I do not normally review audio equipment on this blog, but a recent acquisition of a new power conditioner prompted me to inform others of my experience with it.
I was excited when AudioQuest announced this unit and its bigger brother, the PowerQuest 3, both of which are affordable alternatives to their big-boy power conditioners in the Niagara line. But, alas, as with everything, you get what you pay for.
This unit ($200) is all plastic, as to be expected at this price point. But it comes with its own, captive power cord. On one hand, this saves you the expense of buying an after-market cord; but on the other, also prevents you from upgrading it to something better. I was pleased though to find it was a custom-made AudioQuest cord with a 3x14 awg rating. That's pretty impressive on such a relatively inexpensive unit, and should provide the necessary current for a complete home theater system. It has an on/off switch and a reset button, which protects the unit in the event it is tripped by an actual surge/spike.
What makes this unit so enticing is that it offers:
1) a high current outlet, which is very useful for those with a high output amp or receiver; and
2) a special plug specifically filtered for a high-def (4K) television. The owner's pamphlet states this plug may be beneficial for blu-ray players as well. I did not try it with a disc player, but it seemed to work wonders for the crispness of picture and richness of colors on my 55" Samsung TV.
This unit did not fare nearly as well on sound, though. Right out of the box, it was ill-focused, dark, muddy and dynamically polite, which can be expected from a brand new unit. And, sure enough, after several days of constant use, it began to open up and dynamics and focus improved considerably. Unfortunately, what began as a rather dark sonic character eventually lightened up too far in the opposite direction. The resultant sonic palette was rather gray and washed out, lacking warmth and richness. It was refined and had a pleasant perspective (not too forward, not too laid back), but lacked fullness, color and real power. I attribute this to its inherently lean sound. Deep bass was tight but light. This overall sound did not benefit full symphony orchestra recordings or movies.
Worst of all, however, I eventually began hearing distortion here and there on a variety of movies and CDs, which worsened as time went on. Combined with its thin sound, I began to suspect something was amiss. I removed the unit and upon close examination, I discovered a 1" long, deep cut in its power cord, which went all the way through to the wires inside. I do not know how detrimental this defect was to its overall sound, but I can state with almost certainty it was causing the distortion I was hearing (which went away completely once I removed this unit).
It's disheartening to realize that even a reputable company like AudioQuest can fail at quality control. This is a serious defect which is, frankly, unacceptable. I returned the unit back to Amazon and received a full refund. I may consider AudioQuest's new Niagara 1200 power conditioner, coming in April, 2019. For $995, I expect it would be a significantly better-sounding unit. However, I now have reservations about AudioQuest, particularly as it is well known that much of their product offering is made in China these days. And their quality control can suffer as a result.
Incidentally, the only difference between this unit and its more expensive sibling, the PowerQuest 3 ($300), is the number of outlets. The "3" offers two high current and two HD TV plugs, along with the identical 4 standard plugs.
UPDATE 03/30/19 - AudioQuest commented on my review - as posted on Amazon.com - and offered sincere regrets for the problem I encountered. More importantly, they also kindly pointed out there is a significant difference between the PowerQuest 2 and PowerQuest 3, other than just the additional plugs I noted above. On the 4 standard plugs, the PQ3 provides "Ultra-Linear" filtering, while the PQ2 offers just "Linear" filtering. Not knowing what this means, I did a little research and found that "Ultra Linear" provides both Common-Mode AND Differential-Mode filters, while "Linear" is just the Differential-mode circuit. I cannot say how much this additional filtering will affect the overall sound, but theoretically, the PQ3 should offer better performance than the 2. And the extra circuit accounts in large part for the additional $100 in cost.
After being so impressed with two previous releases from this source (conductor, orchestra, record label), namely those of the music of Shostakovich and Stravinsky, I found their Debussy surprisingly disappointing. In La Mer and Iberia, competition is fierce. And despite sumptuous SACD sound from the magnificent team at Pentatone, the result here is distinctly "blah". Gimeno goes for an overly sonorous, homogeneous sound above all else. String articulation and pizzicatos are so smooth and buried in the mix, much of it is inaudible. The overall sound palette fatally obscures details and seriously diminishes power, involvement and excitement. This is most detrimental in the final sections of both works, where the adrenaline simply fails to flow and climaxes simply refuse to expand. It's a real pity too, especially in La Mer, which begins most promisingly. I enjoyed the 1st two movements very much. They possess beautifully expressive playing, have good momentum and enough detail to be interesting. But then in the 3rd movement, concentration sags and the orchestra remains steadfastly earthbound and limp.
Even in Iberia, characterization of mood is minimized and the listener instead wallows in dark, rich sound. One is left completely unmoved. It's kind of like eating a meal comprised only of chocolate cake and fudge and no main course. After awhile, even chocolate isn't appealing. And while it's a shame there was room on the disc for only the central Iberia section from Images for Orchestra, rather than the entire piece, it's probably just as well with such low voltage. The present program lasts 78 minutes.
Not that any of us needed yet another Iberia anyway. Thus, the real attraction here are the new orchestrations of Images for Piano (Book One only) and Six Epigraphes antiques. The former was done at the commission of this orchestra by the enormously talented Colin Matthews. The latter by Rudolf Escher (not to be confused with a previous orchestration by Ernst Ansermet). Both are fascinatingly impressive in how very much they sound like Debussy's own orchestral writing. They certainly in way improve upon the piano originals, but they are interesting and completely satisfying. Gimeno's misty textures and slow-moving tempos suit these dreamy works much better than in the more famous orchestral works contained on this program.
In sum, sumptuous sound is the predominate characteristic here. Involvement, excitement and power are in very short supply. (If only Gimeno had brought forth some of the energy from his fabulous Stravinsky and Shostakovich sessions.) But the rare and fascinating orchestrations included here are enticing. Unfortunately, they only account for about 30 minutes of this disc.
As performances, I rather like these. They are youthful, zestful, well-articulated and energetic. They do lack some of the inner joy which should be found in Haydn. But, other than the sour oboe (why was this tolerated so often in orchestras from this era?), the orchestra plays well. But there is a snag.
There is a reason these are just now making their first appearance on CD. Frankly, they sound terrible. They were recorded at 3 different sessions, in 2 different halls. It's so interesting that a change to a different hall didn't improve the sound. It just made it different. And equally bad.
Symphonies #44, 46 and 49 were recorded in George Watson's College (Scotland) in what sounds like their gymnasium. And I'm not joking or being sarcastic. It is an outrageously over-reverberant, bath-tubby acoustic which was in no way mitigated by the recording engineer. Worse, there is a bounce-back of the acoustic being fed back into the mics from the back of the hall, just behind the beat, almost to the point of an echo. Add to this the thin, hissy string sound and buzzy reeds and we've got an almost unlistenable recording. I frankly am shocked Eloquence actually lists a Remastering Engineer, implying they made an effort to remaster this disaster. But they also dutifully list the original recording engineers, who surely enjoyed very short careers after this.
The other symphonies, #45, 47 and 48, were recorded in Henry Wood Hall, which should have been an improvement. And regarding the outlandish reverberation, it is. But now, all sense of air, space and the acoustic itself have been smothered. The orchestra here sounds muffled, congested and woefully claustrophobic. And energy level has also dropped several notches.
I've been a strong proponent of the Eloquence label. It has brought to market hundreds of wonderful releases, often of rare and neglected recordings, all freshly remastered in fabulous sound. Hearing this latest release (and seeing the lists of others titles in recent months), one wonders if they have reached the end, scraping the bottom of the barrel to keep the label going. I sure hope not. But this one is an absolute stinker. And it's a pity, because the readings are actually quite good. But the egregious sonics prevent any kind of a recommendation.
Petatone's new star conductor, Gustavo Gimeno, is turning out to be a bright light in the firmaments and a true find for the good folks at Pentatone. This conductor first caught my attention with a fantastic 2017 Shostakovich collection, which includes an absolutely splendid 1st Symphony. Their Ravel complete Daphnis and Chole awaits my attention in the stack, but this new Stravinsky set captured my immediate interest and thus rose to the top of the must-listen-to discs.
