I love the Mirare label and decided to try this new Brahms release with an unknown orchestra and "director". Alas, I can dispense with it fairly quickly.
I've got to start with a gripe about the production. Why is the Second Serenade played first on this CD? It's completely illogical from every possible viewpoint. Even the booklet talks about the First first! Not only that, the back cover (as pictured on Amazon) incorrectly lists them in reverse order of how they are actually presented on the disc. (Mirare has corrected this, at least on copies in Europe. Mine came from Presto Classical and has a different back cover, with the program listing flip-flopped to match the actual CD. It also has a different picture of the conductor on the front.) Moreover, this performance of the Second is in no way enticing, so I'm completely baffled why Mirare would place it first on the CD.
But whatever. From the very first notes of the opening Allegro moderato (of the Second), it immediately establishes itself as being about as matter-of-fact and lacking in love of any Brahms I've ever heard. And this observation comes from someone who doesn't like lingering, drawn out, emotive Brahms to begin with! I loathe the excessive use of rubato in his music, preferring that it keeps moving forward with a natural flow. So perhaps I deserve what I get here - for there is virtually no emotion or rubato anywhere. This is downright cold and calculated, lacking warmth and feeling. Tempos are swift and rigid, directed as if by a metronome. I had hoped matters would improve in the Scherzo, but no - it's choppy and unduly rushed, with no lilt to it. Similarly, the Menuetto/Trio fourth movement is charmless, and the final Rondo is again rushed and pedestrian.
Further, this is obviously a small string section. And absent the violins in the orchestration, the smallness of sound is exacerbated.
Reluctantly I forged ahead with the First. This is Brahms at his happiest and most joyous, so perhaps this orchestra will at least smile. Well, there is a hint of warmth in the opening Allegro molto - but only just. And that didn't last long. Rigid tempos and playing which is impossibly earthbound, plodding and lacking spontaneity soon became unbearable. This orchestra dutifully plays all the notes without seeming to enjoy a moment of it. They aren't even encouraged to play with musical phrasing or singing lines. The central movements are unremarkable, the Scherzo is rather slow and prosaic, and the concluding Rondo is clipped and clunky, and devoid of charm.
I know I'm being extremely critical. But there are many good recordings released every month, all vying for the collector's attention, and this one literally shouldn't have been made. Even the recorded sound is rather mediocre - which is odd coming from this label. The orchestra is confined within a compact space, further exposing the smallness and lack of sumptuousness to its sound. There is sufficient warmth and reverberation to the soundstage, but the acoustic lacks air and spaciousness, and the orchestra sounds lackluster.
The characteristics I've observed above are not, in and of themselves, the problem here. It's not necessarily the rigid tempos, or the lack of rubato, or the matter-of-fact straightforward approach. All of those qualities could actually work if there was the slightest spark of inspiration motivating them. Or a genuine love of this music. But instead, it's just notes on the page.
Mirare has valiantly taken a chance on this community chamber orchestra and its leader (founder and principal cellist, Victor Julien-Laferriere) by producing their debut recording. And I admire them for that. But I have to wonder - did they hear them play these Brahms Serenades before committing to record them? This small group of musicians sound to be accomplished and more than capable of playing enjoyable concerts. But I can't imagine why they chose Brahms for their debut album. It just doesn't sound like their hearts were in it. I would have expected a debut recording to have an air of occasion to it.
In closing, I can genuinely say I don't enjoy writing a negative review. But I must be honest about what I hear. I purchased this CD, imported it from Europe, and was looking forward to hearing some nice Brahms. Something fresh or insightful. Or at least inspiring. Even though I would normally welcome Brahms played in a more straight-forward manner than usual, this one goes too far. And, frankly, I can't imagine anyone who loves Brahms enjoying it very much.
I have four favorite string quartets making records today - the American Dover and Escher, the French Quatuor Hanson, and the German Aris. (The Pacifica is a close runner-up.) And I have recently discovered another group with much potential, the French Quatuor Van Kuijk, with their new recording of the Mendelssohn Six.
Unlike their Mozart (and even their Schubert), which leans toward the "historically informed" school of playing (with a slightly abrasive sound, sans vibrato, almost as if on authentic instruments), their Mendelssohn is completely different. It's as richly Classical, with a generous forward-looking Romantic warmth, as you could ever want. Yet at the same time it's fresh and invigorating. With a vibrant, exciting sound; clarified textures; ardent, sweetly singing phrasing; unanimity of ensemble; and endless variety of color and vibrato intensity - this group is very impressive here in Mendelssohn. Their playing exhibits many of the best qualities of the Dover (precision of ensemble and articulation, and incredible dynamic range), the Escher (sheer energy and involvement, plus that gorgeous, full-bodied sound), the Hanson (imagination and impressive dynamics) and the Aris (sweetness of expression and musical insight) in what is surely the most completely satisfying and exciting Mendelssohn cycle I've heard.
And that's saying a lot. They are fully the equal of the incomparable set from the Escher Quartet on BIS, and even remind me of the sweetly singing one from the Pacifica on Cedille (who, unfortunately, are not nearly as well recorded as the others). And, well, the Dover haven't gotten around to recording these yet, so we'll just have to continue to wait on them. (And I'm getting impatient.)
Put simply, this set from Quatuor Van Kuijk is the most joyful, exuberant and articulate Mendelssohn you're likely to hear. Complete with perfectly chosen tempos throughout, a stunning dynamic range, dazzling precision of ensemble and articulation - PLUS superb recorded sound from Alpha Classics - this is truly sensational from beginning to end.
To illustrate just how terrific this is, I wasn't in the slightest bit in the mood for Mendelssohn. But after spending quite a lot of time recently with some heavy symphonic music (courtesy of John Wilson and company), I was more than ready for some chamber music. And Volume 1 of this Mendelssohn was sitting there, attracting my attention (and the newly released Volume 2 was on order) so I thought I'd give it a try to pass the time. Instantly, from the very first notes, I was engrossed in the music, captivated for the entirety of the disc - all 82 minutes of it!
The first two Quartets are continuations of Beethoven's (coming just 1 - 3 years after his final Opus 135) and the Van Kuijk treat them as such, with gravitas worthy of Beethoven. Beginning with #2 (which was actually his first, composed 2 years before his second was published as "#1"), I was impressed with some really marvelous leggiero bowing in the first movement - combined with crisp, rhythmic precision, vitality and the ever-expanding virtuosity of Mendelssohn. And similarly in #1 as well, tempos are urgent, textures are clarified and there is self-assurance of young Mendelssohn in these committed performances of both early works.
By the time we get to the Third (written in 1837, ten years after the First), Mendelssohn has established an even stronger voice - with more authority, ingenuity and dynamic fervency, taking us steadfastly toward Romanticism. And the Van Kuijk really blossom here. In the first movement, the 1st violin's sweeping arpeggios, followed by those upward leaping 7ths in the second subject, soar skyward with jubilance. There is no sliding or scooping in the playing. It is executed perfectly - with crisp, precise dotted rhythms, superbly detache - lifting the music from the page with irrepressible joy. It's not smoothly on-the-string as I often hear. No, they really work at it with verve and enthusiasm. Listening to the Van Kuijk play this, I knew I was experiencing something extraordinary. This is exceptional string quartet playing.
The excellence continues with Volume 2, recorded a year later. Saving #6 for last (as should be), I skipped ahead on the CD to #4 and was bowled over with the passion of the 1st movement (as directed in the tempo indication), without too much intensity, and played at a true Allegro. The energy continues in the Scherzo and, especially the driven finale - both taken decisively up to Mendelssohn's dictated speeds (Allegro molto and Presto, respectively) and played with thrilling precision. The central Andante is a lovely respite, flowing with a natural singing quality, simple in its expression. All combined, this is one of the most convincing, exciting, and completely satisfying #4s I've heard. It has all the necessary "appassionato" without being too dramatic or intense for Mendelssohn.
The passion continues in #5, but with even more vigor. And again, understanding that tempos are of supreme importance, the Van Kuijk sprint through the 1st movement at a true Vivace - as marked - with an incredible display of virtuosity. But, just as in #4, their playing is so assured, it never sounds hectic or breathless. Just exhilarating. And the finale is as con fuoco as you could ever want; I can just see the fire in their eyes!
Finally, going back to track 1 for the final Quartet (#6), I try to understand why it appears first on the CD rather than last. Perhaps it's because the conclusion of #5 is so exultant it's difficult for anything to follow it. Nonetheless, this performance of #6 is distinguished and ideally should have been presented in its proper order.
There's no denying this is a more serious and deeply considered piece of music. This was Mendelssohn's final completed work, written in response to the death of his beloved sister, Fanny. It's interesting to witness Mendelssohn at full maturity in his final quartet, composed some 10 years after the three Opus 44s. But even here, the Quatuor Van Kuijk bring all the life and fresh inspiration exhibited in the earlier works. They don't weigh it down unnecessarily with grandiosity, yet still afford it all the breadth and poise it deserves. This reading is remarkable for its suddenness of dynamic contrasts and lightness of touch - both of which actually heighten the emotional impact. And while the piece daringly looks ahead toward Schumann and Brahms, this group ensures the essence of Mendelssohn remains intact - to wondrous effect.
What makes this second Volume especially rewarding is that with the increasing earnestness the Van Kuijk draw from these works, their playing never turns gruff or heavy or aggressive. They don't try to sound bigger - our louder - than they are. They are at all times a string quartet, not a symphony orchestra. Even in the most demanding fortissimo passages, with maximum bow-on-string articulation, their sound is commandingly powerful yet remains cultivated and, above all, musical - reminding me of the superb Escher Quartet playing this music on BIS.
It is very impressive that Alpha Classics has managed to squeeze all 6 quartets onto just 2 CDs. (Each disc lasts over 82 minutes!) And even though they aren't laid out exactly in chronological order, they are at least grouped appropriately on the two discs so they can be easily played in order without having to switch from disc to disc. (And considering that published #2 was actually composed first, those on Disc One are technically in chronological order. But I'm still puzzled why the 6th is placed first on the second volume.)
Alpha Records has struck gold with this set. Excellent production, superb recorded sound, and truly some of the best string quartet playing I've heard since the Dover's Beethoven cycle for Cedille. In fact, if I were to listen to this set without knowing who was playing it, I would unhesitatingly exclaim: "Oh! The Dover Quartet has finally recorded Mendelssohn!" That I am uttering Quatuor Van Kuijk in the same breath as the Dover Quartet is the highest praise I could possibly give.
I was a piano player back in the day, and all through my college years I used to accompany lots of instrumentalists and vocalists. And I did it for free (!) - simply because I loved it so much. And also because it was fascinating attending their private lessons and masterclasses and hearing each of them perform in recitals and competitions. I learned an inestimable amount about wind instruments and vocal techniques, and differences in interpretation - knowledge which has been invaluable to me as a musician throughout my life.
I say all this to bring up a point. I played some of the same music so often, for so many musicians, that I eventually got to where I could hardly bring myself to hear it any more. Sadly, such was the case with the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. Everybody played it - some in A, many in Bb, and I learned it in both keys and played it everywhere they all did - competitions, recitals, etc. - not to mention all the rehearsals. And after a while, I cringed anytime someone wanted to play it. (Just like a close photographer friend who worked at countless graduation ceremonies said he got to where he couldn't stand hearing Pomp and Circumstance March). Similarly, it was years before I could bring myself to listen to a recording of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto and decades before I truly began to love it again. (The same goes for his Flute Concertos as well, for the same reasons. There were gaggles of flute players where I attended college - all of whom played the G Major at some point, most of them accompanied by me.)
And now, some 40 years later, I do love this music again. More deeply than ever. But it takes a special performance/recording to make it happen. In Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, I especially appreciate those which utilize the extended range basset clarinet, as that was something I never experienced back in college. So it is always new and interesting for me now.
I can count on one hand the number of recordings of this marvelous concerto that I truly love. The rest - ehh. Many sound so routine and uninspired, I simply don't have much patience for them. But every once in a while, a recording comes along which conveys such unalloyed joy, I find myself enraptured in the music all over again.
And such is the case with this CD from French clarinetist Romain Guyot and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe on Mirare. And even though it is not notated on the front or back covers, Guyot does indeed play the basset clarinet in both the Concerto and the Quintet, making these recordings even more special.
It is astonishing this release, recorded in 2013, is already 10 years old and I am only just discovering it - and quite by accident at that. I learned of this clarinet player from his participation in two chamber music recordings I have enjoyed - a Farrenc collection on naive and Mozart/Beethoven Octets with the Octuor a vent Paris-Bastille on harmonia mundi. So when I spotted his name playing Mozart's Concerto and Quintet on Mirare - a label I admire - I snapped it up. And what a find it is!
As mentioned above, it is the joy in Mozart which I treasure the most in recordings of his music, and it is bountiful here. In the Concerto, which comes first on this program, the (conductorless) Chamber Orchestra of Europe instantly ushers in a joyful, articulate and delightfully phrased exposition. Guyot follows suit with a freshness and outright joy which are rarely encountered, especially on a studio recording. There is a naturalness here which is refreshing. There is no musical point-making, or unnatural emphases intruding on the music - just pure musical inspiration, with a singing quality permeated with spontaneity and new discovery.
Guyot's playing is in an exalted class, featuring a gorgeous, wooden tone, singing legato and a stunning dynamic range - replete with exquisite pianissimos played with breathtaking control and radiance. And mercifully, he doesn't honk those lowest notes of the basset clarinet as so many players just can't help themselves from doing.
Further, Mirare provides superb recorded sound in both works. Every time I encounter this label, I am impressed mightily. And this one is no exception. Whether it's in the Concerto, with full orchestral forces at play, or in the intimate chamber setting of the Quintet, the sound is focused, colorful, dynamic and warm, within a natural, spacious acoustic. The clarinet is never bright or dark, nor is it spotlit by the microphones. It's just realistic, natural and full of expressive color.
