I eagerly anticipated a new disc (at last!) from the Pacifica Quartet. But I grimaced at the thought of an entire program comprised solely of music for clarinet + string quartet. And I wasn't wrong.
And right off the bat, I noticed yet another drab, gray, dreary, unenticing and thoroughly unappealing cover picture from the good folks at Cedille Records. Time and again I see this on CD covers from this label and I simply don't understand it. Why on earth would they choose to use such unattractive cover art to entice people to buy their CDs?
But never mind - it's the music that matters. And as much as I love and respect the Pacifica Quartet, and I don't mind clarinetist Anthony McGill, this one just didn't do it for me.
Simply put - an entire disc of unfamiliar clarinet quintets is just too much. I can't imagine why anyone thought this programming was a good idea. I found it lacked variety and I lost interest soon into the second piece. Moreover, starting off with a very long (almost 14 minutes!), slow-moving, completely new work was ill-advised.
Worse, the recorded sound exacerbates the lack of variety by balancing the clarinet too prominently and forward in the mix, leaving the string quartet distant and lacking presence. It's as if the engineer considered these to be clarinet concertos with string accompaniment, which does this music no favors. The clarinet is exposed and sounds a bit bright and soon grows fatiguing on the ear.
These issues caused me to tire of listening long before I got to the end. I even tried listening to the second half of the CD on a different day, which elicited the exact same reaction. It's just too much, particularly with the forwardly balanced clarinet.
And most importantly, these esoteric, contemporary American works for clarinet and string quartet are simply not that interesting to the average listener (unless consumed in very small quantities). As a collection, they will likely appeal only to the most ardent clarinet admirers and players. For the rest of us, they all tend to sound the same. Oh there is some good music intermittently along the way, but frankly I found most of it instantly forgettable, despite excellent playing and musicianship by all involved.
Ultimately I was disappointed this album featured Anthony McGill so predominantly while the Pacifica Quartet was rather undervalued. I can sum up this album in one sentence: Oh how I wish the wonderful Pacifica Quartet had included just one or two works involving the clarinet and dedicated the remainder to pure string quartet music.
Sit back and wallow in the splendor of it all. We finally have a worthy successor to Charles Gerhardt in this music.
Chandos seems to be letting John Wilson do whatever he wants. And why not - they're selling tons of CDs. His dabblings in Richard Strauss, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, and even Respighi, surely keep his orchestra engaged, but as good as they are, would not necessarily be first choices for serious collectors to turn to. This newest one however - Hollywood Soundstage - is another matter entirely. THIS is what John Wilson does best. And his orchestra sounds like they're enjoying every minute of it. And it is, in a word, sensational.
While I anticipated his disc of cinematic music would be fabulous (and it is), I nonetheless approached it with my usual objectivity, with reviewer's hat firmly in place.
After the opening brass fanfares of the Korngold Overture, the sweeping, rhapsodic violins, intense with super-duper mega vibrato, instantly drew me in and I forgot all about reviewing. Instead, I leaned back, relaxed in my comfy chair, and let the excess of it wash over me. And I enjoyed myself immensely, indulging in the luxurious splendor.
I hardly need to say a word about how fabulous this orchestra is. And certainly this is John Wilson at his absolute finest. But what I must emphatically state right up front is that Chandos Records is unquestionably the star of this show. This is far and away one of their very best orchestral recordings. The midrange, sometimes a bit over-ripe with this orchestra, is spacious, detailed and textured - yet rich, colorful and unabashedly gorgeous. And at last they have minimized the boominess in the upper bass. It sounds like the mics have been moved back from their usual position which tended to emphasize the basses with a boosted presence and unnatural forwardness. Instead, we hear realistic, full-bodied, potent bass without a hint of bloat. And the upper range is sparkling and airy, with silky, vibrant, gloriously full string tone.
Dynamics, too, are very impressive, with crescendos that swell magnificently without a hint of compression or strain. The entire orchestra simply fills the hall with rich, expansive washes of sound. I'll go so far as to proclaim this as one of the best recordings of a full symphony orchestra I have heard in ages. If there were ever a demonstration of the superiority of SACD over CD, this recording is it.
I initially had slight misgivings with some of the musical selections chosen for this collection. Of all the grand Hollywood scores to choose from, Wizard of Oz certainly wouldn't have been on my short list. Nor would a 3-minute excerpt from My Fair lady. (The disc plays for just 60 minutes; surely another expanded suite was warranted.) But I was thrilled to see many of the others - from Korngold, Waxman, Steiner and Newman. However, listening to the entire program from start to finish, it is clear they combine to make a splendid concert. As it turns out, all of this music was perfectly chosen; the variety is marvelously engaging, interesting and thoroughly enjoyable.
For example, after the imposing opening track, Raksin's lovely Laura theme is a welcome respite, with glamorous violins shimmering with that peculiar, very fast vibrato Wilson coaxes from them in these sessions, followed by sensuous trombone solos on Harmon mute (seductively played here). And the grand waltz in the central section can't help but whisk one away.
And so it goes throughout the program, with endless variety and bountiful sonic luster to titillate the senses, grandiose orchestral melodrama alternating with sensitive solo playing. The one relative disappointment comes in Johnny Mandel's Sandpiper theme, in which the trumpet solo here sounds a bit stiff rather than sexy.
I expected this release to be good, but feared it might be a little overblown and over-the-top. (And perhaps the hyper violin vibrato veers in that direction.) But that was generally not the case. Far from it. There is grandeur and splendor aplenty but also delicacy and tenderness, along with rapturous musical expression. All captured in the most sumptuous acoustic one could imagine.
Ultimately, what we have here is a teaser for what could possibly be the rebirth of the late, great Charles Gerhardt's Classic Film Scores series on RCA in the 70s. What an unforgettable and treasurable collection that was; and no one could match him in that repertoire. But there is no denying those classic recordings have not aged terribly well and sound rather dated now (especially in climaxes), despite painstaking remastering attempts by SONY and Dutton. We have desperately needed new recordings of all this music in modern, state-of-the-art digital sound. And now, at last, Chandos gives us a sampling of what is possible. While these are not the monumental, epic film scores that Gerhardt championed (and Wilson doesn't utilize a chorus like Gerhardt often did), they are tantalizingly close.
