I'm a little late in the game getting to this incredibly wonderful 2017 release from the Escher String Quartet. But I must chime in and echo the positive reviews found elsewhere.
I have only just recently discovered the fabulous Escher String Quartet, and I have reviewed several of their discs here on my blog. With every recording I hear, I come to the conclusion they are my latest "most favorite" string ensemble. I'm fickle, though...along the way, a few other groups have held that title. And I will always hold dear the Pacifica, Dover and Attacca Quartets. But the Escher really is something special. There is a spontaneity to their playing and a freshness of new discovery, plus an impressive dynamic range, a unanimity of articulation, and an immersive, palpable presence - from all four players - which must be experienced. Each of these four quartets is versatile and adventurous with recorded repertoire. The Pacifica and Attacca are especially dedicated to - and excel at - new, contemporary music; while the Dover and the Escher (and the Pacifica too, but less often) are better than anybody when it comes to the Classics.
Turning to the disc at hand, I can be brief. It's the joy and jubilance in the Dvorak; it's the airy, clarified textures and restrained passion in the Tchaikovsky; and it's the natural, unforced expression in the Borodin which make this concert so treasurable. Their playing is moving, uplifting and musically immersive. Music-making just doesn't get any better than this. And string quartet playing just doesn't get any better than this.
Add in superb SACD sonics from BIS, and this is one of the best recordings of standard repertoire string quartet music I have yet heard. It's right up there with their marvelous set of the Mendelssohn quartets, also for BIS.
This is my third encounter with the fabulous Escher Quartet. First was on a CD of new music by Yuko Eubayashi, with flutist Carol Wincenc, on Azica. The second was their complete set of Mendelssohn String Quartets on BIS. Now comes this excellent new recording with guitarist Jason Vieaux, also from the amazing Azica label, on which I've enjoyed several new releases lately.
And just by coincidence, I had just listened to a brand new Naxos release featuring one of the same pieces as on this Dance CD - the brilliant Guitar Quintet by Castelnuovo-Tedesco. I actually have a 3rd recording of it as well, on a 2019 Cedille album entitled Souvenirs of Spain & Italy, with Sharon Isbin and one of my favorite string quartets, the Pacifica. Written in 1950, it is a popular work lately - and how lucky that is for us! It is a wonderfully entertaining piece, full of charisma, color and charm.
The Naxos recording features German guitarist Leonard Becker, with individual string players (rather than an established quartet). And like Cedille, with a well-known American guitarist, Azika also features an American - Jason Vieaux, teaming up with the marvelous Escher Quartet. What riches in just these three discs!
Comparing the three, it is impossible to declare one "better" than the others. All three are beautifully performed and preferences will likely come down to couplings and recording quality. I'm not a guitarist and do not pretend to be an expert on the subject, but there are observations I can make.
Isbin displays her characteristic gifts of lyrical, singing lines, with phenomenal legato and vibrato. Cedille affords her a beautifully atmospheric acoustic and the reading is full of charm. The Pacifica Quartet match her with their own sweetness of tone and expressiveness.
Becker, in stark contrast, is bolder - more "masculine", if you will - due in part to the much more upfront Naxos sound, mastered at a higher volume than the others. After the gorgeous acoustic of the Cedille, the Naxos sounds somewhat artificial and not quite natural - until the ear adjusts. But Naxos scores big-time with some superb flute playing from Chloe Dufossez in Tedesco's Sonatina for Flute and Guitar later in the program. What a wonderful work this is, and what jaw-droppingly gorgeous flute sound. Even if you already have the Guitar Quintet elsewhere, you should hear this Naxos for the Flute Sonatina.
Vieaux seems to fall in between the two, striking just the right balance of lyricism and vigor. He plays with a crisper, slightly more articulate technique, even in lyrical passages, especially when compared to Isbin's amazing legato. He receives the best recorded sound of all, with superb presence and dimensionality, without being at all forward like the Naxos. The hall ambience is captured beautifully, placing the quartet and the guitar in equal importance.
Moving on to the remaining program from Vieaux, we have a treat in the form of Aaron Jay Kernis's 100 Greatest Dance Hits (ahem...). It's actually a really cool piece (which I had not heard before) and isn't at all tawdry, as I had feared. It's a refreshingly creative work, with so many mood changes I can't possibly describe them all here. I will defer to the movement subtitles to tell the tale, and their descriptions are pretty close to what we hear: 1. Introduction to the Dance Party; 2. Salsa Pasada; 3. Easy Listening Slow Dance Ballad; 4. Dance Party on the Disco Motorboat.