And what an involving and captivating experience this Quintet is! It is one of the most vibrant, heartfelt and engaging performances I have heard. The strings, all principal players from the COE, are simply wondrous. The opening phrase is stated with simple elegance at a tempo just ever so slightly quicker than usual, followed by the clarinet's joyous response, bringing a striking freshness. The 3rd movement, similarly a hair quicker than usual, positively springs from the page with infectious exultation. And in the final Theme and variations, there is endless variety and some truly exciting passages as well.
The playing is exquisite, a quality which persists throughout. The group plays as one, with a unified expression. And, significantly Guyot does not play at all "soloistically". He blends beautifully with the strings, becoming an equal, 5th player. Yet his vibrant tone sings resplendently from within the musical fabric. And just as in the Concerto, the music-making is infused with joy, spontaneity, singing lyricism and lively dynamics, with perfectly judged tempos.
Along with the irrepressible joy in Guyot's playing, there is another quality he brings - more notably in the Concerto - which is also a feature I enjoy in another favorite recording of the work from Sabine Meyer, in her first recording with Hans Vonk (1990, EMI). That is the use of embellishment. Guyot incorporates it judiciously, always stylish and tasteful in its usage. Similar to Meyer, it springs forth in moments where the joy - which simply cannot be contained - literally bubbles out of the musical fabric with a little flourish, or an ornamentation, or quick trill. It is never ostentatious or pretentious; it's always within the context and spirit of the music, and exists merely to enhance the joy brimming along the surface. There is a printed interview with Mr. Guyot in the booklet in which he equates ornamentation with a "beautiful woman wearing jewelry". Listening to him play, that's exactly how it comes across. Mozart's music is so beautiful as written, but a touch of ornamentation simply adorns it further.
Other favorites of the Concerto include the aforementioned Sabine Meyer (1990, EMI) and, perhaps not coincidentally, her one-time student, Julian Bliss (2014, Signum Classics) leading the pack. There's also an exquisite one from Martin Frost on BIS (his first one in 2003, not the redundant remake), and an enjoyable one from Michael Collins (and again, it's his earlier recording in 2013 for Chandos with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, NOT the later one for BIS.)
It's odd that many clarinetists would re-record this concerto for no apparent reason, with nothing particularly new to say, and with predictably inferior results. I could understand the reasoning if the first outing wasn't particularly successful, but it's baffling why anyone would attempt to try it again (tempting fate!) when it was so marvelous the first time around.
It's also peculiar that many of them fail to bring the same level of excellence to the Quintet as they do to the Concerto. Meyer, Bliss and Collins are all conspicuously disappointing in their recordings of the Quintet (all recorded separately from the Concerto). All 3 produce readings which are too relaxed and curiously lacking the very qualities which make their playing of the Concerto so memorable (joy, spontaneity, inspiration). Martin Frost, though, on his 2003 BIS recording, is quite glorious - and his is logically coupled with the Concerto, as is Guyot's.
Guyot rises to the top of the list in this music for all the qualities noted above. That he couples both these works in equally magnificent performances is rare, making it all the more treasurable.
This disc is already garnering high praise from the usual sources - those who just love John Wilson unequivocally, no matter what he does or how it goes. So I'll chime in with my observations, which are generally in concordance - but not entirely.
After a promising start to the Vaughan Williams Fantasia, establishing a dense, textured string tone, it doesn't take long before a rushed urgency takes over which reminded me very much of this team's recording of Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen (previously released on Chandos in early 2022). And how fascinating to discover in the booklet that all this music on both discs was recorded at the same time - during the same sessions in the last week of August, 2021. (With the exception of the Delius, which was recorded 5 months later.) So, not surprisingly, the same characteristics pervade both programs, replete with an audacious, upfront sound which projects the orchestra out into the room, which can be a bit overwhelming.
Further, John Wilson likes to bring everything forward in the mix - every inner detail which has moving parts, no matter how unimportant or insignificant. And the results can sound rather "notey" and busy, rather than musically interesting. And that occurs here when things get moving (and Wilson certainly moves it along at quite a pace.) And Chandos's propensity for close microphone placement and a very forward soundstage further exacerbates the effect.
Reservations aside, there are some wonderful things on both of these discs of music for strings. The previous disc contains a glorious reading of Korngold's Symphonic Serenade, less intense and more colorful than the Strauss, much of the intensity replaced with rhapsodic passion and cinematic splendor. In the current collection, it's the Herbert Howells Concerto for Strings and Delius's Late Swallows which are played with similar fervor and ardent richness. It's curious how the intensity, so prevalent in much of the music on both discs, is relaxed some in these works in particular - to great advantage. Who knows why? Maybe they were recorded right after a nice lunch. Or perhaps the humidity of August had let up during these sessions. Or maybe Wilson was simply in a better mood. Or - even more likely - I suspect the Chandos engineers had made some adjustments to the microphones which resulted in a slightly different perspective - just enough to provide some space. In the end it doesn't really matter. As with most things, we've got what we've got - the good and the very good.
And in the case of the Howells on this newer release, it is very good indeed. Wilson brings the piece to life with vigor, making one wonder why it isn't played more often. Passionate and dramatic - and charming and elegant where it needs to be - Wilson is simply outstanding here. And it is magnificently played by this fantastic string section. I know of only three other recordings of this wonderful piece - from Richard Hickox (also on Chandos), Vernon Handley (Hyperion), and Boult (EMI, circa 1974). I own the Hyperion, and Handley is decidedly more mellow and atmospheric in stark contrast to Wilson's dramatic intensity. And listening to them back-to-back, the refined subtlety of the Hyperion is inviting and luscious, while the huge, upfront sound from Chandos is so bold, it's practically confrontational. It's amazing that Wilson makes as much music out of it as he does.
The Delius which follows has its moments of intensity too, but overall is a lovely reading - with radiant string tone. I had not heard the piece before and it was interesting to learn this is a repurposing of the slow movement of his wonderful String Quartet. It is simply gorgeous in this very successful arrangement for full string orchestra by Eric Fenby. And Chandos seems to have backed off just a little, allowing a slightly more atmospheric acoustic.
Unfortunately, the Elgar once again returns us to the extreme intensity of the Strauss (and to a lesser degree, the Vaughan Williams), especially in the opening Introduction. Even after becoming acclimated to the close-up perspective heard throughout this disc, the orchestra seems to be even more forward and the basses have gained a pronounced bloom and boomy resonance to pizzicatos. I've heard this peculiarity in the bass from Chandos before with this orchestra (to varying degrees) and I don't like it. Wilson is at his utmost best, however, and relaxes beautifully in the more intimate passages. And while the energy he brings to the Allegro is certainly arresting (and supremely exciting), it is a bit unrelenting as recorded. If only Chandos hadn't meddled; Wilson's energy and straightforward approach in this piece works extremely well.
To put the current disc in perspective, none of it is less than wonderful. And some of this music is pretty scarce on CD. But what makes all of it work better here than usual is the use of this enormous string section, courtesy of the incomparable Sinfonia of London. Musically, this allows a greater distinction between passages for tutti strings and those for a smaller soli section (as in the VW) and the quartet of string soloists (in all the rest). Using a smallish string section, as is often utilized on record, minimizes these contrasts in the scoring. Not so here. The differences in color and texture are extraordinary. And it is positively glorious to hear a full-sized string section playing so fervently at full tilt, with such enthusiasm and vibrancy. It is disappointing, however, that Chandos chose to provide an extremely bold and forward soundstage for this type of program. It does this music no favors and, frankly, this string section doesn't need any "help" from the control room. As we hear in the two subsequent recordings of this orchestra playing Rachmaninoff and Hollywood movie music, Chandos can achieve magnificent results with a more natural and realistic perspective.
In my musings about John Wilson in my recent review of his Rachmaninoff 3rd, I praised Chandos profusely and credited their outstanding recorded sound for much of Wilson's success. But listening to these Music for Strings albums, I've come to the opposite conclusion. Even when Chandos doesn't get the sound quite right, John Wilson (with this incomparable orchestra) consistently manages to create music which is engaging, rewarding and enjoyable. And such is the case here.
Despite the recorded sound which often lacks allure, I nonetheless enjoyed both of these discs very much. And I continue to marvel at the body of sound this fabulous string section can produce under Wilson's direction. It is surely the best since Ormandy's Philadelphians way back in the day.
And now something completely different. Michael Noble plays piano music of Frederic Rzewski.
First - full disclosure. I received a copy of this CD, gratis, from the pianist himself with a request for a review. I don't accept promotional discs very often; all of the recordings I write about are those which interest me and have been purchased by me for my own personal pleasure. But after reading Mr. Noble's bio, and with some curiosity in his chosen repertoire, I accepted his offer.
Michael Noble holds doctoral and masters degrees from the Yale School of Music, and a BM and BA in English Literature from the Eastman School of Music and University of Rochester, respectively. Interestingly, he informed me he wrote his doctorate thesis on the composer, Frederic Rzewski, whose music is featured on this CD. I was intrigued.
As I listen primarily to orchestral and chamber music, I'm getting a bit outside my comfort zone with this program of contemporary solo piano music. However, I was a pianist back in the day (sadly some arthritis and lack of motivation keep me from playing much any more), so I do have a deep interest in and appreciation for piano music.
This CD is not a major label release. Mr. Noble is his own producer and it was recorded in the recording engineer's own studio in New York City. Thus I began listening with some uncertainty. But this disc immediately caught my attention with its wonderfully satisfying recorded sound. Instantly this piano sounds like a real Steinway. The left-hand range is full, rich and resonant, while the right-hand octaves reveal the unmistakable Steinway ringing tone. The concert grand piano is extremely difficult to capture on record and even more difficult to reproduce on a home stereo system. Fortunately, the engineer for this recording, Vyacheslav Gryaznov, is obviously highly skilled and got it absolutely right. The piano is placed within an ideal acoustic, with a 3-dimensional presence perfectly distanced from the listener, and its warm, beautiful sound won me over. It helps that my stereo system is capable of handling the playback with aplomb.
As to the music, I thought this would be a difficult review to write, as I am not familiar with these composers and am often critical of contemporary music. But from the very first notes, I began enjoying what I heard and was anxious to jot down some thoughts. As this music may be unfamiliar to many, I will attempt to be a little more detailed in my description than I normally would.
While the recorded sound initially drew me in, the music of Margaret Bonds kept me there. Her Troubled Waters, based on an African-American spiritual, is instantly and unmistakably American in flavor. It is rhapsodic, reminiscent of Gershwin, tuneful and immensely pleasing. It is stylishly played here by Michael Noble with such rhapsodic freedom and dynamic flair, I was reminded often of the late, great Earl Wild. Which is high praise indeed!
It was interesting to learn reading the booklet that this is the final movement of a collection of 3 piano pieces called Spiritual Suite. It is so wonderful I wish Mr. Noble had recorded the other two selections as well. Coming in at just 5 minutes, this was over much too soon.
The vast majority of the program is occupied by the colossal (lasting an entire hour!) Theme and Variations on the New Chilean song, The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, composed in 1975 by American composer Frederic Rzewski. After the theme is stated, its structure consists of 36 variations, grouped into 6 sections (or cycles), all played without pause. The piece then concludes with a Cadenza and a final expanded recapitulation of the theme. It is a very long, sprawling work of unimaginable difficulty, but the variety is so ever-changing and endlessly interesting, only rarely did I become distracted. But, in honesty, it takes a bit of determination to get through it. (More on this below.)
After the tuneful and highly attractive main theme is announced, the first set of variations begins rather simply, reminding me very much of Rachmaninoff's famous Variations on a Theme of Paganini. The tuneful, playful simplicity is deceptive though, and doesn't last long before becoming more wayward and positively improvisational. I loved this first set of variations for that very reason. Their improvisational freedom is highly appealing, and I found myself imagining Mr. Noble had just sat down at the piano and began noodling around, just enjoying himself and making it up as he went. It is so free and spontaneous, it doesn't sound like the music had been notated on the page. And I was hooked.
The next set, though, becomes more rhythmically insistent and decidedly more "modern". It soon gets carried away with some wild glissandi and audible participation form the pianist himself - both physically (the startling bang of the keyboard lid being slammed shut), and vocally (some groaning and guttural humming). I hoped these extraneous noises wouldn't continue for long, and mercifully they didn't. Soon the next set is ushered in with a distinct change of mood, where Rzewski takes us firmly into early 20th-Century America with some blues (based on what sounds like folksong) enveloped in some of the same freely rhapsodic form heard in the opening Bonds work. Outright jazz soon takes over in a most delightful interlude and this quickly became my favorite section thus far.
What comes next is surely the most traditionally pianistic section of the entire piece, taking us back in time to Liszt, with passages of fast repeated notes and virtuosic writing up and down the keyboard. Rachmaninoff again comes to mind (hints of his Paganini Variations are never too far out of sight), restoring a Romantic influence. If Noble's piano playing had thus far impressed with his free-flowing, seemingly improvised creative style, he proves himself an extremely accomplished concert pianist here. He plays with crisp, clean articulation, with very little pedal to muddy the waters, and no fluff whatsoever. This is very impressive piano playing of some very difficult music.
The longest section (12 minutes) which comes next is also the most varied in mood, style and atmosphere. There is some complex counterpoint, followed by a return to freely improvised invention, flowing into a most attractive section of what I would describe as "interpretive fantasy". There are some driving, rhythmic passages too, reminding me a bit of movie music, before transitioning to the final set of variations - which incorporates all the elements which have come before. And this, along with the cadenza (which is improvised here by Mr. Noble) and concluding recapitulation of the theme are surely my favorite passages in the entire piece, as they contain all the variety heard earlier but in a condensed, more palatable serving.
