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- Published on Amazon.com
Don't get too caught up in Amazon's description of this recording requiring "super audio-compatible" equipment; it's a hybrid SACD playable on most machines. I played it in the car and on both my home CD players (super audio and standard red book.) I didn't find a great difference in the sound going from one to the other. However, when I tried to play it digitally in my receiver's PCM mode, my DVD-CD player told me it was unplayable. This is fairly standard for DSD super audio disks. They play fine through the analog outputs of typical super audio players but they don't replicate true digital sound.
Nevertheless, I was able to enjoy this recording of Bach's oboe concertos and transcription from Russian Alexei Utkin and the Moscow-based Hermitage Chamber Orchestra, a young-looking group of musicians from Russia. I read somewhere this was the first super audio disk made in Russia; that was in 2003. Utkin and the chamber players have made a bunch of other recordings since then, transcribing works by Haydn and playing some other Bach among them. They have a following among critics; I read a rapturous review of this on an English website and read another rave of one of their more recent disks in American Record Guide. Because these recordings emanate from Russia, they cost as much as $45 new when buying through Amazon. I paid nowhere close to that for this one, thankfully.
This recording includes Bach's concertos BWV 1055 and 1053 for oboe, the double concerto for oboe and violin BWV 1060, and a transcription of the three harpsichord concerto, BWV 1064, rewritten for oboe, flute and violin. The latter concerto is the more interesting of the offerings because of both the transcription and the oddly treble sound of the triple concerto. The playing on all these concertos is quite good, with lively allegros in today's moderated period practice speed (the players use modern, not ancient, instruments) but still with some of the annoying clipped phrasing I dislike. The strings are silky and very sensitive during slow movements with an especially lovely adagio in BWV 1060, the concerto in C minor for harpsichord reconstructed for oboe. All told, the players are professional, sensitive to Bach's scoring, and they consistently keep up with their spirited leader, the oboe virtuoso Utkin.
However, there is something else about this recording that detracts from all these fine qualities. To put it bluntly, this sounds like it was made by a computer. With the exception of the oddball triple transcription, speeds are almost exactly the same in every concerto, there is no variance in playing or pacing, a player never makes a mistake (yes, I know this is common in recordings), there is nothing close to rubato, and there is just about nothing going on in this recording to let you know anyone with personality or perspective is doing anything. This sounds wonderful in the beginning but, the longer the disk goes on, the more the sameness persists, so uniform as if to defy humanness.
Not everyone enjoys Bach played by the likes of Glenn Gould, Pablo Casals or Rosalyn Tureck, to name just three of the major figures in 20th century Bach performance. Yet, when you hear these players -- and countless other virtuosos -- there is little question in your mind that a muscial giant is interpreting the work of one of the world's most perfect composers. That is not the case in this recording. Here, the music is so perfect, uniform and without variance that the performers could be anyone. They are so consistent they are without personality. I have rarely heard such marvelous musicmaking that left me with such an empty feeling.
To be fair, this recording received raves all over the web and in critical music magazines. I read two of them and the critics couldn't say enough good things about Utkin and his group. One called this recording 63 minutes of sheer joy. The package comes with a dozen pages of English notes and less in Russian and German, plus brief bios of Utkin and the orchestra. The Caro Mitis disk itself is in a sturdy plastic box that won't easily break and it has ornate detailing on it. It's quite a good package in great sound if what bothers me is not an issue to you. I've gotten more satisfaction listening to older recordings by Holliger, Goritzki and the Collegium Aureum forces, reverberant recording notwithstanding.