A few details which make the work so uniquely entertaining are worth elaborating on. The Introduction begins with the guitarist making percussive sounds - knuckles and fingers on wood, joined by pizzicatos and strumming behind the bridge on the violins (and perhaps some percussive effects of their own too - it's difficult to tell for sure without seeing the score). This sets the stage for a segue into the Salsa movement, with some energetic grooving and a strong Latin flavor. Kernis quickly gets down to business with lovely melodies above an insistent, syncopated pulse below, heightening the momentum established in the Introduction. This movement is dazzling in its scoring and rhythmic propulsion, along with truly inspired, memorable tunes. The ballad is a sweetly romantic interlude, with some sentimental violin solo writing and tender accompaniment. And to the Disco party we go in the finale. There really is nothing "disco" about it, though - until the last few seconds or so, when the contemporary, rhythmic, energetic tension of the movement implodes with vociferous glissandi and scratching effects up into the highest reaches of the violins, invoking shouts (literally!) from the players - and at last we hear just a few bars of the disco beat taking us to the end. The party stops abruptly - and much too soon, just as it was really getting good!
The "Salsa" and "Slow Dance" descriptors are the most "spot on", musically, and I suppose all of it reminds one of a dance party. But there really is so much more to the piece than that. It is actually rather serious, but in a festive way. And it is seriously good. It's all great fun, the players are obviously enjoying themselves, and it's spectacularly played and recorded. There is nothing "gimmicky" about it when so expertly crafted, so professionally performed and so successfully pulled off, as in this performance. The piece would bring an audience instantly to its feet with abandoned applause and cheers.
Interestingly, a few years later (in 1998), Kernis reworked some of this music into a Concierto de 'Dance Hits' for guitar and chamber orchestra. It omits the Introduction and the Disco Boat, adding an entirely new first movement (Double Echo) and ending with Salsa Pasada. It has recently been released on Naxos, played by its dedicatee, guitarist David Tanenbaum. I found it even more engaging and musically compelling; a significant addition to the guitar concerto repertoire.
After the Dance Party, the Boccherini 4th Quintet is a bit of a party pooper. Oh it's a nice piece, and very well played here in the arrangement for guitar and strings. But remember, this was written in 1797, and, according to the very informative booklet, was originally conceived for piano and strings. Only later did the guitar come to replace the piano. (There was also a version for string quartet as well.) Even with all the jubilance these players afford the work, after the Disco boat it can't help but sound a bit stuffy and anticlimactic - and almost anything would. One wonders why it was decided to place this last on the program? It would have been terrific, and much more musically appropriate, coming first, setting the festive mood, and allowing the rowdy shouts from the disco motorboat to finish the concert. But I'm nitpicking. The entire disc really is fabulous. And I will program the CD player to play the Boccherini first next time through.
This is the latest in a series of incredibly good releases I have heard from the fantastic Azica label. Of all the great independent, specialty Classical labels I enjoy, Azica stands out - with innovative repertoire, professional presentation, first class production qualities and, especially, consistently superb recorded sound. There is no better representation of state-of-the-art CD sound quality than what this label produces.
I will always be on the lookout for more on this label, regardless of what it is. They always have something interesting to offer and I've not been disappointed yet. This latest one featuring the Escher Quartet in dance mode is a knockout.
I recently discovered the composer Szymon Laks via a fascinating disc of his 3 published string quartets (#3-5), played by the wonderful Messages Quartet on the Dux label. It is such great music which I so thoroughly enjoyed, I sought out more by this Polish composer. I stumbled upon this SACD of music for string orchestra, which includes a work by Laks, and immediately ordered a copy. It also appears on Dux (Dux Record Producers), which is based in Warsaw, Poland.
This program features music for string orchestra by Polish and Hungarian composers, beginning with the 1936 Sinfonietta by Szymon Laks. It is a really nice piece, essentially a string serenade in all but title, in four contrasting movements: Overture, Serenade, Rondino and Finale. It is tonal, pleasant, interesting and full of inspiration - written by an obviously very talented and accomplished composer. I hear hints of the British countryside rollicking around the vivacious Overture, while the central movements are brimming with charm. The Finale develops into a compelling Fugue and Variations, again displaying British overtones. I ultimately find his string quartets to be even more rewarding - more creative and possessing a more individual and unique compositional voice, but this airy, light-hearted Sinfonietta is nonetheless very enjoyable.
The Miklos Rozsa Concerto for String Orchestra, however, is not. I just could not get into this piece, even though it comes from a well-known, well-established composer. From the very opening phrase, the first movement is annoyingly unmusical and gruff, based on an unmelodious motif. It fails to develop into much of anything of substance or purpose. The second movement tries harder with some pleasant violin themes, but still falls short of developing a truly memorable tune. Even the opening viola solo is not terribly melodic. Not until the 3rd movement Allegro giusto did the piece finally make a positive impression. Its rhythmic propulsion and energy were engaging and proved to be quite good - and certainly the best part of the piece. I hasten to add that my tepid response to the work has nothing to do with this performance of it. (More on the excellent playing of the Erdody Chamber Orchestra later...)
