Nino Rota is one of those composers who offers such a variety of interesting music, I always enjoy every encounter. He's also a composer who is equally adept at writing standard "Classical" fare as he is at film music. And, outside his film scores, I rarely hear something of his and can immediately proclaim, 'Oh, that's Nino Rota!' He has his own voice, certainly, but it's not easily identifiable as being uniquely Rota. It's just fantastic music - period. This disc is a perfect example. Each work is so different from the others, so masterfully written and scored, and so thoroughly enjoyable, I listened to the entire CD straight through twice! And not for a moment did I feel it was getting to be kind of all the same.
And even though my headline above singles out Eric Le Sage specifically (and he certainly deserves it), I have to begin with the incredible flute playing of Emmanuel Pahud. If there was ever any question that he is one of the greatest living flutists, this disc confirms it. Beginning with the opening Trio for Flute, Violin and Piano, I was in awe of his playing. The richness of tone; the plump (but incisive) articulation; the breath control; and certainly the effortless and brilliant virtuosity. Just listen to the 3rd movement, Allegro vivace con spirito. I couldn't help but exclaim WOW! when it was done. (To be absolutely truthful, I exclaimed WOW several times during this piece.) I was a flute player back in the day and I still marvel at how well Pahud plays this at this tempo. What utterly fabulous flute playing this is. And not to slight the other two players partnering with him - violinist Daishin Kashimoto is one of my favorite chamber musicians, notably for his musical, sweetly singing tone, and here he displays his virtuoso abilities as well. And, Eric le Sage...well, he is simply beyond words.
After I recovered from being blown away by this performance, I was able to fully realize what an incredibly fantastic piece this is. It's the best 12 minutes I've spent in front of the stereo in a long time. And I suppose it's too soon to praise the recorded sound, and I'll get to that more later. But Alpha Classics must take a whole lot of the credit right from the get go. The sound is awesome in every way.
Two short piano solo interludes give us a chance to catch our breath, taking us to a charming little woodwind quintet, Piccola, followed by the famous Nonetto. I've always admired this piece, but never as much as hearing it played by this group. There is a spontaneity and energy that is rarely heard on record. Youthful exuberance is probably the best way to describe this performance.
As an aside, I recently acquired Oxalys's new CD, Nonetto, which also includes the Rota. It is interesting to hear how equally fabulous both of these performances of the piece are. Both groups bring enormous vitality, whit and enthusiastic verve to this music. And both are expertly played. If I had to pick just one, I wouldn't (couldn't). Ultimately, I suppose Pahud and friends receive the better recording (but only slightly), which is engaging, dynamic and warm. Oxalys is a touch more detailed, extrovert and upfront in perspective, equally involving certainly, but sounding perhaps a tad more energetic as well. Both are terrific and I wouldn't want to be without either.
The Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano brings a bit of respite from the high energy, with Paul Meyer's wonderfully melodious clarinet tone - gorgeously dark and wooden - closely matching that of cellist Aurelien Pascal. A touch more richly Romantic in flavor, the piece is simply glorious, and I smiled at the unmistakable spikiness of Shostakovich in the Allegrissimo. The program then ends (rather oddly) with two more miniatures for solo piano from Le Sage.
Revisiting the similar collection on a 1996 BIS CD affirms the superior playing on this Alpha Classics release. While the older BIS is just fine, in comparison it is merely serviceable - musically and technically. I was shocked to hear how earthbound and pedestrian it is, lacking the verve and flair found on the Alpha Classics. And no offense to Sharon Bezaly, but she is simply no match for Emmanuel Pahud, at least in this repertoire.
Finally getting back to the recorded sound. This is yet another CD from Alpha Classics which has greatly impressed me recently. The first was the Faure chamber music set (reviewed elsewhere on this blog). For Rota, the sound is a little different from the Faure. It is more upfront and bold (but not forward) - immediate, well focused, warm and colorful, providing thrilling impact and presence. The players are spread out in front of the listener, where the intake of breath is easily heard (and some clicking of keys), making the experience one of great realism. It's appropriately a little more intimate a setting than in the more spacious Faure.
All in all, I simply can't say enough good things about this CD. I've heard (and reviewed) many wonderful new CDs already this year. And even in that exalted company, this one stands out and is surely a contender for my favorite of the year. Do not miss it!