Borodin: String Quartet No. 2 (SACD review)

Also, Rimsky-Korsakov: Quintet in B flat major. Wolf-Quartett; Kammerensemble Classic der Deutsche Oper Berlin.  NCA 60175.

The actual name of this album is Klang Der Welt: Russland (Sounds of the World: Russia), but I thought if I listed it that way, nobody would know what it was about. In any case, the Orchestra of the German Opera Berlin are presenting a series of concerts devoted to the music of various countries of the world, and here we get some of the chamber music of Russia, very well performed and recorded.

First up is the String Quartet No. 2 of Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), performed by the Wolf-Quartett, presumably members of the Chamber Orchestra Classic of the German Opera Berlin, but the booklet notes are a little vague on the subject. In any case, the performance is about as perfect technically and sonically as one could ever expect it to be.  In fact, it's downright gorgeous. The Wolf-Quartett play with absolute precision, which the nitpicker might say spoils some of the performance's spirit and spontaniety, its being even a bit strait-laced, but with music this beguiling and this well executed, any complaints, no matter how minor, seem petty and petulant.

The Quartet's first movement flows sweetly, with its abundance of Russian folk melodies. The Scherzo that follows maintains the music's easy flow, without any disruptive rambunctiousness. The third movement Nocturne is undoubtedly the most-famous segment of the work and one of the most-popular pieces of music Borodin ever wrote; indeed, it is so popular that one often hears it played by itself in collections of chamber music. The Wolf-Quartett do it justice in a performance of lilting lyricism. Then we find a little more abandon in the Finale, which the members of the Quartett seem to take great pleasure in presenting.

The second and final item on the disc is the Quintet in B flat major for Piano, Flute, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908).  Like Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov was a partner in the "Mighty Five" or "Group of Five" Russian composers intent on maintaining the tradition of purely Russian music separate from undue outside influences. Thus, we again find an wealth of Russian folk tunes involved; however, that does not mean the piece is any way overly rustic or simplistic. The booklet, still vague on these matters, does not specify the performers, but one assumes they are members of the Chamber Orchestra of the German Opera, and they are every bit as precise in their delivery as the Wolf-Quartett.

While Rimsky-Korsakov's Quintet may not be quite as inspired as Borodin's Quartet, it does offer a little something for everyone, especially from the bassoon, which adds familiar and playful touches throughout. There is a lovely, longing quality about the middle movement, nicely felt and judged by the group. Finally, the third movement takes us back to a lighthearted bounce, the bassoon continuing to lend a kind of goofy grace to the proceedings.

The SACD multichannel sound (which I listened to from its regular two-channel stereo layer) is slightly close but not objectionably so, spreading out agreeably between the speakers, making the four and five players sound like a bigger ensemble at times. Be that as it may, it's a warm yet vivid sound, very natural, very smooth, and very listenable, with a somewhat subdued but definitely pleasant acoustic bloom. Fans of chamber music should savor this disc.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa