly exciting, rendition of the movement, which continues naturally into the Recitativo-Fantasia which follows. Remarkably, the Allegro movement isn't as disjointed from the rest as is sometimes the case. The passionate singing quality connects each movement into a unified whole, and structurally, it simply makes sense.
The Finale then returns us to the gentle, lovely singing lines heard in the opening of the Strauss. Taken at a quicker tempo than I can ever remember, it becomes almost pastorale rather than overwhelmingly passionate. And it works splendidly! The players obviously observe the poco mosso ("a little more") part of the tempo indication, allowing the lightness of tone to reflect the Allegretto marking. But later on, Vourch pours on the passion when musically appropriate, intensifying his vibrato, displaying again a brilliant dynamic range and variety of tone color. The faster tempo pays enormous dividends and the piece ends with dazzling bravura.
Vourch was born in France and currently lives in Hamburg, Germany. He studied with Perlman at Juilliard early in his training and there are many hints of it in his playing. There is that unmistakable singing quality - without overdoing the emotion - which is a hallmark of Perlman's playing. Vourch scores though with that extra bit of rich texture and vibrancy along with the sweetness of tone - surely a characteristic of his magnificent instrument.
And I cannot stress enough the sensitivity, musicality, and naturalness of Vincent's piano playing. He is an equal, indeed perfect, partner in every sense.
In closing, these are not my most favorite violin sonatas and I was not overly enthusiastic to hear this CD. However, after listening to this wonderful recording, I have newfound appreciation for both works. And I am very enthusiastic to hear more from this team. The playing and the recorded sound are simply magnificent. I can't offer more praise than that.
Time for a little interlude. I thought I'd jot down some thoughts about my listening and reviewing styles, and how this all got started, for anyone who might be interested.
I love Classical music. It is the very air I breathe. Along with that passion, there is the "hobby" side to it. And that is collecting Classical recordings. I currently own nearly 9,000 CDs and SACDs (95% of which are Classical), which I began collecting in 1986, shortly after CD was first introduced commercially. My very first CD purchase (which I still own) was Muti's Philadelphia Tchaikovsky Ballet Suites on EMI. And my jaw dropped with what I heard. I remember it like it was yesterday. The clarity! The dynamics! The drama! The complete silence in-between tracks! And the convenience of accessing individual tracks with just the push of a button on the remote! Never again would I return to the noise and distractions of scratched LPs or compressed, tape-hissy cassettes, or the cumbersome, infuriating inability to find different sections of a recording both formats excelled at.
But I soon realized that my cheap rack system from Sears (or was it Wards?) was not going to cut it. Thus in the early 90s, I reluctantly tip-toed into a real stereo store, fearful of what "the high end" was going to cost, and was blown away with the sound these systems produced. The majesty and presence of a symphony orchestra was laid out right there in front of me in the listening room. And there was no going back to a cheap sound system. And so began my endless quest to assemble a high-quality stereo component system which could reproduce this music in a realistic and musically satisfying way. (My first purchases included an entry level Marantz CD player and Rotel amplifier; and a couple years later, a pair of wonderful little Thiel speakers and MIT cables.) And during the ensuing years, I have foregone lavish trips and nice cars etc., as most of my expendable cash has gone toward music and stereo equipment. After a 30+ year stint in the workforce, I now have all the time in the world to listen to music. Retirement is good.
I typically buy CDs I'm interested in, not based upon reviews or any kind of marketing. I also usually avoid those from the major labels which push their latest hot "star" first and foremost above any musical merits said star might possess. More often than not, I buy discs which feature an ensemble, a soloist, or composer which I have found to be interesting, or has impressed me, in the past. One click leads to another and then to another, and before I know it my Amazon WishList is full of CDs! And I tend to favor those releases which are offered in the SACD format.
1. I usually listen to a new CD before reading the booklet. This allows me to make my own observations and form my own impressions of the playing and the music. This is especially important if I'm hearing new music. I don't want the composer's program notes or the label's booklet to "inform" my opinion of what I'm about to hear. Thus my written observations are entirely my own. Then I will read the booklet text and compare notes. Usually I am most interested in learning more about the composer, performers, and recording technical details, some of which I incorporate into a review.
2. If I don't like something, especially if it's new or unfamiliar music, I will wait a few days and listen again. Often times, a second hearing is more positive. I will rarely dismiss new music outright. I make every effort to give it a real chance of making an impression.
