Orpheus Chamber Orchestra: Three Classic Albums (CD review)

Mozart: Horn Concertos Nos. 1-4, Clarinet Concerto, Oboe Concerto, Bassoon Concerto, Flute Concerto No. 1, Flute and Harp Concerto, and Andante for Flute and Orchestra. Various soloists; Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. DG 479 3082 (3-CD set).

Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft (German Gramophone Company), better known as DGG or simply DG, has been around since 1898 when German-born United States citizen Emile Berliner established it as the German branch of his Berliner Gramophone Company. I mention this because as one of the world's longest continuously active record companies, the DG folks have an extensive back catalogue of recordings. So, when they decide to rerelease some of their older material, they have a ton of great stuff from which to choose. Currently, DG are re-releasing some of their past classics in three-disc boxed sets, such the Mozart set reviewed here with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Founded in 1972, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is among the best, most popular, and most widely recorded chamber orchestras in existence, taking a rightful place alongside the English Chamber Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, and other such notable groups. They have been making records for DG for over forty years and seem at home with almost any genre or period of classical music. Their membership of about thirty players draws from the New York and New England area and includes musicians who also teach at major institutions or play in other orchestras like the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the New York City Ballet Orchestra, etc. The Orpheus ensemble perform without a conductor, and their soloists (as on these recordings) usually come from within their own ranks.

The first disc in the set contains Mozart's Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A major, K. 622, with soloist Charles Neidich; and the Concerto for Horn and Orchestra No. 1 in D major, K. 412, and Concerto for Horn and Orchestra No. 4 in E flat major, K. 495, with soloist David Jolley. The standout on disc one is the opening Clarinet Concerto, with Mr. Neidich providing a superbly flowing, delightfully nuanced interpretation in perfectly judged tempos, and the Orpheus players offering him an equally accomplished accompaniment. Although I have a slight preference for Sharon Kam's recording on Berlin Classics, this would be my first alternative. For that matter, the Horn Concertos with Mr. Jolley are just as joyously infectious. Be aware, though, that competition among recordings of the Horn Concertos is pretty intense, and I'm not sure I would want these as my only choices. That said, I found a great deal of warmth and vivacious good cheer in Jolley's playing. Frankly, with a name like Jolley, how could it be any other way?

The second disc contains the Concerto for Horn and Orchestra No. 2 in E flat major, K. 417, and the Concerto for Horn and Orchestra No. 3 in E flat major, K. 447, with soloist William Purvis; the Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra in C major, K. 314, with soloist Randall Wolfgang; and the Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra in B flat major, K. 191, with soloist Frank Morelli. I'm not sure why the orchestra or DG decided to change horn players for Nos. 2 and 3, and I can't say I liked Purvis's work as well as I liked Mr. Jolley's. While Purvis's playing certainly sounds fluid and effortless, it doesn't convey quite as much joy as Jolley's. On the other hand, one can hardly fault the oboe and bassoon works. They are delightful in every way, graceful and stylish.

The third disc contains the Concerto for Flute and Orchestra No. 1 in G major, K. 313, and the Andante for Flute and Orchestra in C major, K. 315, with soloist Susan Palma; and the Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra in C major, K. 299, with soloists Susan Palma and Nancy Allen. Ms. Palma's flute playing is another standout in the set. Her cheerfully elegant phrasing brings out all the pleasure and happiness of these pieces. Moreover, the Orpheus ensemble accompanies her as a complementary reflection, perfectly attuned to her every note. These performances are lovely and comforting, with an especially befitting conclusion in the way of the flute and harp piece with Ms. Allen.

One could hardly find disadvantages to this set. I suppose, however, that a dedicated grinch might complain that the Orpheus ensemble's playing sounds too polished, too sophisticated for Mozart's music or that DG's sound is too slick, too smooth for the audiophile's ear. Such grousing would be stretching a point, to be sure.

The three discs in the set come packaged separately in their own cardboard foldout containers, which include album notes and cover art. A light-cardboard slipcover further encloses the three discs, along with a bonus artist postcard.

DG recorded the albums at the State University of New York at Purchase, Performing Arts Center, in
March 1987, December 1987, and December 1988, and they re-released the recording in the present set in 2014. The sound is remarkably smooth, as I say, in all of these concertos and reasonably warm, yet admitting a goodly amount of detail and sparkle. The soloists sound well centered and well incorporated into the front of the group setting, not standing ten feet in front of them. Depth perception is only moderate, but object definition is quite good.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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.

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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