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Two outstanding new CDs from Oxalys

Two outstanding new CDs from Oxalys
Two outstanding new CDs from Oxalys
I have enjoyed many CDs over the years from the Belgian chamber ensemble, Oxalys. On the Fuga Libera label, the Mozart and Ries Flute Quartets are simply glorious. And more recently on Passacaille, entire albums of marvelous chamber music by Jean Cras and Joseph Jongen are real finds.
Oxalys began producing their own recordings on the Passacaille label about 10 years ago, and along with new recordings also reissued some of their earlier out-of-print titles. Their two newest recordings reveal something of an evolution of the group – not only in overall sound, but also in expanding their instrumentation to explore a wider range of repertoire.
The 2021 CD “Nonetto” brought about a notable transformation in the group’s recorded sound, which is now slightly more forward and immediate than the more atmospheric glowing blend heard on previous recordings. There is now a more detailed individuality afforded each member of the group – as if going from sitting down to standing up and playing in a more soloistic manner. Nino Rota’s Nonetto is strikingly upfront and incisive. While there’s no denying the extrovert involvement in the playing, I do miss a bit of warmth – especially when compared to Eric Le Sage’s wonderful collection of Rota’s chamber music on Alpha Classics, which is noticeably warmer and colorful – almost symphonic. Both recordings are excellent, and choosing one over the other as a primary recommendation would be impossible.
Hanns Eisler’s Nonet #2, which comes next on the Oxalys program, is then a touch more relaxed and atmospheric – wholly beneficial and appropriate for the piece. This is highly descriptive music, conceived during the time the composer was writing film music. (His first Nonet was in fact written as film music.) It is full of character and sounds positively balletic, revealing this work to be wonderfully creative and memorable.
In the closing Nonet (#2) by Martinu, Oxalys successfully combines the color of the Eisler with the energy of the Rota in a winning performance of a work which is nevertheless not quite up to the same compositional standards of the other two. As is often the case with Martinu (for me, at least), it is enjoyable if not really memorable.
Their newest (2024) release, “The American Album”, begins with Copland’s Appalachian Spring ballet in its original version for 13 instruments. And it is one of the most convincing performances of it I can remember hearing. Indeed, for the first time, I began to appreciate it much more than the ever-popular orchestral version. Its intimacy and more transparent scoring evokes a completely different emotional reaction which I found most attractive. But again, this is a more direct and detailed interpretation of the piece than usually heard, which perhaps could use just a touch more love. It is expressive certainly (and beautifully played), but not especially heartfelt. However, it is helped by superb recorded sound which presents the group with presence and realism in a spacious acoustic. This performance works beautifully – if in a no-nonsense, somewhat matter-of-fact rendering. 
John Adams’ famous Shaker Loops is also played in its original setting for 3 violins, viola, 2 cellos and a bass – but in its alternate “through-composed” version rather than the “modular” one which invites the musicians to “independently intervene” during the performance. (I’m not sure exactly what that means and don’t think I’ve ever heard it played that way.) Oxalys plays it with extraordinary precision, and the recording is highly detailed, revealing every inner strand.

The first movement is incisively articulate with enormous propulsion. The 2nd, in stark contrast, is surreal and unexpectedly mellifluous, as the players breathe exquisite tenderness into all those little glissandos. The 3rd movement starts similarly – lovely, almost beautiful, yet kept marvelously simple – before the insistent rhythmic pulse underlying the tunefulness asserts itself. The music builds to an incredible, sustained climax (magnificently projected by the recording) – like an unstoppable locomotive approaching at full steam – before finally releasing its intensity into ethereal harmonics. The finale then is mesmerizing – its nervous, restlessness demonstrating minimalism at its absolute finest.

I’ve never been so thoroughly immersed in this music as I was listening to this recording of it. The playing and recorded sound are sensational – keeping the listener transfixed from beginning to end. 
The closing Meeelaan by Wynton Marsalis then is quite unusual – made even more so with its unusual scoring for bassoon and string quartet. The music itself is creative and certainly entertaining, but I wasn’t sure that a bassoon was the appropriate choice of soloist for music with movements labeled “Blues”, “Tango” and “Bebop” – with a cadenza thrown in for good measure. (I read in the booklet this piece was originally a commission for a bassoonist, which explains the instrumentation.) The playing is characterful and thoroughly idiomatic, but hearing the bassoon in these styles just wasn’t really convincing musically. The final Bebop, curiously, was the best, where somehow the bassoon and strings are great partners. The music is so good, I almost with Marsalis would rescore it for a different instrumental soloist.
Both of these new albums offer adventurous programs – expertly played and recorded in upfront, detailed, articulate sound. Moreover, the Passacaille productions are first-rate and attractive – including informative program notes, complete recording details and irresistible, imaginative cover art. Highly recommended.

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