I admit to listening to this piece in two sessions. It was simply too long (for me) to digest in one sitting. Committing to its hour-long length, in its entirety, will likely only be attempted by dedicated pianists and the most avid admirers of contemporary piano music. Ultimately though, contemplating how this pianist (or any pianist, for that matter) can learn all these notes is simply mind-boggling. That Noble managed it and makes sense of it all, with purpose, enthusiasm and musical consideration, is quite simply phenomenal.
If that weren't enough (and really it was), Noble concludes the concert with an encore - one more work by Rzewski: Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues. Clocking in at nearly 10 minutes, though, it is substantially more than just an encore! I expected something rather lighthearted, given its title, and indeed was craving something light, upbeat and fun after the enormity of the Variations. But alas, it's a fairly serious, driven work - largely atonal, with some heavy, dissonant, lower-octave meanderings, along with driving rhythms - all of which were a bit relentless. Just as I was about done with it, there is a pause and a welcome return to improvisation. But it's less melodic than in the Variations and remains obstinately atonal. Finally, right at the very end, we get a taste of what the title promised us - a minute (or less) of Cotton Mill Blues, sounding much like a Joplin rag (with a hint of boogie-woogie) before flying out of control off the top end of the keyboard. And with that, the concert ends.
In closing, this recording is quite an achievement. And certainly showcases Michael Noble to be a fantastic pianist. If in all honesty I didn't love all this music outright, I enjoyed much of it and certainly respect and admire the composer who can not only conceive it, but actually notate it all on the printed page. Once again, though, I must especially praise the opening work by Margaret Bonds, which is absolutely glorious. I want to seek out a recording of the entire Spiritual Suite from which it is derived. And I can't help but lament that Mr. Noble didn't record all of it, perhaps in place of the final Rzewski piece.
I am told the CD is not currently available commercially. The recording is, however, available for purchase via digital download and streaming services. There are extensive notes about the composers and the music, excellently written by Mr. Noble himself, which I assume are available via download as well. For more information, visit michaelnoble.hearnow.com.
Ever since Michael J. Dutton began remastering some of Charles Gerhardt's 1970s-era RCA Classic Film Scores recordings for SACD, I've been hoping he'd also do Gerhardt's two albums of John Williams scores. And at last he has tackled the first one of those, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind Suites, recorded in 1977.
Before I even began listening, I was excited to see Gerhardt's liner notes from the original LP reprinted in the SACD booklet. I had not read them before, as they were not included in the 1989 RCA Victor CD release. And it was fascinating to be reminded this album was recorded the same year as the original Star Wars soundtrack (1977). Gerhardt explains that not only did he know John Williams, but he was present during some of the recording sessions with the LSO for the film. And he immediately knew he wanted to record this music himself, even if an original soundtrack album was released. Soon after, Williams compiled a concert suite of music from the film. Gerhardt consulted with Mr. Williams directly and asked him to rescore the suite using the original orchestration for large orchestra that he employed for the original score, rather than the "condensed" version for standard orchestra he created for the concert suite. And that is what is recorded here - utilizing 11 woodwinds, 8 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 harps, piano, celesta, full percussion, 26 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos and 6 basses.
He also worked with John Williams on compiling the 21-minute suite from Close Encounters, which constitutes virtually the entire last sequence of the film, along with several earlier sequences.
For this new Vocalion reissue, in addition to the stereo SACD and CD layers, there is also a multi-channel quad mix as well - which Dutton describes on the back cover merely as "remixed in Quadraphonic from the original multitrack tapes". For the record, as always, I listen to 2-channel, stereo SACD. I do not use extra speakers other than the standard stereo pair.
And now to the sound.
This recording has been one of my favorites ever since I began collecting CDs back in the mid/late 1980s. Over the years, though, as I've upgraded my stereo system with higher quality and more sophisticated (and revealing) components and cables, it became increasingly apparent that RCA's "Dolby Surround" remastering process for CD, which was used for the entire Classic Film Scores series, was not ideal. The sound tended to be murky and bass-heavy. This Star Wars recording in particular also sounded a bit unfocused and not quite clean in the upper range - a clear indicator that the original master tapes had not been used. There are also numerous crude edits/splices (notably in "Princess Leia") which were never repaired and remain glaringly obvious on CD. I know exactly where they are and wince every time those sections of music arrive during listening.
I have not experienced night-and-day improvements in previous Vocalion SACD reissues of the Classic Film Scores (7 of them thus far). SONY had completely remastered all 12 of them for CD in 2010, with considerable success in cleaning them up. And compared to those, Dutton's remasters are very similar - even on SACD. However, SONY neglected the Star Wars recordings (which came several years later and were not technically part of the original series) and never reissued them. The sound on this new Vocalion SACD over the original RCA CD reveals similar significant improvements.
As a matter of fact, the sound is so glorious I concluded I must have been remembering the old RCA CD sounding worse than it really was. There was simply no way this SACD could be that much better, right? So I dutifully loaded the RCA CD into the disc player and pressed play. And I was astonished how tubby and congested the soundstage was. The midrange is murky, just as I remembered, and there is a glarey, "cupped-hands" quality - which, to be honest, is not entirely eliminated on the SACD. But it has been minimized.
The most appreciable improvement is how much clearer and well-focused the orchestra sounds on the SACD. There is a spaciousness to the acoustic which allows the orchestra room to breathe. And the violins are cleaner and thus even more lovely - infused with air and imbued with silky sweetness.
And lo and behold, those edits are all but gone. If you listen very carefully for them, which I did, yes they are there. But they've been so skillfully corrected, they're virtually inaudible.
After revisiting the CD and hearing again how tubby it sounds, going back to the SACD I can hear a bit of it there too. There is not the completely effortless expanse of sound (especially in the mid range) you hear on modern digital recordings. It could still be more open, more dynamic, and have more sparkle on top. However, the extent to which the original has been cleaned up is simply miraculous.
The good news continues with what hasn't changed. The rich tonality of the orchestra remains intact, as does the gorgeous acoustic. Sometimes cleaning up the soundstage and increasing clarity to this magnitude can result in a reduction in warmth, with a residual leanness to the sound. I actually hear that very consequence on SONY's remastering of the original series. While the sound is cleaned up to an amazing extent, some of the warmth and richness is lost. Not so here. The vibrancy of orchestral colors and body of sound are enhanced. And at the same time, textures are clarified as well. There is a realism here which simply was not revealed on the original CD.
As to dynamics, they too remain about the same as before. There still sounds to be quite a bit of analog compression, typical of the era. However, the performance is not stifled and Gerhardt's gifts on the podium shine through.
The Star Wars suite recorded here differs from the one commonly played today, as published by Hal Leonard in the John Williams Signature Edition, not only in orchestration (as noted above) but in content as well. We get "Little People" and "The Battle", which were later dropped and replaced with "Yoda's Theme" and "The Imperial March". Also unique to Gerhardt's recording is an additional selection not included in either version of the suite - the short (2-minute) scherzo, "Here They Come". Gerhardt asked Williams to add it because he thought it was "brilliant". And brilliant it most certainly is. Conversely, Zubin Mehta, who also recorded the original version of the suite with the LA Phil for Decca, in the same month and year as Gerhardt (December, 1977), doesn't include the little scherzo, but instead adds "Cantina Band".
