At last, the completion of Alexandre Kantorow's Saint-Saens Piano Concertos series. And what a magnificent set it is.
Well, I guess I've already revealed the verdict about this pair of recordings in my title above. But they really are so fabulous, I must write a few words.
What a splendid and astute idea/decision it was to combine the talents of father and son Jean-Jacques and Alexandre Kantorow for this set of the Saint-Saens Piano Concertos. Conductor/violinist Jean-Jacques has already proven himself quite a champion of Saint-Saens, having made a remarkable series of recordings of his music for BIS, including, most recently, the Violin Concertos and all 5 symphonies. Teaming up with his son for the Piano Concertos, #3, 4 & 5 were released in early 2019. And after a 3-year hiatus, it is cause for celebration the follow-up disc is finally here. For this is simply the best set of these concertos I have yet heard.
These are not easy concertos to bring off. And it's particularly difficult for a single pianist to make all 5 equally marvelous. The problems I encounter with most recordings lie mainly with tempos and the ability to illuminate the unique importance and musical riches of each one. To site one recent example, Louis Lortie's accounts for Chandos (CD-only, 2018/2020) are played so absurdly fast, the resultant melee renders the music breathless, flippant and rather unmusical. Edward Gardner is partly to blame, readily wrangling his orchestra along to keep up with the scramble every step of the way. As I noted in my review of it on this blog, just because you can play this music this fast doesn't mean you should! And to make matters worse, the Chandos recorded sound is not great, curiously returning to their 1980s bathtubby house sound, which I had hoped was gone forever. I don't know what went wrong there, but what a technical (and musical) blunder!
So it is with extreme pleasure that I turn my attention to the incredible pianism - and incomparable musicianship - of Alexandre Kantorow, who, incidentally, went on to become the first French pianist to win the gold medal (as well as the Grand Prix) at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2019. He restores all the integrity and artistry to these marvelous concertos that Lortie blatantly eschews. And he proves beyond a reasonable doubt that sensible, intelligently chosen tempos make all the difference in the world for musical correctness and satisfaction.
And the BIS engineers provide superb SACD recorded sound.
In addition to the 5 Concertos, BIS also offers us substantially more music than the companion set on Chandos. Disc One lasts 80+ minutes, and the second disc, with all the extras, contains an amazing 85 minutes of music! The Concertos are joined by Wedding Cake, Africa, the Allegro appassionato and Rhapsodie d'Auvergne. (The Chandos set sadly omits the first 2 of these.) And they certainly are not mere fillers. They are substantial works, performed with as much depth of musical appreciation and importance as the main offerings.
I have listened to the first disc many, many times over the past 3 years and its wonders never cease to amaze. There are very few recordings in my collection which I turn to again and again for sheer musical pleasure. This is one of them. There is an emotional involvement rarely encountered on a recording. And the sound quality is equally rewarding.
Listening with great eagerness to the new disc, I began with Wedding Cake and immediately smiled ear to ear upon hearing the unmistakable, sensational "ping" of a Steinway grand piano recorded with such accuracy and realism. What a remarkable and glorious sound this is to experience from a recording! It is this very quality which most record companies fail to capture realistically. The transient ping is either minimized (or dampened altogether) or reproduced with a glassy hardness, making the piano sound clanky or clangy. Not so here; BIS absolutely nails it. The percussive articulation of sound is created by a felt-covered hammer (not a hard wooden one) and the resulting "ping" resonates naturally from within the big wooden soundbox, cushioned on air, creating a most delectable sound ever so close to what one hears on a real, live Steinway.
Another big smile occurs with the first entry of the strings, singing with such an airy sound! This is another area where so many record companies fail - the airiness of string texture. The Tapiola Sinfonietta may be a chamber orchestra, but BIS captures their body of sound most realistically, providing a satisfying fullness combined with an airy transparency, placed within a spacious acoustic. The strings may be fewer in number but they're not thin. They are silky and richly textured. And surrounded by air. This is a difficult feat to accomplish, not only for the engineers but for the average stereo system to reproduce. But when everything is up to snuff, it is positively glorious.
I detail these sonic impressions as I listen to Wedding Cake, but can assure you these qualities are consistent throughout the entire set. (Only in the Second Concerto, recorded last, is the sound perhaps slightly less exemplary. But I'm being overly critical now.)
Regarding the set as a whole, musically, everything is simply marvelous. And let me just say that the piano playing is extraordinary. Even as one beholds the awesomeness of accomplishment and consummate musical interpretations on display, there is one word in particular which comes to mind over and over while listening to this gifted pianist: Leggiero. I don't want to get too technical here, but let me just quote the Groves Dictionary of Music for an illustration of what I mean:
LEGGIERO (Ital., also Leggieramente):
Lightly. The word is usually applied to a rapid passage, and in pianoforte playing indicates an absence of pressure, the keys being struck with only sufficient force to produce the sound. Leggiero passages are usually, though not invariably, piano, and they may be either legato or staccato; if the former the fingers must move very freely and strike the keys with a considerable amount of percussion to ensure distinctness, but with the slightest possible amount of force.
Fleet, ethereal and breezy also come to mind as descriptors of Kantorow's command of the keyboard, especially during difficult passages. His playing never sounds labored or heavy, but rather so utterly effortless, natural and musical. His legato is a marvelous expression of sweetly singing lines, reminding me more of a singer than a piano. It's actually difficult to describe, and is somewhat unique to Kantorow's style and technique, but leggiero seems the best musical term for it I can think of.
