Beginning with Felix Mendelssohn’s Sextet, I was astonished at the heaviness and pushiness of the music-making. And the muddiness of the acoustic. Details are buried within the overpowering bass and murky reverberation. Moreover, the piano is distant and sounds overpedaled. (I doubt it really is; it’s just recorded that way).
These problems become apparent within the first few seconds. The bass viol is too closely mic’d and is boomy from its very first note. And a few bars later at the piano’s first entrance, it is distant, dull and a little flat. And as intensity builds, the muddiness becomes unpleasant to try to listen through. It brings a clamorous rowdiness to this music which doesn’t suit Mendelssohn.
By the time the third movement arrives, the piano has miraculously gained some prominence. But the flat, airless wall of sound simply becomes too much. The recording engineer is manipulating the soundstage and balance on the fly, overriding whatever the ensemble might be trying to achieve. It is very similar to what I heard in this team’s previous recording of Coleridge-Taylor’s Nonet. I was dismayed to hear no improvements here.
Performing my due diligence, I tried this on a different CD player with a pair of Grado Labs headphones which are known for clarity and a tight, almost lean bass. And the bass bloat was actually worse on them! And the muddy acoustic persisted.
Turning to Fanny Mendelssohn’s wonderful Piano Quartet, which comes last on the program, I hear the complete opposite. The sound is airy, clean (yet warm), spacious and…delicate. Yes. There is a delicacy here to the playing and the recorded sound which is completely absent in the opening Sextet. And the result is the most glorious performance of this lovely piece I’ve yet encountered. It is smiling, singing and joyously energetic when called for. (The ending is positively thrilling.) I cannot ever remember enjoying it so thoroughly before. At last, Tom Poster’s marvelous piano playing is allowed to shine with clarity and brilliance, quite a difference from being buried back in the murk in the Sextet and swamped in reverb in the Trio (below).
Fanny’s Piano Trio, which appears in between, is not quite as memorable, and even this fine trio of musicians can’t quite make it more so. Nonetheless, it is pleasant and often delightful. And so rewarding when played as beautifully as it is here! Alas, it is only reasonably well recorded. There is still a bit of muddiness here and too much reverberation, causing the piano to sound severely overpedaled. There is also an unnecessary touch of grain to the strings (made worse on the Grado headphones).
I am perplexed why producer/engineer Jonathan Cooper can’t manage to do this group justice in larger ensemble pieces. He does just fine with some (but not all) of the small, intimate works. I have come to the conclusion that the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective likes this sound. It is consistent on all three of their albums, adding a rough texture and rambunctious intensity to their sound, especially when the full group is in play. It makes for a frustrating listening experience time and again. And I just don’t understand why that is.
I have come to the realization this is precisely the sound they’re going for and I shouldn’t expect anything different on future recordings. So why do I keep buying them? That’s a good question. And I guess the simple answer is for the repertoire. It’s innovative, imaginative, somewhat rare, and thoroughly worthwhile music that isn’t readily available elsewhere. So I cave in!
Two final comments: This is yet another CD-only release, which I can’t help but think is part of the problem. If Chandos would afford this group the multi-channel SACD treatment they deserve, perhaps – just perhaps – the recorded sound would improve with some much needed spaciousness. And finally, I found it odd I had to import this title from Europe. I’m not sure why it’s not readily available yet here in the U.S. It’s just another mystery to ponder about these releases from Chandos and the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective.