I was in the mood for something different when I found this CD collecting dust on my shelf, previously unopened. It dates from 1981 and is long out-of-print, but it happily it led me to discover a more recent (2000) recording on Ondine, which prompted this write-up of both discs.
Pro-Arte produced some fine recordings in the 80s, many of which were later reissued on various satellite labels (Intersound, Maxiplay, etc.) in "surround sound". They were among the first "audiophile" labels (along with Telarc) which attempted to make better-sounding CDs than the standard digital fare from the majors, which often did not sound all that good on the early CD playback of the time. (Remember those rack systems that you could find everywhere, like Penny's, Sears, and KMart?!) This label also attracted some pretty good names, such as Eduardo Mata, Gerard Schwarz, Eric Kunzel, and others.
However, this title seems to be sort of a one-off. A fairly obscure piece by a second-rate Russian composer, played by a no-name violinist with a second-tier orchestra - it's actually just the kind of recording I'm usually drawn to! But alas, these performers do not make a very convincing case for this wonderful piece, despite the review quotes they found somewhere to print on the back cover...Ha!
Taneyev's Suite de Concert for Violin and Orchestra, requires true musical insight, passionate inspiration and dedication to bring it off. Maybe that's why it's so rarely recorded. Unfortunately, it does not receive it here. Christian Altenburger is a good player, but not much more than that - not quite what we would classify as "world class". The main problem is that his intonation is insecure throughout - painfully so, at times. The Vienna Symphony (not to be confused with the magnificent Vienna Philharmonic) sounds like they're sight-reading the score, which I'm sure they are; I doubt they had played it before. I suspect rehearsal time was very limited, and it sounds like it. Conductor Yuri Ahronovitch brings his usual level of pedestrian reliability to the proceedings - detached and disinterested.
The recording is typical of the house-sound Pro-Arte was known for - overly warm and rich, engulfed in a very reverberant acoustic. So it is a pleasant listen, but in no way revealing of the glories inherent in this music.
Intrigued, I searched my shelves again and found another unopened recording of it. It is a 2000 Ondine release, played by violinist Pekka Kuusisto with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic. And it is a revelation. Miraculously, this piece comes to life as never before, revealing it to be a true masterpiece for this composer. I credit Ashkenazy for elevating this performance to the lofty heights it achieves here - in stark contrast to the ho-hum results Ahronovitch manages for Altenburger. The Tchaikovskian fire and drama burst forth in Helsinki. And Kuusisto's playing has all the passion and assured effortlessness Altenburger lacks. Ondine's superior recording helps significantly as well, being much more open, lively, airy, sparkling and dramatic than the woolly Pro-Arte.
I hate to dis an out-of-print, innovative title from a defunct record label such as this one on Pro-Arte. But recordings of this work are relatively rare, so it does possess value. And it certainly provides a striking contrast with the one on Ondine, which in comparison, is simply magnificent. Ondine also offers 2 significant (if less satisfying) couplings, which the Pro-Arte does not.
I love discovering new 21st Century music. Over the past few years, I have gained much pleasure from composers such as Guillaume Connesson, Joseph Phibbs, Kenneth Fuchs and Paul Patterson. Another potential candidate for the list is a name completely unfamiliar to me, Gernot Wolfgang. For the record, I was contacted by Mr. Wolfgang offering to send me this CD, gratis, with consideration for a review. I eagerly accepted the offer.
This is a somewhat difficult disc for me to describe in words, simply because Mr. Wolfgang displays such a unique compositional voice. I usually try to connect to new music by relating it to other composers with which I'm familiar. That is simply impossible here - in a very good way. It's all so refreshing, new, interesting and involving, I have a hard time turning it off. And each piece is completely different from its companions. Not for an instant does this music sound all the same; nor does it turn into atonal noise; nor is it a jumble of meaningless notes. Every phrase has a musical purpose and is musically creative and rewarding.