This is not to imply there is a lack of power and drama. Far from it. Those qualities burst forth as required, for everything about his playing is driven first and foremost by the spirit and letter of the score. Nor do sensible tempos imply a lack of adrenaline. Just the opposite actually. Rather than being possessed by a wild, out of control abandonment, which creates an uneasy foreboding the entire thing is about to fly off the rails (or worse, a flippancy which demeans the piece entirely), the firmness of control and authority, plus an absolute command of tempo, actually produce more exciting results than simply playing it as fast you possibly can.
Interpretatively, father and son are perfectly in agreement everywhere with regard to tempos, phrasing and overall scope. The interplay between soloist and orchestra and the perfection of ensemble are absolutely marvelous. The only instance which may initially cause a raised eyebrow is the finale of the Second, which really does seem too fast. However, checking the score, it is marked Presto. And it is the only movement in all 5 concertos which is. And when played with such gossamer adroitness and energetic bravura, I can't fault this pianist for taking advantage of the opportunity to fly free. And fly he does! And incredibly, this magnificent string section keeps up with him with phenomenal execution, power and sheer energy. And there is no denying it is dazzling. Elsewhere, as noted above, tempos are perfectly chosen - and exactly right - in every movement.
In sum, this is without doubt the best recording of these concertos (and showpieces) I have ever heard. Of the 5, I enjoyed #1, 3 & 5 the most, for their depth of musical expression and involvement, interaction between pianist and orchestra, and sheer excitement. And there is never any question as to this pianist's capabilities; he plays with a natural bravura without ever sounding ostentatious or flashy. But most of all, he and his father together engender an emotional impact I have not experienced from these concertos before.
I have read mixed reviews of this team's earlier recording of the Liszt Piano Concertos (2015, BIS). I have that disc in my collection but, curiously, have no recollection of its merits and can only assume I considered it rather unmemorable. But I can assure anyone who may have been disappointed with it (and are therefore hesitant to explore this pianist further), these Saint-Saens Concertos are in an entirely different league of excellence. They are simply magnificent in every way.
It is interesting comparing this Ravel collection to the one from John Wilson on Chandos, issued just 2 months earlier. (See my review of it elsewhere on this blog.) While I had some issues with the Chandos production for Wilson, I found his music-making very good, if perhaps a little too-matter-of-fact for Ravel and lacking some love. Oramo, in stark contrast, is everything John Wilson isn't; and BIS provides even more flattering sound for him than Chandos does for Wilson.
It is worth noting both releases are multi-channel hybrid SACDs - not to be taken for granted these days.
In general, Oramo and BIS are simply seductive in this music; whereas, Wilson and Chandos are a bit more extrovert, straight-forward and bare-bones. Both are valid approaches and one might prefer one over the other depending on one's mood. I tend to prefer Oramo across the board, especially given the sumptuous recorded sound from BIS. It is more atmospheric and sensuous than the Chandos, and possesses a stunning dynamic range. Oramo also creates a more seductive atmosphere, taking his time to bring out more color in the orchestration. And his orchestra responds with a richness of musical expression which is alluring.
Getting into more detail, the two programs are not identical. But there are 3 duplications, inviting back-to-back comparisons.
Beginning with La Valse, Wilson is a little careful with his footing, whereas Oramo positively lifts the music afloat, with more elasticity and rather more energetic involvement. This music really dances in his hands and BIS's wider dynamic range pays dividends here.
Wilson makes Alborada del Gracioso a thrilling showpiece. Oramo keeps it closer to the piano original, with a steadier tempo and more crisply articulated pizzicatos and with sharply executed accents. Both are equally good in slightly different ways. And both have the benefit of a wonderful bassoon soloist, neither of which is identified in the booklets. tsk tsk.
Pavane is a toss-up.
There are standouts in the remainder of both programs. Wilson serves up a fabulous Vales Nobles et Sentimentales, showing him at his absolute best. Oramo gives us a wonderful Une barque sur l'ocean and a Le Tombeau de Couperin which includes the two extra movements of the original piano version which Ravel never orchestrated. Fugue and Toccata are here played in orchestrations by Kenneth Hesketh. And fabulous they are. These extra sections have been recorded before but in different orchestrations. Vladimir Ashkenazy, in his 2003 recording with the NHK Symphony Orchestra (Tokyo) on Exton, plays "arrangements" by Michael Round, which I actually prefer, other than his use of the trumpet in moments of Toccata which doesn't befit the music, sounding labored and clumsy. Otherwise it is crisp, fleet and as close to the original as possible. Hesketh is instantly more rhapsodic and colorful. And that works surprisingly well too. (Incidentally, the name Kenneth Hesketh may sound familiar from his orchestration of 3 Dutilleux wind Sonatas, recorded by John Wilson on a 2021 Chandos release, also reviewed elsewhere here on my blog.)
Getting back to the recorded sound (which makes such an important contribution in Impressionistic music), in addition to the spectacular dynamics, the BIS SACD is more naturally balanced than the Chandos. From top to bottom, the orchestra shimmers in a gloriously airy and spacious acoustic, and climaxes expand effortlessly into the hall. In comparison, the Chandos struggles just a bit, sounding slightly cramped and "tubby" in the bass.
I found both collections rewarding and, curiously, enjoyed them more during a second listen. It is good to have new recordings which can stand alongside those classics from Ozawa and Boulez.
I'd love to see both conductors record more Ravel - particularly a complete Daphnis and Chloe from John Wilson and everything else from Oramo.
Chandos is on a roll with John Wilson and his Sinfonia of London. And for good reason. This current release is no exception, offering a whopping 83+ minutes (!!) of Ravel's greatest hits, gloriously played by the fabulous Sinfonia of London.
But I've got some issues with Chandos on this one. So let me get to the main one right upfront so we can move on to the music.
On the back insert, in small print, Chandos claims that this Ma Mere L'Oye (Mother Goose) and Bolero are each a "Premier Recording of This Edition". Oh really? And what edition is that?
Before listening to a single note, I scoured the extensive booklet looking for details about these potentially exciting, newfound editions that, apparently, Mr. Wilson alone is privy to. And other than a simple listing on the back page of the publication dates of the scores - ummm......Crickets. There is not a word from the booklet writer about these "new editions". Not one single mention of any kind. Of Bolero, there is merely a brief comment: "John Wilson has meticulously restored many details of the score which have become lost...". So it's not really a "new edition", but rather Wilson simply follows the printed score? And if these details are contained within the published score, were they ever really "lost"?
Listening first to Mother Goose, I hear absolutely nothing new, different or unusual about it. It sounds exactly like it always does, with regard to content, orchestration, dynamics, tempos, etc. As to Bolero, I was delighted to hear Mr. Wilson does indeed follow the score a little more closely than most conductors (well, for the most part). First, he encourages his two saxophone players to actually execute the lip slurs, as printed in the score, which almost every conductor on earth inexplicably ignores. Not only is it interesting to hear (and adds marvelously to the bolero flavor), it makes the trombone's glissandos, which come a few bars later, much more musically appropriate. They're no longer just raspberries by a showoff trombonist, but rather now completely in line with the essence of the music and intentions of the composer, being played in the same manner as the saxophones do before it.
I also detected a brighter, more ringing sound to the first saxophone solo and suspect that Wilson's soprano sax player actually found and plays the rare Sopranino sax (in F), as dictated in the score. Also, I thought the English Horn solo, earlier in the piece, sounded a little sweeter and more singing than usual, with exquisite vibrato. I was actually surprised to discover, looking in my score, that Ravel in fact writes that solo for the oboe d'amore. And I do believe that's what is played on this recording.
That sums up the entirety of what I heard as being notable, or somewhat different from the norm. And I congratulate Mr. Wilson for taking the time and trouble to observe those aspects of the printed score (which, by the way, are all there in my 1988 pocket score). But still, I come back to Chandos and ask: Does that make this a "New Edition"? Granted most conductors do not bother with these minor details - after all, it's Bolero, not to be taken all that seriously, and typically programmed merely to get people to buy tickets and/or CDs. But is Mr. Wilson really the first one to observe them? I have heard the saxophone lip slurs before (although not very often), and I'm pretty sure I've heard the oboe d'amore solo before. Perhaps maybe not the Sopranino sax. However, since when does following the printed score make it a "premier recording of a new edition"? I am perplexed by this.
And speaking of faithfulness to the score, Wilson (along with virtually every conductor since Ormandy) still manages to bury the fascinating arpeggiated pizzicatos in the 2nd violins and violas at Figure 9. It's all but inaudible, as usual. That would have been a nice detail to bring out, which would have had many folks reaching for their scores to discover what it is. And the second snare drum called for at Figure 16 is hardly noticeable unless specifically listening for it.
Otherwise, this is as uneventful a Bolero as one typically hears. The hypnotic tension is curiously missing and I didn't think the slow, building intensity of the crescendo is executed all that successfully. And like many before him, Wilson takes it too fast. Coming in at 14 and 1/2 minutes, it's one of the fastest on record. Ravel himself stated, "it is a piece lasting 17 minutes..." Only Riccardo Muti comes to mind as faithfully observing that specification in his 1982 Philadelphia recording for EMI, which clocks in at 17:09.
All that being said, I am happy to report the rest of the music-making on this program is terrific.
The concert opens a little carefully, with a rather ordinary La Valse, although the rollicking horn writing is a delight. I enjoyed Mother Goose more. While there's nothing "new" about this edition, I found Wilson's characteristic no-nonsense, bare-bones approach to suit this piece particularly well. There is no lingering, or caressing a phrase; there is no love bestowed upon it whatsoever. It's just notes on the page for Wilson to get through. And this group of fabulous musicians does all the rest. It's as straightforward as can be, which actually allows Ravel's inspiration to shine through unadulterated. There is an attractive simplicity to it which, for me, works handsomely.
Time to be alert for Alborada del Gracioso, which Wilson turns into a true showpiece that only an orchestra can deliver. No pianist could ever play all the repeated triplets or the dramatic scalic flourishes at this speed. But with this brilliant orchestra at hand (and in a rare display of unbuttoned exuberance), Wilson brings the gusto. And it is positively thrilling - full of flair and effortless bravura, along with the most songful, expressive bassoon solos in the central section.
And with the Pavane following it, we come to my other complaint with the Chandos production. Neither the bassoon or horn soloists are named. And that is a pity, because both are quite wonderful.
Finally, the highlight of the disc is most certainly Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. I was utterly astonished to hear Wilson - at last - take his time and lavish such love and sheer loveliness on this music. Tenderness abounds, along with exquisite phrasing, quite unlike anything I've encountered from John Wilson before. And this glorious string section delivers it for him big time, with positively silky string tone - lush and airy, yet transparent too.
And despite my reservations with Bolero, it closes the concert with a bang.
The Chandos house sound is, as ever, very good - although just a little stuffy and bass-rich this time compared to their very best. (They have yet to match the fantastic sound they achieved in the Korngold Symphony.) But it's a multi-channel SACD, which is always cause for celebration these days. And as noted above, the string sound is ravishing when it needs to be.
