What an enticing title and program we have here. I am familiar with the composers, but had not heard these quintets before. Therefore I approached them with great interest. And this appears to be the debut recording by a group called the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective, which (according to the booklet) "operates with a flexible roster featuring many of today's most inspirational musicians". I'm further intrigued!
Amy Beach's Quintet starts off promisingly, with a passionate and rhapsodic opening movement. It is made up of a variety of tempos and moods, reminding me a bit of Tchaikovsky. And it is immediately apparent the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective is a fabulous group of musicians, playing with assertive individuality along with a uniform interpretation. Their dynamic range is extremely impressive, but never aggressive. The Adagio which follows is a heartfelt outpouring of expression, which is instantly reminiscent of Dvorak's New World Symphony's slow movement. By the time the 3rd movement arrives, things perk up considerably. And more variety in scoring and texture is welcomed - with pizzicatos and delicate pianistic filigree. (There is no denying this is a thickly scored work.) This group plays up the passion, adding to its intensity - which may not always be a positive.
I thought the piece goes on a bit too long (each of its three movements is nearly 10 minutes a piece), not helped by the Chandos recording, which is bit fatiguing. It's a touch ill-focused and, if not quite grainy, there is some roughness to it. But not to make too much of it, the Quintet is an important work in this composer's output and I'm glad to have this recording of it. Interestingly, there is an earlier, 1999, recording of it - also on Chandos, played by a group called The Ambache - which I have not heard.
Skipping the Barber, which is written for solo baritone voice and string quartet, which is totally not my thing, the Florence Price Quintet is just the relief I needed after the passion of the Beach. After a dramatic opening statement, Price soon ushers in airier textures, more variety in the scoring, beautifully singing lines and just enough rhapsodic drama to keep it interesting. It is obviously more modern (written about 30 years after the Beach), with more exploratory chromatic tonal development and hints of Impressionism. I even hear Rachmaninoff flavorings. The first movement is glorious, with delightful light-and-shadow shadings. I particularly enjoyed the brief sections which feature the 1st violin in soloistic passages which could actually be the beginnings of a violin sonata (brilliantly played here). Price's second movement, as in the Beach, also has hints of Dvorak's New World in it. But the piece, thus far, also reminds me a lot of Brahms on a good day, with brilliant scoring and memorable melodic lines. It is a bit more lighthearted than Brahms, though. Let's call it Brahms with a smile.
All is well, that is, until the 3rd movement arrives. After the two opening movements of serious, legitimate and thoroughly engaging music-making, Juba - suddenly without warning or any kind of context - transports us to a square dance in the middle of an Oklahoma musical! I read in the booklet that "juba" is a popular stomping dance. OK...excellent. But in the middle of a serious string quartet? It is so completely out of place (and not really conducive to a string quartet) that I couldn't decide whether to laugh it off or shake my head in amazement. Interestingly, Price inserts a 'Juba' movement into her Symphonies #1, 3 and 4 as well (#2 is largely lost), even adding train whistle sound effects from the percussion section in the case of the 1st. It must have been something important to her with which to mark her works. The finale brings vigorous high spirits, with just a whiff of the hoedown lingering. It is short, but energetic and very exciting. The ending would surely bring down the house in a live performance.
So, while that one section is perplexing, the Price is nonetheless the highlight of the concert for me. And Chandos proudly proclaims this is its premier recording. (One wonders if it weren't for that 3rd movement if the piece would be played more often.) The Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective has provided an engaging program with performances of the highest caliber, making this disc most worthwhile and thoroughly rewarding. I hope they record more.
This Chandos release is CD only. I'm a huge fan of the label, but, as noted above, this is not one of their best recordings. However, it is not too serious; it's just surprising, coming from such an esteemed label, and may explain why it didn't merit an SACD.