Review by Bert Santilly : 28th November 2008
Accordion CDs are not exactly thick on the ground even in this day and age, and accordion CDs featuring an all accordion quintet are even rarer; so the chance to listen to a full-on programme of music by the Norvic Concordia Quintet tickled my musical taste buds more than a little!
But what sort of CD is it? Well the track list promised an interesting hour or so; from marches to waltzes; tangos to swing; TV theme music to Parisian Bal Musette; it is certainly not short on variety!
It really is quite a unique oeuvre; I can’t think of anything in a similar genre (certainly not in U.K.) since listening to that wonderful Swiss octet at one of Malcolm Gee’s festivals many years ago. But they were professional musicians playing a largely classical repertoire. These musicians are amateurs in the true sense of the word. They clearly love the music that they play – it comes over in every track.
Their attention to the detail of the carefully written arrangements is excellent. They demonstrate good balance between the members of the group with leads singing through, and clearly played parts sounding in the ensemble sections.
There is a degree of accuracy that tells you a lot about the preparation that must have gone into this CD. Their use of expression is subtle. Don’t go looking for overstated crescendi, diminuendi etc. You won’t find them. Instead you will hear well modulated phrasing, careful articulation, good balance between the various sections of the pieces and impressive contrast between one track and another as the CD takes you through its programme.
I have listened many times to Norvic Concordia at Caister and various other incarnations of the accordion festival scene but I have never before been able to hear (and so enjoy) the careful part playing as well as I have on this CD. There has clearly been some careful and sympathetic recording which has resulted in a natural sound but with much greater clarity than I have ever heard in a festival venue. The guy in the studio clearly knows his stuff!
We start off with Old Comrades, a march which gives Peter Ayers a chance to show his skill as an arranger. The pace is brisk with good coupler changing and a really good finish. The spirit of a military march is well and truly captured.
From this we move into Party Mood a radio theme tune from the 40s and 50s. The mood is easy, you almost feel you could play along with it yourself; but don’t be fooled, the easy flowing melody is the result of some very nifty playing. There is good dynamic balance between the parts and the coda is very well executed.
Another complete switch of mood and genre takes us into Chanson de Matin with good playing and careful phrasing showing off the arrangement to best advantage.
The Phantom Melody features some good lead playing, well balanced with the accompaniment. There is change of mood and intensity as the piece moves on and a well played finishing passage.
The next three pieces are from the pen of the great Piazzolla. This is not easy music to play! You must know your notes well enough get beyond them and into the character of each piece. The ensemble has done really well, in my view, to feel this music in the way that they clearly demonstrate.
With the first of the suite, we move into full-on Tango with Tanguisimo. This track has clear, well marked accents with good melody and part playing. There is exciting interchange between the parts and melody lines, complemented by a fast, driving rhythm that generates a feeling of urgency right up to the last note.
The second is Chiquilin de Bachin, a delightful contrast with a flowing melody and some beautiful harmonies. If I could suggest any development of their performance here, it might be to risk a little of the precision, in search of a slightly less rhythmic and freer approach to the melody; but frankly it’s so lovely, that I just kept wanting to play this track over and over!
The third is Extasis. This is a more “normal” tango rhythm but with some lovely harmonies under a deceptively simple melody. The balance of parts and melody is very good with a clear attacking rhythm in the opening sequence of the tune.
Now we change genre again with Misty, a jazz standard that has been interpreted in many ways by different artistes over the years. Peter Ayers takes almost a “big band” approach to the arrangement with a very tasteful intro leading into some closely woven jazz harmonies as the piece progresses. Listen for the particularly clear solo parts and (my favourite bit) the crotchet triplets moving up into the middle-eight section. There is good use of couplers bringing out different sections of the band and a well written (and well played) coda.