In closing, I wish Chandos had not implied there was more on offer here than there actually is. Simply utilizing newly published scores, without any mention of any differences they may or may not possess, creates expectations left unfulfilled. But that aside, this is yet another enjoyable concert from John Wilson and company.
I wasn't really in the mood for Mozart's Flute Quartets when I inadvertently loaded this CD into the disc player. Expecting something completely different after pressing Play, instead the most joyous flute tone rang out, singing one of Mozart's most delightful creations. And I stopped in my tracks and sat myself down, completely transfixed.
This is certainly the best recording of Mozart's Flute Quartets I've come across in a long while. And from a name completely new to me, making it all the more exciting!
Finnish flutist, Sami Junnonen impresses in every conceivable way in Mozart, as does his superb trio of string players, who are members of the Chamber Domaine.
Readers of this blog may remember seeing my comprehensive survey of the Mozart Flute Quartets in May 2021 (17 recordings in all). I had not heard this newer (2018) recording at the time or it surely would have been included in the top-most category along with the other lofty residents: Oxalys (flutist Toon Fret), Karl-Heinz Schutz and Gary Schocker. Putting this newcomer into perspective within that context, Junnonen combines the amazing variety of tone and vibrato of Fret (Oxalys), with the most gracious musical phrasing of Schutz, and the joyful invigoration of Schocker. That is quite an achievement! And a miraculous combination.
Not only that, Junnonen has the advantage of playing with some of the most inspiring, musically involving string players on record. They play with the utmost musical phrasing, spontaneity and crisp articulation, bringing life and jubilation everywhere. And listen to their marvelous pizzicatos in the Adagio of the D Major - so tuneful, colorful and harmonically chordal, yet delicately phrased, while Junnonen's flute sings resplendently above it. And the tempo doesn't sag (as it so often does); it has a natural, forward-moving expression just perfect for the music. I don't ever remember hearing such loveliness from this movement before.
As to Sami Junnonen, he possesses a clear, sparkling, radiant tone which is a joy to listen to. But he varies it, along with his vibrato and articulation, to bring endless variety, interest and musical purpose. And best of all, his tone remains vibrant and expressive even at pianissimo and with minimal vibrato. It never wilts or becomes deadpan as can happen when some flutists attempt this. It truly is marvelous flute sound.
Also notable are his dynamic range and supreme breath control. He can play complete phrases - and then some - without breaking for a breath. It is amazing how long he can sustain a phrase, and it sounds so musically right to hear such considered and competent phrasing.
Fortunately, Resonus Classics provides lovely recorded sound - clean, clear, richly colorful and perfectly focused; the group is realistically placed within a warm acoustic, with just the perfect amount of reverberation. There is also an excellent booklet with informative notes about the music and musicians, along with high-quality, glossy photos.
To sum up: this is some of the most joyful Mozart I've come across - at all times fresh and sparkling, full of life and spontaneity, and supremely musical. Mr. Junnonen truly delivers the best of the best in flute playing in this music, and I enjoyed it from beginning to end even though I've listened to recordings of these quartets literally hundreds of times.
I look forward to more recordings from this wonderful flutist on this label and will definitely be looking for more recordings from Chamber Domaine as well.
I listen to so much string quartet music, I've been taking occasional breaks from it by exploring some wonderful woodwind quintet music. This new disc from Avi caught my eye, not only from a repertoire perspective, but from the cover art. I instantly recognized 2 members of the quintet, Marc Gruber (horn) and Theo Plath (bassoon), as being principals in the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, whose wonderful concerts I watch on YouTube all the time.
The Monet Quintett was established in 2014, comprised of former members of the German National Youth Orchestra. I'll start off saying right up front they play with an unanimity of approach and uniform musical purpose which make them unique. And extraordinary. It is apparent they know each other, musically, very well. And based upon this fabulous recording, they simply redefine the art of woodwind quintet playing.
There is a glowing, golden blend to their sound which is simply gorgeous. At the same time, there is an individuality of color and character to soloistic passages which brings endless variety and life to their music-making. As a group, they play as one - very much like a superb string quartet. They vary their tonal color, dynamics and vibrato as a unified unit (as the music dictates) in a way which is remarkable. A good example of this is exemplified in the exceptional flute playing of Anissa Baniahmad, who varies her tone (and vibrato) from sparkling and vibrant in soloistic passages to a more rounded sound to blend perfectly with the clarinet and horn.
This group ushers in a new generation of woodwind quintet playing. Their playing is, quite simply, dazzling.
On this wonderful CD - their debut album - we are treated to 4 of the best works in the genre. Ranging from the Romantic to the Contemporary, this intelligently chosen program provides endless variety, interest and musical enrichment for the listener. And offers a real opportunity to showcase this group's abilities.
The concert opens with a terrific contemporary piece (1997), Frenglish Suite by Richard Dubugnon. I was not familiar with this Swiss composer, but a glance at my recent orders reminded me a disc of his orchestral music (on BIS) is on the way. So I am thrilled I will be hearing more of his music! His woodwind quintet is a delight from beginning to end. Laid out in a single movement lasting nearly 15 minutes, it contains several distinct sections, including a central Theme and Variations followed by a Lullaby. Its endless variety is captivating and extremely entertaining, with some jazzy elements alternating with the lyrical and whimsical, along with plenty of memorable tunes. There are even hints of Stravinsky here and there, which made me smile. It's a fantastic work, superbly written (and orchestrated) for the genre, and the Monet Quintett plays it with sparkling vitality and charm.
