If you've seen my blog lately, you will have noticed I've encountered a few less than stellar releases. All in a row. When a Beethoven set and a new disc from a great American string quartet both failed me, I was in the dumps and sorely needed a pick-me-up. Well, these new CDs from the fantastic German label, FARAO, are just what I needed. And they definitely cheered me up big time.
I've encountered this label only twice before this trio of discs came in the mail, and each time I've been impressed with superlative recorded sound - some of the best I've ever heard from good old-fashioned CD. Most striking is a soundstage which is absolutely crystal clear in its clarity. The performers are superbly focused and defined within a gorgeous acoustic in a most realistic, 3-dimensional way. And what is so marvelous about it, it's never the slightest bit cold or clinical or forward. Rather it's warm, full-bodied, colorful and utterly natural - without a hint of excess richness or reverberation. This excellence is impressively consistent from disc to disc, so it is definitely a "house-sound". And it is unbelievably good. I forget all about SACD when listening to CDs that sound as good as these do.
As an aside, two other labels have similarly impressed me in recent months with many of the same spectacular qualities - Genuin, another German label, and Azica, the American label based in Cleveland.
Fortunately, these outstanding record labels attract outstanding musicians. And these collections of chamber music by Holst, Poulenc and Ibert, played by the fabulous Ensemble Arabesques, are stellar examples.
The Holst collection is particularly treasurable, providing us relatively rare repertoire which should be considered essential listening. All this music was completely unknown to me, and this CD would be great fun for a game of "name that composer" with your friends. I can't imagine anyone thinking of Gustav Holst while hearing this rich, rather Romantic yet tonally adventurous, fully developed compositional creativity. It doesn't even sound characteristically English. I'd be thinking perhaps of a German composer but still not coming up with a viable guess (although Richard Strauss came to mind a time or two).
The opening Quintet is especially rewarding - highly creative musically and imaginatively scored for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. Following it are Three Pieces for oboe and string quartet, pleasant enough. More notable though, is the Trio for flute, oboe and clarinet, written some 15 years after the rest (in 1925). It is strikingly more "modern" than anything else on the program. The plaintive melancholy and sense of starkness which inhabit the marvelous opening Allegretto is quite unlike anything we've experienced from Holst. Even though Saturn from The Planets can be similarly described, it is more barren and desolate, whereas this Trio is more melodious. This is a marvelous piece, brought vividly to life here, especially by the incredible flute playing of Eva Maria Thiebaud, with endless variety of tone, color and vibrato. This work actually reminded me of a present-day, contemporary American composer.
The smiling Woodwind Quintet which comes next returns us to the richly Romantic, yet colorful world of, perhaps, a Richard Strauss. And closing the concert is the Sextet, unusual in its scoring for oboe, clarinet, bassoon and string trio.
Lost Holst masterpieces? Perhaps not quite. Yet, there is a lot of really wonderful music here, all of which certainly provides a highly insightful and rare glimpse into another side of Gustav Holst. This is as far removed from the huge orchestral impact of The Planets as can be imagined. But his masterful orchestration skills are everywhere evident. And we get to hear much imaginative musical inspiration, with variety, drama, memorable tunes and creative accomplishment - obviously written by a gifted composer. And as mentioned before, all of it is impossible to identify as being composed by Holst.
This music could not possibly receive stronger advocates than it does from the Ensemble Arabesques, who elevate it all to previously unattained importance in this composer's oeuvre. I've listened to this disc twice already and continue to enjoy every minute of its substantial (and very generous) 80-minute playing time.
Turning to the Poulenc, we are in more familiar territory. And this fabulous group of musicians brings the music to life with stunningly good playing and gorgeous tonal colors. Combined with outstanding recorded sound, the familiar becomes new and fresh.