Interpretively, differences are notable. While both conductors bring a symphonic grandeur and a bit of extra gravitas to this music, Mehta is characteristically more melodramatic, with wider dynamics and more pronounced tempo extremes. For example, he inexplicably rushes his way mercilessly through "Princess Leia". Listening to this recording again after all these years brought back many fond memories. Not only of how momentous the recording was - bringing John Williams's music into the concert hall, conducted by Zubin Mehta no less, somehow helped to "legitimize" him as a composer; but even more, I was reminded how great the Los Angeles Philharmonic used to be, back when they still had character. There's no denying they played with charisma under Mehta. And what a fantastic recording this was, and is to this day.
Gerhardt, on the other hand, is more natural; and glamorous. He's very exciting everywhere it needs to be but also more fervent. For example, he holds the tempo steady in "Princess Leia" with breadth and ardor, culminating in an overwhelmingly moving climax. He draws more passion from his strings, while Mehta's are more intense. And elsewhere, the sense of spectacle Gerhardt elicits is positively cinematic.
In the end, I'd conclude that Mehta sounds like Mehta and Gerhardt sounds like John Williams. (And both are compliments.)
Sadly, Dutton seems to have abandoned the Classic Film Scores series for SACD release. (The last one to appear was in 2020.) But I am eternally grateful he jumped ahead to this Star Wars recording, as it desperately needed a new remastering. And what a remarkable achievement it is. The follow-up recording, an equally fabulous suite from Return of the Jedi, would be the most logical next project. However as it was recorded digitally in 1983, it may not benefit nearly as much from an SACD application. (And even on CD, it sounds much better than Star Wars did.) But I can hope it will eventually come anyway.
Postscript: For unknown reasons, most Dutton/Vocalion releases are not readily available in the U.S. and are hard to find and extremely expensive. On Amazon, for example, they are only available from one Marketplace seller - Dutton/Epoch itself - absurdly priced and with an outrageous shipping fee added ($9.99). It's as if Dutton doesn't want to sell his product in America. Whatever. Happily, Presto Classical in England has them, reasonably priced and shipped inexpensively. They usually arrive in 7-10 days. Problem solved.
I don't know exactly why I hesitate to take John Wilson seriously as a conductor. In the back of my mind he's something of a novelty - a bit on the "crossover" spectrum, perhaps even a "Pops" conductor. (Not that I would ever belittle a pops conductor; I thought Arthur Fiedler, for one, was for the most part excellent.) Perhaps it's because Wilson has recorded a lot of lighter Classical fare (Bennett, Copland, Coates Escales, etc. on Chandos), and all those glitzy Broadway musicals albums (EMI) and idiomatic Big-Band compilations (Dutton/Vocalion). And then he began re-recording some stuff he'd already done - material that frankly didn't merit it (i.e. Coates and Ireland). Or perhaps it's that I found his Respighi, Copland and Coates rather reserved, and his Metamorphosen disc uninspired. And then, certainly without a doubt, the highlight of recent memory is his latest disc, Hollywood Soundstage, which is an absolute knockout. That is what John Wilson does best. Right?
But yet, there are standouts in more "serious" repertoire too. His 2019 Korngold Symphony in F# is second to none; his Ravel is very good (if not quite a first choice); his Dutilleux collection is enterprising; and his first collection of string music (English Music for Strings) was delightful. So maybe I've been underestimating Mr. Wilson.
First and foremost, though, we must acknowledge that John Wilson has two enormous advantages that tend to make him better than he might otherwise be, particularly in his recordings with the Sinfonia of London. And for me, these are the real reasons for his success over and above his inherent capabilities as a conductor. 1) His handpicked band of London's best orchestral musicians combine to make one of the best recording orchestras on the planet (especially that magnificent string section). 2) Chandos affords him their very best SACD multi-channel sound, captured in the most gorgeous acoustic imaginable, creating some of the best-sounding orchestral discs ever made. (And with over 9,000 discs in my collection, I've heard the best - and worst - of them.)
Now, however, with his recording of Rachmaninoff's Third Symphony, I can deny him no more. And must consider him a "force to be reckoned with". For this recording is absolutely dazzling.
I was ready to be dismissive, though. I had my critical reviewer hat firmly in place ready to find faults. But...there aren't any. I was bowled over with the music-making (and recorded sound) from beginning to end.
I started with The Isle of the Dead - a piece which I've never really loved - and I was seduced, so mesmerizing (almost intoxicating) was the music pouring from my speakers. I was transfixed, and I wasn't expecting to be. Musically, tempo is everything. And here Wilson controls it magnificently, with a forward momentum which is practically propulsive, yet held in suspense by that persistent, restless ebb-and-flow, with its unsettled rhythmic pulse which tugs at the emotions, creating enormous apprehension. The piece is overwhelmingly powerful and very moving in Wilson's hands and I knew something extraordinary was happening.
Vocalise is wonderful, if perhaps not quite as ravishing as Ormandy's 1967 CBS recording with those sensuous violin solos, played like no one else could, by concertmaster Norman Carol. Wilson adheres to Rachmaninoff's score in his arrangement which calls for 16 soli violins playing the famous melody - in addition to the positively melting English Horn and clarinet solos, exquisitely played here. Again, what an orchestra.
As to the Symphony, well, it's as moving and exciting as it gets. Again tempos are everything, and again Wilson keeps things moving. Yet he takes his time to caress a phrase (but doesn't linger unnecessarily) and draws from this orchestra some of the most richly colorful, rapturous body of string tone one could ever hope to hear. It sounds like there are literally hundreds of players, fully on a par with Ormandy's Philadelphians in their heyday in the 50s/60s. And Chandos surrounds them in air and spaciousness - never heavy or thick, but airy, textured and transparent. The frantic mega-vibrato Wilson coaxed from these strings in his Hollywood disc is supplanted here with copious amounts of robust vibrato, though it's still quite fast. It's somewhat unique, but isn't strange as it is in the Hollywood set. It works gloriously here in Rachmaninoff, affording a lavish voluptuousness to their sound.
The first movement is simply glorious. The constant changes in tempo are managed with a naturalness which is extraordinary. Wilson plays the important exposition repeat as well. The slow movement is tenderly singing, again at a flowing tempo, but not rushed. The Finale then takes off like a whirlwind. It is marked Allegro, and allegro it is. (Although, the hair-raising sprint to the finish line at the end, marked Allegro vivace, is even more exhilarating!) Yet the second subject relaxes gloriously without becoming an abrupt gear change. It just naturally slows, barely perceptible, allowing the melodies to continue singing uninterrupted. Too many conductors insist on slamming on the brakes, slowing it down way too much and overplaying the rubato. The constant slowing/speeding up and incessant swells in volume can often end up sounding mannered or contrived. (Or worse, queasy.) Not so here; Wilson's command of tempo and subtle use of rubato are simply masterful in Rachmaninoff.
All through, the dynamic range is breathtaking - not just technically, but in the way this orchestra responds so instantaneously and generously to Wilson's every gesture. I believe the greatest achievement on display here is the spontaneous unanimity of approach which can only come from an obvious love, appreciation and respect among podium and players. The results simply radiate with wondrous vitality in the music-making. How wonderful it is to hear an orchestra fully engaged and enthusiastically committed.
So then, despite my perhaps unfounded reservations with John Wilson, I admit he is becoming one of my favorite conductors making records today. Yes he's aided by one of the best orchestras ever assembled and with some the best recorded sound ever. But those things don't just occur in a vacuum; there has to be leadership providing the inspiration. Wilson is the real deal. And this record unequivocally proves it.
And the interest in Florence Price continues with this important and very impressive recording from no less than DG and the Philadelphia Orchestra. And if anyone can make a convincing case for these works, it's Yannick Nezet-Seguin. (Although after hearing the recent CD of Kellen Gray conducting the Still and Dawson Symphonies on Linn Records, how I'd love to hear him perform/record this music.)
To have two pioneering symphonies composed by an overlooked African-American woman, played by a major symphony orchestra conducted by an openly gay man, recorded by a major German label, is really quite a momentous event which just doesn't happen very often. And is cause for celebration.
Price, though unjustly neglected, is a composer of notable historical significance. And I'm thrilled to see the plethora of her music appear on CD lately, and I have acquired a few of them. (A couple reviews of her music appear elsewhere here on my blog.) Certainly much of her music is absolutely wonderful. However, the compositional inspiration (and sometimes proficiency) can ebb and flow. But these symphonies are monumental achievements.
The first movements of both symphonies are glorious - filled with sheer musical inspiration and creativity, expertly crafted and richly orchestrated. And it is here that Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra are absolutely brilliant - helped by gorgeous, luminous recorded sound from the DG engineers. (I don't believe I've heard DG's "house sound" so positively sumptuous.)
In the 1st, I smiled at hearing hints of Delius in the opening Allegro ma non troppo. And even at a whopping 18+ minutes, it never for a moment felt long or musically inconsequential. At every turn, its sweeping melodies, musical phrases and adventurous harmonic progression are richly engaging and delight the senses with incredibly colorful expression, fully developed thematic material, and dazzling orchestration. The Largo second movement, in comparison, clocking in at 13+ minutes, does perhaps seem a little too long for its material, but is still quite enjoyable.
In the 3rd Symphony, there is an evolved, more firmly established compositional voice even more uniquely Price's, which is most winning. This piece is really her crowning achievement. The opening Andante sets the stage with pensive woodwind passages, followed by an energetic, dramatic Allegro introduced by the strings. The second subject unabashedly quotes Dvorak's New World Symphony which perhaps sounds a bit too conspicuously deliberate. However, Price incorporates it rather cleverly into the overall fabric, developing it into something rather endearing.
The 2nd movement Andante is even better. Price reaches full maturity here with aching, deeply felt phrases and harmonic expression. Scriabin came to mind a time or two. Its opening passage presents delicate motifs passed around among various woodwinds (oboe, English Horn, flute), which are exquisitely played by the Philadelphia's principal players.
I must point out here that all through this recording, the DG engineers allow rich, vibrant, glowing woodwind tone and tender, silky strings to shimmer with vibrancy. The playing in this section, in particular, is simply ravishing.
It is at this point in both symphonies, though, that I hear the creativity and interest begin to wane. As in her marvelous Piano Quintet, Price inserts a short "Juba Dance" in place of a true Scherzo in both symphonies, and in all three works it is instantly, distinctly out of place - sounding rather frivolous and, frankly, a little corny for "serious" symphonic music. (Though to be fair, Nezet-Seguin does his utmost best to make them sound substantial - and nearly succeeds). Moreover, after these trifles (and in a different context, as fun as they might be), the finales become a bit of an afterthought and don't quite attain the loftiness heard in the opening 2 movements of either symphony.
The Presto finale of the 1st curiously sounds a bit like the English countryside rather than the great American outdoors. It's a merry jaunt, sounding not at all presto. It's a bit too lightweight and folksy to serve as a proper finale of a symphony, and somewhat repetitive too in its thematic content. Pleasant enough, then, but nowhere near the achievement of the 1st movement.
The potpourri "Scherzo/Finale/Allegro" of the 3rd is a much more satisfying concluding movement. And Nezet-Seguin is absolutely masterful in preventing it from sounding too grandiose after the whimsical Juba, while providing it all the gravitas it deserves.
All through this CD, one is reminded over and over how important these works are. And how thoroughly rewarding too, especially as played here so rapturously by one of the world's best orchestras - which has at last been restored to its former glory after floundering so many years before Nezet-Seguin arrived. (Whenever my non-Classical-loving friends ask me: "Does a conductor really make a difference?", I tell them the tale of America's "top 5" orchestras, particularly the Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, New York and Los Angeles - and their ill-chosen conductors in recent years/decades. But I digress.) So I am thrilled to hear such excellence from Philadelphia again. (And I've given up all hope for Chicago and New York at this point.) The Philadelphia recording of Rachmaninoff's 1st Symphony last year gave us much hope for a sustained revitalization of this orchestra, and this new recording confirms it. And it certainly helps that their current concert hall enhances them so beautifully and that DG has perfected the art of recording them there, providing such luxurious sound.
In closing, these Symphonies are amazing achievements. Period. I have not intended to be critical in this review, but merely detailed in what I hear. At the end of the day, as purely symphonic/orchestral music, for me this CD is worth it for the opening movement of the 1st Symphony and the Andante of the 3rd, both of which are simply magnificent in this recording. And the rest is nearly as gratifying.
Not really necessary
With all the interest in Florence Price lately, with a plethora of recordings appearing from labels everywhere, it's difficult to overlook the resurgence in her music. So I thought I'd try this intriguing reissue from 2001.
And, well...I can be brief in my comments, as this Alto release is perhaps unnecessary. I suspect they're merely jumping on the Florence Price bandwagon.
The first piece on the program, The Oak, is rather calculated and unimaginative, rendered even more so in this bleak reading of it from The Women's Philharmonic, which sounds determinedly serious. The Mississippi River Suite which follows has great potential, with its many descriptive sections, but even here the playing is careful and listless. The opening is atmospheric enough, but in the 2nd section, Price calls for Native American drums and assorted percussion, but you'd hardly know they're there; the festivities are so polite and timid. And later on when the music becomes more animated in high-spirited sections, characterization is restrained and the playing remains obstinately earthbound and cautious.
The recorded sound doesn't help. Made in a slightly dry acoustic, the orchestra sounds lackluster and 2-dimensional, needing a good deal more color, sparkle and spaciousness. And I found it annoying that its entire 28 minutes are confined to one single track.
The 3rd Symphony is, compositionally, much more accomplished and interesting. However, as committed as this reading is, it doesn't really do the piece justice, with some less than first-rate orchestral playing (the brass sound particularly challenged) and rather episodic musical outbursts (especially in the finale). And again, the recorded sound is not very flattering.
I have another CD from this orchestra, also for Koch, recorded in 1992, which is quite wonderful. Significantly, however, that one is conducted by the quite wonderful JoAnn Falletta, which alone may account for the difference. I have no previous experience with conductor Apo Hsu, but I'm inclined to lay much of the blame at her podium for this later program's shortcomings.
And, certainly, the sound does her no favors. I am actually surprised to learn this was originally a Koch release, as I normally hear consistently wonderful recorded sound from that label. I therefore have suspicions that Alto's in-house remastering has once again stifled what might have been a perfectly fine recording. I have experienced this many times in the past from this budget label, and suspect they've unnecessarily applied their ruinous remastering process to yet another one. However, I've not heard the original so I cannot say for sure. I make this observation based upon past experience.
Naxos has released several CDs in a series of this composer's music (with John Jeter conducting various orchestras) which have been vastly superior in every way to this Alto. I highly recommend exploring those instead.
What a way to start the new year, with an absolutely fantastic new CD. This one features two of the best American symphonies ever composed - William Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony and William Grant Still's 1st (Afro-American). To have them together on one CD, in fabulous performances and recorded sound, is simply too much to hope for. But here it is: African American Voices, on Linn Records (now a division of OutHere Music).
Let's be clear right upfront - conductor Kellen Gray is utterly magnificent in this repertoire, showing an innate affinity for this music. He brings color, drama, enthusiasm, finesse and heartfelt emotional involvement to every phrase. And the Royal Scottish National Orchestra once again impresses mightily, with incredibly good orchestral playing from all sections. They are extremely responsive to Gray's direction, delivering nuance and involvement rarely heard, resulting in some of the most moving, musically immersive experiences I've heard in a long, long time. It's all here: rich, silky strings; heroic, golden brass; expressive woodwind solos; and sumptuous recorded sound.
I was not familiar with Kellen Gray, and have learned he was previously the Assistant Conductor of the Chicago Sinfonietta and currently Associate Conductor of the Charleston (South Carolina) Symphony. He's also Assistant Conductor of the RSNO - which might explain why they are so responsive to him on this record. There is an obvious love here, a familiarity with each other, an established rapport, which is not typically experienced from a one-off guest conducting gig followed by a quick recording session. No, this recording is something much more than that. It is very special indeed.
I admit, though, at first I was alarmed at the extremely quiet opening horn solo of the Dawson. And I had to crank up the volume a good 8-10 notches from normal to get any kind of realistic sound. And that's a lot. But once set, I was rewarded with excellent recorded sound - exquisite orchestral colors, airy textures, natural dynamics and a positively luminous acoustic.
And this music! Words can hardly describe how wonderful it is. Much attention has been focused lately on lesser-known African-American composers (Florence Price among them), but this disc instantly reminds us who the real pioneering composers were. And not "just" of African-American music, but of 20th-Century American music as a whole. Dawson and Still (along with George Gershwin) are in a league all their own with regard to creativity, originality, sophistication, orchestration and sheer musical genius. They were both contemporaries of Gershwin, although they outlived him by decades. (What an unimaginable loss to the world of music that Gershwin lived to be just 38 years old.) But nonetheless, Gershwin's influence can be heard frequently in this music - although it is interesting to note that he had not yet composed his masterpiece, Porgy and Bess (1935), when these symphonies were written, so perhaps I should revise my statement to instead observe that Gershwin was strongly influenced by Still and Dawson!
Beginning with Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony, the first movement (The Bond of Africa) is a stellar example of the excellence on offer here. After the lush opening (just listen to the silky strings Gray coaxes from this orchestra), Gray drives the Allegro with gusto and sparkle (what a splendid piccolo player!), but it's never histrionic (as Neeme Jarvi can almost sound on his splendid pair of Chandos CDs containing both of these symphonies). And the finale feels just right. In fact, tempos are perfectly chosen throughout. This Symphony may be based on folk motifs, but it is so masterfully constructed, it's not in the slightest episodic, but symphonic in scale and structure, brilliantly crafted and executed. It is compelling from start to finish.
Still's Afro-American Symphony has origins even more firmly based on Spirituals and 19th-Century Black folk dance. And right away after a slow introduction, we recognize the unmistakable incorporation of "the blues" and jazz as well. Kellen Gray embraces all these elements with conviction, infusing the score with so much life and characterization that the music becomes thoroughly, unmistakably American. And so convincingly idiomatic it envelopes the listener with a transcendent "you are there" experience. Still's music is this good, but I must emphasize it is made even more so in the way Gray brings it all so vividly to life, with a dazzling gift of story-telling.
There is a technical oddity here, though, which can't be overlooked without comment. The 3rd movement Animato (a juba dance) is transferred to disc at a noticeably higher level, closer to a more normal volume than all the rest. It jumps out much louder than everything before it, obviously recorded at a different session. (Sessions were separated by several months.) The producer/engineer certainly should have caught this and corrected the level adjustment in the final mastering. The finale returns us back to the previous "normal" volume for this CD. And musically, it is an engrossing experience in this performance of it - full of aching fervor (but never despair), heartfelt singing lines and an emotional outpouring. What an amazing and wonderful Symphony this is, helped tremendously by the sumptuous, impassioned body of sound Gray draws from this marvelous string section.
If the symphonies weren't enough, sandwiched in between them on this program is George Walker's short but moving Lyric for Strings, which is a repurposing of the slow movement of his 1st String Quartet. It is heartfelt and full of longing, again highlighting the airy, singing, loveliness of the RSNO strings.
Kellen Gray speaks directly to the heart, as well as the mind, with these recordings. Listening to this CD motivates me to explore further and enjoy more music. And that's a real success for a conductor, especially in somewhat rare repertoire. In my opinion, Gray fully deserves a Music Director/Principal Conductor position with a major symphony orchestra. Based on the present recording, he's that good. I can just imagine the things he could do with an orchestra like the New York Phil, for example - one which has desperately needed an inspiring conductor for decades. But I'd be happy to see him land such a position in Los Angeles, or Oregon, or Seattle, or Dallas, or Detroit - or any of the great American symphony orchestras which aren't quite the so-called "big 5", but should (and could) be.
In closing, this CD is a must-have for all music lovers, not only for the music itself, but for all the other qualities which make this disc so memorable - eloquent orchestral playing, luscious recorded sound, and above all, the inspired leadership from the podium. These performances are very much the equal to Neeme Jarvi's 1993 readings for Chandos, and with even better recorded sound (albeit requiring a significant boost in volume). I implore all involved to record a follow-up volume to include Still's 2nd Symphony and perhaps some of Duke Ellington's symphonic music, which is unjustly neglected.