Next comes the piece widely considered to be the granddaddy of modern woodwind quintet music - Paul Taffanel's well-known Wind Quintet. It is instantly more richly Romantic (and slightly old-fashioned) after the more modern Dubugnon. But with its imaginative scoring and originality for its time, its place in the repertoire is assured and well deserved. This reading of it is positively delightful; the Monet's endless variety of tonal and dynamic shadings brings much freshness to the piece. It's as enjoyable here as I've ever heard it played.
A rarity follows - although this is my second encounter with it in recent months: the Woodwind Quintet by Gustav Holst, notable for its surprising, distinctive hints of Richard Strauss. It's more than just a curiosity; I have recently discovered a whole other side of Holst via a wonderful disc of his chamber music played by Ensemble Arabesques on the FARAO label. (Please see my review elsewhere on this blog.) Comparing the two recordings of his Quintet was interesting. While both are terrific, there are a few minor observations to be made. There is no denying the golden blend and perfection of ensemble of the Monet Quintett are most impressive. They also excel at vivid characterization of each varied section, along with a sweetly singing lyricism which is most winning. The Ensemble Arabesques are just a touch more lively and energetic, but surprisingly slightly less refined overall. (The clarinet, for example, has moments of insecurity in the high range.) Both are equally treasurable and I wouldn't want to be without either.
Closing out the concert is the enormously pleasing 1st Wind Quintet of Jean Francaix. This piece is so spectacular I regret it isn't recorded more often. However, the reason why is clear - it is fiendishly difficult to play and I suspect not many groups can conquer it. As a matter of fact, Francaix said he "set out with a goal of attaining a 'high level of difficulty'". Indeed; it was not performed for several years due to the extreme amount of practice required to surmount its "unplayable" virtuosity for all 5 instruments. But you'd never know any of that while listening to the Monet Quintett play it. It rolls off the fingers with effortless bravura. The Berlin Phil Quintet (on BIS) does an excellent job as well, although theirs is a bit more extrovert and sounds more obviously "difficult" to play. But there is no denying their reading is positively thrilling. However, the extra refinement and effortlessness of the Monet, combined with the atmospheric beauty of it, are breathtaking - and certainly no less exciting.
I've been listening to a lot of this music lately, most in collections and box sets played by the somewhat tepid Les Vents Francais (Warner) and the excellent Berlin Philharmonic Woodwind Quintet (BIS). The Les Vents Francais is let down somewhat by Warner's lackluster recorded sound - variable from session to session, ranging in severity, of a mostly forward and slightly edgy, rather 2-dimensional presentation. Their playing is certainly good but refined and lacking a bit of characterization and sheer involvement. BIS provides the Berlin Quintet excellent recorded sound, consistent from disc to disc. And their playing is more crisply articulated and engaging. It's amazing the difference a good recording engineer makes.
But neither group can match the Monet Quintett for all the characteristics noted above. As good as the Berlin Phil group is, there is a polish to the Monet which sets them apart, above and beyond any group of its type that I have encountered. And Avi, in coproduction with SWR2, provides them the best recorded sound of all. Daringly, they are recorded in a large acoustic, affording them an almost symphonic grandeur with regard to color, blend and atmosphere. But there is also a 3-dimensional presence which virtually transports the listener to the recording location with the best seat in the house. The horn is naturally balanced, never overpowering the rest (as is often the case), and each individual instrument is tangibly placed in space. Overall, the sound is open, dynamic, lively and colorful, naturally distanced within a gorgeously atmospheric acoustic. It just doesn't get any better than this.
Avi's production is absolutely first class in every way, and not just with the excellent recorded sound. There is also a lavish booklet, complete with glossy photos of the group in amusing, staged poses, plus useful information about the quintet and its members. There is also extensive information about the composers and the music. Overall, this is one of the most exciting new releases I've encountered in quite some time. I enjoyed it immensely.
Here is an enticing - and attractive - pair of discs, marking Mark Bebbington's debut with the Resonus label. The back inserts announce this is the start of a new French music series.
Mark Bebbington made a series of interesting discs for Somm Classics during the past decade, of solo music and concertos. I have the concerto discs (comprised largely of 20th-Century British composers) and found them to be quite excellent, with innovative repertoire and involving performances - the exception being the Vaughan-Williams Concerto, which simply was not well-played. A single disc of Mozart Concertos (#11, 12 & 13) also was not very good (due in large part to his partnering conductor), and fortunately no more Mozart was undertaken.
Bebbington now turns to French repertoire. And his Poulenc enterprise starts promisingly.
Beginning with the first disc, recorded in 2020, this is overall rather relaxed, smiling music-making, aided by lovely, atmospheric recorded sound and sweet orchestral strings. The opening Concerto is cheerful, if perhaps a bit underpowered compared to the best. All through, Bebbington goes for atmosphere first and foremost, sometimes at the expense of crowd-pleasing vitality. But his characterization of the many moods provides much variety and this is quite enjoyable in a pleasant way.
I actually enjoyed the Concert Champetre more, even though it is played here on piano rather than harpsichord. It springs to life with a touch more dynamic power than heard in the Concerto. And while I still prefer the original version, I can't begrudge him playing it on piano, as Poulenc himself sometimes did. And with excellent conducting from Jan Latham-Koenig, it works surprisingly well.
Bebbington is joined by a splendid oboist, John Roberts, for the Oboe Sonata and bassoonist Jonathan Davies in the Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano. These are certainly the chamber music highlights to be heard on either disc.