The album is subtitled "Groove-Oriented Chamber Music, Vol 4". And as I listen, I don't really hear whatever I was expecting from that description. Involving, yes. Energetic, yes. Rhythmic, yes. But "grooving"? I actually am more impressed and moved overall by its sheer musicality - its lyrical, melodic inspiration - which is rather rare to find in "new" music. And that's OK, because I really like this music, no matter how it's described.
Up first on the program is something I wasn't expecting to like much; I'm not a huge fan of solo bassoon music. But on the contrary, Road Signs actually turned out to be one of my favorite works on the entire program! I was struck by three salient characteristics in this work: 1. absolutely superb playing from bassoonist Judith Farmer (who I read is also a co-producer of this CD); 2. absolutely gorgeous Albany recording (which distinguishes this entire CD) - intimate, "present", and perfectly focused within a warm, yet clear acoustic; 3. most importantly, that unique, musical compositional voice, establishing Gernot Wolfgang as the real deal. (And he doesn't need me to point that out: his Volume 3 in this series was nominated for a Grammy!)
Passage to Vienna, for piano trio, instantly reminded me of Piazzolla. However, I hasten to add, this is a much more accomplished piece than any I've experienced from Piazzolla. But the flavor is similar - at first. It doesn't take long for Wolfgang to venture out into his own, very unique territory, proving again what a skillful, inventive composer he is. There is a sensational combination of moods here, from musically singing, lyrical passages, shifting to energetic, rhythmic propulsive ones. And I am once again struck with the superb musicianship of these performers (especially pianist Joanne Pearce Martin) and the excellence of the recorded sound.
Route 33 was probably my least favorite; but I nonetheless enjoyed it and it is well played by pianist Gloria Cheng.
I was happy to see Judith Farmer return for Windows, a trio for clarinet, bassoon and piano. Another very interesting work, again not "groove-oriented" to my ears, beginning with achingly lyrical expression at first, then with more rhythmical interjections in the central sections. In all honesty, I found this work a bit overlong (13:42); it did not command my attention to same degree the other pieces did.
Next comes a true masterpiece - Impressions, for clarinet, bassoon, horn, and string quartet (just one violin, but adding a bass viol). Now this one Grooves! In the first movement, Carnival in Venice, we hear infectious, jazzy rhythms, with moments here and there reminiscent of Poulenc's fabulous Sextet. The 3rd movement, Country Road, is similar, but with the jaunt of a good ol' American cowboy! It's far too short (just 2 minutes); I wanted more. These outer movements flank a passionate, lyrical central movement, Dream. Wolfgang's varied, inventive and colorful orchestration makes me long to hear an orchestral work of his. (I have not explored his music enough yet to discover any, although I have heard a fabulous work for concert band, entitled Three Short Stories.)
Last on this disc is From Vienna With Love, for piano quartet. Another involving, interesting and inventive piece, bringing the program to a rousing finish. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
All in all, I enjoyed this disc very much and listened to it straight through, twice. The compositional inspiration is apparent everywhere. And the inventive orchestration is endlessly interesting and compelling. Mr. Wolfgang has me hooked, and I'll need to acquire the earlier volumes in the series. I cannot praise highly enough the accomplishments achieved here - the music, the performers (all Los Angeles-based professionals), and the recorded sound. A composer simply cannot be rewarded more highly than with this level of excellence from all involved.
Just like this team's Debussy, Pentatone drenches this Ravel in molten dark chocolate. But what a performance!
This is a very fine complete Daphnis and Chloe. However, right off the get-go, I had concerns. First, nowhere is there a chorus listed. Not on the cover, not on the back, nowhere in the booklet. Simply nowhere. This score loses so much when the choral parts are missing and played by the optional orchestra parts. But all is good - there is indeed a chorus, somewhere, sung by some unknown group, which has somehow participated in these sessions. And they are excellent.