3. I almost always listen to a CD (or box set) straight through. If it's completely new music to me, I will often play a selection which I think might make the most positive impression - the easiest to enjoy - first, and then explore the remaining program. I rarely take notes (for use in a review) that first time through. Only those discs which move me - either in a positive way, or an annoying one - prompt me to begin taking notes.
4. I certainly listen for a level of proficiency and accomplishment from the musicians involved - as well as musical involvement. However, I can be forgiving of less than perfect playing if the music-making is committed and thoroughly engaging, or of musical importance (i.e. rare repertoire). I also tend to "go a little easier" on, say, a community orchestra or a local string quartet, as opposed to a big name outfit, from which perfection is assured, and indeed, expected.
5. However, I am not forgiving of mediocre recorded sound. My reviews will always take into account the sound quality as well as the performance. As I am an audiophile as well as a musician, the recorded sound - the realism of it - is just as important to me as the music-making itself. So if something sounds "off", it definitely affects my enjoyment and appreciation of the performance. With today's technology, and with 40 years of digital recording experience, record labels should be capable of producing a realistic, natural and enjoyable-sounding recording. Every time. So I am very critical when they fail to do so. Thus I am most often drawn toward the great smaller, independent Classical labels which value excellent recorded sound as well as excellent music-making.
My main stereo system (2-channel only) is very detailed and fully resolves the acoustic in which the music is recorded. As described above, I have assembled high-quality electronics, speakers and wires/cables which, combined, specifically achieve this very result. However, it is not ruthlessly revealing. It is voiced to be full-bodied, rich in color, and just slightly warm and pleasant - just as I hear a real orchestra sounding in a good hall. It produces sound which, to my ears, comes as close to the "real thing" as I can afford. Thus I trust what I hear played on it, and I'm confident the system gives every recording the best possible chance of sounding good. And I believe it is representative of what most people will hear on a respectable stereo system.
6. However, if a recording just doesn't sound right, I will take it upstairs to a second system and listen again before completely dismissing it. My upstairs system is minimalist, consisting of just a high-quality SACD/CD player (with a headphone jack) and a good-quality pair of PSB headphones. This allows me to evaluate the recording characteristics on two very different systems so I can weigh the results and qualify my comments accordingly, if warranted. Again, I give each recording every possible chance to sound good.
7. Finally, the most fun part of this hobby is comparing a new recording with others in my collection. With nearly 9,000 CDs, duplication is inevitable (almost guaranteed), and along with firmly established favorites of any given piece, I often "rediscover" great recordings from the past which have been sitting forgotten on my shelves. What's most exciting is hearing a new recording which sweeps away those which have come before it - as if hearing a piece for the very first time. That's what usually gets my fingers flying across the keyboard!
In closing, I am a musician, not a writer. So putting what I hear into words does not come easy to me - especially when trying to describe new or unfamiliar music. I tend to gush when I really like something and gripe when I don't. But in every case, I try to be as honest as I can. I praise whenever possible, but I can't withhold criticism when it is merited.
Fantastic composer. Fantastic music. Fantastic playing. And 83 minutes of glorious Chandos sound at its finest. Wow.
Listening to this disc, and as the final notes faded into silence, I said to myself, "I really like this composer".
I just recently became acquainted with the music of Szymon Laks via a CD of his 3 published string quartets (#3-5), played by the Messages Quartet on the Dux label. And they are simply amazing. It is exciting to have another recording of #4 here on Chandos, especially when played with such character by the ARC Ensemble. And the rest of the music on this program just gets better and better as it goes. These are all premier recordings (although the Dux recording of all 3 String Quartets appeared the same year).
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory) is comprised of senior faculty of the Glenn Gould School in Toronto, Canada. This is the third volume in a series of chamber music discs recorded by this group for Chandos, each with the theme "Music in Exile". The other composers represented are Paul Ben-Haim (Vol. 1) and Jerzy Fitelberg (Vol. 2). I have only sampled the music on those first two discs and was not especially drawn to them. But this third disc, music by Szymon Laks, is another matter entirely.
