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Russian Colours
Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
Concerto for Alto Saxophone & Strings in E flat Op.109 (1934, arr. for viola and stirngs) [14:30]
Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906)
String Quartet No.2 in A minor Op.35a (1894) [29:14]
Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Andante Cantabile from String Quartet No.1 Op.11 (1871) [6:12]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Nocturne from String Quartet No.2 (1881) [7:29]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Vocalise Op.34 (1912) [6:00]
All pieces arranged by Yuri Zhislin except for the 2nd movement of the Arensky Quartet
Camerata Tchaikovsky/ Yuri Zhislin (violin, viola)
rec. 2019, St. Mark's Church, St. John's Wood, London

This disc of Russian Romantic music for string ensemble is an enjoyable if not exceptional hour of listening. The recording is very much the project of violinist/violist Yuri Zhislin who not only founded and directs the Camerata Tchaikovsky who play on the disc, but also is the soloist in the Glazunov Saxophone concerto as well as arranger for all but one of the pieces presented. Lastly, he is listed as one of the disc's three producers.

The Camerata Tchaikovsky are a nineteen strong string ensemble led and directed by Zhislin. The recording in St. Mark's Church in London is perfectly good without being exceptional in the sense that the ensemble do not - as recorded - sound as full as I would expect this number of players to sound in a church acoustic. Quite often, individual instruments can be heard rather than a section as a whole giving the aural impression of a "large" quartet rather than a string orchestra per se. That said, the playing is consistently good with some beautifully expressive and sensitive music making.

The disc opens with an interesting viola transcription of Glazunov's late Alto Saxophone concerto. The tessitura of the work lies well for viola so there is no change of key or - as far as I can tell without a score - revoicing. This is a late and rather gently lyrical work which, according to the liner note, Glazunov was almost bullied into writing by Sigurd Raschèr. The recording places Zhislin's viola within the string ensemble so the effect is one of blending the soloist into the larger group. In the original, the timbre of the saxophone clearly defines its role as soloist with greater clarity. There is also the question of vibrato; a string player's vibrato creates a very different focus to the melodic line from the warmer more diffuse saxophone (if vibrato is used at all - John Harle in his recording with Neville Marriner avoids any which gives the music a very cool, almost detached feel). Zhislin captures the essential autumnal pensiveness of the work well and certainly this is a transcription that will be enjoyed and be useful for smaller ensembles.

Although it is again well played, and very enjoyable music, I am not quite so sure what extra musical insights the listener gains from transcribing Arensky's String Quartet No.2 for a larger string ensemble. The central movement is already well-known (possibly Arensky's best known piece) in the composer's own string orchestra version as Variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky. Zhislin has retained Arensky's expanded version of this movement and added his own arrangements of the outer sections. Without access to a score, it is hard to determine quite how much arranging/transcribing has been done. Certainly, it sounds very well but these outer sections are a case in point where I do not hear much of a difference in scale from the original quartet to this nineteen player version. Zhislin seems to choose certain lines to be taken by solo players but I find it hard to understand what insights this gives us or why he has made these choices. As a work this is again generally reflective and lyrical in an unmistakeably Russian way and as such a genuine pleasure. I just wish that the recording had given this accomplished group of players greater tonal weight.

The three remaining works are very much famous 'lollipops' again in a melodically rich manner. Tchaikovsky's Andante Cantabile from his String Quartet No.1 is again a Zhislin transcription but he adds or changes little so it remains what we know it to be already - one of the composer's great melodic outpourings. A highlight of the disc is the Nocturne from Borodin's String Quartet No.2. However it is played, this remains one of the composer's great melodic creations and the opening solo cello theme is played with particular beauty by Jan-Erik Gustafsson. The essential intimacy of this piece suits the relatively small-scale sound of the ensemble so this is an affecting performance.

Likewise the closing Vocalise by Rachmaninov which is so ubiquitous that initially I was rather sorry to see it feature yet again. However, the performance is a very fine one which is effectively understated in its emotion and all the better for that.

Indeed the whole disc has a sense of intimacy that makes for a very pleasant if not very demanding hour's listening. I could imagine several of the tracks turning up on radio stations devoted to more middle of the road repertoire. The Orchid Classics presentation is good - the English only liner is informative and there are biographies, photographs and a list of the players involved. Overall an undemanding programme played with skill and poise albeit lacking any great emotional weight.

Nick Barnard

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