This is my third encounter with the fabulous Escher Quartet. First was on a CD of new music by Yuko Eubayashi, with flutist Carol Wincenc, on Azica. The second was their complete set of Mendelssohn String Quartets on BIS. Now comes this excellent new recording with guitarist Jason Vieaux, also from the amazing Azica label, on which I've enjoyed several new releases lately.
And just by coincidence, I had just listened to a brand new Naxos release featuring one of the same pieces as on this Dance CD - the brilliant Guitar Quintet by Castelnuovo-Tedesco. I actually have a 3rd recording of it as well, on a 2019 Cedille album entitled Souvenirs of Spain & Italy, with Sharon Isbin and one of my favorite string quartets, the Pacifica. Written in 1950, it is a popular work lately - and how lucky that is for us! It is a wonderfully entertaining piece, full of charisma, color and charm.
The Naxos recording features German guitarist Leonard Becker, with individual string players (rather than an established quartet). And like Cedille, with a well-known American guitarist, Azika also features an American - Jason Vieaux, teaming up with the marvelous Escher Quartet. What riches in just these three discs!
Comparing the three, it is impossible to declare one "better" than the others. All three are beautifully performed and preferences will likely come down to couplings and recording quality. I'm not a guitarist and do not pretend to be an expert on the subject, but there are observations I can make.
Isbin displays her characteristic gifts of lyrical, singing lines, with phenomenal legato and vibrato. Cedille affords her a beautifully atmospheric acoustic and the reading is full of charm. The Pacifica Quartet match her with their own sweetness of tone and expressiveness.
Becker, in stark contrast, is bolder - more "masculine", if you will - due in part to the much more upfront Naxos sound, mastered at a higher volume than the others. After the gorgeous acoustic of the Cedille, the Naxos sounds somewhat artificial and not quite natural - until the ear adjusts. But Naxos scores big-time with some superb flute playing from Chloe Dufossez in Tedesco's Sonatina for Flute and Guitar later in the program. What a wonderful work this is, and what jaw-droppingly gorgeous flute sound. Even if you already have the Guitar Quintet elsewhere, you should hear this Naxos for the Flute Sonatina.
Vieaux seems to fall in between the two, striking just the right balance of lyricism and vigor. He plays with a crisper, slightly more articulate technique, even in lyrical passages, especially when compared to Isbin's amazing legato. He receives the best recorded sound of all, with superb presence and dimensionality, without being at all forward like the Naxos. The hall ambience is captured beautifully, placing the quartet and the guitar in equal importance.
Moving on to the remaining program from Vieaux, we have a treat in the form of Aaron Jay Kernis's 100 Greatest Dance Hits (ahem...). It's actually a really cool piece (which I had not heard before) and isn't at all tawdry, as I had feared. It's a refreshingly creative work, with so many mood changes I can't possibly describe them all here. I will defer to the movement subtitles to tell the tale, and their descriptions are pretty close to what we hear: 1. Introduction to the Dance Party; 2. Salsa Pasada; 3. Easy Listening Slow Dance Ballad; 4. Dance Party on the Disco Motorboat.
A few details which make the work so uniquely entertaining are worth elaborating on. The Introduction begins with the guitarist making percussive sounds - knuckles and fingers on wood, joined by pizzicatos and strumming behind the bridge on the violins (and perhaps some percussive effects of their own too - it's difficult to tell for sure without seeing the score). This sets the stage for a segue into the Salsa movement, with some energetic grooving and a strong Latin flavor. Kernis quickly gets down to business with lovely melodies above an insistent, syncopated pulse below, heightening the momentum established in the Introduction. This movement is dazzling in its scoring and rhythmic propulsion, along with truly inspired, memorable tunes. The ballad is a sweetly romantic interlude, with some sentimental violin solo writing and tender accompaniment. And to the Disco party we go in the finale. There really is nothing "disco" about it, though - until the last few seconds or so, when the contemporary, rhythmic, energetic tension of the movement implodes with vociferous glissandi and scratching effects up into the highest reaches of the violins, invoking shouts (literally!) from the players - and at last we hear just a few bars of the disco beat taking us to the end. The party stops abruptly - and much too soon, just as it was really getting good!
The "Salsa" and "Slow Dance" descriptors are the most "spot on", musically, and I suppose all of it reminds one of a dance party. But there really is so much more to the piece than that. It is actually rather serious, but in a festive way. And it is seriously good. It's all great fun, the players are obviously enjoying themselves, and it's spectacularly played and recorded. There is nothing "gimmicky" about it when so expertly crafted, so professionally performed and so successfully pulled off, as in this performance. The piece would bring an audience instantly to its feet with abandoned applause and cheers.
Interestingly, a few years later (in 1998), Kernis reworked some of this music into a Concierto de 'Dance Hits' for guitar and chamber orchestra. It omits the Introduction and the Disco Boat, adding an entirely new first movement (Double Echo) and ending with Salsa Pasada. It has recently been released on Naxos, played by its dedicatee, guitarist David Tanenbaum. I found it even more engaging and musically compelling; a significant addition to the guitar concerto repertoire.
After the Dance Party, the Boccherini 4th Quintet is a bit of a party pooper. Oh it's a nice piece, and very well played here in the arrangement for guitar and strings. But remember, this was written in 1797, and, according to the very informative booklet, was originally conceived for piano and strings. Only later did the guitar come to replace the piano. (There was also a version for string quartet as well.) Even with all the jubilance these players afford the work, after the Disco boat it can't help but sound a bit stuffy and anticlimactic - and almost anything would. One wonders why it was decided to place this last on the program? It would have been terrific, and much more musically appropriate, coming first, setting the festive mood, and allowing the rowdy shouts from the disco motorboat to finish the concert. But I'm nitpicking. The entire disc really is fabulous. And I will program the CD player to play the Boccherini first next time through.
This is the latest in a series of incredibly good releases I have heard from the fantastic Azica label. Of all the great independent, specialty Classical labels I enjoy, Azica stands out - with innovative repertoire, professional presentation, first class production qualities and, especially, consistently superb recorded sound. There is no better representation of state-of-the-art CD sound quality than what this label produces.
I will always be on the lookout for more on this label, regardless of what it is. They always have something interesting to offer and I've not been disappointed yet. This latest one featuring the Escher Quartet in dance mode is a knockout.