This is yet another
budget Apex re-issue that started life
as an Erato full price disc before becoming
part of a super-budget Warner Ultima
double pack. In fact, it was probably
even better value in that form, as it
also included the superb Three Frescoes,
Sinfonietta La Jolla and the
quite rare Toccata e due canzoni.
I suppose it was logical to split them
up and group together the composer’s
most famous concertante-style works,
and it’s certainly welcome at this price.
There were misgivings
in critical quarters on these performances’
first appearance, mainly to do with
sound and balance. The Penguin Guide
in particular felt that the violins
were unnaturally close and poor microphone
placing gave the wrong perspective.
The Concerto for String Quartet
was especially singled out in this regard,
though they did praise the performances
generally. I’m not sure whether the
sound has been cleaned up, even though
this could not alter the original recording
balance, but it did not bother me too
much. The spirited playing of all concerned
certainly does compensate to what is
an admittedly close recording, but there
does seem to be some ‘air’ around the
sound and it is preferable - in my opinion
- to an aggressively boomy or distantly
resonant acoustic for this music.
The great Double
Concerto does have some hot competition
in the catalogue, and most critics seem
to agree the best of the bunch is Bĕlohlávek
and his in-form Czech Philharmonic on
Chandos. I haven’t actually sampled
that, but did have to hand another recommendation,
that of Mackerras and the Brno State
P.O. on Conifer, interestingly coupled
with the Spaliček
ballet suite. As one might imagine,
the Brno players do sound a touch more
idiomatic in certain areas, such as
wind and brass solos, but the strings
are no better than Conlon’s French forces,
and timings are remarkably similar.
There is plenty of punch and weight
in Conlon’s reading which the close
recording helps rather than hinders.
The other works are
similarly satisfying in their own way.
The Brandis Quartet play superbly in
the Concerto for String Quartet
and the Tre Ricercare - basically
a chamber concerto for two pianos -
makes a welcome counterpart to the more-famous
Double Concerto, sharing many of its
structural, rhythmic and harmonic characteristics.
Again, Conlon keeps a tight rein on
things, making the most of the edgy
ostinati and driving neo-classical allegros.
Notes are quite good,
and the price is certainly in the disc’s
favour. You may well have to sample
this one to see if that sound bothers
you, but on a purely artistic level
these are pretty compelling performances.