Let's get the caveats out of the way first.
What instantly attracted me to this set was the inclusion of the lesser-recorded ballets, Jeu de Cartes (Game of Cards) and Agon. Both are totally genius mid-life Stravinsky, and a most-welcome change from the earlier, more famous ballets. Also included is the enchanting and alluring Concerto in D (a "Sinfonietta" for Strings in all but name), and the newly discovered Funeral Song from 1909, which received its premier recording last year from Chailly and Decca. The caveat? Well, I was dismayed to see yet another Rite of Spring, especially considering everything but that would have neatly fit onto one generously filled, innovative disc (70 minutes). But by insisting upon including the ubiquitous Rite, the program had to be spread onto two much less generously filled, full-priced discs.
I suppose the producers determined the Rite just HAD to be included here for two reasons: 1) Pentatone's recent Rite offering from Andres Orozco-Estrada was a routine, perfunctory reading which sorely needed to be improved upon, and, 2) the Rite sells records and Agon doesn't. I get that. Fortunately, as it turns out, this Rite is mostly excellent (more below), so I guess I can accept paying for two discs rather than just one.
The second caveat is regarding the recording itself. The works on these discs were recorded in two different sessions, months apart - and that is apparent from disc to disc. Disc one is transferred at a significantly lower volume than is disc two, thus losing some sheer impact in the Rite. It's also less spacious and presents a flatter perspective, with less hall ambiance. As a matter of fact, I even hear some odd balances, perhaps from carelessly placed microphones. For example, the trombones and clarinets (and violas, at times) are thrillingly projected in the mix, while the percussion and trumpets are backwardly balanced and rather weak - which is not beneficial in The Rite of Spring! Another more serious drawback to this otherwise splendid Rite is the bass drum, which plays such an important role all through the work - and not just in the slam-to-the-gut blasts, but also in the many pianissimo sections where it should add a delicious "pillowy" shutter of color (e.g. the "Spring Rounds" in the First Part, and the opening of the Second). As recorded here, it sounds like it's a large empty cardboard box being struck ("thud"). And the pianissimo "puffs" are inaudible. Otherwise, this Rite is nearly perfectly conceived, with perfectly chose tempos and a thrilling feel of the dance. Overall it is fast, energetic, richly colorful and very exciting (quite the opposite of the ho-hum version mentioned above conducted by Orozco-Estrada). But do remember do give the volume dial a big boost before settling into it.
The softer-focused recording perspective works better in Funeral Song. This performance is much more involving than Chailly's disappointing premier recording on Decca, which plodded along uneventfully and without much interest. Gimeno brings a more organic, colorful, flowing sense of direction to the work. And Pentatone provides a much more transparent sonic picture than Decca's dark, thick textures for Chailly. It is much more musically coherent in Gimeno's hands. No, it's still not a lost masterpiece, but it does now at least sound like Stravinsky!
Getting on to disc two, matters continue to improve, impress and delight. The recording is much better in every regard. It is more firmly focused, "present" and realistic. It is airier, clearer, and more naturally balanced. And Gimeno's incisive approach to these later ballets brings enormous rewards. Everywhere, the playing of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg is exemplary - refined and virtuosic. And Gimeno exhibits a natural flair and real feel for the variety of moods and color - and most importantly, tempo. These scores unfold with such natural, unfussy, musical flow, they make more sense than usual and are at once more involving and much more exciting too. And Pentatone cannot be praised highly enough for such spectacular sound.
In sum, this is a splendid release. I've already listened to it, in its entirety, 3 times, which almost never happens! Gimeno brings these less-familiar Stravinsky scores to life in a way few others have. Hopefully they can replace that cardboard box with a real bass drum on future recordings.
I harshly criticized this duo's DG disc of Mozart Two Piano Concertos as being as bland and as uninteresting as one could possibly imagine. And I blamed 91-year-old Marriner's conducting as the main culprit.
