I loved the Quartetto di Cremona's previous Italian-themed CD, "Italian Journey", which appeared in 2012 on a most unusual label, Klanglogo - a "shared brand" of Trust Your Ears (as described on the back cover). That disc treated us to Respighi's rare Quartet, along with music of Puccini and Boccherini, plus the absolutely best ever reading of Verdi's Quartet. The sound is fabulous, although a bit on the robust side of reality, but giving the group enormous presence and dramatic impact, perfect for the music.
Their follow-up disc, "Italian Postcards", comes this time from a more established label, Avie. And it's a bit of a disappointment, I'm afraid. The Wolf Serenade starts us off in familiar territory, and is nicely played and recorded, if ultimately not not terribly special. Next is an odd choice: Mozart's very first quartet, the "Lodi". Some parts of this quartet were apparently composed while the young Mozart was visiting his father in Milan. OK, so that's the connection with our Italian theme. The players adopt a quasi-period playing style here, with minimal vibrato and a thinner tonality. That's all fine and good for Mozart in theory, but it sounds a bit dour coming immediately after the sweetly singing, richly colorful, Romantic Wolf. Therefore I found the Mozart to be terribly out of place. Perhaps if it had come first, it might have been more acceptable.
The highlight of the program is most certainly Borenstein's Cieli d'Italia, which was commissioned by this quartet and presents its world-premier recording. Mr. Borenstein exhibits a unique music voice, tonal, yet undeniably contemporary. I like how he begins to establish a theme, with a defined time signature, but then veers off in an unexpected direction and takes us elsewhere. "Stay with me here", the composer seems to say, and this thought came to mind a number of times. I stayed with him, and found the piece to be thoroughly involving, interesting, intriguing and most enjoyable. It certainly receives a compelling performance here, with absolutely glorious playing and great sound. (As a matter of fact, the piece is so good, I want to explore his music further, and ordered his 2017 Chandos disc of orchestral works, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.)
So far so good.
But then comes the Tchaikovsky Sextet, Souvenir de Florence. Only 2 players are added to the quartet, but for some reason the recording engineers decided to make the group of 6 sound massive, like the entire Philadelphia Orchestra's full string section. The group is literally thrust out into the room, well in front of the speakers, using thick, sawing, long-bows (sounding aggressively crude), and with a sudden increase in volume. After the more intimately scored Borenstein, this instantly sounds vulgar. I can't fathom what anyone involved with this project was thinking, or could possibly be going for. I actually could listen to only a few brief sections of it before I could take no more and turned it off.
Taken as a whole, this new disc is a disappointment, especially after the success of their earlier disc, nearly a decade ago. While it's worth keeping for the Borenstein alone, the rest is rather routine and/or downright off-putting. Fortunately, we can continue to enjoy their first Journey in the series; that disc is a knockout.