BIS is one of those labels which consistently puts out quality product. On my shelves sit disc after disc of beautifully recorded music on this label, often of non-standard repertoire, played by less well-known performers/ensembles. This latest disc continues the tradition of high quality, with a truly enticing program selection.
This release has so much going for it, it's difficult to know where to begin.
First, the repertoire is adventurous and imaginative. It features 4 works, each carrying the name Divertimento or Divertissement.
Second, it is played by a group unknown to me - the Berlin-based "c/o chamber orchestra". In addition to their very clever name, they play without a conductor. And the booklet states: "It is both a single group and a collection of individual artists...coming from throughout Europe, from over a dozen different countries." They play with individuality, but also as a collective whole, with a unified approach as one would hear from, say, a seasoned string quartet. The playing is absolutely first-class in every way - accomplished and musical, and imbued throughout with a freshness of new discovery.
Third, the recorded sound is excellent. Daringly, the chamber orchestra plays in an enormous hall (Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin), with an inherently voluminous acoustic and corresponding reverberation. But BIS's recording engineers are so skilled, the orchestra is perfectly focused and realistically placed within it, sounding spacious, "present" and 3-dimensional. That reverb is masterfully controlled and never swamps or blurs the music-making. Indeed, one is transported to the best seat in the house, with the orchestra laid out realistically in front of the listener.
And finally - again - the playing is marvelous.
Beginning with a piece I am not terribly fond of, I was relieved to hear the group not make too much of the silliness in Ibert's Divertissement. Given its moments of outrageous scoring (including whistles, and trombone slides, etc.), and with Mendelssohn's Wedding March interjected here and there, the piece can often sound disjointed and over-the-top. But not so much here, aided by BIS's refined sound. Still, there's no getting around its attempt at humor still sounds rather silly (at least to me). The c/o makes the most out of it, however, and I found it rather more fun than usual.
Eager to move on, I discovered a real find - the double woodwind quintet by Emile Bernard. It is a wonderfully imaginative work, in 3 contrasting movements which are substantial, colorful and interesting. The booklet describes it as having "symphonic ambitions", and that is spot on. As a matter of fact, it is so well constructed and scored, it took me quite awhile before I realized there were no strings! After a quick search on Amazon, I found only one other recording of it, which makes this BIS all the more valuable.
Next, the strings take the stage in Bartok's wonderful Divertimento. Wisely, the c/o's string section is supplemented with reinforcements for this work. Their numbers are nearly doubled, which is reasonable (and essential) for the piece. I'm very impressed they realized its importance and took the necessary efforts (and expense). My definitive standard of the Bartok is Solti's superlative 1990 Decca recording with the Chicago Symphony string section. And what an impressive piece it is with a full complement of strings at play. And of course, Solti is incomparable in Bartok, with incisive articulation and spectacular dynamic range. But the c/o nearly matches it, aided by the large acoustic and with the additional players (as noted above). I did detect that this work sounds slightly recessed and more atmospheric compared to the others recorded here. And a quick glance at the booklet reveals it was indeed recorded at different sessions, two years later. But no matter, it sounds terrific.
The highlight of the program, though, comes last - a new work (2017) by Michael Ippolito. I was immediately captivated. Ippolito is a master of orchestration, and this work reminds me of Bartok in places - not only of his Divertimento which precedes it on this disc, but also his Concerto for Orchestra. As a matter of fact, the work is so substantial and colorfully scored, I kept thinking of it as a miniature 'concerto for orchestra'. His orchestration is such that each section of the orchestra has moments in the spotlight. It is structured in 4 substantial movements, each contrasting and strongly characterized. It is so well written - and enjoyable and entertaining - I look forward to more music from this enormously talented composer. (In the meantime, I luckily found an Amazon listing for a recording of his string quartet music, played by the Attacca Quartet, on Azica Records.)
On a technical note, it sounds like there was a slight adjustment in the mics for the Ippolito, giving it a slight boost in impact and presence. While mostly beneficial, the basses take on a bit of unnecessary boominess which was not present before. I mention it not to nit-pick, but merely as an observation from an audiophile perspective. Those with small speakers may not be bothered by it at all.
Finally, I really like how the concert opens and closes with works for full (chamber) orchestra, with a work for winds, then one for strings, sandwiched in between. Once again, BIS scores with imaginative and logical programming. The entire production is thoroughly first class, up to the usual high standards we expect from BIS. The terrific liner notes are written by composer Michael Ippolito.