I admit to just casually listening to this disc up to this point, not in reviewer mode at all, moving about the house completing monotonous tasks while keeping an ear tuned to the music coming from the stereo. Until, that is, the next piece began. I was drawn back into the music room to listen more closely to what I was hearing.
Gyorgy Orban is a composer completely unknown to me, and his Sopra canti diversi turns out to be one of the highlights of the disc. The booklet tells us this is the third movement of a much larger cycle, which is dedicated to the marvelous Erdody Chamber Orchestra, who plays it here. It's comprised of three descriptive movements, subtitled 1. Christmas Song; 2. Snowstorm; 3. Fly Bird, Fly. As in the Laks, I hear hints of a British string serenade about it, especially in the first movement (which, incidentally sounds nothing like "Christmas" music). One immediately recognizes that Orban is a masterful orchestrator, with more variety in the writing than in the previous two works. The scoring is rich in harmony, punctuated with pizzicatos all through the orchestra. The second movement, curiously, sounds nothing like a "snowstorm". Rather, it is a lyrical interlude, with gorgeously singing strings (first the violins, then the violas, then together in octaves). The finale doesn't quite fly like a bird, but does return us to the open, airy spaces of an English landscape, which reminded me once again of the Laks. The piece overall is picturesque, with Bartok-influenced folksong elements adding to its appeal. It is beautifully scored and delightfully entertaining.
The final work, however, is the real discovery. And it ended this concert with a "WOW" from me. Wojciech Kilar is a name which is obstinately, vaguely familiar to me. But I simply could not place it. Listening to the piece made me even more curious...Where do I know this composer from? Well, searching the booklet, I read that Kilar is a composer of avant-garde music and, like Rozsa, gained popularity for his film music. Ah-ha! Searching Amazon, I discover exactly where I know him from. He wrote a film score that I have always loved - the wonderful, somewhat minimalist music, based on a catchy, simple, indelible motif, for a movie I like very much: The Ninth Gate, starring Johnny Depp. (He also wrote other memorable scores such as Bram Stoker's Dracula and Death and the Maiden.) Listening to his Orawa recorded here, the similarities to The Ninth Gate are unmistakable. It is minimalist at first, reminding me a bit of Philip Glass, but several minutes in, it expands into a symphonic rhapsody, with full-scale cinematic orchestration reminiscent of John Adams. Again from the booklet: "The title Orava (or "Orawa", as it appears on the track listing) is a small mountain stream flowing through the northern areas of the former Orava County." The music begins as a trickle, but soon develops momentum, erupting into white-water rapids, about to flood over its banks. (I was reminded of Adams' Two Fanfares for Orchestra, which starts so simply with Tromba lontana, then grows and grows until reaching an overwhelming climax in Short Ride in a Fast Machine.) But not quite. The music is firmly rooted on solid ground and the piece ends with a shriek of string glissandos into the highest register, culminating with a shouted exclamation from the orchestra members. And then, from me: "Wow". And it was done.
The Erdody Chamber Orchestra is a splendid group of about 20 string players, conducted by its leader/concertmaster, Zsolt Szefcsik. Their playing is fabulous - thoroughly involving, robust and dynamic - brimming with energy and musical insight. There is something extravagant about getting to hear new music played by a committed, accomplished group of musicians, which brings the invigoration of new discovery. Dux lavishes the production with the full multi-channel SACD treatment and the sound is excellent. It is warm, detailed and dynamic, providing the group a full-bodied presence which never sounds "small". Even in climaxes, the sound expands effortlessly and naturally without manipulation from the recording engineers.
What began as a casual listen just for enjoyment turned out to be an engrossing musical experience which immediately prompted me to write this review. That doesn't happen often, which says something for this particular release. With the exception of the Rozsa, this music is enlightening, enriching and musically rewarding - and the Kilar, in particular, is really fantastic. With excellent playing and recording, this disc is highly recommended.
I have a fondness for Mendelssohn's String Quartets. And I have a love/hate relationship with most recordings of them. I usually hear them sounding either too gruff, slightly aggressive, or a little chilly and detached. Sometimes it's because of the playing itself (a gruffness usually the fault of the cellist; a chilly detachment a simple case of lacking spontaneity); sometimes it's the recording (too close and course); and, worse, sometimes both. Other times, a group seems to want to make these wonderful creations something more than they are - something larger than life; something more profound, to the point of bringing a Beethovenian seriousness and heaviness to them, which doesn't work for me. But then - THEN - every once in awhile the planets align and the heavens smile down on a recording session, and everything comes together with an exceptional group of musicians combined with the perfect recording perspective (which, for some reason is a rare event for these quartets), and magic happens! And it is a wonderous experience to behold. And there is none better than the magnificent 2005 set from the Pacifica Quartet on Cedille Records (see my review elsewhere on this blog).
And now there's the Escher String Quartet. Their set, on 3 separate BIS SACDs, is, in a nutshell, excellent. Better than most. All 3 discs were recorded in Potton Hall, Suffolk England, but each at different sessions over a period of 13 months. And the series just gets better and better as it progresses.
The first disc, offering #1 & 4 (plus the Quartet in E flat major), was recorded in April 2014. The playing is immediately impressive. But there is no denying these are closely mic'd and upfront (but not aggressive). While providing tremendous impact, the sound is just short of being almost too forward. But I must emphasize "just short" though...it is just acceptably kept at the plane of the speakers without being aggressively thrust out into the room. And it is very clean and clear, with a glorious acoustic providing plenty of ambience and warmth. It is mastered at a higher volume level than usual, though, which necessitated me adjusting the volume down several notches to compensate.
Once adjusted, the sound is very good and the playing is excellent. Make no mistake - with the recording being this closely mic'd and hyper-analytical, there is absolutely NOWHERE for anything less than perfect playing to hide. And there is absolutely nothing here which is less than perfection.
As recorded by BIS, this first disc is not quite as inviting and lovely as my reference recordings from the Pacifica Quartet. It is just a touch more intense. However, the playing is in no way chilly, slightly detached (and slightly aggressive) as another set I didn't like as much - that from the Manderling Quartett on Audite. The Escher's #1 and #4 are what I would describe as "commanding." Despite the recording perspective, these are still enjoyable because the playing itself is not at all "aggressive". It is at all times musically involving, and the performances are gripping.
Turning to the next installment, recorded 5 months later (in September 2014), things get even better. #2 and 3 are bursting with joy and exuberance. And the recording is just a touch more natural. The engineers seem to have made slight adjustments for a slightly more relaxed presentation, which is all gain. The mastered volume level is a couple notches lower and the quartet is now slightly less bold - but even better focused. A more expressive quality emerges to great effect. Rather than demanding one's attention, these readings positively invite one to come listen. They are fully the equal of the incomparable Pacifica's.
The final disc, recorded in May 2015, is the finest of all. #5 in particular is infused with a sweet, freely singing, soaring quality combined with infectious verve, making it very special indeed. I had thought their performances of #2 & 3 were highlights of the entire set until I listened to their #5, which is simply marvelous. The same can be said for #6. In this brilliant performance, there is a maturity and foreboding which seems to foreshadow what's to come (Mendelssohn died a month after its completion). The work blossoms into one of the true masterpieces which marks his life. And the recording is absolutely superb. Truly, this final disc is magnificent.
Tempos in all 6 works are perfectly judged. Allegros are dazzling and spring from the speakers with life. Slow movements never drag, but unfold with a moving, naturally flowing musical expression - which is a hallmark of every string ensemble I cherish. And everywhere there is a sense of freshness and spontaneity, as if in a live performance.
Of the two additional works included here, the Opus 81 Four Pieces for String Quartet (assembled after his death) are especially rewarding, despite being split over 2 discs due to maximum playing time confines.
I think I can summarize this set by stating it sounds the most like Mendelssohn of any I can remember. I kept thinking all through, "this sounds like Mendelssohn at his best." And in my book, that's the highest compliment I can pay the Escher Quartet.
I have several "favorite" string quartets on my list now. The Pacifica and the Dover have consistently topped that list, recently joined by the Attacca. Now the Escher joins the ranks as well. Can I have four favorite groups? When they are all this fabulous, yes, absolutely.
As a die-hard Mozart/Beethoven/Tchaikovsky kind of guy, I have a hard time describing new music. I know what I like and what I don't. But I can say without hesitation I certainly like this music for string quartet by American composer Michael Ippolito. And he could not have better advocates than the incredible Attacca Quartet and the Azica record label.
I first got to know this composer from his wonderful new Divertimento, just released on BIS (along with other Divertimenti) played by the c/o chamber orchestra. (My review of that disc appears elsewhere on this blog.) There were hints of Bartok which I enjoyed, along with an obvious natural creative ability and a gift for orchestration. This disc of string quartet music confirms this is a composer of real talent and a masterful orchestrator. I don't hear Bartok here, though. This composer displays a distinct, unique musical voice all his own. It's obviously contemporary, but yet tonal, with compositional structure based upon musical motifs (not just rhythmic ones). And so much colorful writing.
