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Exiles in Paradise

Brinton Averil Smith (cello), Evelyn Chen (piano) (Naxos)

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

Exiles in Paradise
Chamber works by Godowsky, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Achron, Gruenberg, Toch, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Rózsa, Korngold, Waxman & Gershwin
Brinton Averil Smith (cello), Evelyn Chen (piano)
Naxos 8.579055   66:18 mins

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There is nothing new about a musical programme centred on composers whose careers were disrupted, displaced, or extinguished by the 20th century’s political and racial firestorms. What makes the present release distinctive, and not in the best way, is its unusually blurred focus. The composers’ eventual Los Angeles residency provides a unifying factor, though some pieces date from way before any exile began, and a few names (Louis Gruenberg, Gershwin) could only be called exiles if the term is exceedingly loosely defined. A further layer of fuzziness arrives with the album’s large number of transcriptions, the most testing for Brinton Averil Smith’s cello being Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie, designed for Jascha Heifetz’s violin. The performance is heroic, but somewhat grotesque. Another kind of cloudiness is supplied by the recording acoustic, an aural equivalent of Los Angeles smog that helps obscure the precision of colour and phrasing in Smith’s cello and Evelyn Chen’s piano.

What gives pleasure here are generally those works convincingly performed by the forces their creators originally intended. There are muscular, imaginative and witty solo pieces by Rózsa and Toch. Even better is Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s cello-piano variation set I nottambuli, inspired by nocturnal wanderings in Florence – a further recorded example of this composer’s unstoppable lyrical gift (already explored by Smith and Chen on a previous Naxos release). Other pleasures include the Gruenberg Jazzette and Stravinsky’s ‘Berceuse’ from The Firebird. But this remains a frustrating album, which could have been more successful.

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Geoff Brown