Visions Fugitives: Music for strings - Tønnesen
BIS BIS-2126 SACD
Classical - Orchestral
PROKOFIEV, Sergei (1891–1953): Visions fugitives, Op. 22 (1915–17) selected and arranged for string orchestra by Rudolf Barshai (Boosey & Hawkes) - (No's 1, 2, 4, 3, 5, 8, 6, 9, 11, 10, 12, 14, 13, 15, 16)
HINDEMITH, Paul (1895–1963): Fünf Stücke für Streichorchester, Op. 44 No. 4 from Schulwerk für Instrumental-Zusammenspiel (1927) (Schott Music)
WEBERN, Anton (1883–1945): Fünf Sätze, Op. 5 - Version for string orchestra (1909/29) (Universal Edition)
BARTÓK, Béla (1881–1945): Divertimento for string orchestra, BB 118 (1939) (Boosey & Hawkes)
The Swedish string ensemble Camerata Nordica and its artistic director Terje Tønnesen made their first joint appearance on BIS in 2013 with an all-Britten programme.
Released in conjunction with the ensemble’s début at the BBC Proms, the disc received critical acclaim, with the reviewer on the website ClassicsToday.com including it ‘among the Britten year’s outstanding releases’ and his colleague in BBC Music Magazine agreeing: ‘The Britten centenary can't have produced finer recorded performances than these, with wonderful dynamic shading, bomproof tuning, and real drama.’
The team now returns with another programme of 20th-century music for strings – this time by four different composers, and spanning from the years before World War I to a few days before the outbreak of World War II. Bartók, Webern, Prokofiev and Hindemith were all central figures of their time, illustrating – and to an extent personifying – different approaches to modernism in music, and this varied programme touches in turn on neo-classical and neo-baroque idioms, folk music, atonality and impressionism.
But first and foremost the disc offers an exciting and colourful mix of great music, in performances by an ensemble compared in Fanfare to ‘a first-class string quartet. These musicians are completely attuned to each other's dynamics, attack, phrasing, and blend.’
Review by John Miller - January 25, 2015
An attractive and informative programme of string music from just before to the First World War to just before the start of the Second World War, when the state of music was as active as the political situation of that time. The 15-20 members of Camerata Nordica have already produced a superb disc of Britten's pieces for string orchestra (Britten: Frank Bridge Variations - Tønnesen) which whetted my appetite for more. They have no conductor, but gather closely, standing while playing, for a combination of close communication and freedom of individual physical expression. In this they echo the DO.GMA string orchestra and Amsterdam Sinfonietta. Norway's "dazzling" Terje Tønnesen is Camerata's Musical Director.
Prokofiev's 'Visions Fugitives' is a set of piano pieces composed in 1915, when, sitting at the keyboard, he decided "to write some squibs of pieces". 20 whimsical short pieces resulted, which attracted Rudolf Barshai, a Soviet conductor and violist particularly noted for his arrangement of Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8 for chamber orchestra. Enchanted by the 'Visions Fugitives', he transposed 6 of them to string orchestra in 1945, and after a decade he announced his final collection of 15 transpositions (the piano 'Visions' 1-16, but omitting no. 7).
In this recording, the original numbering is not followed exactly; although the composer did play the whole set several times in concert, usually he played only one or two of them as encores. The arrangements themselves are superb, clearly showing Barsai's affection for the work, as there are many subtle and ingenious elements in his orchestrations. His aim is obviously to preserve as much of the atmosphere and intent of each gem from Prokofiev's glittering collection. Camerata Nordica's responses to these short works are manifold. They have absorbed the Visions' inwardness and range of moods from the composer and present the brilliance of Barshai's Russian orchestrations with a zest and sense of discovery which truly delights. I particularly enjoyed pieces like No. 10, 'Ridiculosamente', which could have come from Prokofiev's 'Romeo and Juliet'.
Moving on to Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), we encounter his Five Pieces for String Orchestra, Op. 44 No. 4 which were composed as part of a series of pedagogical pieces, intended to introduce young German performers to contemporary music. Camerata Nordica extract a dark nature from most of these movements, negotiate all the technical difficulties and insert a great deal of pure energy, which transcends the pedagogy of Five Pieces, making its dry name inappropriate.
Anton Webern (1883-1945) also provides a set of 'Five Pieces', but they are the obverse of Hindemith's. Composed in 1909 in memory of his mother, whose death in 1906 had moved him deeply, he revised it twenty years later for string orchestra. Everything he wrote, he said, was related to her loss (until he fell in love with his cousin and married her in 1911). His music, the most avant-garde in the programme, is essentially atonal, although intensely lyrical and expressionist. Much of it is very quiet yet tense, on the lower strings, often with interruptions startling a listener by loud screeches of violin harmonics. Webern's anguish is movingly portrayed by Camerata, with little hints of Mahler pared away almost into non-existence, and a crepuscular finale which begins the piece's ever more fragmented progress towards dissolution. The Camerata's tension here, although frequently ppp in volume, is nonetheless remarkable, just as is their ear-rattling athletic bowing makes distorted sounds of anger and angst.
Judging from concerts and recordings, Bartók's 'Divertimento for Strings BB 118, is by far the most popular of the items on this disc. Upheaval engulfed Bartók in 1939. The Nazis had taken over his publisher, Universal, jeopardizing his intellectual property and his income. His ailing mother was a tie to their native Hungary, despite the looming threat of war. However, the conductor Paul Sacher provided some welcome consolation when he commissioned Bartók to write a new work for the Basel Chamber Orchestra. After only fifteen days of composing (and avoiding newspapers) that August, he completed his Divertimento for Strings. He left for America just before Sacher conducted the Divertimento.
Terje Tønnesen seems to have convinced Camerata that Bartók's Divertimento is the opposite of its usual meaning. The ensemble play with a deep sense of disturbance and doubt about Hungary, Europe and perhaps the World with the spread of the Nazis. This is a fine performance, imbued with a kind of vital energy which stretches their collective technical attacks to the edge. Such edginess and aggressiveness makes this performance of the Divertimento quite controversial compared with the famous RBCD version by Marriner and his Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Listen to the last few minutes of the last movement with Camerata, where the upper strings hurl rapid trills at one another above a sepulchral tune in the basses - this bursts into astonishing 3D-like sound, full of emotion and energy which impels us to the Divertimento's final notes.
Two sessions were held 6 years apart, but both in Algutsrum Church on the Baltic island of Öland, Sweden. The Bartók (2006) was captured at 24 bit/44.1kHz while the rest (2012) is at 24 bit/96kHz and I can't really tell the difference between them. This is engineering which fully supports the superb performances by Camerata, exuding all its zest, vitality and sheer physicality, with a fine balance between focussed detail and overall sound, supported by a non-intrusive church acoustic.
As the C20th recedes from our present history, it is interesting to hear how four very different composers react to the various forms of the "modern" of their day, so it is well worth acquiring this disc for that reason. Lovers of string orchestras will of course just snap it up.
Copyright © 2015 John Miller and HRAudio.net