Let's start with orchestration. Listening to the second track, Trace, I was absolutely certain there were more than just 4 players. So much dove-tailing, and variety of tone-colors, there had to be additional players included here, right? Well, not according to the booklet. There is no mention anywhere of additional players joining the Attacca Quartet. So with that fact firmly established, I listened to it again. And I am simply amazed at the sounds this composer can produce from just 4 players. The use of double stops is skillfully (and very cleverly) accomplished. And the music itself is simply fascinating. I'm a fan of short-stories, and this short work would seem to fall into the musical equivalent of that. The musical content and emotional impact contained within this piece lasting just under 6 minutes is simply miraculous.
Big Sky, Low Horizon perks us up a bit, sounding the most identifiably "American" of all the works on this program. I even hear hints of a fiddler's violin here and there, with the jaunty bouncing around of open 4ths and 5ths in one section. Smoke Rings returns us to the soundworld of Trace. There is a gorgeous, harmonious trio, first for the 2 violins and viola punctuated by cello pizzicatos, and later the orchestration switches it around to a lower register, with a violin taking over the pizzs. Soon the entire quartet takes up the chorale, played largely sans vibrato, with sharply bowed accents interjecting with dramatic effect. The Attacca makes it beautiful, with or without vibrato. This is another "short story" which is so descriptive, it makes a perfect 6-1/2 minutes of music.
Coming to the String Quartets at last, they are the most substantial works on the program, and likely the major attraction for many collectors. #3 comes first on the disc, a single movement chorale, lasting 10 minutes, with a variety of moods. The subtitle, Songlines, perfectly describes it. I heard it as a song throughout its entirety. ("Songlines" actually came to mind throughout this entire disc.)
But the 2nd Quartet is the real masterpiece. It is quite substantial, in three movements, lasting 25'. From the dramatic opening Allegro energico, I was instantly drawn in, on the edge of my seat, with the intensity of the opening unison for all 4 players. Shostakovich came to mind briefly here. The second movement reminds one of the sounds in Smoke Rings. It is more intensely dramatic, with a very passionate cello solo mid-way, handing off to the violin, then with the entire quartet crying out in an almost tragic tone. What an emotional experience this is! And then they fade into nothingness in the final bars (without the aid of the recording engineers). What glorious playing here by the Attacca.
In the final Allegro molto, I hear some more Shostakovich - some Russian angst - in the opening minutes. But that is soon forgotten, becoming pure Michael Ippolito at his very best. It really can be written by no one else. Just listen to the glissandi at the 4' mark, and the sul ponticello viola and cello at 6'. Otherworldly yes, but what an incredible story-teller this composer is! The intensity continues to build and tighten, with the lower two players arguing back and forth with the violins (some double-unison polyphony, which I really liked), and the clamor culminates in a final outcry from all. And at this point I'm emotionally drained. And I can only state emphatically that this work is simply magnificent. It can stand side-by-side with my other recent masterpiece discovery, the 3rd Quartet by Shulamit Ran (contained on the disc, 'Contemporary Voices', played by the marvelous Pacifica Quartet, also reviewed on my blog). Both are emotionally moving, stimulating musical experiences; endlessly fascinating works worthy of the highest esteem.
This Circle concludes the program, providing the calming respite needed to recover from that which precedes it. It's another short story, this time for string trio (minus the 2nd violin), with singing lines - poignant and melancholy, with an underlying, impending despair and uncertainty. And it ends with harmonics evaporating into the rafters.
I am simply bowled over by this music. And certainly by the playing of the Attacca Quartet. Overall, this is a fantastic disc which is so endlessly interesting, varied, colorful and emotionally moving and musically rewarding, I can hardly stop listening to it. And each time I hear something I missed before - not just technically (as in construction and orchestration), but a deeper meaning to it all. I would encourage anyone hearing this music to read the interesting booklet, which includes substantial program notes by the composer, for a much better understanding of each piece.
Finally, this is yet another fantastic release from the great Azica label. The production is first class and the recorded sound is stunning in its clarity and realism. The quartet is recorded up-close and the disc is mastered at a higher volume than usual. I had to turn the volume down several notches for comfortable listening. But it provides the group tremendous presence and impact. It also allows absolutely nowhere to hide anything less than perfect playing. And I heard none. Anywhere.
This wonderful disc must be heard by anyone interested in excellent new music written by a true master; and by any lover of outstanding string quartet playing. I have several favorite groups, but the Attacca is right up there with the Pacifica in a category of exceptional accomplishment all their own.
I admit I was a bit skeptical with this. I was not overly impressed with James Gaffigan's 2014 Dvorak disc with this orchestra on this label (6th Symphony and American Suite). Oh it's very good and very well played, but just not particularly memorable. And I thought harmonia mundi didn't help him out any with sound which is a bit stuffy. So an Americana program from this same team made me hesitate. But, I needn't have worried. James Gaffigan has this music in his very bones and brings the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra to life and keeps them on their toes all through. And harmonia mundi's sound is more open, dynamic and lively than in the earlier Dvorak.