I have just one simple closing sentiment: Chandos, please - PLEASE - record more of this! If Wilson must branch out into more serious orchestral fare along the way, fine - have at it. But please schedule a bunch of his time for more Hollywood film score albums. There is no better combination for this music than John Wilson, The London Sinfonia and Chandos Records.
Seeing the enticing selection of ballet music on offer here, I couldn't resist this CD from Onyx Classics. Debussy's Jeux is unjustifiably under-represented in the catalog (although it has been gaining favor, with 2 other outstanding recordings recently from Nott/Pentatone and Shui/BIS), and Dukas's La Peri is still downright rare. To have them both, flanking Roussel's Bacchus et Ariane (albeit the 2nd Suite only), is a treasure trove of riches.
The conductor, Domingo Hindoyan, is a new name to me. This momentarily caused me a slight hesitation after my recent experience with a CD from another new name on the podium, Alessandro Crudele with the LPO, who was less than inspiring (or promising) on his Respighi collection for Linn Records. However, I was thrilled to hear that Hindoyan is in another league altogether, and memories of the bland Crudele faded away.
Two observations came immediately to mind as I began listening to Hindoyan's Jeux (Debussy) followed by La Peri (Dukas).
First, this conductor has a natural feel for ballet music. It is superbly dancing, fleet and lifted aloft, making nearly every previous recording of these pieces sound earthbound. And second, his handling of tempos is simply masterful. Over and over, I was pleased to hear no awkward shifts or clunky gear changes, as is so often the case in ballet music. Hindoyan manages the flow of slower sections into faster ones with ease and natural gracefulness. I believe this is accomplished primarily because he never allows the slow passages to sag or become weighed down with too much emotional baggage. Even when the action is relaxed, the music remains vibrant and continues to dance, and thus flows naturally and effortlessly into the faster-moving sections.
A case in point is Debussy's Jeux, which isn't easy to bring off. The constant tempo fluctuations and stop-and-start variations in the action can trip up a less-than-attentive conductor. No such problems here though. This piece perfectly illustrates Hindoyan's skillful command of tempos and his inspirational leadership of this orchestra. And the recorded sound is atmospheric and alluring. This reading is exceptional, comparing favorably to the terrific account from Nott and the more leisurely one from Shui.
Another significant observation brought further gratification: hearing the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic playing with such life, fervor and joy. Hindoyan was appointed chief conductor in 2021, replacing Vasily Petrenko (who has moved on to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra). And based upon this new recording (his first with the orchestra), Hindoyan has revived this orchestra, infusing it with new levels of vitality and colorful expression. He elicits far more life from this orchestra than Petrenko managed in his recent trio of Stravinsky recordings (also for Onyx), which were well-played but too careful and curiously devoid of Russian spirit. Gone is the fine-toned, homogenous anonymity which he insisted upon - yawn. I am thrilled that the orchestra once again has character.
The Dukas ballet is also expertly done here, dancing along with charm and delight, with attractive forward momentum. And with lovely, silky strings - which is not easy to achieve when Dukas scores them multi-divisi way up in the very highest register, which can thin them out to the point of glassiness if one isn't careful. Not so here.
Only Roussel's Bacchus et Ariane Suite seemed ever so slightly less inspired. But not by much. It is not quite as well recorded either. The acoustic loses a bit of the lovely spaciousness heard in the Debussy and takes on a bit of thickness in climaxes. I was not surprised to learn from the booklet that each of these pieces was recorded at different times - combining live concerts with studio sessions. I suspect the Roussel was recorded in the studio rather than before a live audience, as it doesn't sound quite as spontaneous. However, drama and variety of characterization are highlights, as are Hindoyan's gifts for bringing out interesting inner details, such as some wonderful string glissandi which normally go unnoticed. It's a real pity the 1st Suite wasn't included as well.
What is included, however, is the ubiquitous Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (Debussy), filling up the disc to a generous 68+ minutes. However, its inclusion here is disappointingly mundane among its adventurous companions. Further, I found the reading to be rather ordinary in comparison with the rest. It would have been infinitely more interesting, rewarding and invaluable to have the entire Bacchus et Ariane ballet instead.
Now to the recorded sound. After the lackluster sound Onyx dutifully produced for Petrenko, I was delighted to hear a more open, spacious and alive-sounding acoustic for much of this program. And more color and sheer power from the orchestra as well. However, it's not the most sumptuous - typical of the Onyx "house sound". But it's noticeably warmer and more dimensional than many of their previous recordings in Liverpool. Most impressive, though, is the clarity of inner details and crisp articulation which this fine conductor revels in. And I was pleased to hear the strings carry the day with somewhat more authority than usual. The brass are placed further back in the soundstage and held in check until those moments of utmost necessity when they burst forth, delivering drama and power aplenty. All the while, their golden tone is absolutely perfect for this music. And in the Fanfare to La Peri, they play with impressive bite and incisive articulation too. Only during the most climactic passages in Bacchus does the acoustic become just a bit claustrophobic.
In sum, this is a fabulous debut recording of a conductor at the helm of his new orchestra. In just one season, he has already fostered a sense of life and musical involvement from this orchestra which I've not heard from them (on record) in a long while. I must reiterate what I wrote at the top in my introduction - this is ballet music! It positively dances and sparkles with vitality from beginning to end. It's nearly impossible to sit still while listening to it.
I've recently discovered George Crumb's Black Angels for string quartet. I've always shied away from Crumb thinking all the silliness couldn't possibly be worthwhile. Boy was I wrong with his Black Angels! This is Ligeti + Penderecki + Dutilleux taken to a whole new level! So when I saw one of my favorite string quartets, Quatuor Hanson, had tackled it, I started getting to know the piece. And turned to YouTube.
And to my utter surprise, I realize the genius of George Crumb.
YouTube can be a real asset. Watching several groups perform this piece, I have concluded it definitely benefits from the visuals - watching everything the group does on stage to create the sounds they do is as interesting as the music itself. Reducing it to an audio recording dramatically diminishes its impact. So there is no room for error. Or carelessness. It must be sonically impressive and immersive on its own terms. Thus the record label becomes an important player.