Second, the sound. Beginning with Une Barque sur l'ocean, I was dismayed to hear unusually dark, mushy, compressed sound. Fortunately, the sound improves somewhat for the ballet, especially in focus and "presence". Those who have heard this conductor's Debussy disc, also for Pentatone, will know what to expect. Pentatone distances the orchestra way back and submerges it in molten dark-chocolate. Not only is there a lack of sparkle and air, climaxes grow congested and fail to expand as they should. I can't fathom why the engineers decided Ravel and Debussy need help from them in making their scores sound sumptuous and "Impressionistic". As a matter of fact just the opposite is true - the cleaner/clearer the recording, the better to hear how masterfully these composers accomplish it all on their own, with richly colorful orchestration. Just listen once again to the fabulous Dutoit/Montreal/Decca and Ozawa/Boston/DG recordings of this music for prime examples.
However, not all is negative. Softer, more atmospheric passages - and the strings in particular - are simply ravishing in the dark sumptuousness. And the a cappella chorus at the beginning of Part II benefits from the distant perspective, emanating from way back in the mists. And occasionally, a closely mic'd detail jumps out with startling impact - such as the wind machine in track 8, which is quite stunning. But soon after, as the action really gets going in Part II's Warring dance of the pirates, frustration sets in as climaxes struggle to expand and the sound becomes hard and congested - just the opposite of effortless.
I make a big deal out of Pentatone's engineering, on both this and the companion Debussy disc, because Gimeno has a real feel and understanding of this music. And his orchestra plays brilliantly. It's a pity Pentatone makes us work so hard to hear it - this Daphnis and Chloe is spectacular. Gimeno's tempos are natural and flowing, without ever dragging. He understands this is dance music and Ravel doesn't need his help with exorbitant rubato or lagging tempos. He's also scrupulous with dynamics. For example, the opening to Part III (Sunrise) is absolutely, truly pianissimo - and it is simply breathtaking. He also understands that this score can, and should be, thrilling. Just listen to the frenzy he whips up in the Danse geurriere in Part II! And the final Bacchanale is very fast, yet not so wild it's about to spin off the tracks. The fast tempo is securely under control and, for once, doesn't sound breathless. Inner details, which are often smoothed over and whisked away in the rush to the finish line, are actually clearly articulated by this fabulous orchestra. Even with Pentatone keeping the lid on the sound, it's as exciting as you're ever likely to hear.
The fillers - which are no more than that - inexplicably come AFTER that most exciting Daphnis finale. Placed there, they become even more of a let-down than they might otherwise be, and there simply is no logical reason for it. It would never be programmed this way in a live concert. This is nothing more than a senseless production blunder.
Finally, to emphasize my point about the recording quality, listen to this very same orchestra and conductor on disc 2 of their recent Stravinsky SACD double. Pentatone provides a completely different soundscape for them in Stravinsky. They clear out the cobwebs, open up the sound, lighten up the darkness, and allow dynamics to expand effortlessly. As a result, the performances simply come alive! Sparkle and articulation are restored and the music positively dances. This is one of the best sounding SACDs I can recall. Finally, we hear how this orchestra really sounds in their home venue. And frankly, we hear what we know Pentatone is capable of. They have produced many, many state of the art recordings over the years. Which makes it all the more baffling why they have struggled so terribly with this French repertoire.
I'm not sure why so many seem to like this 1980s RCA cycle from Saraste. I find the symphonies bland, run-of-the-mill and completely forgettable. (Incidentally, his 1993 live remakes for Finalandia are very similar. There is no extra spark from being live performances; they are still bland and thoroughly unnecessary). What makes this set even remotely interesting is the inclusion of so much incidental music and suites. It's very useful having all this music compiled in a convenient box.
If only RCA's recorded sound was at all helpful. It's not. (And SONY hasn't bothered with remastering it for this reissue.) It actually mirrors the readings - flat, bland, airless, lacking life and sparkle all through. This box is one to avoid unless this particular compilation is essential to complete one's collection. But even then, it would be very much worth the effort to seek out all this music in alternative recordings, even if it entails buying several individual discs.
