This is an expensive CD from Prospero - well over $20. It's certainly impressively packaged, in a thick, hard-back cardboard enclosure which includes a lavish 34-page booklet complete with glossy pictures and flattering commentary. If only the music-making and sound were as glamorous.
I read in the booklet that conductor Ivor Bolton is a Baroque/Classical specialist. And my first impression listening to this recording was that he's seriously out of his element in these richly orchestrated, highly dramatic symphonic poems by Saint-Saens. But reading further, I was shocked to learn he's also conducted a lot of opera. So I'm bewildered why this music, which should lend itself readily to someone with so much opera experience, seems to elude him. I hear none of the drama, dynamism, or passionate soaring lines one typically encounters with opera.
The Basel orchestra is fine - in an efficient, rather dispassionate way. Tempos are also fine, often with good momentum, but the orchestral playing is a bit cautious and lacks panache. Drama is minimized and even the climactic sections of the Bacchanale and Danse Macabre fail to generate much adrenaline or excitement, leaving the listener unmoved.
Which brings me to the recorded sound. The orchestra is set back in a slightly distant, over-reverberant acoustic which lacks something in sheer presence and impact. There is an empty hall tubbiness to it, which tends to muddy inner details and blunt sparkle. Worse, dynamics are curiously restrained - confined to a p - f range - and climaxes simply fail to expand into the acoustic. Orchestral colors too are a bit lackluster - the opposite of vivid and vibrant. These observations have me thinking that, given Bolton's credentials, the lack of dynamic range and musical involvement are likely more the fault of the recording engineer rather than the conductor.
Perplexed by it all, I tried listening to this CD again on a different day and have concluded the recording itself is indeed largely to blame for much of the blandness heard on this program. And it seems to affect some tracks more than others. For example, Phaeton is surely one of the better readings here, aided by a judicious boost of the brass (and a quick tempo), finally bringing some life to this orchestra. While Hercules and Omphale's Spinning Wheel, which feature a lot of soft playing, suffer the most from a lack of involvement. The two most familiar tracks, Bacchanale (from Samson & Delila) and Danse macabre are merely perfunctory readings, especially when compared to countless other recordings.
The production proudly proclaims these to be "World premiere recordings" based on new critical editions. Whatever. I heard absolutely nothing new, revelatory or remotely interesting in any of them.
Despite the extravagance of the production, this is a disappointment musically. And when you consider the total playing time is just 49 minutes, it's extremely poor value as well.
I wanted to review the Verona Quartet as I love discovering new groups. I was attracted to their first CD, "Diffusion", specifically because it appears on the great, Cleveland-based label, Azica. I have experienced excellent recorded sound in the past from this label, and notable releases have included the likes of the Dover and Escher Quartets.
While the Verona doesn't quite match the exalted heights of those other two American string quartets (and honestly, no other group does), they are awfully good. And they bring their own gifts of musicianship and individuality to delight listeners.
I love the program (and cover art) on the Azica disc, which includes two pieces less familiar to me, the 2nd Quartets of Janacek and Szymanowski, combined with the ubiquitous one by Ravel. It was with the Ravel I began listening, as I had just heard (and reviewed here on the blog) the recording of it by the fabulous Quatuor Van Kuijk on Alpha Classics. The Verona is rather more "traditional" in their approach - beautifully played and slightly less dynamic and eye-opening than the French group. However, they display a delectable variety of tonal color and musical subtleties which I greatly enjoyed. They possess a relaxed, glowing blend, permeated with a beguiling expressiveness which benefits this music perfectly. For instance, there is a seductive tenderness and freedom of tempo in the first movement which is captivating. Yet they characterize Ravel's variety of moods without being quite so melodramatic about it. The finale is exciting, but lighter, less muscular and definitely not as hair-raising as the Van Kuijk (though with an identical timing of 4'51).
They are perhaps even more impressive in the other two Quartets. Their reading of the Szymanowski is a revelation. Less wayward, with more purpose and direction than I'm used to hearing, I discovered the piece anew. Not only from the overall scope and clarified compositional structure, but their silky blend evinces a variety of sounds which is thoroughly intoxicating. The atmosphere in the first movement creates a marvelous sense of anticipation, and its Moderato dolce indication affords the group an opportunity to display some of the most lovely dolce playing imaginable - especially the sweetly singing lines from the 1st violin. Their con sordino tone in this movement is positively creamy. But that's not all; there are amazing contrasts of mood and dynamics too which extend vividly into the vivace 2nd movement as well. And the desolation of the Lento is very moving, and generates tremendous momentum and power in the central climactic section.
In the Janacek, I love how they bring out the Dvorak influence without downplaying its modernism. It's interesting to consider Janacek was just one generation ahead of Dvorak but how much more innovative his creativity was to become. It's a delightful combination in his 2nd string quartet - almost as if Dvorak was composing well into the 20th Century. This reading from the Verona is insightful and intriguing - so much so it has me anxiously waiting with anticipation for the Escher Quartet's new recording of both Janacek Quartets due this month on BIS.
The Verona's Azica disc was recorded in 2019 but not released until 2021. It is so good I was eager to acquire their newest disc (2023), "shatter" - this one independently recorded and marketed/promoted/distributed by Bright Shiny Things. Comprised entirely of new works by new composers, it is unfortunately a mixed bag. While excellent playing and recorded sound abound, the program is of uneven quality, as is the production itself. There is no booklet and the simple, folded cardboard enclosure provides minimal printed information about the music. I find this unacceptable for a CD containing completely new music by unknown composers played by a relatively new quartet - precisely when in-depth program notes are needed the most. (There is, however, a QR code one can scan, if so inclined.)
