It’s weird to start a review of an album with how it sounds, but there’s a good reason for it. It may be well known by now that the TRPTK label puts out good sounding albums. At Alpha Audio, music experience is our focus, but we write a lot about how to best do that music justice at home. Following the listening test and measurements of switches, your author installed a simple Cisco switch with an iFi PowerX between the WiFi receiver and the streamer at home. That fixed up the sound quite a bit, but something was still gnawing. To my sense, the balance had changed but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Until I listened to this album. You “see” the players sitting in front of you, in a semi-circle. At least, that’s what I think I hear. It just sounded unbalanced. That seemed odd with a TRPTK recording. After some shuffling with the speakers, particularly a further toe-in, that imbalance was gone. Result is that everything sounds better now. Moral of the story: you can’t get very much better than the recordings of TRPTK. It sounds like a private concert at home. For the musicians this is quite a risk, you really hear everything. The Intercontinental Ensemble does not disappoint. Thanks to the transparent recording you can hear very well that it is a well attuned ensemble with equally virtuoso players. Hats off.
An Italian prelude
The album opens with a nonet by Nino Rota.
Who do you say? Giovanni Rota Rinaldi is an Italian composer best known for composing the music of the first Godfather film. In Italy he is better known for his collaborations with the great Italian directors of his day, such as Visconti and Fellini. In addition to music for films and theater, he has written operas and symphonic pieces, as well as a nonet.
A nonet is a piece for 9 players, just as a quartet is a piece for 4 players. Not very many nonets have been written. The instrumentation is often the same as an orchestra, but with 1 player on each instrument. For those who still feel a slight hesitation to dive into classical music I can recommend this album, Rota’s music is very accessible. As a listener, I can detect little cohesion between the movements of Rota’s Nonet. They are divertimenti, to use a nice Italian music term, music for entertainment and diversion. It is expressive, it could be music for scenes in a silent film.
The Intercontinental Ensemble plays Rota’s nonet with pleasure and it’s wonderful music to go along with it, but it doesn’t stick. I can tell you from experience that it makes you drive a very relaxed car.
Via the Czech Republic back to Italy
The music of Bohuslav Martinu is not widely known, despite the fact that he composed an impressive amount and variety of work. Much of his music has a characteristic staggered rhythm with bright accents, something that can also be heard in Slavic folk music. He has always proudly expressed his Czech heritage in his compositions, despite being trained as a composer in France.
The Nonet no.2 is a well written piece. In the second movement it becomes clear that this Nonet brings more musically and requires concentration from the listener. Martinu composed during an exciting time in Western music history, where avant garde music and innovativeness were taking the world by storm. His musical language tends more toward conservative, but the input of the musical tradition from his native land makes it sound a bit more innovative to our ears.
In its performance, the Intercontinental Ensemble opts for a fluid execution of the work with emphasis on the fusion of the melody and somewhat less emphasis on the rhythmic accents. As a result, the sound is closer to an orchestral sound than an ensemble sound, the layering of the music is emphasized more, and the sound of the instruments melts together more. This is a legitimate choice, but I personally regret that the music’s boxiness is somewhat diminished. Somewhere the performance leaves me with an unsatisfied feeling. ‘Well, well,’ I hear you think, ‘that’s quite a critical view!’ That’s true, but the Intercontinental Ensemble is a bit guilty of it themselves. They set the bar very high with their performance of the last piece on this album.
Retrospectively, you then hope that they would have played this wonderful Nonet with the same bravura they show in their arrangement of the Mendelssohn Symphony.
Why a golden oldie is a golden oldie
Classical music also has golden oldies, music that appears on an orchestra’s program somewhere in the Netherlands every season. Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.4 is a good example of a golden oldie. It’s a bit of flat-out music if I’m honest. In my experience it passed every hour on Classic FM, so to speak.
The Intercontinental Ensemble plays with a cheerful freshness con gusto (with enthusiasm) to remove my bias. Throw out all orchestral recordings and keep this one as far as I’m concerned. You can hear at once why Mendelssohn belongs to the ranks of composers who are beloved. This work is of a different level than the Rota and the Martinu. Sometimes you have to hear an over-familiar piece with “new ears” to remember again why it is so good. The eagerness with which the Intercontinental Ensemble plays this tastes like more. It’s occasionally on the edge of what you can do with 9 players, but in the second movement of the symphony, the Ensemble shows that they have this music tightly in hand. This is high-level music. It sounds both fluent and strictly rhythmic.
Listening to the third movement, I am reminded of the fantastic performances of Schubert’s symphonies that Harnoncourt made with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. This has a similar signature: letting the character of the music speak for itself by playing a lullaby very tightly instead of swaying along with the melody, thus making it stand out even more. The Intercontinental Ensemble closes with a furiously played last part. You can almost see the grin with which they attack this piece. All that remains is to jump up from the sofa after the last note and shout “bravo!” very loudly. What a wonderful music!