This newest disc from this duo begins similarly. This Carnival of the Animals is the most uninspired, curiously under-characterized account I have ever heard. It is played absolutely "straight", exactly as written, with no insight, charm, imagination or fun whatsoever. And not just by the pianists; the same comes from the RCO chamber players (this is the original version).
After a big yawn, fortunately things change very much for the better when Stephane Deneve steps up to the podium for the Poulenc Two Piano Concerto. I've said it over and over before and I'll reiterate now - the conductor is most certainly as important in a concerto as the soloist(s). And that is certainly born out here. This Poulenc positively leaps off the printed score - with an exciting, cracking tempo right out of the gate. Orchestra and pianists alike come to life with real power, precision, and a heretofore unrealized sense of youthful freshness and energy from these young pianists. Tempos are very quick in all 3 movements, and the execution of the busy finger-work from both soloists is assured, crisp, clean and exciting. The orchestral contribution is exceptional; the excellent recording quality revealing much inner detail and intricacies throughout the orchestra which are often obscured.
As to comparisons, this Poulenc is not quite up to the magnificent standards of some of my favorite versions (the Bards on Capriccio and Le Sage on RCA, to name just two) in the overt characterization of the many variety of moods in this piece. (The Bards had me laughing out loud at their playfulness in the Finale!). But this is very entertaining and exciting. And, as noted above, the recording is excellent - certainly better than the slightly artificial acoustic heard on the Capriccio disc.
Rounding out this program is Fazil Say's terrific Night, for piano four-hands, which was commissioned by the Beecham Society for the Jussens. It is wonderfully inventive, atmospheric, exciting and involving. The boys do a great job bringing this piece to life, providing its premier recording. I hope other piano duos will record it as well.
As fabulous as the Poulenc and Say pieces are here, I can only conclude that the record producers decided to add the Saint-Saens as a filler. And it certainly sounds as if that's all it is - a mere afterthought that no one really wanted to do. It is mediocre and unimaginably boring. And making matters worse, DG inserts very long pauses in between sections, dragging it out even further. But it is certainly nice to hear these young men at their very best in the Poulenc, proving once again that a good conductor can make all the difference.
Let's be clear - much of the music on this disc is sheer silliness. Oh, there may be some merit to the 5 Poems, if you like the sounds a countertenor makes. I personally can't tolerate it for an instant. But my reason for posting a review of this disc is for the magnificent Piano Concerto - more on that below.
But moving on to Glacier, for electric guitar and orchestra (uh-huh), we're treated to 22 minutes of some richly colorful orchestration, with the electric guitar seemingly thrown in as an afterthought. I'm sure this electric guitar player is competent, but there just isn't much to the solo part. The piece ends up being a completely forgettable, silly novelty.
Rush, for alto sax and orchestra, is okay (to be kind), but here we have 15 minutes of nothing much happening. No compositional inspiration or creativity, just a jumble of meaningless motifs and not much musical substance. Rush? Not hardly.
But then there's the Piano Concerto, which comes first on this disc, which is simply magnificent. This piece should surely put Mr. Fuchs on the musical map. But if he keeps inundating the public with utter silliness like the other works on this disc, I'm afraid his Piano Concerto will simply get overlooked from lack of interest in this composer. Indeed, I may never have gotten to it had it come last on this disc.
So, if you can find this Naxos on the cheap (when did Naxos become so expensive, by the way?), do pick it up for the fabulous Piano Concerto. It is richly creative, colorfully scored and truly musically enriching. But don't expect much from the rest of this program - despite fine leadership (as always) from JoAnn Falletta, accomplished sight-reading from the LSO and excellent Naxos sound.
This second installment of Chandos's new survey of Richard Rodney Bennett's orchestral (non-film) music brings more of the same and at least one real surprise.