With nothing to prepare me for what I was about to hear, I began listening to the quartet by Reena Esmail. Just as I was getting acquainted with its unusual soundworld, I was suddenly confronted with some awful Hindu wailing. This was an unpleasant intrusion which I wasn't expecting. Grabbing the CD enclosure, I noticed on the back in miniscule print, in an extremely faint light gray font: "featuring Hindustsani (sic) vocalist". Hoping it affected only the first movement (Fantasie), I tried the second movement Scherzo, wondering if/how this vocalization would be incorporated there. Well, it isn't a scherzo at all; it's simply more of the same listless meanderings of the first movement. And soon enough the hideous wailing begins again, just as it did before. Not only did I wonder how this section could possibly be considered a "scherzo", I also wondered why on earth a string quartet would ever schedule such a piece on their program. I found it intolerable and turned it off.
Undeterred, I forged ahead to the next work by a relatively unknown composer where matters improved significantly - at least musically - with Julia Adolphe's Star-Crossed Signals. I was curious about the origins of the title and its two movements, named "Delta X-Ray" and "Kilo Kilo". But alas, about this piece, the CD enclosure merely states: "Adophe (sic) juxtaposes issues of empowerment and the assertion of dominance with an ardent yearning for connection". Um...ok. I still have no concept what the titles mean and how they relate to that. And it is simply astonishing they managed to misspell the composer's name.
But at least the music is interesting. The first movement is intense at times and rather stark, which is attractive in its way. But it ebbs and flows for over 8 minutes without really getting anywhere. The second movement is similar - even more desolate and sparsely scored - and I wished for more contrast from that heard before. I found myself drawn into the yearning character of the music, but it ultimately went on too long for its material despite the Verona Quartet's committed and involving reading of it.
Out of curiosity, I Googled Ms. Adolphe and found her very impressive bio lists numerous orchestral commissions from major orchestras to her credit. I therefore surmise she excels at full-scale orchestral composition and is enjoying some acclaim. Her string quartet music here is intriguing, if not really memorable. It might be interesting to explore her creativity further.
At last we come to the raison d'etre for acquiring this CD - the wonderful Quartet by Michael Gilbertson. Instantly I hear Caroline Shaw's 2011 Entr'acte, with its impulsive, hesitant rhythmic pulses, but in a register 2 - 3 octaves higher up, affording it a glistening quality quite distinctive from Shaw's piece. And this character persists throughout the first movement, Mother Chords. Gilbertson develops it uniquely as his own, and it is wonderfully heartfelt and expressive. The second movement, Simple Sugars, is completely different and provides a refreshing contrast. The music here positively dances with infectious rhythms and jazz-influenced chordal harmonies. Yet it's refined and sophisticated. Here again, I would have loved to understand the meaning behind the titles, especially after reading the brief synopsis in the cardboard enclosure describing the work as "a personal need for comfort and catharsis following the 2016 US Presidential election while mirroring society's alarming dependence upon instant gratification". Interesting...and I have no idea how his titles fit in with that burdensome subject matter. (I tried the internet and not even the group's nor the label's websites provide the liner notes. Why?)
Nevertheless, I loved the piece. It is imaginative, captivating, inspired and inspiring, resourcefully orchestrated and spectacularly played and recorded. After a bit of research of my own, I see Mr. Gilbertson has written a lot of choral music, plus a few concertos and a bit of orchestral music as well. (And just like Shaw's Entr'acte, his Mother Chords has been rescored for string orchestra.) Based on his marvelous Quartet, he is definitely a composer to watch.
Final production comments - spelling errors and lack of program notes aside, there are no individual track timings provided and the total playing time is just 57 minutes. Disregarding the opening work from consideration (which goes on for an astonishing 26+ minutes), that leaves just 31 minutes of worthwhile music on offer here. While the CD can be found for slightly less-than-full-price (on Amazon), it's still an extravagant outlay for just the Gilbertson Quartet, which alone lasts just 15 minutes.
This is my 4th disc of music by Roberto Sierra. Therefore I shouldn’t be surprised by what it offers – high energy, insistent rhythms and colorful orchestration.
I had especially high hopes for this music with Onyx’s new star conductor, Domingo Hindoyan, at the helm. After all, Onyx gives him star billing, far and above the composer. It’s Hindoyan’s picture on the front and back, and his name appears in an enormous font, adorned in color; while Sierra is given a decidedly unassuming presence - his name relegated to small, unimposing, white letters.
While I am disconcerted to see Classical specialty labels stoop to "Star Power!" marketing such as this, Hindoyan certainly merits praise. I loved his debut album for Onyx last year of French ballet music. (See my review elsewhere here on my blog.) And in the music of Sierra, to conjure up this much energy to conduct it all, and even more significantly, to coax his orchestra to play with such enthusiasm and commitment for this long (the CD lasts 65 minutes) is absolutely astonishing. All of it is brilliantly played and well recorded. And, as I noted in the ballet collection before it, I marvel at how rejuvenated this orchestra sounds under its new, inspired conductor - in striking contrast to earlier recordings with their previous music director (Vasily Petrenko).
But make no mistake, much of this program is comprised of high-octane, rhythmic energy which can get a little relentless after a while. So have some coffee and be ready for the ride! The variety of moods and especially the fascinatingly imaginative and colorful orchestration are irresistible and definitely worth the effort, keeping the listener engaged and drawn into the music. Though it’s interesting to glance at the track listing throughout this program and see so many sections with titles like Alegria ("happiness"), Animado, Ritmico, Vivo, Rapido, Fandangos etc. And this gives a fair indication of what you’re going to hear. But there are contrasts too. For example, the first of the Two Pieces is a lamento and there is an Expressivo section in the music for string orchestra.
The program starts right off with music infused with prominent rhythms typical of folk and popular music of the Caribbean, in a delightful little piece, Alegria. But it isn't hard-driven; it's pleasantly playful and enormously entertaining. Following it, the Two Pieces for Orchestra are very serious indeed, quite uncharacteristic of this composer. The First is heavy and somber, while the Second is lightened somewhat with a rhythmic underpinning, but turns rather pretentious (and dissonant) at times, sounding a bit like a dramatic orchestral movie soundtrack. But Sierra's orchestral prowess certainly reveals itself here.