Listening, I was completely enthralled by all this music. And I am utterly blown away by the superb playing of the ARC Ensemble, as recorded here. This composer could not hope to have better advocates for his music than this fabulous group of musicians. Their playing is so characterful, gracious, dancing, full of charm and bursting in vivid tonal colors, the music just comes alive! Just listen to clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas and bassoonist Frank Morelli in the Divertimento and, especially the Concertino. What marvelous players, both of them, with gorgeous, rich, wooden tone, and buoyant articulation. The clarinet is never bright or edgy (or worst of all, fruity) and the bassoon is always perfectly focused. The pianists are excellent as well. And all of this music-making has the benefit of superb Chandos recorded sound - even if it is "just" good old-fashioned CD and not the luxurious SACD treatment. This is one of the best CD-only recordings I've yet heard from the Chandos label.
The Divertimento for Violin, Clarinet, Bassoon and Piano is delightful. (There is also a version of it for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano.) But wait till you hear the Concertino for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon, which comes later. It's even better - quite virtuosic and reminiscent of Poulenc - bubbling with charm, whit and zest. And best of all, is the final work presented here, the Quintet for Piano and Strings - which is essentially a divertimento itself, utilizing Polish folk songs. Interestingly, this piece is a reworking of his Third String Quartet (some 20+ years later). I thought it sounded familiar! The Quintet version is less folksy, more gossamer, lighter textured and more colorfully orchestrated. And perhaps a little less emotionally moving in the Lento. Both versions are wonderful.
Laks was born in Warsaw in 1901. His music has strong Ravel influences, heard strikingly in the Fourth String Quartet (which is rhythmic and with faint jazz influences) and Divertimento. Elsewhere, especially in the Quintet, there can be heard a jaunty Jewish flavoring, where Laks really establishes an even more distinctive musical voice.
Remarkably, Laks is such an inspired and accomplished composer, all of his music is endlessly varied, individual and creatively unique. Listening to the 3 String Quartets on the Dux CD mentioned above, all the chamber works on this Chandos, and his Sinfonietta for chamber orchestra found on another recent Dux release, not once could I discern such similarities among them that I could positively identify the composer as being Laks. Each work is a unique creation, each with something interesting and musically inspired to say. This is a composer whose music speaks not only to the mind, but the heart as well.
Chandos once again delivers with unusual repertoire, outstanding playing, extremely generous playing times, and superb recorded sound. Remember when 75 minutes was the maximum length a CD could play? Well this disc plays for 83'04! I don't know how they do it, but it is simply marvelous from beginning to end.
Get ready to program your CD player or brush up on your French. This production is all-French. (But it's worth it)
If you're like me, you probably don't program your CD player very often, and when you find the need, have to remind yourself how to do it. My Yamaha CD-S2100 has many faults - fundamentally and operationally - and programming it is a tedious task. So when a disc like this one from Alpha Classics comes along, I groan at the thought of going to all the trouble. But unless you speak French, it really is necessary.
This is a splendid program of French music featuring duo pianos. That being said, one should be aware that everything about this release is in French - not just the music, but the booklet (there is no English translation anywhere) and the irritating narration, spoken in French. Oh I know, this is French music played by a French orchestra so I shouldn't expect the narrator to speak English. But to not even have translations in the booklet? That is odd.
Every section of The Carnival of the Animals begins with narration. And if my Google translator is right, the text is not the familiar one by Ogden Nash, but something new, written by our narrator here (Belgian comedian, Alex Vizorek). Fortunately each verse is separately tracked so I can program the CD player to skip it. (Of course one can simply press the skip button each time, if you're fast enough with the remote). Once accomplished (no easy feat - there are 30 tracks to sort through), musically, this is a splendid Carnival. It is very well played by what sounds like a reduced number of orchestral strings, along with the pianists and soloists. Thus it is not the original version for 11 players, but there is a chamber feel to it. The music-making is fresh and very well characterized. As if anyone really needs yet another Carnival of the Animals, this one is worth it - especially for track 24, "Pianists". This is a hilariously mistake-riddled, clumsy depiction of a student practicing their scales! Not only by the pianists, but the lack of coordination with the orchestra as well. And it sounds so spontaneous, I literally laughed out loud so hard I had to listen to it a second time! There are only a handful of other recordings which are similarly performed, and two come immediately to mind - the one from the Capucon brothers and friends on a 2003 Virgin CD and - the most hilarious one of all - the side-splitting account by I Musici de Montreal on a 1993 Chandos. What great fun it is to hear professional pianists bring this off so convincingly!
