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 quite a lot 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 even more variety in scoring and texture is a welcome relief - with pizzicatos and delicate pianistic filigree. (There is no denying this is otherwise a rather thickly scored work.) In the end, I thought the work 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 Chandos recording of it, 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 drama to keep it interesting. The first movement is glorious, with delightful light-and-shadow shadings. It even has 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 also has hints of Dvorak's New World in it. But the piece, thus far, reminds me more of Brahms on a good day. "A good day" being Brahms at his very best - 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 that I couldn't decide whether to laugh it off or shake my head in amazement. (Interestingly, Price inserts a 'Juba' movement into her 3rd Symphony as well. 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. 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, it is not their best recording. However, it is not serious; it's just surprising, coming from such an esteemed label, and may explain why it didn't merit an SACD.