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Western Moods
Aaron Jay KERNIS (b.1960)
Musica Celestis [11:20]
Alan HOVHANESS (1911-2000)
In Memory of an Artist, Op. 163 [10:42]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Lullaby [7:55]
Victor HERBERT (1859-1924)
Three Pieces for String Orchestra [7:15]
Daniel SCHNYDER (b.1961)
George Meets Georg (Summertime) [3:41]
Variations on Sympathy for the Devil [4:10]
Concerto for Nay; IV. Karachi [2:22]
Purple Haze Variations [4:37]
In a Sentimental Mood [4:48]
Greensleeves Variations [5:55]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Adagio for String, Op.11 [7:07]
Ensemble Esperanza
rec. 2018, Angelika-Kauffmann Saal, Schwarzenberg, Austria.

This is a tremendously enjoyable recording. A goodly portion of that is down to the outstanding playing of the youthful Ensemble Esperanza. Founded in 2015 as part of the International Academy of Music in Liechtenstein, it comprises 18 scholarship-holders aged between 15 and 28, under the leadership of French violinist Chouchane Siranossian. Their individual potted biographies reveal this ensemble to be made up of some of the highest musical potential around, with individual players drawn from nine different countries from China to The Netherlands by way of Liechtenstein, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Croatia, Serbia and the Ukraine. They are not just dazzlingly accomplished players in their own right, but perform with an open-minded, free-spirited, boundlessly enthusiastic attitude which means that they can encompass musical styles as diverse as Victor Herbert, Samuel Barber, Alan Hovhaness, Duke Ellington and Jimi Hendrix without even the slightest hint of reservation.

The playing list above may not include all of those names, but they are here on this disc, Daniel Schnyder’s very free compositions including a couple of original pieces but otherwise very free-ranging arrangements of music by Gershwin, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Duke Ellington.

The real joy in this recording is, however, the imaginative and inspirational programming which complements two previous releases from Ensemble Esperanza (which, sadly, passed me by). These constitute a four-part anthology of music from the north, east, south and west as seen from a European perspective. The first release focused on music from the Nordic countries, while the second looked south to Italy, Spain and beyond. Here we have the westward-facing disc, and for this the music has been mostly drawn not from Europe but from across the Atlantic and North America (the presence of an English folk tune and pop group and the Irish Victor Herbert representing the two departure points of those heading off to the New World from the Old).

The splendid booklet essay by Hartwig Wolf tells us that the idea behind this is to evoke the “feelings of happiness and sadness, nostalgic memories of home, but also of anger, rage, desperation amidst the boundless zest for life” of the early European migrants who saw in north America a “promised land”. We have plenty of happiness in the three pieces by Irish émigré Victor Herbert, where the players beautifully encapsulate that light-hearted, turn-of-the-century music hall feel, yet manage to elevate the music into something rather special. As for sadness, Barber’s Adagio for Strings gets as intense and emotionally-charged a performance as you could ever want, the somewhat thin violin tone creating a neat bridge between Barber’s original quartet vision and his fuller orchestral one. Then there are dreams and hopes conveyed in a beautifully atmospheric performance of Kernis’s Musica Celestis and plenty of rage and anger in the Hendrix-inspired Purple Haze Variations.

Daniel Schnyder himself puts in an appearance with his soprano saxophone in both his extraordinarily wayward take on Summertime (if every nightclub singer under the sun can put Gershwin’s classic through all manner of weird and not-so-wonderful convolutions, why should not a string orchestra and saxophonist?) and his Arabian-inspired Karachi (a movement from his 2013 concerto for Arabian bamboo flute Concerto for Nay which possibly looks more east than west, but we can ignore this incongruity given this utterly arresting performance by Schnyder and his turbo-charged support group). The string players support him and join in with his very up-beat style of playing with great alacrity, their gloriously abandoned energy in the Stones-inspired Variations on Sympathy for the Devil an absolute joy to experience.

As it strides freely over so much musical ground connected (mostly) with the USA, one can only marvel at the sheer energy and musical open-mindedness of the youthful Ensemble Esperanza. I can’t wait to hear what they make of their final view from the heart of Europe.

Marc Rochester

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