Those who have enjoyed Vol. 1 of this series from John Wilson and the fabulous BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, will be pleased with the Serenade for Small Orchestra and the Partita contained here on Vol. 2. They are cut from the same musical cloth, so to speak, and occupy the same musical landscape, even though they span the decades from 1976 to as late as 1995. Indeed, these on Vol 2 sounded so familiar and so much like the Summer Music and the Sifonietta on Vol. 1, I checked the booklet more than once to confirm they were not duplicated on both CDs! They are indeed different works. However, it is worth noting that the Partita is duplicated on Chandos's first effort on a symphonic cycle from this composer, recorded in 2006, with the late Richard Hickox conducting.
These works feature the same beauty of recorded sound heard throughout the first volume, with lovely, sumptuous playing from all departments of this fine orchestra.
This program begins with the Concerto for Stan Getz, for tenor saxophone, timpani and strings. This is an interesting work, sounding nothing like the lighter fare mentioned above, and certainly nothing like the Symphony No. 2 (more below). In fact, many sections, especially the 3rd movement, remind me of French composer Henri Tomasi's Saxophone Concerto (for alto sax), with its rich orchestration, spiky, rhythmic propulsion, and a free-flowing, rhapsodic feel which almost sounds improvisational.
There is a significant snag in the recording of the Concerto, however, which is surprising coming from a Chandos production. The sound here is quite spoiled by the tenor sax being unnaturally closely mic'd. So much so, that its first entrance comes as a jolt, being thrust out in front of the orchestra and sounding larger-than-life and too loud. And the ear never really has a chance to adjust to this unnatural forwardness, as it lends an unappealingly raspy gruffness to the sax tone all through. I found it rather unpleasant, actually. It also tends to weigh down the performance with a heaviness and, again (there is no better word for it) gruffness to the music, robbing it of some of its musical expression.
The real surprise, however, is the Second Symphony. I did not know until reading the excellent booklet that Bennett, as a young composer, dabbled in Serialism. He is quoted as saying, "...the more I use serial technique, the less I am inhibited about making sounds which relate directly to tonality". Cast in a single movement (with 4 contrasting sections), it certainly has all the hallmarks of serialism, very little tonality and even less in the way of melodic direction. It sounds nothing like his other works contained on these first two volumes. And I didn't care for it in the slightest.
In sum, this second installment is a bit of mixed bag. I was happy to hear two more pieces from the same sonic soundworld of the first volume (which I love from beginning to end and have listened to more times than any other disc this year). The tenor sax Concerto is an interesting work, but is spoiled by microphone placement. And the Symphony is something I will never want to return to. But I still recommend this disc and am happy Chandos is exploring this composer further. I look forward to more volumes in the future.
I'll admit to not being at all familiar with two of these works (by Jones and Albert), and only somewhat familiar with the third (by Piston). But they have instantly become some of my favorite American symphonies and this disc is certainly one of my favorites of the year so far.
I will start by saying this is one the finest-sounding SACDs yet to come from BIS. It features silky, sweet string tone, glowingly golden brass, colorful woodwinds, and a gorgeous, spacious acoustic. And the playing of the LSO throughout is simply magnificent.
Beginning with what is arguably Piston's most famous (and most often heard) of his 8 symphonies - the 6th is certainly a masterpiece. I have two recordings of it on my shelves - from Slatkin/St. Louis (RCA) and Schwarz/Seattle (Delos, recently reissued on Naxos). But it had been so long since I listened to those, the music was only vaguely familiar. And this glorious reading from Lance Friedel proved to be a revelation. How can this symphony not be played and recorded much more often? It is utterly wonderful. The majestic 1st movement is so full of soaring, sweetly singing melodies, it is unforgettable. The second movement is a quicksilver scherzo, played effortlessly vivace and light-as-a-feather by the LSO; the slow movement a very moving adagio, beginning with a rapturously gorgeous solo cello, followed soon thereafter by the flute; and ending with a very energetic Allegro. From start to finish it is engrossing, endlessly imaginative and expertly scored.