Without getting into the details of the piece itself (which I will save for another day), I will focus on this current CD release from Quatuor Hanson - a young French group with whom I've been immensely impressed this year. Their recordings have opened my eyes and ears to the glories of contemporary string quartet music from composers such as Dutilleux, Ligeti and Bartok. And in so doing, piqued my interest in such a way I crave more and have explored further - into the world of Penderecki and now George Crumb.
After watching this group's live performance of Black Angels on YouTube, it was with the highest expectations I listened to their CD recording of it. Interestingly, the recording was taken from a different live performance than the one filmed for YouTube. And unfortunately, the CD on "B Records", a label heretofore unknown to me, is problematic.
Before listening, I read the, um, "booklet". It's not a booklet; it's a big piece of paper, folded up multiple times and stuffed into the sleeve. Be that as it may, I was interested in knowing how the producer/engineer handled Crumb's requirement for the string quartet to be "amplified" (or "electric'') for an audio recording. There is no actual technical information about that anywhere. But what I did read was fascinating - especially after hearing the end result. The producer interviewed first violinist, Anton Hanson, and asked him specifically about the reverb that Crumb wanted from the amplification. Mr. Hanson replied that they had wanted to minimize that: "it would be a pity to drown all" the intervals, pitches and motifs "which are so expressive and meaningful". So they worked with a music data processing engineer who could manipulate the electronic reverb (and the balance) on the fly. Reading this, I thought - GOOD! The "amplified string quartet" indication for this piece is what always turned me off to it. So for a CD, the less electronic processing the better; let the musicians work their magic and do their thing.
Unfortunately, that isn't what happened.
Whatever the "data processing engineer" might have achieved in real time may have sounded good to the audience in a big auditorium, but it was misjudged by the B Records engineer for the CD. It sounds as if the microphones were aimed directly at the amplifier speakers in the auditorium, rather than capturing the acoustic sounds of the stringed instruments supplemented by the effect created out in the hall. The result is a pronounced artificial, electronic reverb and glaze to the sound of the instruments which mask (or at least distract from) some of the subtleties of the score - which is exactly what Mr. Hanson said he didn't want to have happen!
Worse, the dynamics are so grossly exaggerated on the recording it's extremely difficult to listen to on a home stereo system. The softs are so soft they are nearly inaudible at a normal playback volume, while the louder passages are boosted almost to the point of distortion. I couldn't believe my ears. There are passages which sound like intentional overload distortion like you hear on a punk rock band's lead guitar. OK - I'm exaggerating a little; it's not that bad. But it is there. And it's that kind of sound I was reminded of, especially on solo passages such as the 1st violin's Devil Music (where the violin sounds absolutely enormous, not just in sheer loudness but in size as well) and during the cello's mournful God-music.
Some of this is Crumb's intention. I understand that. However, Crumb was quoted as saying he wanted the amplification to create a "surreal effect". He didn't say electronically altered. Or distorted. This recording makes no attempt to hide the artificial, electronic enhancements going on. And the problem, at least on CD, is that the performance is rendered somewhat cold, calculated and obviously manipulated. Acoustics and atmosphere are minimized and the music becomes too matter-of-fact. Too perfect. Almost as if computer-generated. And as a result, the piece loses some of its fantastic allure and intrigue.
To put this into perspective, it's not unlistenable. Far from it. The playing is fabulous by any measure and it is a fine performance, although I thought the group was in too big a hurry to get through several passages. The dynamic range (always a hallmark with this quartet) is phenomenal, though the augmentation by the electronics is extreme. I was actually reminded of a "B" horror movie in which shock value is the ultimate goal - scenes where the dialog is so soft one can barely hear it followed immediately by a sudden scream at full volume intended to scare the daylights out of you. Similar here. There are so many soft passages which are nearly inaudible and the next moment the listener is jolted with an unnaturally loud, electronically enhanced outburst - in its own, completely different, artificially created acoustic. It hardly sounds like real people playing real music on real instruments in a real hall.
Making the disappointment complete, B Records decided to include the applause at the end. UGH. It comes as an unwelcome intrusion after the final bell-tones have faded away. It is especially disruptive since the audience was completely silent throughout the performance and we weren't even aware of their presence - until they started clapping.
And so I come back to the phrase I used at the top to introduce this review, and wonder: Can this piece work on CD? Shorn of the visuals and with the amplification processes involved, can we expect to fully appreciate it on an audio system in a home environment? I think so. Under the right circumstances. I've heard 2 other CDs (so far) and both sound far more natural and musically involving than this new one. They reveal all the color and rich atmosphere which make the piece so unimaginable and mesmerizing. But are they realistic? Oh yes. There is just enough steeliness to the string sound, and body to sounds such as pizzicato glissandi and thimbles on strings (etc.), to accurately convey the electronic enhancement involved - without knocking us over the head with it. (Or sounding like a rock concert.) If they enhance the reverb at all, it's done subtly and serves only to heighten atmosphere and ambiance. No, they don't have the sledgehammer force that B Records delivers, but I'm perfectly happy without that.
For a truly successful recording of this piece, there is no better example than the outstanding 2003 CD from the Miro Quartet on Bridge Records. This is the absolute essence of "surreal" - as Webster defines the word: "intense, irrational reality of a dream; unbelievable, fantastic". This recorded performance exemplifies what Crumb surely meant when describing his masterpiece as "surreal". It is absolutely out of this world.
After being less than enthralled with this CD from the magnificent Quatuor Hanson, I thought, well if they can't bring this off successfully then no one can. But that's not quite fair, because the recording engineer plays such an important role in this. Just as a percussionist in the companion piece on this CD is quoted in the "pamphlet" says: "It's really a performance as a quintet with the sound engineer!" And that is absolutely true. Comparing this one from B Records with the aforementioned one on Bridge is a stunning example of just that.
