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Sergei BORTKIEWICZ (1877-1952)
Five Melodies from the piano suite A Thousand and One Nights (arr. from ballet suite The Arabian Nights, Op. 37 (c. 1826, arr. Benjamin Engeli for clarinet, violin, cello and piano) [10:54]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Scheherazade, Op. 35 (1888) (arr. Florian Noack and Benjamin Engeli for clarinet, violin, cello and piano) [43:31]
Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Trio for clarinet, violin and piano (1932) [16:06]
Zürich Ensemble (Fabio Di Càsola (clarinet); Kamilla Schatz (violin); Pi-Chin Chien (cello); Benjamin Engeli (piano))
rec. 1-3 August 2013, Studio DRS, Zurich, Switzerland
PALADINO MUSIC PMR 0036 [71:21]

According to the rather esoteric booklet notes all three works here contain music that that reflects the exotic sounds of the Orient. Bortkiewicz was Ukrainian, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Russian and Aram Khachaturian, Armenian. All three composers either studied or worked in Russia. Founded in 2012 the Zürich Ensemble play the clarinet, violin, cello and piano - an unusual grouping that reflects that of the scoring of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time.

In 1919 during the Russian revolution Sergei Bortkiewicz fled penniless to Turkey. He arrived in Austria in 1922 and was to spend most of his life in Europe. Bortkiewicz published his oriental ballet suite The Arabian Nights, Op. 37 in 1926. I do not have the composition date. In general the information provided about the work is rather vague but I understand that from The Arabian Nights he arranged a ten piece piano suite A Thousand and One Nights. Here the Zürich Ensemble play five of those pieces. This is such an appealing and undemanding score, rich in folk-infused melodies with a distinct aroma of the orient. This is not too surprising as Bortkiewicz had lived in Istanbul for a while. I enjoyed all five pieces especially the enchanting Dance of the Three Sisters with its strong flavour of the klezmer from Fabio Di Càsola’s clarinet. Also appealing is the following piece The Bewitching Castle with its sinister rather shadowy atmosphere.

Many arrangements and transcriptions have been made of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade - an enduringly popular score. Lasting just over forty-three minutes in this drastically pared down arrangement I remain pleasantly surprised how many of Rimsky-Korsakov’s vivid colours continue to stream through the gloriously attractive melodies. How magnificently violinist Kamilla Schatz plays, in particular the ravishing Scheherazade theme that initially appears near the start of the opening Largo e Maestoso movement.

A real find is Khachaturian’s excellent Trio. It’s the only work on this release that the Zürich Ensemble plays in its original scoring. It was composed in 1932 when Khachaturian was still a student of Myaskovsky who arranged the work's première in Paris. Cast in three movements this is captivating and full of colourful incident. The spirit of the klezmer is marked in the lyrical opening Andante con dolore as too, it seems, are Armenian folk melodies. I’d love to hear an orchestration of this impressive movement or even better of the whole work. Again in the tempestuous Allegro there is never a dull moment. At seven minutes the substantial Finale, Moderato - a theme and set of variations - is evidently based on an Uzbek folk melody. Lively and often playful the playing abounds in contrasting ideas, often dance-like and celebratory in character.

Sharply rhythmic and freely expressive the spirited playing of the Zürich Ensemble is eminently compelling. Group intonation is secure and I love the appealing tone production of each instrument. The first class sound quality is vividly clear and well balanced. My only grumble is the lack of information about the actual works in the booklet notes.

If the programme appeals there is certainly no need to hesitate. This is a desirable and beautifully produced release of rare and colourful ‘Russian’ chamber music excellently played and recorded.

Michael Cookson