Unfortunately, the second disc is much less successful. Immediately in Aubade, we hear a significant decline in recorded sound quality. Even though the Royal Philharmonic is utilized for both discs, a glance in the booklet reveals that Disc 1 was recorded in St John's Smith Square, while Disc 2 was in Cadogan Hall. That alone likely accounts for the difference. The chamber music sounds fine, but Aubade (a concerto in all but name) sounds stuffy and rather 2-dimensional compared to the open, airy, 3-dimensional spaciousness of the acoustic heard on the first disc. I was also alarmed to hear rather mediocre piano playing, especially in the opening section. Is he sight-reading this?
I'm not a fan of solo vocal music, so I'll skip over the Bal Masque for baritone. Why a vocal piece was chosen for this collection over all the other instrumental chamber music Poulenc penned is inconceivable to me. (And the booklet doesn't even bother to include a printed translation of the sung text.) But whatever.
The Flute Sonata is nicely done, with radiant, vibrant tone from flutist Emer McDonough. It is a lighthearted (and lightweight) reading; but no matter, I can listen to her flute sound all day long.
The closing Sextet is a let-down for sure. It is rather bland and curiously uninvolving. With slowish tempos, it sounds careful and under-rehearsed.
In sum, these discs are enjoyable but not particularly memorable. When one returns to the magnificent complete survey from Eric Le Sage on RCA (reissued on a SONY budget box set), or the excellent 3-disc summary of chamber works on Brilliant Classics, or the splendid single-disc selection from Ensemble Arabesques on FARAO Classics, one encounters a much more extrovert, involving, and most certainly rewarding music experience. The piano playing is superior across the board as well. Not that Bebbington is inferior; far from it. He just lacks a certain flare and commanding presence in this music. And in the second disc, more rehearsal time was surely in order. Still, the excellent recorded sound and pleasing French atmosphere created on Disc 1 are enjoyable, as is the beautiful flute playing on Disc 2.
This is an attractive pair of releases from a group called United Strings of Europe. It is a small string orchestra (4/3/3/2/1) whose members, according to the booklet, are "bound by friendship and years of experience playing together". They're enterprising and extremely ambitious too: "determined to reach beyond the concert hall, the ensemble has developed an innovative education program..."
They play very well indeed. It is immediately apparent their ensemble playing is founded upon rich experience and accomplishment. And BIS provides them superb SACD recorded sound.
I was not familiar with much of this music; a lot of it is comprised of arrangements for string orchestra by the group's leader, Julian Azkoul, rather than original compositions specifically for such an ensemble. On the face of it, all of this music appears to be, at minimum, interesting. But listening, much of it is obstinately unmemorable.
Disc 1, in motion (2020), opens promisingly - an adaptation (by Azkoul) of Schubert's sketch of a movement intended for a 12th string quartet, which was never completed. It's wonderful music lasting just 8 minutes, which is so good one laments that Schubert never got around to finishing it.
Another highlight of this disc is a contemporary work which concludes the concert, Gareth Farr's Mondo Rondo. Originally for string quartet, it works splendidly for string orchestra - cast in three clever, contrasting movements: Mondo Rondo, Mumbo Jumbo and Mambo Rambo! I laughed out loud just at the titles but was thrilled to hear the music living up to them so perfectly, with compositional creativity and enormous entertainment value. Farr, a New Zealand composer, is a percussionist and his music reflects that in its driving, rhythmic energy. Yet there is an attractive lyrical element as well. The piece reminds me very much of my two all-time favorite contemporary works for string orchestra: Paul Patterson's Sinfonia for Strings (RPO Records, Geoffrey Simon, conducting) and David Diamond's Rounds for String Orchestra (Elektra/Nonesuch, Gerard Schwarz, conducting). Farr establishes his own unique character, especially with effective orchestration, highlighted by pizzicato in the 2nd movement and the imaginative (and prolific) use of glissandi in the finale. It is spectacularly played here by this fantastic group. Great stuff!
Elsewhere, however, the arrangement (again by Azkoul) of Boccherini's Street Music of Madrid isn't all that interesting, and the short piece by Corrales, with its constant use of glissandi slipping and sliding throughout the orchestra left me feeling a little queasy. And then there's Hindson's Maralinga, for solo violin and strings, which is decidedly the most overtly "modern" piece on the program. Its opening glissando screech from the solo violin in the highest register (very closely mic'd for maximum shock value) comes as an unpleasant jolt after the richly Romantic Schubert. It is dissonant and almost angry music, softening at times, reminding one of the gypsy flavors of Ravel's Tzigane. It's a rather interesting piece which I might have appreciated a lot more if only it had been programmed in a more appropriate spot. It's quite out of place and so very unexpected coming immediately after the Schubert. Annoying from the very first note, committing to its 13-minute length was simply too much.
Moving on to the second volume, renewal (2021), it's a pity 22 minutes of it is taken up with music for soprano. Yes, the strings accompany her, but a vocal song-cycle does not really belong in a program of string music. I don't usually enjoy this type of thing in the best of circumstances and I found it particularly unwelcomed here. The same can be said for Mendelssohn's 6th Quartet in this unnecessary adaptation for full string orchestra. It becomes pretty intense with the extra weight and loses some of its intimacy and communicative ability. Surely more appropriate music could have been chosen than either of these.
However, not all is lost. I enjoyed the two Caroline Shaw pieces, one of which is her ubiquitous Entr'acte, which is showing up everywhere these days. And rightfully so; it's a pleasing work, instantly soothing and peaceful. The highlight of this disc, however, is undoubtedly the piece which comes first on the program: Joanna Marsh's In Winter's House. It sounds rather similar to those by Shaw, and also vaguely reminiscent of the film composer, Thomas Newman's music. It is richly scored and possesses a heartfelt melancholy within its gloriously singing outpouring of musical expression. It is sheer loveliness, and at only 4'30, ends much too soon.