With all this in mind, and wondering if I'm being too hard on this CD, I revisit Quatuor Hanson's YouTube video of Black Angels, which was recorded at a different concert performance than the one used for the CD, produced for Medici TV. I am instantly reminded how much more natural and atmospheric it sounds. And as a performance too, so much more colorful and musically expressive. The Hansons take their time to create otherworldly sounds and rich ambience, further illustrating how rushed and meticulous the CD version sounds. And the electronic manipulation is much more subtle as well. Surely - surely - this would have made the better-sounding CD.
In closing, I'm curious if the Hanson Quartet is happy with the end result on this CD. And I wonder if the sonic qualities I criticize are the result of the B Records recording team or the “data processing engineer” at the live event - or a combination of both. I don’t know the answer. I suppose I must also consider the possibility that this is simply the way the piece is supposed to sound. But I just can't accept that.
PostScript: I have intentionally concentrated solely on the string quartet in this review, as I am not yet familiar with the companion work contained on this CD. But I will certainly explore it further.
Cedille is on a roll this Fall (2022) with some extraordinarily good chamber music releases. Notable among them is the Dover Quartet's final Beethoven installment, followed by the Pacifica Quartet's newest recording in over 2 years, due in November. But snuggled in between those is this little gem, Avant l'orage, from the Black Oak Ensemble.
I actually passed over this title several times while browsing new releases, primarily because of the drab picture on the front. If I have any fault of Cedille's production team, it is their propensity for gray, unenticing covers on many of their releases. Luckily, and quite coincidentally while searching for recordings of two unjustly neglected composers (Henri Tomasi and Jean Cras), I landed on this 2-CD set which features string trios from both of them! Thus I finally gave it a closer look. Feeling like I hit the jackpot, I immediately ordered it. And what a find it is!
I must begin with Cedille's booklet, which is another tour de force in music history and education. (Another prime example is the one included in Rachel Bart Pine's recent disc of Violin Concertos by Black Composers - see my review elsewhere on this blog). This essay, written by Elinor Olin, a professor at Northern Illinois University School of Music, is a wealth of information about these composers and their music - especially important when exploring new music from relatively rare composers. It's worth noting, this release contains no less than 3 world premier recordings - by Tomasi, Casadesus and Samazeuilh.
Jumping into the two works on Disc One which prompted me to buy this release, the Tomasi came as a bit of a surprise. I know this composer from his flute works (which I played in college) and his magnificent, marvelously haunting Saxophone Concerto, all of which are fairly "modern" in sound with regard to structure and tonality. But his Trio of 1938 is tonal and definitely more lighthearted and melodious than what I would have expected. I was especially surprised to hear a Baroque Menuet influencing the opening Prelude, while the melancholy viola tune in the 2nd movement is perhaps more characteristic of the composer. A delightful Scherzo leads to a folk-dance Finale, giving us an intriguing glimpse into another, more alluring side of Tomasi. Anyone who hesitates to explore this composer really should give this a try.
The Cras which follows, though, is decidedly more accomplished. Instantly we are transported to the more Impressionistic world of Debussy and, especially, Ravel. Its soundscape is more rhapsodic than Tomasi's, with rich, harmonic expression. The surprise here comes in the Lent 2nd movement, which pays homage to the slow movement of Beethoven's String Quartet #15 (Opus 132). The animated 3rd movement instantly brings smiles, with its jaunty rhythms reminding me of the English countryside; and the finale too, which is based on a Celtic jig. Both, though, are infused with a strong French accent and the unmistakable flavor of Ravel! What a wonderful and unique combination.
What really impressed me about the Cras - and certainly the Black Oak Ensemble's playing of it - is how utterly orchestral it sounds. It is so masterfully scored, with such variety of color and textures, I had to keep reminding myself there were only three players at work here. What I hear positively belies the fact that just 3 stringed instruments are producing this palette of sounds.
Next is a composer completely new to me - Emile Goue. His Trio was composed in 1939 but not premiered until 1946, just 6 months before his untimely death at the age of just 42. After the Impressionistic Cras, Goue is decidedly more overtly "modern" - not quite tonal and with frequently changing meter. Nonetheless, his music is melodic and alluring, particularly the fervent lullaby heard in the central Adagio. The Finale is another thoroughly enjoyable folk dance, more energetic than Tomasi's lighthearted one and not quite as fun as Cras's jig.
Goue, another obvious master of orchestration, features the cello rather more prominently than some of the other composers, to great effect. And he is more inclined toward storytelling - intriguing and interesting, with descriptive characterization and variety of moods and dynamics, rather than sweeping us away with rhapsodic splendor. I couldn't help thinking this delightful work would make a wonderful ballet. The playing of the Black Oak Ensemble brings this music to life with such vividness I was compelled to listen to it again before moving on.
And to more familiar territory we come with Francaix's glorious Trio. Light on its feet, whisking us aloft with intricate and delectable inner details, Francaix's music is characteristically graceful and scintillating. We also instantly recognize his penchant for writing extremely difficult passages, requiring virtuoso playing and precision of ensemble while making it sound effortless and nimble. And once again, I marvel at the accomplishment of Black Oak Ensemble. Their playing here is sparkling and effervescent. The piece isn't all animated though. There is a pensive central Andante, more somber than I'm used to hearing from this composer, providing a moving interlude.
With Disc Two we venture even further into uncharted territory with two more world premiers. And this music tends to be quite different from that on the first disc.
Casadesus was best known as a concert pianist and I have the SONY box set of him playing Mozart Piano Concertos with George Szell - which is excellent. I also found on my shelves a recording of one of his own compositions, the Concerto for Two Pianos on the CPO label. I remember that piece was good without being particularly memorable. And such is the case with his Trio here as well. Compared to the glories heard on Disc One, the Casadesus is not particularly "French" in flavor, nor is it as willingly crowd-pleasing. It sounds almost Germanic, as if perhaps trying a little too hard to be a "serious" composition. The first movement isn't very melodious and is a bit "notey", while the second movement is quite bleak. However, there is a propulsive energy in the Allegro finale which is engaging, although it too is rather notey and busy. The piece is certainly interesting and worth a listen, and I actually enjoyed the occasional nod toward Hindemith.