As Pentatone is phasing out their SACD releases and we see more and more CD-only titles on this label, it is just mind boggling that this one got the SACD treatment. This confirms my earlier complaints that there seems to be no logic behind Pentatone's decision-making; it's just arbitrary. Or perhaps it all comes down to star power - although even then, I wouldn't call Arabella Steinbacher a "star" by any measure. So who knows.
What makes this especially exasperating is that in the same month, Pentatone has also released two discs of Masses by Mozart, Bruckner and Stravinsky - on CD-only. Why this violinist churning out some completely irrelevant Vivaldi merits the full multi-channel hybrid SACD luxury is beyond comprehension.
In the end, what everyone really needs is yet another Vivaldi Four Seasons, right? Mixing it up and interspersing it with Piazzola's thoroughly pointless take on it is gimmicky (at best) and sure to make some sales. And therein lies our explanation for where Pentatone is headed these days. Survival is the best word that comes to mind. And Classical music as we knew it takes another nose-dive toward triviality.
For the record: I didn't buy this. I won't. But I'm sure she plays it all just fine for those who are desperate for yet another Four Seasons.
Postscript: I wonder how long it will take Pentatone to realize that their success has been because of their high-quality DSD recording techniques and their dedication to the SACD format. And once that disappears from their reputation, the loyalty of their customers will disappear too.
The CD cover tells all. The smirk on Krzysztof Urbanksi's face seems to say: "Wait till you hear what I do to this score". And from the very first note, I'm annoyed. And it sets the stage for everything which is to come.
Let's take a quick peek at the score - there's plenty of time to do so while that very first bassoon high C is playing. It is a quarter note with a fermata. But Urbanski has his bassoonist sustain it a full ten seconds! It's as if nothing is ever going to happen. And it is played the same way when it recurs 3 minutes later (on a Cb this time). And this is just the first extreme in a reading of extremes - extremely slow tempos (will the Spring Rounds or Mystic Circle of Young Girls ever end?); extremely soft passages followed by extremely loud, obnoxious ffff outbursts, which are just short of vulgarity.
Yup, Urbanski is determined to startle us with his "insight" and that's exactly what he sets out to do. Details are thrust aside in the point-making, and any sense of danceability - the spirit of the ballet - is eschewed. It is a heavy, weighty pronouncement of Mr. Urbanski's "take" on the score. (Glance again at that smirk on the cover.)
To be fair, there are sections in which this heaviness works. For example, the Glorification of the Chosen One in Part Two is rather impressive, with a real sense of menace and terror. But then, the Ritual of the Ancestors which follows practically comes to a dead stop. It's so slow even the English Horn player has trouble sustaining its long D# in one place, presumably running out of air.
And just when one thinks the end is near, and maybe, just maybe, it wasn't really all that bad, the final Sacrificial Dance leaves no doubt: yep, it really is that bad. Urbanski simply buries what's left of it. It is so slow, ponderous and thick that forward momentum comes to a halt and it drags on for an endless 5'17". There is absolutely no sense of any kind that this is a ballet. This virgin isn't dancing herself to death; the poor thing is left to die stuck in drying cement.
Alpha-Classics must have been happy with it; perhaps this reading's outlandishness would garner them notice for having participated in it. And as such, the recorded sound is serviceable, dutifully providing a murky, dark, weighty lower half of the orchestra.
There is an accompanying Blu-ray video of a Live performance recorded 3 months after the studio CD was made. It is a very high quality production, with a beautiful picture and better sound than the CD. The performance is a bit more involving too. But I found it almost more painful watching Urbanski conduct than just listening to the CD, with the constant, ridiculous snarl on his face and clawed left hand, as if he's about to maul the players closest to him. Oh give me a break - it's simply too much to endure. How the orchestra players sat there with a straight face is astonishing.