Bernstein's very familiar West Side Story Symphonic Dances sets the stage (so to speak), and Gaffigan brings energy and fabulous characterization. While always the ultimate in refinement, he does encourage this orchestra to "let loose" in the rambunctious sections, and they deliver - if not quite to the level that the composer himself achieved with the New York Phil back in the early 60s. But the brass do give it the gusto and the strings dig in with impressive authority. Most of all, though, the lively percussion and impressive bass drum wallops make a splendid impact. And the gentler passages are expressive with beautiful, singing, melodic lines. Gaffigan maintains a certain symphonic control over the proceedings, enhancing the structure of the work. He also affords this music a bit more atmosphere, bringing out more inner detail than usual. It is a vivid portrayal of the stage work and it comes off splendidly, especially with harmonia mundi's immediate, focused, airy sound.
The only other recent recording that comes to mind as being in the same league is on a splendid 2017 all-Bernstein collection with Christian Lindberg conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on BIS. Lindberg is just a touch more rambunctious (reminiscent of a pit orchestra) and BIS provides him a more upfront, edgy presentation, which comes even closer to matching Bernstein's own. But Gaffigan is better recorded (more refined and sumptuous), despite being on standard CD vs Lindberg's SACD. Both these readings are a far cry better than another recent attempt that I had the misfortune of hearing, that from Santtu-Matias Rouvali on a 2018 Orfeo set (combined oddly with various violin concertos), which is tame (lame) and seriously under-characterized in comparison.
Charles Ives's Third Symphony is based on 3 of his original organ preludes utilizing familiar hymn tunes. The booklet reminds us the work was not immediately welcomed and wasn't premiered until some 35 years later (in 1946). And, frankly, it's still not a great symphony, sounding rather like expanded symphonic arrangements of church hymns. Nonetheless, the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra's tonal richness and beauty of blend suit it perfectly and Gaffigan's choice of tempos ensures it keeps moving along without dragging. It is pleasant and I enjoyed it more than usual, aided by the beautiful recording.
Time to wake up, though, for Barber's School for Scandal Overture which bursts into the room next. This is one the most vivacious accounts of the piece I've heard in recent years, reminding me of David Zinman's incomparable 1992 account with the Baltimore Symphony for Argo. Once again, the bass drum makes its presence known (and felt) to stunning effect. I couldn't decide if I would have preferred it coming first on the program rather than immediately after the solemn Ives. But no matter, it is a stupendous account and once again reveals spectacular recorded sound.
I was not impressed with Ruth Crawford's Andante for Strings. Even the booklet seems to have a rather hard time making it sound interesting ("...a heterophony of dynamics--a sort of counterpoint of crescendi and diminuendi.") There's just not much to it, compositionally or musically. And I was glad it doesn't last long (4 minutes).
Finishing the program, Barber's Toccata Festiva gives the engineers a chance to really show off. It is well played, of course, and the sound is very impressive. The organ is not given a prominence which would allow it to swamp the orchestra, but is naturally balanced, just as one would experience live. And it provides a triumphant conclusion to the evening.
Hats off to James Gaffigan for a fabulous concert - superbly played by his orchestra, with excellent sonics from harmonia mundi. I normally would lament the absence of SACD, but when standard CD sounds this good, there is no cause for complaint.
After completing my comprehensive survey of Mozart's Flute Quartets earlier this year, I've been listening to a few recordings of his Flute Concertos lately. I rediscovered how much I enjoyed Patrick Gallois's 2002 Naxos recording of all three [#1 in G, #2 in D and the Double with Harp]. (See my review elsewhere on this blog.) His Mozart is uniquely fresh and filled with originality and spontaneity. I wish he had recorded the Quartets.
A flutist who has is Raffaele Trevisani (2015 Delos). His recording made it to the "Good" category in my survey, but would have been much higher had it not been spoiled by being performed in an enormous, empty church, in which the Delos engineers failed to control the wildly over-reverberant acoustic. Such a pity.
I've since discovered Trevisani's 1998 recording of the three Concertos for Hanssler Classics (reissued on a 2005 budget CD). He has a glorious, uplifting feel for Mozart, amply displayed in both his Mozart recordings. There is a stylish freshness, with alert tempos and crisp articulation, plus an infectious sense of joy. However, in the Concertos, recorded nearly 20 years before the Quartets, Trevisani was intent upon showing off his "Galway Sound". Yes, he was a Galway protege, and yes, he sounds just like him. He even tends to honk his low notes just like Galway loves to do. Unfortunately, in 1998 Trevisani couldn't (wouldn't) contain that mega vibrato that comes with that golden tone. And it permeates every note, every phrase, every where. It's not all bad; it does add a delicious golden glow to his playing in the Allegros. But the problem is that he doesn't tone it down for the slow movements. Quite the contrary; he actually seems to turn up the power of it, and it mercilessly weighs down the music with an overbearing, unrelenting intensity. His sound is positively voluptuous, which is just too much for Mozart. Fortunately, by 2015, he had lightened up a bit, eased up on the vibrato a notch, and his playing is quite lovely in the Quartets. He still sounds like Galway, but in a more appropriate way for Mozart.