The Sinfonietta for Strings and the concluding Sinfonia #6 were both written for Domingo Hindoyan - the former in 2020 for a concert with the Detroit Symphony (during the Covid pandemic), and the latter a year later for his inaugural concert as music director in Liverpool. The work for strings is the polar opposite of Two Pieces, with much more light and shade variety. We hear aching violin tunes, gorgeous viola solos, pizzicato interjections - all colorfully interspersed among the persistent rhythms. Its four movements are endlessly fascinating and Hindoyan is spectacular in bringing them to life with vivid characterization.
Fandangos is probably Sierra's most well-known work, and though it is entertaining, its insistent rhythms can become a bit much. I find it relentless and rather noisy in both recordings of it I have heard. (The other being on Naxos, with the Nashville Symphony). It's a party piece for sure, which orchestras probably enjoy playing and delighting audiences with. But for me, its endless, nagging rhythms eventually sound trite before it's finally done. (It goes on like this for over 10 minutes.)
Matters improve significantly with the Sinfonia ("Symphony #6") which comes last. It is cast in 4 rather short movements and is infinitely more interesting, varied and musically rewarding. Here we have truly creative craftsmanship, superbly atmospheric and colorful orchestration, and nuanced dynamic contrasts.
This sinfonia (which is really more of a suite or symphonic poem than a symphony) is programmatic, reflecting memories of the composer’s childhood in Puerto Rico. And what an inspired piece it is. The opening movement, Urban Life, has the vitality of city living but isn’t noisy or bombastic. It’s colorful and vividly characterized, instantly drawing the listener in. It is followed by the most delectable music of the entire program - a slow movement (and what a relief it is), At Night, which is gloriously picturesque. We hear a multitude of percussion sounds back in the distance, along with piccolo bird songs and pensive solos for various woodwinds (clarinet, oboe, flute), creating a most fragrant atmosphere depicting the sounds of nighttime in the tropics - which is positively alluring. The colorful orchestration continues with some luscious muted violins and contrabassoon rumblings, and a distant melancholy trumpet on Harmon mute. Some hints of Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain make an appearance before the onslaught of a ferocious Hurricane in the 3rd movement. This is organized cacophony, replete with furiously scurrying strings increasing the tension. And later, trombone raspberries alternate with a menacing contrabassoon, again reminding me of an action sequence in a movie score. However, what sets this apart from some of the music heard earlier, it has a real sense of purpose and scope, and is certainly successful in its musical depiction of a dizzying whirlwind. Best of all, there is a brief, imaginative central respite with string overtone harmonics creating an awesome calm within the eye of the storm. All the while, the contrabassoon continues to growl way down low, a constant reminder we're not out of danger just yet.
Suddenly the storm stops. And after an abrupt silence, the Finale begins with more insistent rhythms, but in a slightly lighter mood. It's described in the booklet as “a celebration of the rhythms of the Caribbean”. The highly descriptive orchestration includes some more intriguing trombone glissandos and a variety of percussion keeping the rhythmic momentum going. Soon though, the scene transitions to a wonderful interlude with alternating solos for piccolo, trombone, contrabassoon, clarinet etc., perhaps depicting various individuals with stories to tell. The celebrations start to get a little rowdy but the violins keep them in check, taking charge with some intense, soaring melodic passages, hampering the good times. Until even they can't help but join the festivities with some bustling, articulate flourishes followed by chattering woodwinds and cackling flutes and piccolos. And with some pounding rhythms announcing the evening is done, this terrific piece comes to a conclusion.
I’m happy to have this new CD of Sierra’s music in my collection, along with two on Naxos (Symphony #4 + Carnaval, etc., and his Concierto for Guitar, which, peculiarly, is completely nonsensical), plus an interesting 1994 collection of his earlier orchestral works on the defunct KOSS label (Zdenec Macal/Milwaukee Symphony). This new Onyx fares better than most of them – notably for the fabulous orchestral playing and spectacular recording. But also for this selection of music, much of which shows the composer at his most creative and inspired. And most of all for Hindoyan, who is positively dazzling. This is definitely a conductor to watch.
First a disclaimer: I was sent these 2 CDs gratis from the producer, Michal Bryla, in consideration for a review.
“I think it's important to mention that I do all the projects myself, from recording, editing and mastering to the release itself. I have control over the entire production process, so the releases are something special for me.”
And one can instantly detect the pride he fosters in them from the outstanding production qualities they exude.
Featured on both CDs is Mr. Bryla’s wife, violinist Aleksandra Bryla, who is also the 2nd violinist in the Meccore String Quartet. And keeping it in the family, the harpsichordist on the Bach album is Bryla’s mother, Maria Banaszkiewicz-Bryla.
This recording of 4 Mozart Violin Sonatas utilizes a Fortepiano, of which I admit to not being an expert or an admirer. And I have even less experience with (or love for) the Bach Sonatas with harpsichord. Therefore, my comments about these CDs will be entirely subjective and based upon personal observations. They are so visually enticing and of such obviously high quality, I approached them with an open mind and an eagerness to learn something new. Did I enjoy listening to them? Absolutely. Did they make me love the fortepiano (or Bach) more than I did previously? I’m afraid not. However, I have gained a new appreciation for both (especially Bach).
Beginning with the Mozart, this is an incredibly impressive hardback (cardboard) CD package - including a substantial booklet complete with extensive text and numerous pictures of the performers, and a gold CD recorded in 192 kHz/24bit digital encoding/mastering. All produced, engineered, edited and mastered by Michal Bryla himself. Very impressive indeed! (And don’t forget he also plays viola with the Meccore Quartet.) Ms. Bryla plays Krzysztof Krupa’s 2012 copy of a 1675 Ruggieri violin, and Ms. Wozniak plays Paul McNulty’s reproduction of an 1805 Walter&Sohn fortepiano.