So while the Blu-ray disc should have been a real bonus, as it turns out, it is scant compensation for a CD lasting just 36 minutes. And be reminded that 36 minutes is a VERY long Rite of Spring.
What a wonderful find is this new Naxos! It's hard to believe this particular coupling is unique, and that these delightful American symphonettes are so rarely recorded. Only #4, 'Latin-American Symphonette', has any real presence in the catalog.
I raised an eyebrow seeing these recordings were made with the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. But not to worry. American conductor, Arthur Fagen, has this music securely in his DNA. He draws such idiomatic and authentically "American" playing from this great orchestra, I can't imagine these readings being bettered.
And what wonderful music it is! I had not heard #2 & 3 before, and only vaguely remember having heard #4 at some point. All three are similar in flavor and mood. And they are instantly recognizable as being "American", but mercifully don't sound like Copland. No, nothing wrong with Copland. But often times American music from around this time (30s, 40s, 50s) just can help but sound like Copland. This does not. If anything, it sounds more like Charles Ives and Don Gillis. But it's a unique voice and sounds like...well, Morton Gould. So perhaps I should say Ives and Gillis sound like Gould!
Spirituals is much better known and receives a warmly sympathetic reading here, filling out the disc to a most satisfying close and an impressive 66" playing time.
Playing and conducting are absolutely first rate. And so is the sound. Naxos has really mastered the art of recording the symphony orchestra in the past decade or so, and this one is simply outstanding. The orchestra is natural in perspective, clean and clear in a warm acoustic, with a brilliant "presence" and effortless dynamic range. It helps bring these performances thrillingly to life. This is one of my favorite discs of the year so far. I enjoyed it enormously.
Robert LaPorta, owner/director of MSR Classics, kindly alerted me to this ongoing series of Beethoven Sonatas played by James Brawn. I admit to not having heard of this series, or this pianist, before, which is a prime example of the plight of small independent record labels everywhere. Fabulous recorded music often goes unnoticed, overshadowed by the glut of marketing bunk from the big name labels, peddling their latest hottie superstar. Thankfully, we have many small independent labels in the Classical realm which still care about music - and for the right reasons - where making music is given priority above all else. Which brings me to the discs under review.
From MSR's website: "Founded in 1998 as Musicians Showcase Recordings, MSR Recordings (since August 2003) offers recording artists the opportunity to create and release an album, and to have it distributed and promoted in a global market..."
Pianist James Brawn was born in England, began piano lessons at age 5 in New Zealand, and made his debut in Australia at the age of 12. He began recording this series of Beethoven Sonatas in 2012, in Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK. Six volumes have been released thus far. Listening to them, I am struck by James Brawn the musician, even more so than by James Brawn the pianist. Oh, certainly he can play the piano! But, then again, many, many pianists can play these notes. What makes Mr. Brawn's playing special is that these are some of the most musical readings I have yet encountered. He brings an almost symphonic grandness to them. Yet, he does so while remaining faithful to the printed page. Too many pianists just have to make a statement - some musical point - to stamp their mark on these pieces, in hopes of distinguishing themselves from the crowd. As a result, they too often tend to sound mannered and, what I call, "fussy". I prefer Beethoven as Beethoven, not Beethoven as envisioned by pianist such-and-such.
In general, Mr. Brawn favors briskly moving tempos. Slow movements never drag, and Andantes move with a natural forward flow. The results sound so authentic, so very "right", that it becomes difficult to imagine them played any other way. His scrupulous observance of dynamics adds to the sense of authority.
In the earlier Sonatas, and especially in the later "easy" ones (i.e. #s 19-20 and 24-27), Brawn plays with a stunning natural expression, positively infusing them with a sublime musicality. He also brings a sense of drama, which is so expertly accomplished without a hint of undue weight or emotional baggage. It suits these works perfectly, and also reveals them to be absolute masterpieces in the genre. We discover a newfound "validity" to them, which elevates them in importance to stand alongside the more famous "named" sonatas. It's absolutely remarkable and difficult to describe how utterly musical they sound. And they are among my very favorites in Brawn's set.