I enjoyed the superb playing and recorded sound heard on both of these discs. However, I must ultimately judge them on the likelihood I will ever listen to them again. I suppose time will tell. But as good as they are, in all honesty I can't help but proclaim them curiously unmemorable.
I've been asking myself why I haven't yet reviewed the Dover Quartet's second set of Beethoven String Quartets. (And I wrote only a cursory review of the first set a year or so ago.) I don't have a good answer. I absolutely love them - both sets. So why am I not writing about them?
To try to answer that, I decided to listen to them again today and commit to putting some words together. Listening to the Opus 59s (Razumovsky #1-3), I think I know why I haven't yet reviewed them. 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.
So let's start with the basics. All the hallmarks of the Dover Quartet which make them so incredibly special are in evidence - primarily a unified approach which many quartets simply cannot begin to 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 simply thrilling; 2) their unified command of dynamics; 3) a musical expression which is at once involving and vigorous, and at all times imbued with a marvelous sweetness of tone; and 4) a unified blend and uniform tonality.
Getting into more detail, the Dovers can vary their tone and vibrato intensity as musically appropriate. There is a lightness of tone here, followed by a vigorous fortissimo there, and the contrasts are stunning. Further, in those passages when they play with minimal vibrato, the sound does not result in a bright, wiry, unpleasant thinness of tone which is so often heard. (And there is no reason or musical justification for that to ever be the case.) Even without vibrato, their tone remains sweet and expressive. And it is lovely.
There is a pervading naturalness to their musical expression which is simply overwhelming. Many groups try so hard, to sound larger than life, or go out of their way to make a musical point. The Dover never stoops to such nonsense. Their playing is so very accomplished, and their musicianship so finely tuned, that the music is always the priority.
Combining all these elements in Beethoven brings a musical immersion that I simply have never before experienced in these works. After all the superlative playing qualities are identified, it's the music-making which counts. And in Beethoven, the Dover is indeed superlative.
Tempos, always such an important ingredient, are perfectly chosen - alive, involving and invigorating. Slow movements are kept moving with momentum and sweeping lines, never weighted down unnecessarily with excess emoting. Fervent musical expression permeates every phrase. All the drama of Beethoven is there, but there's also an intimacy which makes this music, as played by the Dovers, go straight to the heart.
As to the individual playing and the blend into the whole, this is a group of equals, rather than being "led" by the 1st violin. That being said, there is no denying the playing of 1st violinist, Joel Link, is marvelous. His sweet tone and singing lines are the heart of these performances. But it's the precision of articulation in the inner voices (2nd violin/viola) that really drives these readings, with propulsion and energy. And I love how second violinist Bryan Lee's rich, textured sound blends seamlessly with that of the viola, solidifying the critical mid-range. And, last but certainly not least, it is the cellist, Camden Shaw, who provides the foundation which ultimately makes all the sonic superlatives possible. His wooden tone is expressive and naturally full-bodied, but never gruff or overblown. He plays with the same lightness of touch (when necessary) and precision of articulation as the smaller instruments, but then can also produces a fortissimo which remains completely realistic and never overbearing. He's simply one more important contributor to the musical fabric - not more than that.
That these 4 musicians can so successfully and consistently play as one is absolutely remarkable. Their music-making is simply breathtaking.
Lastly, there's one more person involved here who is equally responsible for the superlatives described above. Enormous credit must be given to the recording engineer, the late Bruce Egre, for providing sound which supports and exemplifies these musical characteristics so magnificently. The recorded sound afforded this quartet is simply second to none when it comes to revealing all the qualities I cherish in their playing. There is an immediacy and presence, with a realistically wide dynamic range without ever being at all forward or gruff, along with a 3-dimensional realism, which bring the performances into one's listening room as if hearing them in a live performance. I read with great interest the biography of Mr. Egre (within his obituary) and learned he was also the founder of Cleveland-based Azica Records. This is fascinating because I find that label to consistently exhibit the same spectacular recorded sound I hear from Cedille Records. And now I know why. A seriously gifted man was involved with both labels. And the world has lost a true master of the art of recorded acoustic sound.
I listen to a lot of string quartet music. And I've listened to several complete Beethoven sets just over the past couple of years. So comparisons are inevitable. I have enjoyed recordings from the likes of the Belcea Quartet on Zig-Zag/Alpha Classics, Miro Quartet on Pentatone, Artemis Quartet on Virgin, Quatuor Ebene on Warner/Erato, and the Tokyo Quartet on Harmonia Mundi. (Even the Tokyo's earlier set for RCA is excellent.) However, as good as they are, I seem to always have a nit to pick along the way - occasionally with the interpretations, often with the recorded sound, only rarely with the actual playing itself (which was certainly the case with the Lindsay String Quartet's ASV reissue on Eloquence, which was nearly impossible to endure). But not with the Dover Quartet. Their Beethoven is, simply, perfection. As is the recorded sound. I cannot wait for the next installment.
In my view, 3 recordings effectively redefine the art of string quartet playing today: the Escher Quartet's Mendelssohn (BIS), the Quatuor Hanson's Dutilluex & Ligeti (Aparte), and the Dover Quartet's Beethoven (Cedille).
I have enjoyed two previous BIS recordings from Pascal Rophe, but those were both in less familiar repertoire than this Debussy collection. His 2015 recording of Dutilleux's ballet, Le Loup, is very fine - even more colorfully illuminating than John Wilson's for Chandos. And his 2019 recording of Roussel's The Spider's Feast is a musical and sonic feast indeed, bringing this relatively rare ballet to new life. It is coupled, though, with a completely routine and utterly "Bb" Sorcerer's Apprentice (Dukas).
