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AIX Records

Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Quintet in g minor, Op.57 (1942)1 [32:10]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (1916/17)2 [17:28]
Jane BROCKMAN (b.1949)
Trio for flute, cello and piano: Feast of Fives3 [12:00]
Chamber Music Palisades (Susan Greenberg (flute)2,3; Delores Stevens (piano)1,3; JoAnn Turovsky (harp)2; Roger Wilkie (violin)1; Rene Mandel (violin)1; Paul Coletti (viola)1,2; Peter Stumpf (cello))1,3
rec. Zipper Auditorium, Colburn School for Performing Arts, Los Angeles, California, 19 December, 2005.
HD video. 24-bit/96kHx audio: 5.1 Dolby HD, 5.1 Dolby Digital or Stereo.
Also available as 2-sided DVD (DVD-Video and DVD-Audio AIX80052)
AIX RECORDS AIX85052 [62:01]

Experience Classicsonline

The main recording has been available since 2008 in two-sided DVD format – one side playable as a DVD-Video and the other as a DVD-Audio. The advent of Blu-ray means that one disc suffices for both formats, since the sound content on any Blu-ray recording is potentially superior to that of DVD-Video and DVD-Audio discs.

My first reaction was that this is a very eclectic collection of music, with no linking theme other than the members of the LA-based Palisades group. Most recordings of the Shostakovich Quintet come more logically coupled – with other music by Shostakovich, especially chamber works, or other Piano Quintets. Secondly, would the contemporary piece stick out like a sore thumb in the context of its elders? The other question which I find inevitable with video recordings of orchestral or chamber music is whether we really need to see the performance.

I’ll take that last question first. There’s so much slick camerawork, with the performers shot from various angles and at varying degrees of distance, and with so much recording paraphernalia in view in several of the shots, that I soon transferred the disc to my audio setup. That gave me a better opportunity to judge the quality of the recording: the Cambridge Audio blu-ray/SACD player in that system is superior to the Philips blu-ray player linked to my TV and the quality of the amplifier and speakers is, of course, far superior to anything that a television can offer. If you enjoy seeing the performers from all angles, stay with the visuals, but they are not for me.

My benchmarks for the Shostakovich are the Chandos recording with Martin Roscoe and the Sorrel Quartet (CHAN10329) and Ian Brown with the Schidlof Quartet on Linn CKD065, with String Quartets Nos.4 and 7. I reviewed the Linn in my September 2009 Download Roundup, where I thought that the performance of the Quintet had all the passion that was missing in the Quartets. The Linn is worth buying for the Quintet alone, but the Chandos is more recommendable overall, with equally fine performances of Quartets Nos.1 and 12 – volume 6 in a very recommendable series. Colin Clarke thought it ‘a most impressive release’ – see review.

The timings on the AIX recording are close to those on Linn – very close, in fact, with both at the faster end of the spectrum. On a Hyperion recording which has received praise in some quarters, Igor Uryash and the St Petersburg Quartet are significantly slower than either in every movement except the finale, where all three versions come in within a couple of seconds either side of 7 minutes. The timings on the Chandos version fall almost exactly between these extremes, except in the finale, where they are marginally slower than all the others. Regular readers will know that I tend to prefer the middle way where there are diversities of timing, but that isn’t the only reason why I marginally prefer the Roscoe/Sorrel Quartet version of this work to the new Aix recording.

In the Prelude there is little to choose between the Chandos and Aix performances – both capture the sense of underlying menace beneath the lyricism, though I think that Roscoe and his partners achieve this slightly more effectively, especially as the movement progresses, by giving the music just a little more time to breathe. Paradoxically, though I found the ‘busy’ camera-work distracting, the Aix recording seems more dramatic with the visuals than without. Despite the wonders of the blu-ray technology, I find the Chandos recording a little more immediate than the Aix and the piano tone a trifle less hard but, again, there is not a great deal in it.

The second movement fugue is the longest and is, for me, the key to the whole work. Once again the Chandos performers give the music just a little more room to expand – I now think the Linn performance slightly too hurried here. The music starts almost from nothing and gently, imperceptibly but inexorably expands, then dies away, and Roscoe’s team capture this very effectively. Once again, I give them a small edge over the Palisades performers, who again soften the edge of the underlying menace a little by comparison.

The Aix notes describe the scherzo as erupting in a frenzy of activity. I think of this movement as Shostakovich’s equivalent of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s B-flat String Quartet, Op.130: there’s the same unleashed manic activity, suggestive of the medieval dancers of Colbek, who, cursed by their parish priest for dancing in the churchyard, could not stop for a year. (The story, from Robert Mannyng’s Handlyng Synne, can be found in Kenneth Sisam’s Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose from the Oxford University Press.) Once again it’s the Chandos version which achieves that effect slightly more than the newer recording: this time it’s a few seconds faster than any of the rival versions which I’ve consulted.