As we move into some of the middle/later sonatas, we hear more of this same natural expression but with even more of the aforementioned "symphonic grandness". Perhaps there is a bit too much pedal being introduced (most notably in the final movements of the Moonlight and Appassionata). But pedaling is certainly a matter of taste. I tend to prefer the crisp clarity of Arthur Rubinstein in Beethoven, where his sparse use of the pedal is simply magnificent, revealing endless details which are often obscured. Brawn sounds nothing like Rubinstein; which isn't a bad thing. It's just different. And again, he sounds almost symphonic in comparison. (I actually have similar observations of Igor Levit's excellent SONY set.)
And while Mr. Brawn generally avoids affectation, he does at last occasionally give in to the temptation in these same two Sonatas, where we hear an emphasis here, and slight hesitation there, which tends to disrupt the forward momentum inherent in the score. But I'm nit-picking; it is never intrusive. It is noteworthy simply because it is largely absent everywhere else in the set.
On the other hand, there are so many examples where he plays with such an immersive, musical understanding of this music, criticisms are silenced, and one simply forgets about everything but the music. Of the named sonatas, the Waldstein and Tempest stand out to me, even above all the others, as being exemplary.
And, finally, some comments about the recorded sound. All of this excellence would be for not if the piano doesn't sound realistic. I have summarily dismissed many sets over the years for simply having poor recorded piano sound. (The same goes for Concertos.) I find, time and time again, many labels, especially the majors, simply cannot get it right. But once again, we are lucky to have the dedication of small independent labels who care as much about excellent recorded sound as they do about excellent musical performances. MSR firmly falls in this category.
Comparing the recorded sound of this set to Igor Levit's on SONY is enlightening. I initially thought SONY had done better than most. But after hearing the MSR, I must temper my previous admiration for the SONY, which now sounds almost too richly upholstered and plush. It makes Levit's Steinway sound more like a Fazioli, which isn't necessarily a negative, but it may not be quite realistic. Still, one can't help but luxuriate in that gorgeous, full-bodied left-hand tone, cushioned on pillows of air. However, switching to Brawn's MSR discs, one instantly enters a different world. This sounds like a real piano. Where SONY transports the listener to the hall in which it was recorded, MSR brings the piano into your listening room. It is more "present" and alive, powerful and grand. When played on a high quality stereo, the piano literally sounds in the room with you - and it is thrilling. As a matter of fact, heard from another room in the house, one would absolutely swear someone was playing a real piano in the living room!
Miraculously, the sound never turns bombastic or pounding like so many piano recordings do. (We certainly have Mr. Brawn's musicianship to thank for this as much as the recording, along with the marvelous piano he plays.) MSR's Robert LaPorta credits this outstanding recorded sound to the engineers at Potton Hall, where these sessions took place. Jeremy Hayes, Producer, and Ben Connellan, Engineer, have truly mastered the art of recording the concert grand piano. And they capture the acoustic perfectly. Once heard, it is difficult to adjust to other recordings. A similar statement applies to Mr. Brawn's Beethoven: once heard, it is difficult to accept other readings. It is remarkable how consistently satisfying this cycle is, and how it so closely matches the way I like to hear Beethoven played. I have gained enormous pleasure from it and simply cannot stop listening to it.
Mr. Brawn is recording these works seemingly in random order, or perhaps in the interest of maximizing recording timings. Each release contains an informative booklet and the entire production is first class. I eagerly await the final installments in this series, which is expected to be complete by the end of 2021.
Listed below are the contents of the currently available volumes.