The Samuel Jones "Symphony #3" is a one-movement symphonic poem, subtitled Palo Duro Canyon. I'm not sure why Mr. Jones calls it a symphony, because it really isn't one (at least not in the traditional sense). But it doesn't really matter, for it substantive and enormously inventive. It begins, curiously, with a pre-recorded sound of wind. Yes...wind. If there is one moment of criticism of this disc, it is this very wind sound. It actually sounds nothing like wind! As a matter of fact I was so baffled by what I was hearing, I had to look in the booklet to determine what it was supposed to be. At first I thought it sounded like the old wow-and-flutter of the good-old days of warped LPs and I wondered if something had gone wrong in the recording process (or my equipment!). But once I learned it was supposed to be wind, then it began to sound more like the electronic white-noise machines on a beside table to help one fall asleep. Why Mr. Jones didn't simply ask for a wind machine (like many composers before him have, including Richard Strauss and Ferde Grofe) is a mystery. That "instrument" sounds far more realistic than whatever recording BIS used here. But, be that as it may, it is a glorious work, in six varied, continuous sections, superbly orchestrated and marvelously played.
Finally, Stephen Albert's Symphony #2 returns us to a more traditional symphony. This sounds the most "Copland-esque" of the three included on this disc and, in fact, does in many ways remind of that composer's 3rd Symphony. Its movements are not given titles or musical expression/tempo markings - but simply I., II., and III.
I cannot praise strongly enough the playing of the LSO. Nor can I compliment Mr. Friedel more highly but by saying these readings are magnificent and I have already listened to this disc 3 times straight through. I really can't enough of it. And BIS must garner much of the praise, as well, for their SACD sound is stunning - some of the most natural, richly colorful and atmospheric recordings I've heard in a long time. As a matter of fact, I found it much more pleasing and natural than the orchestral sound heard on BIS's other recently released collection of American music (that of Leonard Bernstein favorites, conducted by Christian Lindberg, and recently reviewed by me on this blog). The sound of the two recordings could not not be more different. I refer readers to that review for further details.
This disc is not to be missed by anyone wanting to explore some expertly crafted, "serious" American symphonic works. It is simply magnificent in every way.
***PLEASE NOTE*** This is an updated review. After re-reading my initial observations and listening once again to this disc, I've decided I was unduly harsh and perhaps overly critical of music director, Jerry Junkin. Thus, these are revised comments below.
I have struggled with this one. There is just something not quite right here and it has taken me some time to put my finger on it. After listening to it three times on 2 different systems, I've come to the conclusion that this is a poorly engineered recording. And I do have some issues with the overall interpretations from director Jerry Junkin as well.
First, a few details about the music on offer here. The transcriptions are better than expected and are actually quite well done. They are not overly simplified and sound to be closely based upon the original orchestrations (and in the original key), as much as possible without the strings, of course. I'm glad to see these transcriptions (available from SheetMusicPlus.com) getting some exposure. Although, I hasten to forewarn high school band directors that they are very difficult to play.
As performances, Mr. Junkin favors refinement over extrovert excitement and involvement. I found most of these readings to be polite and much too careful. This approach suits the lyrical selections very well (Lincoln, JFK and sections of The Force Awakens). But in all the rest, anyone familiar with the original soundtracks or with any of the myriad recordings made by John Williams himself, will find these to be fairly mellow and lacking adrenaline.
But the real problem here is the recording itself. First, the hall acoustic is difficult. Meyerson Symphony Center (home of the Dallas Symphony) has a very reverberant, cavernous, swampy acoustic which was not adequately mitigated or addressed by the recording team. They allow it to reverberate and swamp over the proceedings, which often obscures the woodwinds. But then - incredibly - the reverb at the end of selections with a big climax is swiftly cut off by the engineers. Yes, in 2018, we have a record company which does not allow the acoustic reverberation to decay naturally; it is truncated into silence by a twist of the level knob. Also, I hear an unnatural boost in the microphone levels in some climaxes, presumably to maximize impact. Yes, in 2018, we have a record company "enhancing" the volume level on climaxes. This boost sounds so artificially manipulated, I suspect that during these passages, additional microphones are activated, which are turned off the rest of the time. When it occurs, the sound takes on a digital glare over the acoustic and an edge to the trumpets and cymbals, which is not present elsewhere. This is so very odd, so completely unnecessary and completely baffling why it would be employed.
