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Romantic Serenades for Strings
rec. 1981-2015
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95655 [5 CDs: 298:09]

Confession time. Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings was a discovery for me. (Let’s be honest, though, I’m sure you know plenty of literary types who haven’t read Great Expectations.) I found I did know the second movement waltz, but then, it seems that everybody knows that without necessarily knowing where it comes from. Whilst we’re on the subject, nor had I heard of the Ensemble Instrumental Musica Viva, but no matter, it is quite clearly a very accomplished group. The first movement introduction is properly sonorous from what sounds like a medium-sized ensemble, and the main body of the movement is tight and accurate whilst remaining light-footed without hard driving. A nicely lilting waltz precedes an ‘Elegie’ in which Tchaikovsky expresses deep feeling whilst keeping his darker demons at bay. The finale begins with a touching and simple statement of the folk themes on which it is based, and that movement is expertly executed here. The work has been well recorded in a lightly reverberant and pleasant acoustic. Having no other version with which to compare it, I’m happy to describe this as a thoroughly satisfying reading of a most attractive work.

The Tchaikovsky is only one work in a varied collection of fifteen. In ‘Brilliant’ style, the performances emanate from several different sources, some of which are identified and some not. There is not a poor performance amongst them, though some may be less appealing according to taste. The booklet carries descriptive notes on each work, often taken from the original issues. The recorded sound is variable, as is to be expected, but always perfectly acceptable.

Grieg’s adorable Holberg Suite is given in a performance by the Oslo Camerata and Stephan Barratt-Due that is brilliantly played, but a little hard-driven and lacking in charm for this particular listener. In my review copy the sound drops out for a fraction of a second during the finale.

Collectors brought up on earlier English performances of Elgar’s gorgeous Serenade, Barbirolli’s above all, will probably find little pleasure in this reading from the Ferrucio Busoni Chamber Orchestra. The drawn out final chords of the second and final movements are indicative of a performance that goes for extremes, be it accents in the first movement or emotional content in the second. Listeners hoping for a moment of twilit repose will be disappointed.

Barbirolli’s name inevitably crops up in connection with the two Vaughan Williams works included in this collection. James Judd turns in a really excellent performance of the Tallis Fantasia, one that, taken on its own terms, will satisfy any discerning listener. Only when you compare it with Barbirolli’s classic recording do you find that that incomparable conductor, taking only one minute more over the work, finds both more mystery and more passion in it, taking the works visionary qualities to altogether greater heights. The little Greensleeves Prelude, in reality an extract from Sir John in Love arranged by Ralph Greaves, can hardly go wrong, nor does it here.

At least five of the works in this collection are licensed from Naxos recordings, the performances of Suk’s Serenade and that by his mentor (and father-in-law), Dvořák, coming directly from a 1991 disc, for example. One of Naxos’s strengths at the outset, and which endures to this day, was to find outstandingly fine artists that were little known internationally. Such was certainly the case with Capella Istropolitana, a group based in Bratislava. The sound of the ensemble is a particularly pleasing one, all the more noticeable when the section leaders have solos to play. Their performance of the Suk, a lovely work in four movements, is fine and affectionate. Some might find it a little too affectionate: some tempo changes might provoke a raised eyebrow or two, and the tempo adopted for the close of the first movement is certainly slower than that indicated in the score. It works, yet can’t be what the composer intended. But the music can take this approach, and the playing is brilliant enough to convince the listener. The performance of the Dvořák is straighter, and a little searching around will uncover more overtly seductive performances than this one. On its own terms, however, it is perfectly satisfying and certainly merits a place in any collection.

The Serenade for Strings by Tchaikovsky’s near-contemporary and fellow Russian, Kalinnikov, is a pretty and undemanding piece, nicely played. Few composers are as easily recognisable as Janáček, but those who know his music only from the late operas, the quartets or the Glagolitic Mass might well find it difficult to identify him as the composer of the early string work, Idyll. The piece is assured, but Janáček at 24 was a long way from finding his extraordinarily distinctive voice. There are signs, to be sure, such as one of the movements in five-in-a-bar time, and the impassioned slow movement. Hearing the piece certainly adds to one’s understanding of the composer.

There is more easy listening in the two Novellettes by the Danish composer Niels Wilhelm Gade, but a fair amount of substance too, from this composer who deliberately set out to write music accessible to the untrained listener. The first set, in F, benefits from a delicious second movement scherzo, a touching slow movement and a Mendelssohnian finale that brings the work to a riotous close. This is music that can be enjoyed at first hearing. It would certainly go down well with an amateur string group – at least until that finale! If the second set is less distinctive melodically it is still a most enjoyable listen, especially in these alert and no doubt idiomatic performances from Aarhus.