Listening to the music, I found myself having to adjust to the compact, rather deadpan sound of the fortepiano compared to a modern concert grand pianoforte I am accustomed to hearing. But after a while, I didn’t mind it, especially as the music-making was so engaging. Only in the very first track, the Allegro vivace of KV 296 (C Major) was there any cause for concern musically, where Wozniak is a bit mannered in the 2nd half of the opening phrase and each time it occurs thereafter. She applies a slight tenuto to the trills followed by some odd hesitations in the ensuing scalic figures, which sound a bit awkward. It's hardly worth mentioning, except that it becomes so pronounced in the recapitulation (5 minutes in) I actually wondered if a key on her instrument was sticking. Fortunately, this affectation occurs only occasionally and Ms. Bryla never mimics it in the violin line.
Overall, I was pleased with the music-making throughout. Their playing is lively, joyous and alert, and tempos are spirited, increasing musical involvement. I particularly enjoyed Ms. Bryla’s violin playing, which is at all times appropriately light and sweet, with just enough natural warmth and judicious use of vibrato to prevent it from sounding coldly “authentic”. There is never the slightest hint of the steely iciness heard so often in period performance style and her tone has a pleasant fullness of tone without being at all “rich”.
I really enjoyed their reading of the G major (KV 379), especially the Allegro which is exhilarating at this speed, with very impressive piano playing. I was taken aback at how thrilling it is while at the same time sounding not at all hectic or breathless. As a matter of fact, there is a gravitas to their approach here, and in the E minor (KV 304) which follows, which sounds positively Beethovian! I wasn't expecting this kind of vigorous weight to Mozart.
The recorded sound is very good. Reverberation is perfectly judged - just enough to be warm, but never muddy. Ultimately there could be just a bit more spaciousness to the acoustic, however the musicians are palpably present within an intimate setting, and the violin is well focused out in front.
After immersing myself into this recording, I was interested in going back to one of my favorite recordings of these marvelous Sonatas for comparison. I have gained endless enjoyment from the early '90s set played by Isaac Stern and Yefim Bronfman on SONY. I was pleased to hear Stern's lightness of tone so closely matched that of Bryla's. However, I was instantly gratified with the brighter, more resonant sound of a modern Steinway and was surprised at how it actually sounded lighter and more lively than the fortepiano does. Their faster tempos in Allegros and SONY's delightful, airy acoustic helped in this regard as well.
Listening next to the Bach, the violin is even more forwardly placed (but not unnaturally so) and the harpsichord is afforded a more appealing, melodious sonority than the fortepiano in the Mozart, which I found very attractive. As I mentioned before, Bach is not really my thing, but I found myself enjoying this music despite that, due in large part to the excellence of the playing by both musicians. There is an endearing musicality to their playing which drew me in. In particular, there is a glorious singing quality to the violin which I simply loved. Yet she keeps it simple - clean and light - but expressive. And the harpsichord playing is crisp, musical and utterly natural. Although I couldn’t listen to the entire CD in one sitting, I didn’t grow tired of it, and actually looked forward to hearing the second half on another day.
While this is not a "gold CD" as is the Mozart, and it comes in a more conventional 3-way folded cardboard enclosure, the entire production is excellent - as is the recorded sound. Incidentally, these artists have already recorded the first three Bach Violin Sonatas for the Dux label in 2018, which would explain why they started (or continued) with #4 - 6 here for Prelude Classics.
These recordings constitute an auspicious launch of a new record label. They are currently available as digital downloads or on CD directly from PreludeClassics.com.
At the age of just 21, Adam Walker was the youngest principal flutist ever appointed to that position in the London Symphony Orchestra. He currently plays with the Sinfonia of London (a mostly studio recording orchestra) and is making quite a go at a solo career with several recordings already. I have acquired a few of them, including two Chandos releases of French music which stand out - as soloist in Dutilluex’s Sonatine with John Wilson conducting, and as a chamber musician with the woodwind quintet, Belle Epoque. (There is a 3rd album of French solo music as well, which I have not yet heard.) He has also recorded the splendid Puts Flute Concerto for Naxos; and on NMC Records, a very difficult (i.e. contemporary, atonal) concerto written for him by his pianist on this album, Huw Watkins. I was pleasantly relieved to hear Mr. Watkins play so beautifully and sensitively in this delightful flute repertoire - music which couldn’t possibly be farther removed from his own compositions.
Adam Walker is certainly one of the best flute players I've heard - for a variety of reasons. Including:
1. An even tone from top to bottom. The highs don’t stick out louder than the rest (like they do so often with many players); they just sparkle. The lows don’t honk (ala Galway); they’re full, resonant and textured. Throughout the entire range, notes all emanate from the same source, with the same tonal sound qualities – just in different registers.
2. Dynamics are endlessly varied, from subtle to pronounced, with luminous expression and vivid characterization.
3. Absolutely resplendent tone, which he varies, along with the speed and intensity of vibrato, with subtle shadings to caress a line or bring new life to a musical phrase. And with it, exquisite control in pianissimos. His sound remains vibrant and expressive, never limp. Even at a whisper, with minimal vibrato, it’s still gloriously radiant.
4. Amazing breath control. He hardly pauses for breath until/unless the music requires it. This man can seemingly play all day on a single breath of air.
But it’s not just these technical aspects of his playing which set him apart. It’s also his choice of programming which is simply exemplary. I thought an entire album of “British music for flute and piano” would be a bit boring (even for a flute player like myself) and would tend to all sound the same after a while. But I was wrong. With this fabulous musician running the show, the variety in his playing extends to the variety of the music he plays.
The program from beginning to end is quite simply splendid, comprised of music which is delightful, charming, colorful, expressive and vividly characterized. There is plenty to dazzle but nothing is ostentatiously flashy. It’s the musicianship by flutist and pianist alike which impresses most.
