'round midnight is an enticing program title, as is the musical content on offer. Music all about night - from Dutilleux, Schoenberg, and a new name to me, Raphael Merlin, the cellist of the Quatuor Ebene, in a new work written specifically for this album.
Unfortunately, Warner, disguised here as "Erato", failed to understand the concept and provides just the opposite of a dark, mysterious, shadowy, enchanting soundscape which one might associate with midnight. Instead they utilize a zillion microphones to produce a bold, upfront, extremely close perspective with the group projected out into the room. Further, it is transferred to CD at an unusually high level which instantly had me grabbing for the remote to adjust the volume down several notches from a normal listening setting.
This is unfortunate. It does this music no favors whatsoever. However, in the Dutilleux, with all its eerie sounds and unusual string writing, if one wanted to follow the score to hear every minute detail and bow effect, and each and every glissando, pizzicato and harmonic to discover how this strange soundworld is created, this is the recording for that. It's all right there in stark relief. Blend is not a priority; rather each instrument is heard spotlit to the hilt, clearly delineated from the others. And the magic of Dutilluex's masterful orchestration is revealed to be that of just a mortal man behind the curtain, not a wizard at all. It's just notes on the page. And much too matter-of-fact.
The Schoenberg isn't affected in quite this way, but I miss the blend and richness of the music when it's presented so brazenly. It just sounds too loud. (While the Dutilleux is for string quartet, the Schoenberg and Merlin are for string sextet, where the Ebene are joined by two friends.) It sounds almost as if the engineers are trying to make the group of six sound like a full symphony orchestra. That first crescendo is quite arresting (and unnatural) if you've got the volume set anywhere near normal levels.
The good news is that it isn't harsh or brash. It's just close. Even with the volume turned down, the group still sounds to be playing too loud, out in front of the loudspeakers.
This perspective allows NOWHERE for anything less than absolute perfect playing to hide. And amazingly this group provides just that - absolute perfection. Almost to the point of coldness. Their expertise is nonetheless immensely impressive. Yet, musically, I miss some warmth and the relaxing caress of a phrase in the Schoenberg. And in the Dutilleux, I desperately miss the otherworldly atmosphere, variety of color, and the suddenness of dynamic contrasts which make this score so incredibly unique. It's all just too close and too loud - a one-dimensional, larger-than-life wall of sound, microscopically dissected with laser precision, replete with unrealistic, explosive pizzicatos.
Surely I'm being too hard on this recording. Ok, let me revisit another disc of contemporary string quartet music I've been enjoying immensely of late (review in process) - a new recording from a group new to me: Quatuor Hanson, on the Aparte label. Their program also includes the Dutilluex, and comparing these two recordings of it is most enlightening. From the very first note, the Hansons instantly take us to a completely different world. One of intrigue, and wonderment, and illusion; one of overwhelming interest and an incredible sense of awe. Here we experience the wonders of Dutilleux in full glory - that sensation of being transported to another dimension, hearing sounds as if for the first time. Listening to the Hansons play it, I am drawn into the music-making, constantly hearing something new, and thinking, "Wait, what was that?" "How did they make that sound?" "Listen to the atmosphere they create there." "How does Dutilluex do that?!" And Aparte's recorded perspective distances the group perfectly, just enough to allow their individual sounds to blend and fill the acoustic, creating a marvelous atmosphere and recreating Dutilleux's unique soundworld beautifully. With the Ebene, it is just laid bare to see (and hear), exposing the magic to be just a simplistic sleight of hand. And thus I almost feel cheated.
The highlight of this CD, as recorded by the microphone-happy engineers, is most certainly the Merlin. And here, the multi-mic'd, close-up perspective suddenly makes sense. With its jazz influences and scoring which sets out to recreate an intimate, nightclub atmosphere, this piece benefits from it. It's a pity no one realized the other two don't. But be that as it may, I loved Night Bridge, which interpolates snippets of the songs Moon River, Night and Day, Stella by Starlight and 'Round Midnight. Each is surrounded by interesting (and quite modern-sounding) "parentheses" - sections of new music tying them all together. I especially loved (and appreciated) how the popular songs are not pretentiously displayed. They are subtly infused into the tapestry in a way which one hardly knows they're there until the tune (which just sneaks in) becomes so familiar that it suddenly registers what it is. This is without doubt the most heartfelt and musically touching sections of the entire concert. And so creative too. For example, the ebb-and-flow bow-scratching effects utilized in Night and Day to simulate the wheezing sound of an old, scratchy cylinder disc playing music was not only highly inventive, but immensely intriguing. I enjoyed the entire piece very much; it alone almost justifies the cost of the disc.
In sum, this is an amazing program with some truly wonderful music. And the playing is beyond reproach - fabulous by any measure. However, Warner, (oops, I mean "Erato") is insistent upon telling us what to hear rather than inviting us to listen. And for me, that makes all the difference between a truly engrossing, wonderful experience and one which merely leaves me admiring it. I enjoyed this CD for the Merlin alone, but still can't help but think the rest could have been so much better with even the slightest attentiveness/awareness from the engineers.