We return to an unmistakably French flavor with Samazeuilh's delightful Suite, where we are instantly greeted with a delectable, sweetly singing violin tune, with a most attractive viola filigree and rocking cello underlying it. There is a fervent intensity and harmonic adventurousness here which transports us from impressionism firmly into the 20th-Century. Adding to the rich texture, Samazeuilh features the viola rather more than usual, spotlighting an unusually beautiful tone from this group's wonderful violist, Aurelien Fort Pederzoli (who, incidentally, was a founding member and former 2nd violinist of the fabulous Spektral Quartet).
The Suite consists of 6 contrasting movements, many of them notable for their tuneful simplicity and sparse scoring. It was during these sections I was struck by the gorgeous acoustic in which they were recorded, captured magnificently by the Cedille engineers. (More on this below.) Elsewhere, we hear captivating animated sections: the Divertimento, for example, positively dances! While the Farlane dashes us to the end with a courtly waltz. I think I enjoyed this piece as much as those on Disc One. It is astonishing to consider this is its premier recording; it deserves to be heard much more often.
Finally we come to the last work on the program, written by "the elder statesman of the group", Gabriel Pierne. This is among his final works and was not premiered until 1938, a year after his death. It is definitely a mature work from a seasoned composer - substantial too, lasting over 20 minutes. The first two movements are decidedly darker and more serious than the Samazeuilh, closer in atmosphere to the Casadesus.
The opening movement (itself lasting 9 minutes) is somewhat desolate and sparse - sprawling along until midway, when a more established rhythmic pulse develops and the mood gains vitality and optimism. The central Chanson opens with a contrapuntal duet for viola and cello before the violin enters with an expressive song. Soon the entire trio unifies with increasing tension and passion, generating a very moving piece of music.
The final movement is completely different and reminds us of the storytelling prowess of Goue. It is based on a tale depicting three tipsy cats (an ironic reference to the three priests (clercqs) of the title) stumbling into a fair! It is frisky and jovial, with glissandi and giocoso tempo swings. It's not over-done though; this composer is far too accomplished and cultivated for ostentation. It surely brings smiles though, in stark contrast to the seriousness of the earlier movements. And the Black Oak Ensemble once again displays their gifts of bringing this music to life with consummate refinement.
In sum, this is a glorious collection of rare and never-before-heard French string trios from the 1920s/30s. I enjoyed it so much I've listened to it, in its entirety, twice already and still haven't filed it away on the shelf. The playing is simply glorious and the recorded sound from Cedille is excellent. Interestingly, I discovered in the booklet that two different recording locations were utilized for this project, and each piece was recorded on different dates. This undoubtedly accounts for my attention being drawn to the slightly different, more luscious acoustic heard in some works more than in others. However, I am astonished at the consistency from session to session.
In closing, I'd say Cedille Records has struck gold with some of the chamber groups on their roster, such as the Dover and Pacifica Quartets and Black Oak Ensemble. I highly urge Cedille to get these folks into the recording studio as often as possible.
At last the final Beethoven installment from the Dover Quartet is here. And what a fantastic complete set it is.
At last, the Dover Quartet completes their Beethoven cycle with Volume 3 in the series. And lucky for us, they managed to get that done before losing their violist, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, who announced earlier this year that at the conclusion of the summer concert tour she was leaving the group and moving on to "bigger and better things". (What could possibly be "better" than playing with these guys?!) The Dover now have a new viola player on deck to play with them for a one-year trial period. I will be most interested to hear what happens.
Unfortunately, they had not yet begun these latest recording sessions before losing their recording/sound engineer at Cedille Records, Bruce Egre, who was responsible for the amazing recorded sound heard in their previous recordings. So I was somewhat apprehensive about what I would hear in this new set. I needn't have worried; the sound continues to be among the very best.
This review applies to the complete set - issued on 8 CDs in 3 Volumes, in 2019, 2021 and 2022. I reviewed this group's 2nd installment earlier this year and some of those observations are repurposed here, as they apply to the complete set as a whole. Thus I'll begin with the exact same statement that I started with before: I'm so moved by the Dover Quartet's playing of these Quartets I am literally left speechless. This is simply some of the most heartfelt, joyous and life-affirming Beethoven I have ever experienced; thus it is difficult to describe in words.
Listening to this newest volume, I hear nothing to change that view and plenty to confirm it.
Starting with the basics, all the hallmarks which make the Dover Quartet so incredibly special are in evidence - primarily a unified approach which many quartets simply cannot equal. 1) Their ability to play with crisp, clean, incisive precision of articulation, unified as if just one player, is not only phenomenal, it is thrilling; 2) their unified command of dynamics; 3) a musical expression which is involving and vigorous, and at all times imbued with a marvelous sweetness of tone; and 4) a unified blend and uniform tonality.
It's also how these players can vary their tone and vibrato intensity as musically appropriate. There is a lightness of touch here, followed by a vigorous fortissimo there, and the variety and contrasts are stunning. Further, in those passages when they play with minimal vibrato, the sound does not result in a bright, icy thinness of tone which is so often heard. Even without vibrato, their tone remains sweet and expressive. And it is positively glorious.
Further, there is a pervading naturalness to their musical expression which is breathtaking. Many groups try so hard - to sound larger than life, or go out of their way to make a musical point. But the Dover Quartet is so very accomplished, and their musicianship so finely tuned, that the music is always the priority.
As I noted in my previous review of the Dover Quartet, the playing of 1st violinist, Joel Link, is exceptional. And that certainly continues in this latest set of recordings. His sweet tone and singing lines are the heart of these performances. Yet, it's the precision of articulation in the inner voices (2nd violin/viola) and a lightness of touch from the cello which really drive these readings - with involvement, energy and propulsion. That these 4 musicians can so successfully and consistently play as one is extraordinary. This is string quartet playing which redefines the art - not only for its perfection, but for its sheer musicianship and musical involvement.
Tempos, always such an important ingredient in Beethoven, are perfectly chosen all through this set - alive, involving and invigorating. There is never a hint of routine; every phrase is infused with life and spontaneity. Slow movements are kept moving with momentum and sweeping lines, never weighted down unnecessarily with excess emoting, though fervent musical expression permeates every phrase. All the drama of Beethoven is there, with boundless energy and power, but there's also an intimacy which makes this music, as played by the Dover Quartet, go straight to the heart.