Microphone placement also sounds to be part of the problem with regard to balance. The brass and percussion overwhelm and overpower the entire ensemble when playing at full tilt (and when boosted by the control room). Then during quieter moments, the woodwinds often sound anemic and seriously underpowered. They sound far away from the nearest microphone and they lose intensity and presence, swallowed up into the mists of the big huge empty hall.
In sum, this was an interesting enterprise and a great idea. Mr. Junkin obtained some expertly crafted transcriptions (by Jay Bocook, Paul Lavender and Stephen Bulla), which, under better circumstances, should have worked very well. The playing itself is mostly excellent. But the rather laid-back, over-refined interpretations are less than satisfactory. And ultimately we are let down by the recording. The weak woodwind contributions are a problem; the percussion is surely too prominently mic'ed; and the acoustic is untamed. Finally, the knob-twiddling from the control room is simply outrageous from a modern recording.
Band directors everywhere will be interested to hear this disc. And with a good deal more tolerance than I have, it is revelatory in the art of band transcriptions. However, from a purely musical standpoint, its faults bring disappointment, especially knowing that this endeavor surely had all the ingredients necessary to be excellent - if only in the right hands.
After being completely captivated by Connesson's Techno-Parade, played by the spectacular Berlin Counterpoint (as seen on YouTube and recorded for CD by Geniune Records), I decided to seek out more by this fabulous French composer.
I remember being mightily impressed by a 2010 Chandos SACD of some of his orchestral music some time ago. Listening to it again, I am becoming obsessed with this composer's music! The Chandos disc contains his Cosmic Trilogy and his absolutely magnificent Piano Concerto entitled The Shining One, with my favorite of french pianists, Eric Le Sage, soloist.
What a find, then, is this 2018 SONY 2-disc set of his chamber music. This is a compilation of 2 previously released discs, neither recorded by SONY itself. The first (again featuring pianist Eric Le Sage) originated in 2004 from AIM (Association Internationle de Musique de Chambre, Radio France), and the second in 2011 from CPB (Collection Pierre Berge).
First up on Disc 1 is the Techno-Parade, which prompted me to buy this set in the first place. Comparing it with the aforementioned recording is fascinating. Le Sage and company play it much faster. And it is nearly unimaginable that anyone can play it at this speed (how Le Sage manages all those repeated notes on the piano is a thing to behold). While it is certainly impressive and enormously invigorating, it does not have quite the same WOW factor as does the recording by Berlin Counterpoint. That group brings to it a combination of mesmerizing, irresistible, danceable exhilaration, plus a dramatic weight and substance, making it an absolutely riveting experience. The SONY version comes close; but at this speed, it is more fleet, and it whisks by so quickly it loses just a touch of drama. However, make nothing of these observations. Both performances are completely valid, incredibly fabulous and utterly spellbinding.
Unbelievably, the disc continues this level of musical inventiveness and captivating involvement. Connesson is far from being a "one-hit wonder"! The Double Quartet and Sextet are very much from the same mold, and sound unmistakably from the same compositional pen. What makes them even more unique is their scoring. The Double Quartet, cast in one single movement, is scored for clarinet, bass clarinet, oboe, flute and string quartet; the Sextet, in the more-traditional 3-movement structure, is for clarinet, oboe, flute, viola, bass viol and piano. Both are magnificently crafted (and played). The Sextet has a more "minimalist" feel, reminding me very much of John Adams (more on this below). And, incidentally, the recording session for many of these pieces can be found on YouTube.
Also included on Disc 1 is Jurassic Trip, a 21st-Century take on Carnival of the Animals - this time depicting dinosaurs. Similarly scored as that of Saint-Saens's masterpiece, it is clever and fascinating, and not for an instant "cutesy". There are differences in scoring - this one includes a bass clarinet and a synthesizer. Don't be put off by the inclusion of a synthesizer - it is used very sparingly and amounts to background sound-effects such as the tide splashing onto the shore and bird sounds. Also worth noting, the duo pianists play a much less prominent role than in the more familiar Animals.