Bartók’s Divertimento was composed in a mere fifteen days in 1939, as Europe prepared for six years of conflict and shortly before the composer left his native country to spend the rest of his short life in exile in the United States. Surprisingly, then, only in the slow movement does one find a touch of melancholy, enclosed as it is between two lively and predominantly sunny movements. In that slow movement, a long crescendo over a repeated harmonic series, superbly executed by I Solisti Aquilani, is only one feature of a most satisfying performance of an important if lesser known work in the Bartók canon.

The odd-one-out of this collection, and a significant find, is Ghedini’s Violin Concerto. Wikipedia is a mine of information to supplement the wordy and not particularly revealing booklet note. He turns out to have been an influential teacher, with such names as Abbado, Berio and Cantelli amongst his pupils. An opera entitled Billy Budd is another surprising credit. The concerto here recorded begins with an allegro that put me in mind of works in the same form by Stravinsky and even Vaughan Williams. The difference here is the serial method of composition employed, but which does not preclude suggestions of tonality, in particular thanks to the frequent interpolation of diatonic chords. The composer wears his academic and theoretical robes lightly throughout the work’s four movements. This is a delightful discovery, especially in this expert performance where the solo part is taken by the ensemble’s leader, Daniele Orlando.

The booklet makes significant claims for Nino Rota’s four-movement Concerto for Strings. It’s a melodious work that sounds nothing like the music Rota composed for the Godfather films. (I can’t speak for any of the other extraordinarily numerous film scores he produced.) It seemed little more than efficient to my ears on first hearing, but subsequent hearings revealed hidden depths. The writing for strings is, as you would expect, technically brilliant.

King George V died on 21 January, whilst Hindemith was in London for a performance of his Viola Concerto. The composer wasted no time, producing his Trauermusik the following day. Remarkably, Adrian Boult conducted the first performance on that same day. One of its four, short sections is relatively lively, but, as is appropriate, it is a sombre work overall. It is especially sombre in this performance, where very slow tempi have been chosen. The final section, for example, is made up of four phrases of a Lutheran choral separated by short cadenza-like passages from the solo viola. This extremely moving device loses most of its impact here, where an extremely slow tempo removes any feeling that the four phrases are part of the same hymn. The solo part is played by Francesco Fiore, though you have to search through the booklet to find his name.

William Hedley

Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Serenade for Strings, Op. 48 (1880) [27:03]
Ensemble Instrumental Musica Viva/Alexander Rudin (cello & conductor)
no recording details given
Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Serenade in E, Op. 22 (1873) [29:19]
Capella Istropolitana/Jaroslav Krček
rec. 6-11 May 1990, Moyzes Hall, Bratislava, Slovak Republic

Vasily KALINNIKOV (1866-1901)
Serenade in G minor (1891) [9:13]
Leos JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Idyll (1878) [30:45]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Serenade, Op. 20 (1892)
Orchestra da Camera ‘Ferrucio Busoni’/Massimo Belli
rec. 2 & 3 November 2014, Auditorium des Collegio del Mondo Unito dell’ Adriatico, Daino, Italy
Previously released on Brilliant Classics 95199 (review)

Niels Wilhelm GADE (1817-1890)
Novellette No. 1 in F, Op. 53 (1874) [18:45]
Novellette No. 2 in E, Op. 58 (1886) [22:52]
Aarhus Chamber Orchestra/Ove Vedsten Larsen
rec. 1981, Ellevang Kirke, Aarhus, Denmark

Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Divertimento (1939) [28:21]
Giorgio Federico GHEDINI (1892-1965)
Concerto for Violin and Strings, ‘Il belprato’ (1947) [18:55]
Nino ROTA (1911-1979)
Concerto for Strings (1964, revised 1977) [17:05]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Trauermusik (1936) [10:12]
I Solisti Aquilani/Flavio Emilio Scogna
rec. 7-8 March 2015, other details not given

Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Serenade in E flat major, Op. 6 (1892) [30:25]
Capella Istropolitana/Jaroslav Krček
rec. 6-11 May 1990, Moyzes Hall, Bratislava, Slovak Republic
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Holberg Suite, Op. 40 (1885) [18:35]
Oslo Camerata/Stephan Barratt-Due
rec. August 2005, Lommedalen Church, Oslo, Norway
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910, revised 1919) [15:11]
Fantasia on “Greensleeves” (1934) [4:30]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Judd
rec. June 2001, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand



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