Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Review: The Ames Piano Quartet Aims to Please

Ames Piano Quartet Play Mozart Hummel Beethoven

Dorian was always one of my favorite independent classical music labels. And while I was sorry to see them close up shop, I was glad that Sono Luminus bought the assets and revived the label. Dorian was always about not just top-notch performances. They were also concerned about the quality of the recorded sound.

Happy to say, Sono Luminus has been continuing both traditions. The Ames Piano Quartet has been mainstay of the Dorian label for years, and their newest recording of Mozart, Hummel, and Beethoven quartets doesn't disappoint. The sound is somewhat transparent -- it doesn't sound like a studio engineer's fixed anything up. The instruments sound natural, with real presence -- very much as they would in a live performance.

Because the Ames has been together for quite a while, there's a comfortable interplay between the performers as one might expect between old friends getting together. No one's the star here. These are four colleagues coming together for one purpose -- to make great music.

The disc features three works from the classical era; Mozart's Piano Quartet in E-flat major, K. 452; Beethoven's Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 16, and Hummel's Piano Quartet in G major.

Each work has a different character, and the Ames Piano Quartet each credibly well. Mozart is sufficiently light and airy but still played in such a way that the work's substance comes through. The Ames tackles the Beethoven quartet differently, ramping up the emotional content as one might expect. The end result is convincing if a little on the sedating side. This is Beethoven with combed hair and an unruffled collar. That's not to say it's a bad performance at all. In fact, it tends to highlight rather than hide Beethoven's connection to the older classical style of Mozart and Haydn.

Hummel probably comes off the best in this recording. Sandwiched between two giants, Hummel doesn't suffer that much by comparison. It's clear that the quartet devoted as much attention to Hummel's music as they did with Beethoven's and Mozart's. The structure of the work is well-defined, and the phrasing shows off the motives in the best possible light. Definitely an enjoyable listen.

If you look at the flow of all three works, the disc starts with something uplifting and appealing, moves to something comfortable, then finishes with something dramatic -- almost like a very large three-movement work. Having the opening and closing works in the same key further carries the analogy. Surely that was all part of the plan.

If you're familiar with the Ames Piano Quartet, then this a worthy addition to your collection. If not, the Hummel should be worth the price of admission, even if you have the other works.

Definitely recommended.

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