From the very first music we hear, the Miniature Suite by York Bowen, I’m amazed at the variety in the playing. Just listen to how Walker illustrates the humor in the opening Humoresque and the loveliness in the Romance. His phenomenal breath control, especially at pp, is a wonder to behold here. He can play forever without taking a breath. And the final presto is then dashed off effortlessly.
The very short Vaughan Williams is full of charm (I would never guess this was by V.W.) and over much too soon. While the Berkeley is decidedly more contemporary, offering us a tantalizing glimpse of what Walker could do in some 20th-Century French repertoire (Jolivet, Ibert, Tomasi, etc ). Berkeley is tonal though, and this duo brings out his charming side.
The Alwyn Sonata is one of the highlights of the program, with sweeping, rapturous phrases and rich harmonic progression. Watkins really shines here, relishing the glorious piano writing.
The name of the album, Shadow Dances, comes from the first movement of Arnold Bax's Four Pieces. And indeed, this is an interesting little set - lighter than I would expect from this composer. From the first two dances to the concluding grotesque march, Walker's gift of characterization is once again remarkable.
The Ferguson is very short and gentle, reminding me of Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. The concluding Sonata (another work by York Bowen), is the most substantial of all, at nearly 20 minutes. It is freely rhapsodic and these musicians are simply marvelous in bringing a rapturous, almost improvisational quality to it.
I wasn’t familiar with any of this music. And I found all of it instantly appealing, immersive and thoroughly rewarding. I found on my shelves another British Flute Music collection played by flutist Jeffrey Khaner on a 2002 Avie CD. Only two pieces are duplicated (the Berkeley and the Bowen Sonata) and the contrasts between the two flutists are striking. Khaner's tone in comparison is rather plain (and impassive in pianissimo) and seldom varies. And especially in the Bowen, his playing is just a little bland, lacking the vivid characterization and dynamic and tonal variety which make Walker's playing so extraordinary. Walker's sound, too, is instantly much more vibrant and radiant. (I'd be curious to know what make of flute Khaner plays. Walker plays a Powell, which could partly account for his effulgent tone.) He also takes his time to bring out more color and passion in the music, which is ultimately much more interesting to listen to. I don't mean to diminish Khaner's playing; after all, he was the Cleveland Orchestra's principal flutist prior to assuming that position with the Philadelphia in 1990. But in this music, there is just something special about Adam Walker's playing that Khaner can't match. And it must be noted, too, that Huw Watkins is a more dynamic and involving partner as well.
This Chandos release is a standard CD; no SACD this time. And really, that’s OK - the recorded sound is glorious. The piano is perfectly balanced behind the flute, and both are well-focused and 3-dimensionally placed within a natural, intimate setting. Everywhere their playing is infused with color and texture.
Truthfully, I was not expecting to enjoy this album as much as I did. I can recommend it without hesitation not only to flute players, but to anyone who enjoys lighter, charming chamber music.
After listening to the recent Pentatone CD of Bartok with a female conductor, I thought it would be intriguing to compare it to this one on BIS with another female conductor. Both play the Concerto for Orchestra, but with different couplings.
While I thought Karina Canellakis turned in a very good reading on Pentatone (please see my review elsewhere on my blog), it wouldn't be a first choice. But it was interesting and she brought some true insight to this over-recorded masterwork. With Susanna Malkki on BIS, however, the music-making is even more immaculate, but the entire affair is a little too calculated and lacking spontaneity. This comes from the podium first and foremost, but also from the somewhat clinical recorded sound, which is almost too clean. I wished for just a touch more richness from this orchestra.
The orchestral playing throughout is excellent. They diligently do exactly what Malkki asks for but there is precious little inspiration. Beginning with Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, the first movement starts promisingly. It is nicely mysterioso at a good tempo (a true Andante, as marked, not Adagio), but doesn't develop with enough tension into the devastating climax it should. And while the opening of the 3rd movement, sans vibrato, is chilling, the central section on harmonics is rushed and too matter-of-fact. As is the entirety of the finale, which is meticulous, fast and a bit lightweight.
And the Concerto for Orchestra definitely needs to be more vividly characterized. Despite good orchestral execution, it's all a bit routine. Compared to Canellakis, the central movements are thoroughly uneventful. And the finale, which is whisked away at a helter-skelter speed, fails to generate real adrenaline. It's fast just to be fast - then she inexplicably slams on the brakes for the ending, which just falls flat.
This BIS recording is ideal for anyone wanting to study the score. Inner details are revealed with laser precision and Malkki brings out individual lines whether important or not. But in the end, that last bit of engaging involvement is lacking. (It was interesting to read in the booklet that Malkki is also principal guest conductor in Los Angeles. Perhaps not coincidentally, that's exactly how I hear Dudamel's conducting as well.)
There is a review on Amazon which sums up the current state of Classical orchestral recordings perfectly. In his description of this Bartok, "Long-time Listener" says it best (and I quote): "We are in an era of highly competent, well-managed, but not terribly passionate or transcendent readings of classic works -- and that's what we get here." I could not have said it better myself.
It's so disappointing to hear such wonderful Beethoven spoiled by rather inferior violin playing. The other 6 musicians of this group are excellent and play well together. But the violin detracts just about everywhere with insecure passagework, some imprecise articulation and a slightly sour, nasal tone.
Just as one is lifted with joy upon hearing the clarinet play a phrase superbly detache, spirits are dashed by careless bowing from the violin in the corresponding line. As the violin and clarinet are founding members of this group, I would expect them to be perfectly "in sync" as to interpretative matters like articulation.
But that alone is not serious and can be easily overlooked were it not for the frequent fluffing of the violin part's most rudimentary passagework (simple downward scales, for example). And it's not just a one-time muff; it keeps happening over and over. From the very opening, we haven't even emerged from the Adagio yet and we begin to hear trouble by bar 15. She is clearly uncomfortable playing in the key of E flat.