The opening Trio for piano, oboe and bassoon starts us off with some expressive playing, especially from bassoonist Christian Kunert (particularly in the Andante) and concludes with a jaunty Rondo. But it's the Sextet which really makes one sit up and take notice, where we immediately encounter high energy, colorful playing and musical phrasing. But also a rhythmic propulsion and effortless bravura which takes one's breath away. Has the first movement Allegro vivace ever danced along so infectiously? or the closing Prestissimo whisked away with such thrilling characterization? The atmospheric recording highlights the beauty of tone these players possess - individually and as a group. This flutist, in particular, sounds simply gorgeous (meltingly so), and Pascal Deuber's horn playing (which mercifully does not over-dominant the group) is simply awesome.
After this, the Sonatas for woodwind and piano (one each for flute, oboe and clarinet) round out the concert. Once again, flutist Eva Maria Thiebaud impresses with ravishing tone and dazzling variety of sound (and thrilling virtuosity in the final Presto - wow!). But I was especially struck by clarinetist Gaspare Buonomano, whose tone is exceptionally handsome - round, wooden, well focused and as expressive as I can ever remember hearing from a clarinet. Just listen to his phenomenal breath control and dynamic range in the Romanza - nice! And his virtuosity in the outer movements is pretty dazzling as well. Also impressive is oboist Nicolas Thiebaud, with exquisite, singing, vibrant sound - radiantly recorded.
Special mention must be made of pianist Paul Rivinius, who is the perfect partner all through this concert. He is at all times sensitive, attentive and extremely musical.
I love Poulenc's chamber music and have many wonderful recordings of it. This one stands out as being one of the most enjoyable ever recorded.
Finally, the Ibert collection is similar in its scoring for a variety of combinations. Compositionally, though, it is somewhat simpler in a smaller-scaled way. I hear this music as being more intimate and personal, if slightly less crowd-pleasing. But equally rewarding.
The opening Deux Movements for woodwind quintet - minus horn - is a bit spiky and quirky in a Poulenc way. But the following Trio for violin, cello and harp is much more richly Romantic and impressionistically colorful. I hear hints of Debussy's Serenade for Flute, Viola and Harp, but Ibert is even more harmonically and chromatically advanced (written 30 years after the Debussy). The Three Short Pieces for full woodwind quintet is instantly recognizable, being much more well-known. These are compact and characterful; the opening Allegro a jaunty, almost English, dance, followed by a sweetly lyrical duet for just flute and clarinet in the Andante central section. The piece is notable for its sparce scoring, with each of the instruments alternatively taking on a soloistic role, accompanied by the remaining 4 players.
After a sweetly melancholy Deux Interludes, 5 Pieces for Trio (oboe, clarinet and bassoon) are a delightful mix of the lively and lyrical, played most beautifully here. The blend these players produce makes for a gorgeously rewarding sound.
Finishing off the concert is the marvelous Capriccio for ten instruments. Oddly the picture in the booklet shows only 9 players during the recording session (perhaps the bassoon was taking a break!). Scored for woodwinds (quintet minus horn), string quartet, harp and trumpet, it is the most orchestral in its scoring and variety of color. Yet it never tries to be too symphonic, retaining the intimacy and transparency heard in the previous works for smaller ensembles. The playing, as in the entire concert, is superb. As is the recorded sound. And this concert was over much too soon, especially the 11-minute Capriccio, which really is a fabulous work.
Summing up all three discs, I have nothing but praise. The consistent excellence is remarkable. Everywhere the playing of Ensemble Arabesques is simply glorious - characterful, richly colorful, full of life, delightfully energetic and expertly accomplished. Their playing sparkles with individuality, combined with radiant, gorgeous tonal blend and unified ensemble. And the recorded sound from FARAO Classics simply cannot be bettered.
These three discs provide endless musical enrichment, inspiration and an involving appreciation for music a bit off the beaten path - all in absolutely stunning recorded sound. I recommend all three with equal enthusiasm. I literally haven't been this excited about a chamber group, of (mostly) wind players, in a very long time.