The pieces for soloist and piano are also enjoyable. Le rire de Sarai for flute begins with a rather bleak first part, then part two bursts with the unbridled energy we have come to expect from this composer. The Disco-Toccata for clarinet is an exhilarating romp, but is over much too quickly, lasting just 1'40". Incidentally, it is also included on Disc 2, but played a little less successfully (at a slower speed) by a different clarinetist.
Disc 2 contains essentially 3 Sonatas (in all but name) for string instrument and piano - one each for cello, viola and violin. Les chants de l'Argartha, for cello and piano, is in 3 movements, the first two of which exhibit a similar sound-world as the first movement of the flute piece on disc 1. And as in that piece, the final movement positively LEAPS from the speakers with energy and virtuoso demands nearly impossible to imagine for a cello. I came away from this movement exclaiming, "WOW!" - not only for the piece itself, but for the overwhelmingly impressive playing of cellist Jerome Pernoo. Constellations, for viola and piano, is more lyrical, atmospheric and richly colorful, as one might expect for composing for the viola. It is a lovely thing. Les chants de l'Atlantide is a 3 movement work for violin and piano, and is actually less overtly "virtuosic" than I had anticipated (at least until the 3rd movement, which is a workout!). Full of melodic inspiration and atmospheric writing, it is imaginative and expertly written for the instrument, with many sound-effects not often heard (glissandi, quarter-tones up and down, scooping/sliding, etc.). It is gorgeously played, although SONY does not specify which of two violinists listed (for the Quartet) plays it.
Next comes an interesting discovery - Adams Variations. This sounded instantly familiar, so I checked the booklet and learned it was a piece originally written for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, and was later re-scored and used as the first movement of the Sextet. Mr. Connesson tells us it was written "about" John Adams; no wonder it sounds so much like his music!
Last, but not least, is the String Quartet. This piece sounds the most unlike the rest in this collection, and I would be hard-pressed to hear it as being from the same composer. It has some of the bleakness of the (more approachable) Bartok quartets. It is neither as dissonant or atonal as Bartok's quartets, yet it has some of that same desolate landscape. The second movement, though, jumps off the pages (in much the same way Shostakovich uses a single movement of a concerto, for instance) to provide a stark contrast. This group of players certainly complies with the marking "Furioso" in this movement, prompting yet another "wow" from me.
All of this music is played with complete conviction, effortless virtuosity, and thorough involvement. Connesson could not possibly have received more persuasive - or accomplished - advocates to bring his music to life. Both discs are very well recorded, especially the first, which is superbly clean, airy, spacious and dynamic. The second is transferred at a higher volume level and is a bit thicker, darker and more forward, affording the music a touch of extra gravitas. This seems to suit the smaller ensembles featured just fine.
A couple of quibbles about SONY's booklet. It is a rather minimalist production (as is some of this music). We get only a short couple of sentences from the composer about each piece, and that's it. It's interesting; but for so many works which will be new to many of us, I would have liked more. Also, while there is a nice biography about Connesson, there is not a word about the performers. This is a pity, as many of them (at least on disc two) are completely unknown. And they are all absolutely fantastic. Finally, SONY makes several errors listing the instrumentation for each track of Jurassic Trip. They omit the instrumentation entirely for the 3rd movement (it is in fact for clarinet, strings and duo pianos); the 4th movement is for flute, bass clarinet and violin (SONY lists it as a clarinet); and the 6th movement is an interesting combination of cello, bass viol and pianos (SONY lists it as cello, bass clarinet and pianos). If you're going to go to the trouble of listing it at all, it's important to get it right. Connesson uses the cello and bass viol playing in unison to achieve a fascinatingly unique sound for the brontosaur. There is no bass clarinet here, which would have quite spoiled the exquisite atmosphere.
This is a thoroughly worthwhile exploration of this composer's chamber music. I have gained hours of enjoyment and musical discovery from it. This and the splendid Chandos release ("Cosmic Trilogy") are both very highly recommended.