Even in the Adagio cantabile, which should be easy and sweetly singing, I'm bothered by slightly sour violin tone. And then it's back to some clumsiness in the Menuetto, Theme and Variations and the concluding presto. And those final high Bb triplets in the final measures of the finale are embarrassingly out of tune. Granted it's taken at a cracking tempo and is written in a rather awkward key for strings to play (E flat Major), but I can't help but wonder if she's sight reading this.
I don't mean to be harsh, but it's conspicuous when the other players are so thoroughly accomplished. And as a group, their playing is full of joy and spontaneity. In the central menuetto and scherzo for instance, the viola plays with splendid spiccato and the winds with incisively crisp tonguing. And the music positively dances.
Moving ahead, this program is especially rewarding for its inclusion of the Berwald Septet, which is much less often heard. It’s an inventive and pleasing work (if not quite up to the exalted heights of the Beethoven), with an infectious final Allegro con spirito, which features the most delightful clarinet playing here by Michael Collins. It is a sparkling reading, brought beautifully to life by all involved. And the violin playing is more secure as well.
Typical of BIS, the SACD recorded sound is excellent. It is especially noteworthy that the bass viol is never allowed to boom or overpower the group, as can so often be the case. (Witness the Kaleidoscope Chamber Ensemble recordings on Chandos.) And the music-making as a whole is joyful and alert, with perfectly judged tempos. (One exception being the unmarked, unnecessary, pronounced slowing of tempo for the Trio of Beethoven's Scherzo). And I must single out the fabulous horn player in particular - Alberto Menendez Escribano - whose jubilant, expressive playing throughout is an absolute pleasure to listen to.
Putting it all into perspective, these are winning, smiling performances which will provide pleasure to many, especially audiophiles who value state-of-the-art recorded sound. And if this program were played by a local chamber group, it would be deemed absolutely splendid. However, with a prominent name like Wigmore Soloists (originated in collaboration with London's illustrious chamber venue, Wigmore Hall), there comes an expectation of the very highest caliber of accomplishment. And we get that from most of these players. However, it is inconceivable, and a great pity, the violinist is not quite equal to the high standards of the rest.
One final note - I was astonished to read in the booklet that this recording of the Wigmore Soloists was not made in their namesake Wigmore Hall, but in St. John's Upper Norwood Church. How odd.
I was interested in this new Naxos release for the Hailstork Piano Concerto. Seeing the Elfman Violin Concerto as its coupling - and given top billing at that - has me baffled for several reasons.
The most obvious is that this is the second recording violinist Sandy Cameron has made of Danny Elfman’s Violin Concerto. And it’s the only work I can find that she’s ever recorded. So one wonders why?
Her first recording of it was made in 2018 for SONY with John Mauceri conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. I would venture a guess that it is probably as definitive a recording of the piece you’re going to get. The RSNO commissioned the work and Elfman collaborated with Cameron on the solo part after hearing her playing in the circus band for a Cirque du Soleil show he composed some music for. A year later, she plays it in concert with JoAnn Falletta and Naxos is on site to record it. I suppose she was touring around playing that piece everywhere.
I admire some Elfman soundtracks, particularly his Men In Black score, and I think The Nightmare Before Christmas is ingenious. So I was curious about his violin concerto when the SONY was released in 2019. And I admit I had it in my collection and I bought the Naxos anyway. But not for the Elfman; for Hailstork’s Piano Concerto. (And, coincidentally, it was the coupling on the SONY which was the original enticement there as well – Elfman's Piano Quartet, which is a terrific piece.)
Let’s be realistic. Elfman’s “Eleven Eleven” (so called because it just so happens to be exactly 1,111 measures long) is a pleasant, mildly interesting, over-long (40+ minutes) contemporary violin concerto, competently written by a movie soundtrack composer for a circus band player. I don't mean to be disparaging, but it is what it is. Does it really deserve two recordings, played by the same violinist, within a span of just 3 years? Perhaps.
But I do wish Naxos had instead recorded another piano concerto with Stewart Goodyear while he was in town there in Buffalo. (He's such a fantastic and versatile player.) Or better yet, a piece by another African American composer to go with the Hailstork. However, I read in the tiny print at the bottom of the back cover that both concertos were recorded live at two separate concerts, separated by 3 years - the Elfman in 2019 and the Hailstork in 2022. So this album is all about JoAnn Falletta, and that’s probably the most logical explanation for why we've got what we’ve got.
And one more thing before I move on. I have to admonish Naxos for their rather disingenuous blurb on the back of the CD where they declare these are both “brand new concertos”. They aren’t. The Elfman was written in 2017 and has already been recorded before, and the Hailstork was written in 1992 – over 30 years ago!
I was interested in comparing the two recordings of the violin concerto, as I remember being less than impressed with it on the earlier SONY release. I started by comparing the timings of the two and notice that all 4 movements are slightly quicker with Falletta – sometimes shaving off as much as an entire minute. Some of this might be the spontaneity of the live concert coming through, but I’m not sure it’s enough to warrant another CD release as if it’s a fresh rethinking of the piece. (It’s not). Yet there’s no denying that all 4 movements sound a bit more lively and engaging with Falletta in charge. Not only that, the Naxos recording, despite being made at a “live” concert, is in some ways more natural than the SONY. And let’s examine that a bit more closely.
I read in the booklet that this piece is written for “amplified” violin. Now, is that because its dedicatee, Sandy Cameron’s sound is too small for a concerto setting and Elfman decided it was OK to give her a little boost, as she surely was used to having in the circus band? I wonder because I can hear nothing in either recording which would indicate amplification was warranted - musically or otherwise. (For example, there are no special effects which would benefit from being amplified like those used by George Crumb in his Black Angels, scored for electrified string quartet.)
Falletta’s orchestra on Naxos is much more textured, colorful and alluring than the RSNO is on SONY. And the orchestra fills and defines the hall acoustic much more realistically. However, the solo violin sounds peculiar during the entire opening Grave section and it wasn't until after reading the booklet that I realized what I'm hearing is the electronic artificiality of an amplified violin. Ick. Fortunately, it does not persist everywhere, but it does taint some of the aching lyricism of the slow movement as well. I am mystified why this is utilized at all.
Listening to the SONY immediately after the Naxos, the violin tone is firmer, but I immediately notice a flat, upfront perspective, with the orchestra and the violin occupying the same space in a plane right at the front of the speakers. This airless wall of sound is not terribly realistic (or natural), especially compared to the spacious, 3-dimensional loveliness of the Naxos house sound in Buffalo.
Regarding the quicker tempos, the first movement is the least affected and is very similar on both recordings. And is decidedly too long for its material in both readings (clocking in at nearly 14 minutes). It alternates between lyrical passages and jaunty sections of the stomping rhythms characteristic of the composer's film music.
The 2nd movement is more exciting on Naxos, if also just a bit scrambling. I thought it sounded more natural - more “right” - on SONY, with a slightly more relaxed tempo reminiscent of Prokofiev. (In either case, it too goes on way too long.) Similarly in the 4th movement, the SONY, at a slightly more manageable tempo, portrays the giocoso marking more so than on the later reading. Both display an intriguing Shostakovichian spikiness in the writing which is surely the highlight of the entire piece.
It is in the slow 3rd movement where the much quicker pace on Naxos scores a distinct advantage. Falletta establishes a more moving tempo which is entirely favorable, allowing the music to flow more naturally. Mauceri is brooding and curiously hesitant, which tends to impede the natural outpouring of expression. He establishes an atmosphere of anticipation, much like a foreboding scene in a movie, but purely as music, it sounds a bit contrived. And when the violin enters, it really is unnaturally forward and larger-than-life. (Perhaps that's the amplified violin rearing its ugly head again). However, that is preferable to the electronic thinness which frequents her tone on Naxos.
After spending too much time on this, my general observation is that the live remake is a bit more involving but my view of the piece remains unchanged. It is a pleasant, largely unmemorable violin concerto which I enjoyed hearing (even a second time) but likely will never listen to again.
Now to the Piano Concerto - and the real reason for acquiring this CD.
This is a marvelous work, cast in 3 continuous movements played without pause. The first begins with some rhapsodic richness reminiscent of Rachmaninoff but more chromatically enterprising. It soon takes off in a new direction with rhythmic energy and passages of engaging, incisive articulation, developing some wonderful interplay between soloist and orchestra. The entire opening section sounds rather more Russian than American, punctuated with some Walton-like spikiness and brass interjections along with harmonic undertones of Hindemith. Prokofiev even makes an appearance here and there. A beautiful melancholy takes over, eventually leading seamlessly into a pensive Adagio, which is heartfelt, melodious and very moving. Here on full display is the characteristic American gift of melody and Stewart Goodyear relishes its singing lines, with glorious legato playing.
This leads to a very brief Lento of the finale which almost immediately takes flight in a very Walton-like vivace. The tempo feels absolutely perfect (i.e. not too fast), building tension and momentum, culminating in some passages of thrilling bravura, before a sudden interruption returns us to a slow, Rachmaninoff-ian, rapturous respite as we approach the end. Hailstork then finishes it off with an all-too-brief, exhilarating flourish. Pianist and orchestra alike display plenty of fireworks and enthusiasm, and the piece leaves us satisfied and wishing there was more.
This is a glorious concerto which makes a lasting impression and has absolutely everything going for it - memorable melodies, rich, adventurous harmonies, dazzling pianistic displays, and brilliant orchestration. It engages the orchestra almost as if in a showpiece; surely any group would be eager to learn it. The solo part does not sound enormously difficult and should therefore be easily accommodated by many a concert pianist. It is endlessly varied and thoroughly enjoyable to listen to. Moreover, it isn’t too long for the average concert-goer’s attention span and deserves to be heard everywhere.
I have always admired JoAnn Falletta. She is an imaginative, energetic and truly inspiring conductor (and worlds away better than the mediocre Marin Alsop; I have never understood her persistent popularity.) Falletta is marvelous in every recording of hers I’ve heard and this one is no exception. With the fabulous Stewart Goodyear at the keyboard and Falletta on the podium, there could be no better advocates for bringing this concerto to light and affording it the prominence it deserves.
I noted earlier how good the recorded sound is and it is especially praise-worthy in the piano concerto, particularly as it is a live concert. Through both concerts, audience noise is virtually nonexistent and applause is mercifully absent.
Despite my criticisms of the Elfman (and somewhat frivolous comments regarding this violin player), this is yet another important and rewarding CD in the ongoing American Classics series from Naxos. Even if you already have the earlier SONY recording of the violin concerto, you owe it to yourself to hear this fantastic piano concerto.
I've been listening to a lot of Penderecki lately and was excited to see this collection on Capriccio, which includes not only all 4 String Quartets but also the Clarinet Quartet and the String Trio too! Over 70 minutes of music. I was also excited to explore a group new to me, the Polish Meccore String Quartet.
With all this music spanning a decades-long career, I do wish it were presented in chronological order. It's a frequent complaint of mine and this one is particularly exasperating. It starts with a little piece from 1988, followed by the Clarinet Quartet from 1993. And when we finally do get to the String Quartets (beginning in 1960), they aren't even in numbered order! As laid out on this CD, they appear as follows: #1, #3, #2, #4. And I just don't understand why.
I suppose I should just get used to it because it seems to happen all the time. Fortunately, I'm getting proficient at programming my CD player and can listen to them in any order I want. So that problem is easily solved!
Listening to the music, I found the Meccore Quartet to be highly accomplished and expressive, and the recorded sound up close and immediate (typical of the Capriccio house sound). My main interest was with the String Quartets, so I started there.
I initially thought the First was a little too matter-of-fact and missing some of the otherworldly atmosphere heard in the best recordings. However, consulting the score, I noticed that entire opening section, which calls for fingers thumping against the neck of the instruments, is marked ff sempre. Many groups vary the dynamics here, thus allowing them to create seemingly random sounds from the legno battuto (to strike with the wooden part of the bow) and the screeching of the very highest notes to jump out shockingly at the listener. While that can be more interesting to listen to, the Meccore follow the score more faithfully. So perhaps what I'm hearing as being "matter-of-fact" may actually be precisely what Penderecki asks for. Or maybe it's just a matter of interpretation.
I also thought the Second wasn't quite wild enough - at first. If dynamic extremes are not quite as shockingly pronounced as in some performances, they are plenty vigorous as we venture into that dissonant central section.
Throughout both works, rather than focusing solely on sheer atmosphere, this group emphasizes the variety of unimaginable tonal sounds - which are positively eerie. For example, the passage near the beginning of the Second which requires the players to whistle while playing harmonics is awesome. And in the central section of the First, howling sounds from bowing on the tail piece are downright creepy. The close-up perspective, though, does somewhat diminish the otherworldly atmosphere heard in some recordings, but this marvelous group makes up for it with variety of sounds.
The Third and Fourth Quartets are completely different. Based on folk tunes, they have a tonal approachability which suits this group especially well. They excel at bringing out all the variety of moods and characterization in these works, while the immediacy of the recorded sound enhances the richness of their blend. Both pieces prominently feature the viola, and this group's violist, Michal Bryla, displays a gloriously textured, wooden tone.
Only in the String Trio did I feel a bit more bite to bow on string would have been beneficial. And tempos seem just a bit on the slow side.
However, the Clarinet Quartet is the real highlight of this program. It is absolutely marvelous as played here, with clarinetist Jan Jakub Bokun joining the group. His bright (but not too bright), round and expressive tone is perfectly suited to the piece, especially in the desolate landscape of the opening Notturno, where his acapella solo at the beginning is simply beautiful, and then positively gorgeous when joined a few bars later by the viola in a very moving duet. The recording engineer must garner some of the credit for masterfully balancing the two players perfectly as equals. (And seriously, have we ever heard more luxuriant viola sound?) The central movements are captivating and over much too quickly before the finale Abschied ("Departure") returns us to the bleak soundworld heard before. This is one of Penderecki's most richly Romantic creations (coming somewhat later in his career) and these musicians bring out its very best.
Taken as a whole, this is a terrific collection. It is very well played and recorded and I couldn't be happier that it includes so much music on one CD. Among my favorite recordings of the 4 Quartets, the Tippett Quartet on Naxos adds only the Trio; while the Silesian Quartet on Chandos plays the Clarinet Quartet but omits the Trio. And on Dux, the DAFO String Quartet gives us both of the extras, but it was recorded in 2010 - before the 4th String Quartet was even composed! So that is missing from theirs.
To have all this music together at last is a real plus in favor of the Capriccio. This is essential listening for all admirers of Penderecki's string chamber music.
I've acquired quite a few CDs of Grazyna Bacewicz's music during the recent revival of her music. I have found her output quite variable, but have enjoyed much of it.
On Chandos, her Violin Concertos are quite marvelous. Her String Quintets are pretty good too. Her String Quartets, though - not so much. There's a very nice collection of some lighter orchestral music on Hyperion (Ronald Corp conducting) along with a smattering of selections here and there on various releases on the Polish label, Dux.
And then there's this latest CD from Ondine.
Surely there comes a point when enough is enough. I think we've heard the best of her output, and...well, can't we just leave it at that? Unfortunately, the music on this newest disc is not some of her best, as it reveals perhaps too much of her dissonant style at its least effective.
But there are some good things. Certainly the earliest work, Overture (from 1943), which comes first on this CD, is quite pleasant and makes a splendid concert opener. But it lasts just 5-1/2 minutes. Then it's on to the Piano Concerto of 1949, which is OK, but gets a little weird (much like her String Quartets). If not entirely coherent as a whole, there are passages with enough structure and direction that one can appreciate the accomplishment. A memorable tune or two would have been most welcome. But overall it's worth hearing.
Jump ahead 17 years to 1966 and Ms. Bacewicz gets weirder still with the Double Piano Concerto. Here we have 16 minutes of pounding from the pianists interspersed with some pleasing, almost melodic, interludes. The slow movement in particular has some beguiling passages of haunting melancholy with some beautiful solo writing (flute, violin) and imaginative orchestration. But, irritatingly, Bacewicz insists on interrupting it again and again with unnecessary pounding from the pianos. Why someone would intentionally interject something so unappealing into something so wonderful is baffling. The piece is certainly an homage to Bartok. Everywhere I hear snippets of his music (more than just hints). The Larghetto in particular is very reminiscent of the 1st movement of his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, while the finale has much of that work's final section, and even some of his Concerto for Orchestra. But Bacewicz is angrier than Bartok and deliberately dissonant in places which don't really call for it.
The concluding Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion is not quite as noisy, and has some much needed light-and-shade air to it after the relentless pounding of the Double Concerto. It is nonetheless determinedly atonal. The piece has so much promise, but frankly, I'm not convinced by the inclusion of trumpets in this mostly string work. One wonders whatever inspired her to include them. There are many instances where the strings, aided by subtle use of percussion, generate momentum with an interesting, energetic passage only to be inexplicably interrupted by the trumpets (almost always at ff) which serve only to add unnecessary discord. So much potential here seems to have gone amiss with the scoring.
One can't fault the musicians for their total commitment to this music. The orchestra and pianists alike play it as loudly as it demands and with all the bombast it deserves. But I can't help but wonder if a touch more finesse and nuance in those grisly parts would have allowed them to be a little more palatable for many of us.
I would strongly recommend anyone wanting to explore this composer to turn to the several releases on Chandos for a much more musically satisfying representation of her art. Chandos gave us much of her best and then knew when to quit with it.