Volume 1 (2012) - # 1, 3 & 23 (Appassionata);
Volume 2 (2012) - # 8 (Pathetique), 14 (Moonlight), 19, 20 & 21 (Waldstein);
Volume 3 (2013) - # 2, 17 (Tempest) & 26;
Volume 4 (2013) - # 9, 15 (Pastorale), 24 (a Therese), 25 & 27;
Volume 5 (2017) - # 5, 6, 7 & 10;
Volume 6 (2018) - # 4, 12 and 11
This newest Naxos is a 2020 recording of Cesar Franck's orchestral music, conducted by Jean-Luc Tingaud. And it is a dandy, with one major caveat.
Tingaud has produced some very fine recordings for Naxos (Poulenc Les Biches, Duaks Symphony in C, Bizet Roma, etc.). However, those were all with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra. This new one is with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. This actually should be a positive change. However...
Beginning with Le Chasseur maudit, I became aware something was amiss almost immediately after the opening horn calls. The sound is 2-dimensional and hopelessly cramped. It simply fails to expand on climaxes, as if a dynamic range limiter has been applied. And what a pity! It is a very exciting performance and the Royal Scottish National plays brilliantly (as expected). But this airless, tubby sound simply stifles it. It actually almost sounds mono.
But then, magically, the acoustic opens up and rich orchestral colors emerge for Psyche. What a difference it makes. This is lovely, truly inspired music-making, showing Jean-Luc Tingaud at his very best. Fortunately, the final piece, Les Eolides, is similarly lovely.
Checking the booklet to try to explain what I'm hearing, I have the expected "ah-hah!" moment. Two different recording dates are listed, 18 months apart. Obviously Chasseur maudit was recorded at different sessions from the rest. What a pity Naxos didn't re-record it, as it is certainly the most well-known piece included here and is likely the big draw for many collectors.
One wonders why the change to a different orchestra and venue for this conductor. However, the majority of the disc is outstanding. Still, good modern recordings of Chasseur maudit are shockingly rare, making this Naxos blunder all the more frustrating and disheartening. I'll stick with the classic 1962 Munch/RCA, complete with its slightly rough recording quality, and Muti's incomparable 1983 Philadelphia/EMI, with its brash, early digital glare. They both sound better than this 2020 Naxos.
Disclaimer: I received this disc from the performer, gratis, with a request for a review.
From the excellent booklet notes:
"Violins of Hope is an artistic and educational project composed of instruments that were owned by Jewish musicians before and during the Holocaust." - James A. Grymes, author of Violins of Hope
Violinist Niv Ashkenazi plays one such violin for this recording, and states in the booklet, "I have chosen Jewish repertoire from throughout its lifetime..."
Mr. Ashkenazi is an alum of the Perlman Music Program, and I often hear hints of Perlman in his playing. With this particular violin, his tone is gorgeous - husky and full of texture, perfectly suited to this music. He plays with passion and exceptional musicianship. There are times where I could do with less portamentos (for example, the opening Dauber Serenade and, especially Williams's Schindler's List Theme, here arranged for violin and piano), but elsewhere his playing is naturally expressive and free of excessive emoting.
As to the repertoire, listening to it from beginning to end, one gets the feeling of routine; it ends up sounding a bit too much of the same thing. However, taken in smaller chunks, one hears more variety and much very good music (most of which I was not previously familiar with). Highlights for me are Julius Chajes's The Chassid, and the very rhapsodic Three songs Without Words, by Paul Ben-Haim.
Mr. Ashkenazi benefits enormously throughout from the superb piano accompaniments played by Matthew Graybil, also a masters graduate from The Juilliard School. The recorded sound is excellent - warm, clean and intimately mic'd.
This is an interesting project and an interesting recording. Once again, Albany Records provides an invaluable addition to the recorded repertoire with an emphasis on American performers. I can recommend this CD to anyone with an interest in this project, and this particular program of music by Jewish composers. The entire production is first-rate and I enjoyed it.