And with their recording of the late Beethoven Quartets comes poise - a distinct maturity and depth of insight joining all the irresistible freshness and invigoration heard in the earlier works. And this group's commanding dynamic range continues to be impressive, bringing an involvement rarely encountered. And while transparency and clarity of inner textures remain primary factors, their singular blend creates a sound just rich enough to provide a touch of gravitas perfectly suited to these Quartets.
Instantly with Opus 127 on disc one, a fervent introspection pervades the music-making, which is touching and powerfully moving. Opus 130, then, is just as elegant and compelling as one could ever wish. The scope and variety of characterization and expression here - and in Op 131 - are truly captivating. And with the final two, the Dover find an even greater rhapsodic soaring to the melodic lines - never too intense, and never sacrificing any of the qualities noted before. They even manage to relate them more than usually to the Symphonies. For instance, the slow movement of the Ninth came to mind during the heartfelt Adagio of Op 132, while the Sixth was definitely conjured up in the Vivace of Op 135.
All through these mature works there is never a sense this group is pushing to sound bigger than they are. They create contrasts with whispering pianissimos followed by sudden fortes, without ever sounding deliberately grandiose or at all forced. As noted before, it's an utter naturalness to the music-making which is remarkable. This is emotional Beethoven without the heaviness.
Two final observations which are of extreme importance to me must be made. As a musician and collector, I am thrilled the Dover Quartet and Cedille Records have seen fit to record and release these Quartets in chronological order. This makes for easy navigation and adds enormously to overall musical enjoyment. Moreover, there is a consistency from start to finish which is unmatched in my experience listening to recorded Beethoven cycles.
And last, but certainly not least, is the superlative recorded sound which plays such an important role in the success of this set. As mentioned above, a change in recording engineer has not affected the new release in the slightest. Cedille continues to provide sound which exemplifies all the musical characteristics described above. Indeed, the recorded sound afforded this quartet is simply spectacular in its ability to illuminate all the qualities I cherish in their playing. There is an immediacy and palpable presence, without ever being at all pushy or gruff, plus a spectacular (but realistic) dynamic range and a 3-dimensional realism which bring the performances into one's listening room as in a live performance. The end result is one of the most immersive, musically rewarding and completely satisfying recordings of a string quartet I have yet heard.
I listen to a lot of string quartet music and I've listened to many complete Beethoven sets. And I can confidently proclaim that the Dover Quartet's Beethoven is second to none. The playing is transcendent and the recorded sound is as good as it gets. This is a monumental achievement by one of the best string quartets playing today.
What an intriguing release from Cedille Records. Paying attention to the marketing of it, though, it is important to note this is a reissue of Rachel Barton Pine's earlier, similarly titled 1997 CD release: "Violin Concertos by Black Composers of the 18th & 19th Centuries", but with one concerto excised (the Chevalier de Meude-Monpas) and a brand new recording appended in its place. And with that one new addition (the marvelous Concerto #2 by Florence Price), this album acquires new relevance and musical satisfaction. For that work alone is quite wonderful.
Would that I could say the same about the rest of the program. Though if I found the three works from the original release less musically gratifying, they are nonetheless important and worthy of a listen, certainly deserving a place on the collector's shelf.
Joseph Bologne's A-Major Concerto of 1775 is interesting in that it so unabashedly imitates Mozart. The first two movements remind one of the operatic Mozart (his Overture to Cosi Fan Tutte is recalled so often it's almost comical). The opening Allegro is very long (over 10 minutes) - the orchestral exposition alone goes on for 2-1/2 minutes before the violin finally enters with a delectable melody sounding just like Mozart. Before long, though, the tunefulness is supplemented with some mundane scalic/arpeggiated filler material. I was relieved when the Largo arrives, taking us firmly to the seriousness of a Mozart opera, with a beautiful tune played by our soloist just as an operatic soprano would sing it. This movement too goes on a bit long (nearly 9 minutes), with a lengthy, uninteresting cadenza near its end.
The best is yet to come, though. The 3rd movement, Rondeau, with a sudden lightening of mood, transitions into something more charming and musically pleasing - and so accomplished it could pass for a violin concerto by the master himself. It's a pity it lasts only 4-1/2 minutes.
Jumping ahead to 1864, we enter into a curious hodgepodge of Max Bruch juxtaposed with Paganini in Joseph White Lafitte's Concerto in F-sharp minor. Traditionally Romantic, serious in the first movement, dramatic in the 3rd, there is more than enough tuneful inspiration to be appealing (at least once through). The opening movement is pretentious, though; that orchestral tutti goes on for a full 3 minutes! When at last the violin enters, it really does sound too much like Bruch - while not quite living up to his illustrious level of accomplishment - for its own good, combined certainly with too much Paganini. There are simply too many notes surrounding the lyrical passages, with lots of double stops, scales and arpeggios sounding more like studio exercises than true musical inspiration. The finale has so much potential, with a truly wonderful melody. But alas, White/Lafitte just can't keep Paganini's finger exercises out of it.
The entire piece sounds to be extremely difficult to play and Pine tackles its interminable virtuosity with aplomb while managing to bring as much musical purpose as possible given the uneven source material.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is a composer I'm more familiar with, and his Romance of 1899 is characteristic of his writing. Tuneful and contemplative, it's ultimately a little too long, clocking in at 12-1/2 minutes. The opening romance section goes on for 6+ minutes before things perk up a little with a wonderful orchestral interlude. Unfortunately, Coleridge-Taylor then settles right back into what has gone on before with the return of the soloist, and the piece is pensive and reflective to the end. It's a heartfelt outpouring of song, confirming Coleridge-Taylor's gift for melody, but I longed for more variety.
Interestingly, I hear a bit of Bruch in this piece as well, which is actually more welcome here than in the preceding work. Pine gives it her all, with beautifully singing lines and ardent expression, making the piece quite nice, if ultimately not particularly memorable.
