Steven Mead continues to mature like a vintage port: Taylors Vintage 1977 that is, rather than Grimsby on the East Coast.
Like all great fortified wines, his playing has matured with age too; fuller in flavour, greater in depth, more lasting on the musical palette. Technically he is perhaps no better a player than he was a decade ago, but musically, he inhabits a different planet altogether.
The fifth volume of his 'World of the Euphonium' series sees him cast an intelligently selective eye over his chosen repertoire. Some new and unfamiliar, some older yet under appreciated, some picked with a real eye to the exciting possibilities of the instruments musical future. Throughout this extended recital recording Steven is joined by two outstanding musicians in the form of pianist Tomoko Sawano and harpist, Lucy Haslar. Both are exemplary accompanists; discreet yet superbly measured, technically faultless yet musically perfectly sympathetic to the repertoire and soloist.
The production values are top notch too, with a well judged intimate ambience to the recording and excellent balance between the protagonists. You can hear everything that is going on in a great amount of clarity and detail.
The awesome pyrotechnical ability that so marked the soloist out as a young player remains intact, but on this recording it is displayed sparingly and with a real understanding of its appropriateness. The Hummel 'Fantasy' which opens the release is a case in point.
Here is a refined, almost reverential performance of great detail and poise right until the final section which is flown through at a rate of knots. It's a bit like watching the great Viv Richards playing an over from Shane Warne: respect, patience and understanding, before knocking the last two balls over long on for six.
The same applies throughout. The Sparke 'Euphonium Concerto No 2' is a playful, witty work which bubbles along in the final Molto Vivo movement with a sense of bebop jazz and his usual trademark rhythmical energy. The central Adagio is a lovely lyrical elegy, whilst the opening Giocoso has that light and breezy feel with a slight feel of the well known soprano cornet solo 'Capriccio' about it.
The soloist's admiration for Howard Snell is well known and the two works from his pen, the delightful 'Four Bagatelles' and the darkly lilting, more sombre 'Dream Nocturne' are real highlights. Snell's mastery of varying pastiche style is brilliantly realised in the former, whilst his ability to provide a gentle, almost Debussy like quality to the latter is quite wonderful. Both are delivered in almost perfect fashion.
Command of pastiche is also heard to fine effect on the 'A La Suite Classique', one of three works by Japanese composer Yasuhide Ito.
Written in six short movements of neo Baroque French style, we get to hear the soloist deliver musical episodes as diverse as Tango, Habanera and Gigue in varying compositional imitations from the harpsichord master Le Couperin to mock Strauss. All this in half a dozen little gems of postcard sized perfection, played with a real zest and chameleon like diversity of style.
The same composer's miniature, 'Prelude' originally written Brian Bowman offers a great deal in such a small package too, whilst the enjoyable '4 Euphoniums for You' (which features the soloist performing all four parts in a display of amazing technical wizardry) is a much more serious composition than you at first think. Forget the electronic trickery for a minute and what you hear is a wonderfully constructed work of musical intent.
Joseph Turrin's 'Concert Piece No 1' is a complex work perfectly suited to the soloists ability to make subtle changes to the timbre of his tone as well as remind us of his command of technique, whilst Peter Meecham's darkly reflective, elegiac composition 'Absolute Reality' commands the attention of the listener with its bleak outlook interspersed with the panic induced desperation that characterised the '9/11' terrorist attacks in America. It ends with an almost frightening unresolved permanency - a potent of what we perhaps knew was to come elsewhere in the world.
Finally, two bits of Green - in the form of Torstein Aagaard-Nilsen's atmospherically evocative 'Lokk from the Green Island' - all mysterious and mythological, and 'Danse du Diable Vert' ('Dance of the Green Devil') by Gaspar Cassedo, which sounds as if the little Beelzebub has perhaps been imbibing on a few rounds of the Devil's own green tinged Absinthe, 'La Fee Vert'!
It rounds off an excellent release, intelligently constructed and admirably performed by a musician completely at ease in whatever style of music he wishes to illuminate and communicate. Steven Mead has certainly matured (a quick glance at previous recording sleeves from this excellent series shows that), but it is an ageing process that his enhanced rather than diminished his musical prowess. We should be grateful if ensuing age treats us all with the same grace and good fortune.
- Iwan Fox, www.4barsrest.com
Label: Polyphonic Reproduction
Steven Mead (euphonium) Tomoko Sawano (piano), Lucy Haslar (harp)