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Chicago Pro Musica
The Medinah Sessions

Review by Wayne Donnelly
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Chicago Pro Musica: The Medinah Sessions

CD Stock Number: Reference Recordings RR-2102


  This 2-CDs-for-the-price-of-1 set offers HDCD remasterings of Reference Recordings LPs RR-16, 17 and 29. The Chicago Pro Musica comprises 24 musicians from the Chicago Symphony, plus composer/pianist/University of Chicago musicologist Easley Blackwood. The ensemble includes nearly every section of the symphony orchestra, but has no more than two of any instrument (e.g., violin).

Young William Walton's 1922 collaboration with poet Dame Edith Sitwell, the whimsical Façade, scandalized the London public. Walton later produced orchestrated concert suites and a ballet, omitting Sitwell's verses. This performance restores Walton's original chamber scoring, but not the verses. 

Hasenorl's audacious eight-minute re-imagining of Till Eulenspiegel reduces Strauss's orchestration to five players, but preserves the irreverent wit. The Scriabin is an amusing trifle, the Nielsen minor but delightful. The Soldier's Tale Suite makes a fine concert piece, especially when played so brilliantly -- although one shouldn't forget the full version with voices.

The bonbons from Martinu and Paul Bowles (who was soon to turn from music to literature) are clever, energetic curiosities. Offrandes, though, still sounds as confrontational as it must have seemed in 1924. Bookending those works are Weill's ever-catchy Threepenny Opera music and Blackwood's ingenious condensation of Capriccio Espagnol to a chamber piece for 14 instruments.

The Pro Musica players combine dazzling virtuosity with an uncanny collaborative intuition for these diverse compositional styles. Among all this virtuosity, the insight, wit, rhythmic precision and sheer energy of Blackwood's pianism deserve special praise.

I find this offbeat collection charming. I did have a visitor or two who were not amused, especially with the sacrilegious treatment of Strauss and Rimsky. But if you're open to new takes on old favorites, or to exploring the unfamiliar, try this quirky set. I suggest sampling one or two at a sitting. That's usually the best approach to consuming bonbons -- and the chewier stuff will reward attentive listening.

Medinah Temple, a Masonic auditorium on Chicago's near North side, was the venue for numerous CSO recordings from the early '70s until Orchestra Hall's acoustics were repaired a few years ago. (Although very good now, they are different from the wonderful acoustics heard on all those great Reiner RCAs.) Once slated for demolition, Medinah has now been accorded landmark status.

The recorded sound does Medinah proud. The acoustic is clear and warm with just enough reverberation. These CDs are dead quiet -- another confirmation of the long-term technical excellence achieved by producer Tam Henderson and engineer Keith Johnson, and testimony to the meticulous remastering. This set will be terrific demo material for listeners more interested in tonal purity, inner detail and spatial resolution than in big ol' bass drum thwacks.












































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