Florence Price's wonderful 2nd Concerto, written in 1952, instantly revives the program. Late Romantic and rhapsodic, with a distinctly Americana flavor, it is certainly the most "modern" piece here, securely placed in the 20th-Century. Pine plays it beautifully - not weighing it down with too much richness in her sound. Indeed her sweetly singing violin tone is perfect for its sweeping melodies. She keeps the tunes aglow with fervent graciousness and refrains from taking on too much of a spotlight, welcoming the orchestra as an equal partner in a way not apt for the previous three works. The rich and colorful orchestral contribution here elevates the piece above the others, and conductor Jonathon Heyward provides wonderfully sensitive and thoroughly involving support.
As with Coleridge-Taylor's Romance, Price's Concerto is laid out in a single movement, and both are of similar length. But Price offers much more variety and more accomplished orchestral writing. Its many moods draw the listener in, and its final flourish finishes off the program with an exciting ending which would surely bring an audience to its feet in a live performance. I immediately had to listen to it again.
Rachel Barton Pine's playing is fabulous all through. The playing of the Encore Chamber Orchestra (members of the Chicago Youth Symphony) in the earlier sessions is very good, if not quite that of a top-tier professional ensemble. In 2022, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is employed for the Price, but sounds to be of a reduced number of strings, resembling a very good chamber orchestra.
As to the production, the recorded sound in 1997 is more than acceptable. It is clear and clean, albeit a bit lean and 2-dimensional compared to the very best. The Price, recorded 25 years later, instantly transports us to a different acoustic - one which is slightly drier and smaller. It's not jolting, but noticeable. Curiously though, even here the sound remains somewhat 2-dimensional, lacking something in spaciousness.
I have to admit I was a little disappointed with some of the music contained in this release (as detailed above) and perhaps overly critical. However, despite the importance of the production, I must describe what I hear based upon its musical merits - good, bad and indifferent. Furthermore, I found Cedille's cover art (of this and its predecessor) to be unattractively bland - gray, unimaginative and unenticing. However, there is no denying how invaluable and supremely worthwhile this project is. And I applaud all involved in it. Musically, the Price Concerto is a real find and all by itself is worth the cost of the CD.
As is the lavish booklet, which is an absolute tour de force! The Cedille Records production team is to be commended. It contains an abundance of information - over 30 pages about the music, the performers, personal notes from Pine herself, and all the recording details you could ever want. The comprehensive article by Mark Clague about these composers and works is itself a masterpiece in music history and education. (I do not have the original CD, but assume this is newly written for this later release, as it includes much information about Price as well.) Clague is not only Professor of Musicology and Associate Dean at The University of Michigan, but also serves as Chief Advisor to the RBP (Rachel Barton Pine) Foundation's Music by Black Composers Project. His credentials are fully evident in his writing and this is essential reading. The personal notes by Pine herself, written especially for this release, are also enlightening.
This is a most worthwhile, informative and important release. Bravo to Rachel Barton Pine and the great folks at Cedille Records for bringing it to production.
This release immediately caught my eye - not only because of its attractive cover and interesting repertoire on offer, but it reminds me of another clever, innovative release from BIS - the 2021 album entitled "Divertissement!", played by the splendid c/o chamber orchestra. (Please see my review of it elsewhere on this blog.)
This new one contains music which is slightly larger-scaled and perhaps less overtly "modern" than the Divertimenti on the earlier collection. But despite the fuller orchestra, these Sinfoniettas are actually more delightful and light-hearted. And thoroughly enjoyable.
I am familiar with conductor Dima Slobodeniouk from his wonderful YouTube videos with the Orquesta Sinfonica de Galicia. (His Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique sticks in my mind above all the rest as being quite sensational.) He has built that orchestra into one which is almost - but not quite - among the top-tier orchestras. On this new SACD, he conducts the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, which sounds to be of similar caliber. Slobodeniouk was their principal conductor from 2016 - 2021 and this recording was made near the end of that tenure, in January 2021.
Up first is Poulenc's delightful Sinfonietta - one of his rare attempts at full-scale symphonic composition. The booklet reminds us he was not naturally inclined towards the genre and wrote little symphonic music. Nonetheless, his Sinfonietta is a mature work, energetically pleasing and very fun. The jaunty, short motifs, so characteristic of Poulenc's writing, are everywhere, strung together creatively but often not fully developed. In other words, unmistakably Poulenc. The end result though is entertaining and the variety of moods appealing. The first and third movements remind me very much of his Piano Concerto, which was to come 2 years later (in 1949). The molto vivace second movement is splendid, one of his very best creations, and the finale is most engaging. The orchestra plays it with boundless energy - and a smile - and Slobodeniouk ensures its lightheartedness is endearing.
The Prokofiev which follows it reveals an even more assured compositional accomplishment and musical creativity. Perhaps Slobodeniouk, born and trained in Moscow, has a greater affinity for this composer. But the orchestra plays with an extra involvement and the music-making takes on a soaring quality which brings the piece to life as rarely heard before. Even though written while Prokofiev was still in his teens, it is a marvelous work of remarkable inventiveness and musical substance. And I have never heard it brought off more convincingly than here.
The concluding Britten is another fascinating work and Slobodeniouk reveals its depth of musical abundance without allowing it to become heavy or serious. It was originally scored for double quintet (woodwind/string) and is played here in its 1929 revision for small orchestra - essentially the original score with an added second horn plus more string players. It is Britten's Opus 1, and like the Prokofiev, written while still in his teens. But it bears many hints of the Britten to come and is enlightening and fully developed structurally. The central set of Variations, for example, is wonderfully creative.
The recorded sound on this multi-channel SACD is excellent throughout. There is a marvelous soundstage and the orchestra is well focused within it. I often miss a bit of richness to massed string sound from BIS and this one is no exception. I suspect a reduced number of strings was utilized for these works. However it's not serious and the transparency is impressive, revealing much inner detail, just right for this music. It is refreshingly free from excessive heaviness in the bass which has been the case with many Chandos releases these days.
All in all this is a splendid release, very enjoyable from beginning to end, offering 3 wonderful pieces not often encountered. It is expertly played, conducted and recorded. Very highly recommended.
The Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective continues their relationship with Chandos with yet another mixed bag. The more players are involved, the worse the recorded sound becomes. And I am beyond frustrated. The music is so good but they make it difficult to get the most from it.
Beginning with Felix Mendelssohn's Sextet, I was astonished at the heaviness and pushiness of the music-making. And the muddiness of the acoustic. Details are buried within the overpowering bass and murky reverberation. Moreover, the piano is distant and sounds overpedaled. (I doubt it really is; it's just recorded that way).
These problems become apparent within the first few seconds. The bass viol is too closely mic'd and is boomy from its very first note. And a few bars later at the piano's first entrance, it is distant, dull and a little flat. And as intensity builds, the muddiness becomes unpleasant to try to listen through. It brings a clamorous rowdiness to this music which doesn't suit Mendelssohn.
By the time the third movement arrives, the piano has miraculously gained some prominence. But the flat, airless wall of sound simply becomes too much. The recording engineer is manipulating the soundstage and balance on the fly, overriding whatever the ensemble might be trying to achieve. It is very similar to what I heard in this team's previous recording of Coleridge-Taylor's Nonet. I was dismayed to hear no improvements here.
Performing my due diligence, I tried this on a different CD player with a pair of Grado Labs headphones which are known for clarity and a tight, almost lean bass. And the bass bloat was actually worse on them! And the muddy acoustic persisted.
Turning to Fanny Mendelssohn's wonderful Piano Quartet, which comes last on the program, I hear the complete opposite. The sound is airy, clean (yet warm), spacious and...delicate. Yes. There is a delicacy here to the playing and the recorded sound which is completely absent in the opening Sextet. And the result is the most glorious performance of this lovely piece I've yet encountered. It is smiling, singing and joyously energetic when called for. (The ending is positively thrilling.) I cannot ever remember enjoying it so thoroughly before. At last, Tom Poster's marvelous piano playing is allowed to shine with clarity and brilliance, quite a difference from being buried back in the murk in the Sextet and swamped in reverb in the Trio (below).
Fanny's Piano Trio, which appears in between, is not quite as memorable, and even this fine trio of musicians can't quite make it more so. Nonetheless, it is pleasant and often delightful. And so rewarding when played as beautifully as it is here! Alas, it is only reasonably well recorded. There is still a bit of muddiness here and too much reverberation, causing the piano to sound severely overpedaled. There is also an unnecessary touch of grain to the strings (made worse on the Grado headphones).
I am perplexed why producer/engineer Jonathan Cooper can't manage to do this group justice in larger ensemble pieces. He does just fine with some (but not all) of the small, intimate works. I have come to the conclusion that the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective likes this sound. It is consistent on all three of their albums, adding a rough texture and rambunctious intensity to their sound, especially when the full group is in play. It makes for a frustrating listening experience time and again. And I just don't understand why that is.
I have come to the realization this is precisely the sound they're going for and I shouldn't expect anything different on future recordings. So why do I keep buying them? That's a good question. And I guess the simple answer is for the repertoire. It's innovative, imaginative, somewhat rare, and thoroughly worthwhile music that isn't readily available elsewhere. So I cave in!
Two final comments: This is yet another CD-only release, which I can't help but think is part of the problem. If Chandos would afford this group the multi-channel SACD treatment they deserve, perhaps - just perhaps - the recorded sound would improve with some much needed spaciousness. And finally, I found it odd I had to import this title from Europe. I'm not sure why it's not readily available yet here in the U.S. It's just another mystery to ponder about these releases from Chandos and the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective.
I've been discovering some great releases on the resonus label lately. I hear consistently excellent recorded sound, from chamber music to full orchestra. So I was eager to hear these Haydn String Quartets, as played by a group new to me - the Dudok Quartet.
I have a couple of gripes to get out of the way. First, why are these Opus 20 Quartets not released in chronological order? (Disc One is laid out this way: #3, 2, 5; Disc Two: #1, 4, 6.) I am seeing this trend a lot, particularly from small independent labels and I simply do not understand it. I am getting used to having to do it myself, though. So I always have the remote control handy and plan on lots of up-and-down exercising and in-and-out stress incurred on my CD player's drawer mechanism.
Next, the first CD, recorded in 2019, is transferred at an unusually low volume level, requiring a significant boost in volume to achieve a sense of presence. The second CD (2020) is closer to normal, although still on the soft side. So I had both the Volume Control and CD remotes at my fingertips just trying to get through these 6 Quartets. It really shouldn't be this difficult. But alas, it is what it is.
I listened to these discs twice - on two different occasions, separated by several weeks. The first time through I was unmoved, proclaiming it well- played and -recorded, but ultimately nothing special. In hindsight I may have been more than a little annoyed with the layout and the effort required to listen to these marvelous works in order.
A couple weeks later, I was in the mood for some Haydn and decided to give these recordings another try (and really hoped to be motivated by them to write a review). This time I listened to each disc in its entirety, exactly as recorded. And it was rather enlightening.
Starting with Disc One, with its meek volume level, I heard playing which consistently matched it: lovely musicianship, precision of ensemble and a good dynamic range. But it wasn't quite engaging. Cranking the volume helped get a little more life to it, but the playing still sounded rather timid. Further, tempos are steady rather than energetic and I longed for more invigoration in the fast movements. The disc ended with me feeling a little blah about it, thinking it was, frankly, a little boring.
Disc Two, on the other hand, elicited a different reaction. I heard what sounds like a different set of musicians, more youthful and spirited. It's as if the producer gave them a little pep talk before the recording session, urging them to infuse a little more life and joy into it. And he dutifully assisted them with a little twist of the master volume knob. And things really do come to life on the second collection in a way not experienced on the first. There is more energy and incisive articulation, impressive dynamics, and truly engaging playing. And the extra touch of immediacy of the recorded perspective helped tremendously. It isn't a big change, just enough to give them more presence. And the sense of life and vitality which results is notable.
I don't mean to be too hard on that first disc. Taken on its own, it is well played, the sound is warm and pleasing, and it is enjoyable enough, if not at all remarkable. But it is the second disc which really distinguishes this young quartet as being rather special. And with it, I look forward to future installments in their Haydn series.