Great music, but…

This is the 2nd important release of relatively rare repertoire from Chandos and the adventurous Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective. This time they explore the chamber music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. This CD has already garnered many praises, and rightfully so. However, as esteemed as it is, I really must address the elephant in the room, and speak honestly about what I hear.

Yes the music is wonderful. And we owe the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective (and Chandos Records) a debt of gratitude for recording it and bringing it to life. However, there are some problems, especially in the Nonet.

I’m not sure if it’s a lack of blend with this group, who seem to embrace the soloistic approach to ensemble playing, with each and every member vying for attention as if in a concerto. Or if it’s a too-close microphone placement from the recording engineers. Or, more likely, a little bit of both. But the result, at least in the Nonet, is a lack of refinement which tends to make the music sound a little hokey. And, frankly, a touch rowdy. 

From the very opening measures, just listen to the exposition when, within a few seconds, the horn comes blasting in at fortissimo, completely out of context, practically drowning out the other musicians. There must be a microphone right in front of his bell. Or perhaps he isn’t used to playing chamber music. But whatever the reason, it is startling and quite disruptive.

But not to be too hard on the poor horn player (who is excellent, by the way), the more I listen I realize it’s not his fault. Chandos is to blame here. I also hear an unnatural prominence from the clarinet, then the oboe. In fact, all through the Nonet, the bold, upfront, close perspective would suggest (and demonstrate) that each player is very closely mic’d and the overall balance is being manipulated by the control room. Not only does this soundstage all but obliterate atmosphere and blend, they’ve contrived a weird balance. The strings are severely overpowered by the winds and it’s difficult to hear their contribution, except occasionally when the violin soars into the highest octaves. And, conversely, the piano is so backwardly balanced, it is often lost back in the mix, practically inaudible when the winds are playing. Making matters worse, dynamics are restricted to a constant mf-ff range, with precious little truly soft playing, which eventually becomes a bit tiring on the ear.

The remaining movements suffer similarly, although it sounds as if the microphones were adjusted slightly – but not enough. The strings have gained a bit more prominence and, unfortunately, a grainy texture as well. And the piano is still too recessed. The soundstage is a flat wall of sound, still with no air or space around the musicians, and no sense of the acoustic in which they play.  

As to the music itself, this is a wonderful piece. In fact, it is bursting with so many memorable tunes I found myself humming them for days. But full appreciation for all its musical riches is somewhat hampered. The recording plays a part, certainly, but perhaps the scoring itself is not expertly accomplished. Remember, all three of these works were written while Coleridge-Taylor was a student at the Royal College of Music in London.

Determined to discover what might be the problem here, I found on my shelves another recording of this Nonet (the only other one I know of) on a 2004 CD from Centaur Records. Listening to it anew, I am happy to confirm there are no inadequacies in the orchestration by the composer. For I hear an almost entirely different piece of music from Kelly Burke and friends on Centaur. The ensemble plays with a lovely blend, bringing out individual lines when important, then playing together as if one musician. The recorded sound is more relaxed and spacious too, in a well-defined acoustic, and is remarkably detailed. And as a result, the music sings! Rapturous tunes soar heavenward, inner details intrigue (all those piano arpeggios are delightful), and everywhere the music is enchanting, imbued with lovely phrasing. All of which brings a whole new dimension and interest to the piece, with so much color and variety.  

Ultimately, this performance of the Nonet succeeds because it sounds like chamber music. Which it is. Going back to Chandos, the Kaleidoscope Collective seems to be trying too hard to sound like a symphony orchestra. And they lose the intimacy of communication, struggling to make this something more than it is.

So while I’m still perplexed by what I hear on Chandos, I ultimately must accept what I suggested earlier – it’s both the playing and the recorded sound which are just not quite right in this piece.

Moving on to the Trio (for violin, cello and piano), which comes next on the program, the difference in recorded perspective is remarkable. We are transported, literally, to a completely different world. The sound here is instantly more relaxed, atmospheric and positively lovely. Balance between strings and piano is now more natural, as are dynamic contrasts. With some distance now evident between the players and the listener, the resultant spaciousness brings a smoother, less grainy string tone and the playing takes on an expressive sweetness. The music positively glows, making this without doubt the highlight of the entire program. 

The closing Piano Quintet falls somewhere in between with regard to recorded sound – certainly more forward than the Trio, but more naturally balanced than the Nonet. The piano is better delineated in the acoustic, although still not quite given the realistic size and presence it should. The strings are given a strong prominence, almost too forward, with a touch of coarse-grained texture. It adds a certain intensity to the playing which I’m not sure does the music any favors. It is a sound very similar to that heard on this group’s earlier (2021) Chandos CD, American Quintets, of which I had similar criticisms. However, it is not detrimental to musical enjoyment; one can fully appreciate what an accomplished (and important) work this is. But I’d sure like to hear it in a better recording.

In sum, it is glorious to have this release of some wonderful music from a neglected composer. And I really do like the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective. However, I’m not entirely convinced the relationship with Chandos is a happy one. For here we have 2 CDs, both with innovative and invaluable musical programs and engaging playing, both hampered to varying degrees by unflattering sound.

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