It is, then, in more familiar territory where Rophe disappoints. Just as in his earlier Dukas, these Debussy ballets fail to come to life as they should. They're earthbound and steadfastly refuse to dance, predominated by lethargic tempos.
The orchestral playing is very good, as is the recorded sound. The woodwind playing in particular is glowing. However there is an occasional lack of sumptuousness from the strings. I don't believe this is the fault of the BIS engineers. It sounds as if Rophe is going for transparency at all costs. And I'm not sure why he would do that in Debussy.
More serious, though, is a certain blandness which permeates these readings, robbing them of the imagination and wonderment of good storytelling. Characterization of the various sections is curiously minimized, leading to a lack of involvement. Only in the final track, Golliwogg's Cakewalk, does the orchestra suddenly awaken, aided by a subtle (and completely unnecessary) boost of the volume knob from the engineers. The newfound energy comes way too late to compensate for everything which precedes it. All it accomplished was to startle me enough to turn it off and move on to something more interesting.
In sum, I was really looking forward to this release, but alas, it proved to be thoroughly disappointing.
I've been on a CD buying spree lately. (Watch this space for lots of reviews coming soon!) Not because I suddenly became rich, but because I'm beginning to experience some minor difficulties obtaining the discs I want to purchase lately - particularly new releases. A title might be available here, but not in the UK - and vice-versa. And if I wait for a better price, I might find it's nowhere to be found a week or two down the road. So I've adopted a "get it while you can" approach and am making more on-the-spot purchases, even if it ends up costing a little more. And I've been buying lots of back-catalog titles on the used market before they are gone forever.
I usually shop Amazon.com (utilizing their many terrific MarketPlace sellers) and Presto Classical in the UK, searching for the best prices and most reliable availability and shipping. But problems are beginning to appear.
Take ArkivMusic, for example, which is sometimes a good source for Classical CDs. Or ... it used to be. Their online site has been down for months. Their website comes up as "Store Closed", but there is a brief disclaimer stating they're "working on system updates" but trying to fulfill outstanding orders. Oh, and: "Be Back Soon!" Riiiight ... this status has continued for months. And I'm not particularly surprised by this, as I have never considered Arkiv to be a viable source for frequent, quantity buying - as regards to availability ("out of stock" appears predominantly) or pricing (their insistence upon listing everything at full retail price, plus shipping costs). But, still, I hate to see yet another resource go away. In addition, I've noticed the Amazon MarketPlace seller "ClassicalMusicSuperstore" seems to have disappeared.
Even more troubling, though, is what I'm beginning to see from some of the labels. We've been witnessing dwindling numbers of new releases each month for quite some time (and SACDs are becoming rare). But now I'm finding some of them discontinuing back catalog titles and either reissuing them solely via Download or simply eliminating them altogether. For example, many back-catalog titles from Pentatone have been discontinued, only to reappear as Download only. Worse, at least one label has eliminated its entire CD catalog altogether, making the switch to 100% download only, and even removed its online store from the internet with only a brief statement that they're "restructuring". This makes me sad.
Further, I've even witnessed a few new releases from the likes of BIS and Chandos inexplicably delayed this year, which has me very worried. Is this simply the result of production and/or supply chain issues, or is something else going on we don't know about yet?
And of course we've been witnessing for years entire labels disappearing - hostile takeovers by the big boys buying up other labels (think Warner and SONY), eliminating the competition. Remember the good ol' days when new releases consisted of real diversity - titles from Virgin and EMI, RCA and CBS, Philips, Conifer, et al? And to a lesser degree, Erato and Teldec. Today, it's all Warner - who can't even give credit to those legacy labels, slapping the "Erato" logo on everything (AS IF Erato has anything to do with it) - and SONY. And all those much-lamented classic labels which have simply ceased to exist over the years (Telarc, Delos, Dorian, ASV, Collins, MCA, CALA, Koss, ProArte, Vox, etc., not to mention the real classics like Mercury, Westminster, etc.).
Thankfully we have a fantastic group of small, independent specialty labels which still produce a wealth of wonderful Classical CD releases. At least for now. And to be fair, some bigger labels have demonstrated a continued commitment to Classical music, though definitely "star-power" and profit driven rather than a focus on distinction or innovation - with endless reissues being their mainstay. (SONY and DG are prime examples.)
I'm old-fashioned; I'm a CD guy. I've been an avid collector of Classical compact discs (an obsession, really) for nearly 40 years and have amassed close to 9,000 of them. I like the cover art. I like reading the booklets. I like the ability to load the disc and play with the remote control and listen in any way I want to. But I'm also an audiophile. So, most of all, I like the excellent sound quality I achieve from playing CDs on my high-quality stereo system, which I have been assembling and fine-tuning with quality components and cables for decades. I simply do not want to do downloads. Period.
But I'm no dummy. I'm seeing the writing on the wall. I'm already witnessing a substantial decrease in Classical SACD releases. They simply are not cost-effective to produce (apparently). But now, CDs are becoming harder and harder to find too, with back-catalog titles disappearing forever. I realize I may have no choice and will one day have to give the downloading thing a whirl. But I'm not there yet.
I can rest easy knowing I have enough CDs in my collection to listen to for the rest of my life, probably without ever listening to the same one twice. So as long as CD players can still be purchased when mine finally breaks down, I'm set. (That's another matter altogether, though; SACD players are becoming very rare and good CD players are not exactly plentiful these days.) But how disappointing would it be to one day be denied the pleasure of perusing the new release lists and deciding which new CDs to buy?