Trevisani is a fabulous player and the fast movements of the Concertos are delightful. Significantly, he plays cadenzas which are substantially different from the norm (composed by Edwin Roxburgh [G major]; Johannes Donjon [D major]; and Karl Hermann Pillney [Double]). And how enjoyable they are.
The recorded sound is excellent, as is the alert, crisp orchestral support under the direction of Patrick Strub. The 2005 budget reissue (which I have) is a bare-bones affair, attractive enough, the booklet containing nothing more than a simple track listing and recording details.
Nino Rota is one of those composers who offers such a variety of interesting music, I always enjoy every encounter. He's also a composer who is equally adept at writing standard "Classical" fare as he is at film music. And, outside his film scores, I rarely hear something of his and can immediately proclaim, 'Oh, that's Nino Rota!' He has his own voice, certainly, but it's not easily identifiable as being uniquely Rota. It's just fantastic music - period. This disc is a perfect example. Each work is so different from the others, so masterfully written and scored, and so thoroughly enjoyable, I listened to the entire CD straight through twice! And not for a moment did I feel it was getting to be kind of all the same.
And even though my headline above singles out Eric Le Sage specifically (and he certainly deserves it), I have to begin with the incredible flute playing of Emmanuel Pahud. If there was ever any question that he is one of the greatest living flutists, this disc confirms it. Beginning with the opening Trio for Flute, Violin and Piano, I was in awe of his playing. The richness of tone; the plump (but incisive) articulation; the breath control; and certainly the effortless and brilliant virtuosity. Just listen to the 3rd movement, Allegro vivace con spirito. I couldn't help but exclaim WOW! when it was done. (To be absolutely truthful, I exclaimed WOW several times during this piece.) I was a flute player back in the day and I still marvel at how well Pahud plays this at this tempo. What utterly fabulous flute playing this is. And not to slight the other two players partnering with him - violinist Daishin Kashimoto is one of my favorite chamber musicians, notably for his musical, sweetly singing tone, and here he displays his virtuoso abilities as well. And, Eric le Sage...well, he is simply beyond words.
After I recovered from being blown away by this performance, I was able to fully realize what an incredibly fantastic piece this is. It's the best 12 minutes I've spent in front of the stereo in a long time. And I suppose it's too soon to praise the recorded sound, and I'll get to that more later. But Alpha Classics must take a whole lot of the credit right from the get go. The sound is awesome in every way.
Two short piano solo interludes give us a chance to catch our breath, taking us to a charming little woodwind quintet, Piccola, followed by the famous Nonetto. I've always admired this piece, but never as much as hearing it played by this group. There is a spontaneity and energy that is rarely heard on record. Youthful exuberance is probably the best way to describe this performance.
As an aside, I recently acquired Oxalys's new CD, Nonetto, which also includes the Rota. It is interesting to hear how equally fabulous both of these performances of the piece are. Both groups bring enormous vitality, whit and enthusiastic verve to this music. And both are expertly played. If I had to pick just one, I wouldn't (couldn't). Ultimately, I suppose Pahud and friends receive the better recording (but only slightly), which is engaging, dynamic and warm. Oxalys is a touch more detailed, extrovert and upfront in perspective, equally involving certainly, but sounding perhaps a tad more energetic as well. Both are terrific and I wouldn't want to be without either.
The Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano brings a bit of respite from the high energy, with Paul Meyer's wonderfully melodious clarinet tone - gorgeously dark and wooden - closely matching that of cellist Aurelien Pascal. A touch more richly Romantic in flavor, the piece is simply glorious, and I smiled at the unmistakable spikiness of Shostakovich in the Allegrissimo. The program then ends (rather oddly) with two more miniatures for solo piano from Le Sage.
Revisiting the similar collection on a 1996 BIS CD affirms the superior playing on this Alpha Classics release. While the older BIS is just fine, in comparison it is merely serviceable - musically and technically. I was shocked to hear how earthbound and pedestrian it is, lacking the verve and flair found on the Alpha Classics. And no offense to Sharon Bezaly, but she is simply no match for Emmanuel Pahud, at least in this repertoire.
Finally getting back to the recorded sound. This is yet another CD from Alpha Classics which has greatly impressed me recently. The first was the Faure chamber music set (reviewed elsewhere on this blog). For Rota, the sound is a little different from the Faure. It is more upfront and bold (but not forward) - immediate, well focused, warm and colorful, providing thrilling impact and presence. The players are spread out in front of the listener, where the intake of breath is easily heard (and some clicking of keys), making the experience one of great realism. It's appropriately a little more intimate a setting than in the more spacious Faure.