The linked fourth movement and finale come over well in all three versions, Linn, Aix and Chandos. Once again my preference is for the Chandos, marginally – all three agree very closely about the tempo for the intermezzo, but the Chandos version holds back the momentum at the opening of the finale where the Hyperion performers, having been the slowest in all the other movement, are marginally faster than either the Linn or Aix versions. There’s not much in it – 25 seconds between the Chandos and Hyperion versions at the extremes – but I just prefer the sense of energy under control here from Roscoe and the Sorrel Quartet.

I’m surprised to see so few rival versions of the attractive Debussy Sonata for flute, viola and harp and even more surprised to find that I have so few of them in my collection. The Palisades performers take the music a little faster than their young rivals on EMI Debut 5731622 (Chamber Music with flute by Mozart, Weber, Debussy and Ravel) but that, I think is to the music’s advantage. Only Osian Ellis and the Melos Ensemble are faster,especially in the finale. (The complete performance is on Decca 421 1542, with Franck and Ravel, the finale alone on the deleted The World of Debussy). The Palisades tempi are close to those on a long-deleted Pickwick CD of music by Ravel, Debussy, Roussel and Caplet (PWK1141), a recording of Israeli origin which would merit a reissue from Regis or Alto. In this work the lighter approach is much more appropriate than in the Shostakovich.

I need have had no fears concerning the final work, Jane Brockman’s Feast of Fives, fitting in with the other music. It’s a pleasant piece, less ‘advanced’ in many respects than the Shostakovich – eminently listenable and easily forgettable. It would have made a better opening item, with the Debussy second and the Shostakovich last.

I’ve already suggested that the Chandos recording is firmer than the Aix in the opening movement of the Shostakovich and the same remains true throughout – perhaps it’s an indication of the comparative qualities of the performances that the Palisades version sounds a little softer. In the Debussy and Brockman the slightly lighter, softer sound is perfectly appropriate. I’m not sure why, but the disc seemed to make more physical noise as it played than is normally the case.

The notes in the booklet are not in the most eye-friendly of fonts: they mainly concentrate on the makeup and history of Chamber Music Palisades.

Catherine Evtuhov’s note on the Shostakovich tells us more about the history of the composer’s on-off relationship with the authorities than the music. You would need to know something about these events to make full sense of the note and I’m not sure that you could call the Fourth Symphony ‘recent’ when he composed the Quintet. The links with the Sixth Symphony are noted, but the more famous and near-contemporary Seventh, the ‘Leningrad’, is not mentioned.

Kathy Henkel on the Debussy is again short but to the point, and I would certainly have preferred more information about the final work than the few lines which Jane Brockman herself contributes.

My review copy of AIX85052 came with the Audio Calibration Disc/HD Music Sampler, AIX82002 and a free sampler in a simple gatefold sleeve of Aix Records’ 24-bit/96kHz/7.1 recordings on Blu-ray, AIX82003. The sampler contains 21 tracks of Folk, Country, R&B, Acoustic Rock, Latin, Jazz and Classical, including the items listed on AIX82002. The only two classical tracks are from AIX85052, but the jazz tracks in particular may well be of interest to lovers of classical music, as they were to me. To be frank, I enjoyed seeing these more than I did watching the Shostakovich, Debussy and Brockman. There seems to me more point in having a visual record of folk and jazz than of the classical works.

You may well find the Calibration Disc useful. I believe that it is the only such setup aid specifically intended for blu-ray users, though the more basic set-up tests are also contained on the disc which is the main subject of this review.

To return to our primary muttons: the performance of the Shostakovich is a fraction too easy-going in places for my liking, partly because the recording or the players – or both – shave off some of the rougher edges. That slightly softer approach works well in the Debussy and Brockman. If you find the present coupling attractive, I see no reason why this disc should prove too disappointing. If you find ‘busy’ camera shots distracting, however, you may prefer to listen without watching. Surely, too, with the massive amount of space available on blu-ray, we could have been given rather more than 62 minutes of music for our bucks.

Brian Wilson

Calibration/Sampler disc details - AIX82002
System Calibration tests for channel identification, balance and phase (all 7.1, 5.1 and 2.0 modes), frequency sweep, subwoofer sweep and crossover test.
Mercy of the Wheels (folk music) John Gorka
Let me (folk music) Lisbeth Scott
Henry’s Farm (instrumental) Carl Verheyen
Pachelbel Acoustica (Instrumental) AIX All Stars
Primavera (Latin) Destani Wolf
Luxury Liner (Country) Albert Lee
Shostakovich Quintet - Prelude: Chamber Music Palisades

 


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