By contrast Canadian Capers fairly bounces along. There is good melodic playing throughout and a well balanced accompaniment. The appropriate use of couplers (i.e. they don’t keep changing like traffic lights!) brings a nice tone contrast just when it’s needed. If they could do anything more with this arrangement, it might be to play the theme with a slightly more detached touch – but probably I’m just pernickety! This is a lovely toe-tapping arrangement; put it on “repeat” and enjoy it.
The next track takes us into a completely different genre of music with Longing, a lyrical piece that is well played with some excellent trills very cleanly executed. You know they’re good because you hardly notice them first time round. The part playing is very clear with a good balance between melody and accompaniment. The piece concludes with a lovely rallentando and pause just before the end.
Now we are transported to Paris but not your dazzling triplets and arpeggii of the Bal Musette. Heart of Paris is a moody, almost mysterious waltz with some very evocative minor 9ths in the melody line. The accompaniment is excellent, supporting the melody without getting in the way. At times it sounds almost Russian. There is a lovely ascending finish featuring more minor 9ths.
Spring in Tuscany may only be over the border, but what a contrast! With its bright sunny melody and light but driving beat you could be forgiven for just sitting back and enjoying it. But there is plenty in this arrangement to appreciate; some excellent part playing, some very nifty articulation culminating in very clean trills, and finally, a beautiful lift from the bass which pushes the whole piece tumbling along.
Evensong has a reflective balladic style about it evocative (to me) of a Victorian soirée. There is some very sensitive phrasing, and great care has been taken with the interpretation of the piece. Again there is excellent balance within the ensemble leading to a very gentle finish.
Standchen is yet another contrast in style following the course of its melody through with great elegance and astonishing attention to detail. Just listen to the care taken with articulation and phrasing, there is so much to appreciate here. The general level of musicianship is very high with excellent balance and time-keeping; you could just about set your Rolex by it!
March from A Little Suite is the music that was used many years ago as the theme music to the T.V. programme “Dr Finlay’s Casebook” so it needs little introduction as a melody. The playing has a rigorous quality to it, driving the march along in fine style. It is, again, good accurate playing with excellent articulation and good dynamics (although I would have liked them to be a tiny bit more adventurous). The balance is very good indeed with an excellent finish.
The Grasshopper is by way of contrast; light, almost quirky; with some lovely staccato playing, a wide range of dynamic control, and a good, precise ending. There is excellent balance between the parts – indeed a very enjoyable performance; they have really captured the spirit of the piece.
Manha do Carnaval has been arranged and played by hundreds of people over the years; so it’s interesting to see what Peter Ayers does with it and his arrangement does not disappoint. It has a driving beguine tempo that supports a very full accompaniment from the ensemble with the melody singing across the top. I felt it was just a tiny bit hurried for my taste; but there is some excellent playing and, again, a good balance within the ensemble. Good use is made of couplers to expand the sound canvas on the reprise. This leads eventually to a gentle diminuendo and finish that contrasts well with the general pace.
Lazzarella is a splendid choice of music with which to finish a CD. It conjures up, for me, an Italian wedding scene with people dancing and enjoying the moment. There is however more to this piece than that. The tempo chosen is perfect, not too fast or slow, and the time-keeping is great throughout, so the piece just bounces along taking you with it. The playing is deceptive; it sounds easy, but there is a lot of good technical control of articulation and dynamics that breathe life into the music, with good use of couplers giving a greater range of tone colour; and as for the ending – I just love it!
So to summarise; this is an unusual CD. There are very few British accordion quintets that perform concert programmes on a regular basis. Peter Ayers has done a huge amount of work to arrange the music; and the ensemble must have worked their socks off to learn, rehearse and finally record all eighteen tracks. When you listen to it, it is very easy to forget that this is an amateur ensemble. The result is a quite remarkable CD that has an entertaining and varied programme of music. The music is very well arranged and the playing is of a very high order. It should be part of any serious accordionist’s library.
Simply Accordion can be bought for £10 + £1 postage & packing from:
Peter Ayers, 40, St Michaels Way, Brundall, NORWICH, NR13 5PF
(Phone 01603 713565)