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From the Top at the Pops
Edvard GREIG (1843 - 1907)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16: I. Allegro molto moderato [13:00]
Max BRUCH (1838 - 1920)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26: III. Finale: Allegro energico [7:48]
Stephen FEIGENBAUM (b.1989)
Serenade for Strings [6:42]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Piano Concerto No. 5 in F minor, BWV 1056 [9:48]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809 - 1847)
Concerto for Violin, Piano and Strings in D minor: III. Allegro molto [8:56]
David POPPER (1843 - 1913)
Hungarian Rhapsodie, Op. 68 [8:49]
Russell PECK (1945 - 2009)
The Upward Stream: III. Allegro molto [6:41]
Ji-Wong (piano: Greig); Chad Hoopes (violin: Bruch); Hilda Huang (piano: Bach); Caroline Goulding (violin: Mendelssohn); Christopher O’Reilly (piano: Mendelssohn); Matthew Allen (cello: Popper); Corey Anderson (tenor saxophone: Peck)
Cincinnati Pops Orchestra/Erich Kunzel
rec. Music Hall, Cincinnati Ohio, 27 October 2008. DDD
TELARC CD-80745 [62:11] 
Experience Classicsonline

The main reason I was interested in reviewing this disc was to have an opportunity to write a few words about Erich Kunzel who died on September 1st this year (2009). For myself as with many CD collectors - and particularly those interested in film music and albums with a jazz/swing crossover - the name of Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops became synonymous with music-making of outrageous flair and visceral excitement. At the dawn of the digital recording age Telarc found the perfect partner to promote their special brand of what might be termed hyper-fi with super detailed recordings of enormous dynamic range being especially suited to the recording of cinematic spectaculars. The Cincinnati Pops have come to rival the Boston Pops in world-wide fame and it is largely due to the Kunzel/Telarc collaboration. He recorded over 80 discs for them. He was appointed the conductor of the Pops in 1977 but it was the release of Star Tracks in 1984 that really got the ball rolling. It is a tribute to all involved with that disc that 25 years down the line it can still thrill as music and amaze as a sonic experience. Don’t get me wrong - not all repertoire suits this full on approach but when it was good it was the very best. Personally I could live without any of their albums featuring Disney but exceptional favourites remain Prelude in C sharp Minor (The Fantastic Stokowski, Telarc 80338), The Planet Kryton (Star Tracks II, Telarc 80146) and Themes from Silverado (Round-Up, 80141). One of the great joys of collecting music is being able to find a piece of music to match any moment or mood - when I want thrilling, uplifting, down-right exciting playing and recording I reach for Kunzel and his fantastic orchestra.

So to the current CD. In view of Kunzel’s death less than a year after recording this disc there is extra poignancy about the fact that it features the playing of a new young generation of players. The liner note explains its genesis as follows: “In October 2008, From the Top and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra collaborated for three live concerts at Cincinnati Music Hall. Bringing together the energy of promising and engaging young artists, the affable presence of host Christopher O’Riley, and the power of Maestro Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops, the concert series culminated in this recording and a From the Top broadcast on NPR”. So what we have here is samples of concertante playing by six young performers and one new work by a young composer. Immediately it should be stressed that this is a joyful celebration of some wonderful talent and the soloists and their families should be hugely proud of their contributions. In the circumstances criticisms seem petty and pointless. Conversely one is bound to be drawn to certain performances more than others and it can be interesting to try and work out why that should be and whether or not one is hearing a future major artist for the first time.

As might be expected the general level of technical assuredness is remarkable. None of the players seem the littlest bit phased by any of the hurdles placed in their way. But isn’t it interesting how even at a young age some players intuitively are able to go beyond the notes and the written page. For me there are two stand-out performances on this disc. Caroline Goulding, aided by a very nimble-fingered Christopher O’Riley on piano, finds exactly the right bubbling wit and humour for this early Mendelssohn Concerto. Quite why it isn’t well known has always been a mystery - it has exactly that fairy magic that so enchants in the String Octet and A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Goulding’s real skill is that apart from totally technical control - a beautifully refined sound and dexterity to spare - she keeps the music wonderfully light. A couple of her other compatriots get swept away and their playing for all its wonderful bravura lacks finesse. Goulding shows maturity beyond her sixteen years. It reminds me of a young Chloe Hanslip - and I mean that as a very sincere compliment. I will be very surprised if her name does not feature prominently in years to come. The other sit-up-and-listen performance is that by saxophonist Corey Dundee. He plays the last movement of Russell Peck’s concerto The Upward Stream. In a very different idiom from the Mendelssohn Dundee inhabits the style perfectly. His playing is the essence of cool and control. Also, for the one time on the disc the Cincinnati players - a model of decorous accompaniment elsewhere - are unleashed and clearly enjoy the syncopating rhythms with their trademark brass section to the fore. I so enjoyed this piece and Peck was a name unknown to me that I tracked down a CD featuring the complete concerto (as ever these excerpts discs leave you frustratingly wanting more!). The good news is that the whole disc on Albany (TROY 040) features music every bit as good as the excerpt here - a really thrilling percussion concerto called The Glory and the Grandeur is a marvellous discovery. All credit to Dundee here on Telarc that he matches the superlative playing of dedicatee James Houlik on Albany. The sad news is that Peck also died earlier this year. This is music that cries out to be heard on a Naxos American Masters disc. I shouldn’t leave the commentary side of this review without mentioning the work by young composer Stephen Feigenbaum represented here by Serenade for Strings. Clearly well crafted and written with an understanding of strings - and how many composers don’t understand strings! - I suspect Feigenbaum will write more individual pieces in the future. As with the whole disc this is beautifully performed by the Cincinnati players and sensitively conducted by Kunzel.

There is an irony for me that this is probably the most discreetly engineered disc I have ever heard from Telarc. Given the nature of the repertoire I am sure that was the right choice - it is a model of well balanced yet detailed engineering. While checking some factual details writing this review I read the news that Telarc stopped producing its own recordings as of February 2009. I assume that that means they will be sub-contracting the engineering/production as many other companies have done. If that is the case it will be an end of an era and doubly so with the passing of Erich Kunzel. There is a magnificent legacy enshrined in the dozens of discs that were made using Telarc’s bespoke equipment and I will continue wallowing in them in hedonistic delight for years to come. And how touchingly apt that one of the last discs literally passes the baton of music-making on to a future generation.

Nick Barnard


 


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