All in all, I simply can't say enough good things about this CD. I've heard (and reviewed) many wonderful new CDs already this year. And even in that exalted company, this one stands out and is surely a contender for my favorite of the year. Do not miss it!
After recently hearing (and thoroughly enjoying) this team's Respighi disc on CPO (see below), I didn't hesitate to acquire their newest offering, Mendelssohn's complete String Symphonies (plus the early Violin Concerto) on BR Klassic. And I'm just as impressed with this as I am with their Respighi.
The Munich Radio Orchestra, under its leader Henry Raudales, bring such life and freshness to these works, it's as if hearing them for the very first time. Precision is key, but with imaginative touches and musical phrasing infusing every bar. Dynamic contrasts and clean textures predominate. They have the forces necessary to bring plenty of vigor when called for, and also delicate pianissimos, keeping the listener engaged every moment.
Normally I wouldn't even think of digesting all 12 of these in one sitting. Yet that is exactly what I ended up doing. Such was the musical pleasure I was experiencing, I couldn't turn them off. Thus I listened to all 3 discs consecutively, concluding with the dramatic (and rather Mozartian) early Violin Concerto in d-minor. Raudales assumes the violin solo role here and proves to be a marvelous player, bringing much musical purpose and maturity to this early work. No, it's still not the famous e-minor Concerto, but it is certainly not to be discredited either. The finale in particular is infectious.
Fortunately, the recorded sound is excellent. The acoustic is reverberant, but fairly well controlled. It provides just enough ambience and fullness to lend the orchestra plenty of warmth without swamping it. Focus is secure and articulation is crisp and clean. And the orchestral playing is exceptionally good - at all times alert, stylish and musical.
Raudales is a real treasure. He is one of the few present-day conductors who exhibits real imagination and musical insight, and has the ability to inspire his players to make music sound new and fresh. Nothing here sounds remotely like it's just another ho-hum sight-reading session for a recording project. Far from it. This orchestra is kept constantly on its toes and spontaneity springs forth everywhere.
Highly recommended, especially for those who think these early, "lesser" works aren't really worth their time. You will be proven wrong! And richly rewarded.
The same can be said for their earlier Respighi disc, on a splendid SACD from CPO. Imaginative touches pervade every musical phrase, along with clean textures and strong characterization. The Birds, in particular, is one of the very best on record, and the sound throughout is superb.
I like Patrick Gallois's flute playing. And his 2004 Mozart Concertos recording for Naxos is particularly enjoyable. He plays a modern instrument (although it sounds like one made of wood rather than silver) but employs a quasi-period performance style - minimal vibrato, along with a liberal use of embellishments, and his own, original cadenzas (which are not at all "modern"). The music-making is fresh and charming, bursting forth with energy and joy. Tempos are alert, and Allegros are truly that. There are many individual touches along the way, which some may hear as mannerisms. I found them not at all bothersome, but on the contrary, hear them as spontaneous inflections. He plays with a vibrant tone and that "pillowy" (yet precise) articulation I just love. (I hear it from several modern-day flutists, including, notably, Emmanuel Pahud). Gallois conducts the Swedish Chamber Orchestra from the solo position in a 70-minute concert which includes both primary concertos and the double with harp. The orchestra plays with a delightful, light touch, airy textures, and crisp articulation. Naxos provides the recording on standard CD and also on multi-channel SACD. The sound is fabulous. This is one of my very favorite Mozart flute recordings.
His earlier, 1985 recording, reissued on this Saphir 2-fer, is a different story altogether. We get all three concertos, but spread out over 2 CDs with only the short Andante (K315) and Rondo (K184) added, totaling about 12 minutes of additional music. Thus it is a rather more expensive acquisition. But most notably different is that he plays what sounds like an authentic period flute (or a wooden reproduction). And the sound is immediately apparent. This flute sound has all the characteristics of such an instrument - a dead-pan, somewhat lifeless tone, very mellow and lacking sparkle. It sounds much more like a recorder than a flute. The French chamber ensemble, conducted by Emmanuel Krivine, lacks the incisiveness heard from the marvelous Swedish Chamber Orchestra in the remake, mirroring the lack of sparkle heard from the wooden flute. The over-warm, reverberant acoustic doesn't help matters.
So while on the face of it, having an "Integrale" collection of Mozart's music for flute and orchestra seems enticing, this collection on Saphir isn't terribly satisfactory. And at full price, it's not even good value. Go for Gallois's Naxos CD instead (or even better, the SACD if you can find it) and you'll gain infinitely better performances and sound and will only be missing out on the two inconsequential tidbits.