Elsewhere, Persons with Long Ears is splendidly vivid, as played by the closely-mic'd dueling violin sections; the clarinet and flute solos are nicely done; and Aquarium features what sounds like something similar to a real glass harmonica - that is until the glissandi near the end, where it then suddenly sounds like a glockenspiel. The booklet makes no mention of the instrumentation used, but I suspect they perhaps used tuned water glasses for the simple notes in the first section, but had to resort to the glockenspiel for the full-octave scales later on. We'll never know for sure because the booklet doesn't tell us (at least not that I can see within its French-only text). In any event, it is an extraordinarily atmospheric, serene account, which truly does enable one to envision the tranquility of fish swimming around in an aquarium. Very nice!
Speaking of the booklet, it's odd it also fails to name the orchestral soloists. One can presume they are the principals of the orchestra, but again we'll never know for sure. Confusingly, the booklet lists the orchestral personnel, ascribing a single asterisk to those members playing the Saint-Saens. But no asterisk appears for any of the flute or double bass players, but there is one for the clarinet and cello. So it's a mystery.
Moving on to Poulenc's marvelous Concerto for Two Pianos, we are transported to an appropriately bigger soundstage - a larger hall acoustic, with more players, and a stronger, fuller orchestral presence. As a matter of fact, the first movement is weightier than usual (strictly observing the non-troppo part of the Allegro indication). It comes across a little choppy in its clipped, forceful articulation, and sounds a bit clownish - almost a caricature of the piece. But glancing at the score, that is exactly the way Poulenc scored it. Right from the opening, the dynamic marking is ff, and those pounding, orchestral 8th-note punctuations are marked "sec" (dry), and sff, and the string downbows a few bars later continue to be marked ff. So kudos to conductor Lucie Leguay for faithfully executing the score. And it works, as there are also many musical touches along the way. The recording helps too, with the pianos realistically spread apart, providing terrific 3-dimensional imaging in an ear-catching way.
The second movement goes along uneventfully, in a rather matter-of-fact manner. The finale then takes off with a vigorous tempo and high energy. And there is a most delightful interlude, just before the final peroration, which is full of color and atmosphere. The final section then dashes off in a flash to the end.
The recording engineers do not spotlight the pianos, but allow the orchestra a chance to make a full impact. And Leguay encourages an energetic contribution from all sections the orchestra, without ever swamping the pianos. The acoustic remains clear and uncongested even in climaxes.
This all-female Poulenc brings to mind another one featuring an all-female cast - the 2015 Capriccio recording with Mona & Rica Bard (pianists) and Ariane Matiakh conducting. Both performances are well-played and full of imaginative touches. But the Bards bring even stronger characterization to the variety of moods - more playful here, more musically expressive there. Their slow movement in particular is especially moving. (My review of it appears elsewhere on this blog.) However, the Alpha Classics is better recorded. The Capriccio provides plenty of gusto but is a bit unrefined on top and has a slightly unnatural acoustic. So it's a toss up and I wouldn't want to be without either.
As enjoyable as both these readings are, however, neither displaces my two current favorites of the work - the Jussen brothers on DG and Eric Le Sage on RCA - perhaps coincidentally, both with the benefit of Stephane Deneve conducting. Both versions display unsurpassed combinations of spontaneity, characterization, lyrical expression, precision of playing, superb orchestral support and dazzling bravura and vigor - making for thrilling experiences.
Rounding off this concert, the Danse Macabre comes as an anti-climatic afterthought which I could certainly do without. Annoyingly - VERY annoyingly, actually - it begins with yet more unwelcomed French talking by our narrator. Why? And when the music begins, it turns out to be a two-piano version rather than the famous orchestral one. (This is yet another important little tidbit of information the booklet, or track listing, fails to mention.) Oh it's played well and the arrangement is just fine. But coming after the ebullient double concerto, and with an unexpected French introduction, I was irritated by it. It surely should have been presented earlier in the concert.
But never mind my grumpiness. This is a most enjoyable concert - expertly played and superbly recorded. Just be prepared to relearn how to program your CD player before you sit down for a listen. You'll want to skip all the narration (unless you happen to speak French) and certainly should program Danse Macabre to come somewhere before the double concerto.
And still...the booklet bothers me, for all the reasons noted above.