Volt 22 - Ensemble Allegria
Lawo Classics LWC1082
Classical - Orchestral
Bartok: Divertimento for strings
Haydn: Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major
Shostakovich: Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a
Frida Fredrikke Waaler Wærvågen (cello)
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Review by John Miller - November 19, 2015
Ensemble Allegria presents us with a musical sandwich, the bread consisting of Bartók and Shostakovich with a sweetmeat filling by Haydn. I'm ignoring the disc's title of Volt22 since its derivation is simply nonsensical; instead I celebrate their second disc for which I had been waiting impatiently. Their first one (Allegria - Ensemble Allegria), of music for string orchestra by Grieg and other Norwegian composers, made a great impression, both sonically and in performance.
A group of former Norwegian music students launched the ensemble in 2007, and it now comprises around 26 members between the age of 20-26, this time not just strings but with pairs of oboes and horns. "Allegria" (Italian for merriment and enjoyment) is very much applicable to the players, who manage their own affairs with the help of the Norwegian Academy of Music. Maria Angelica Carlsen is their concert-master and artistic director.Their youthful enthusiasm, hard work in rehearsal and commitment in performance has been noted by reviewers, as has their obvious joy in playing. The sheer physicality of the ensemble is encouraged by the players' freedom of movement, as they play standing (except for the cellists, of course). In this they remind me of the ensemble of DO.GMA (DO.GMA #3: Shostakovich), another excellent youthful string group.
In 1939 the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, having fled to Switzerland, out of the hands of Nazis in his own country, was invited by conductor Paul Sacher to write a new work for the Basel Chamber Orchestra. Sacher even offered Bartók the use of his home in Saanen, Switzerland, over the summer. After after fifteen days of composing (and avoiding newspapers with dire comments on the growing war), he completed his Divertimento for Strings, using a classical form implying events of celebration and partying. In his chosen Baroque style (a quartet of soloists alternating with the whole string band), he was in fact expressing with deep irony the horrific realities of life in contemporary Middle Europe.
Allegria are obviously deeply aware of the Divertimento's context. Their subsequent empathetic response shows that they don't just play but truly interpret, intelligently conjuring the work's infectious vitality and technical brilliance together with a notable control of dynamics, shading of stress and coping with Bartók's eccentric rhythms. I found this a top class exposition of the Divertimento; exciting, haunting and shimmering with the composer's cerebral landscapes and poetic force.
Having brilliantly endured all kinds of stress and beauty from Bartók's deeply felt work for strings, we are moved on to Haydn at his most relaxing and cheerful, adding pairs of oboes and horns to make a classical orchestra. The Esterhazy 'Capelle' (a group of instrumentalists in Haydn's charge) had some outstanding musicians, and he frequently gave them an opportunity to shine before the Prince. The courtly C major Cello Concerto No. 1 was written for Joseph Weigl, an extraordinary cellist. This concerto was one of Haydn's earliest masterpieces, yet it was never published until it was rediscovered at Prague in 1962 and now it is a classical "Pop".
Frida Fredrikke Waaler Wærvågen is leader of the Allegria cello section. She went to a music school at the age of 5, later studying with Truls Mørk, but she began being awarded prizes from the age of 10, and has played solos with Norwegian and other European orchestras. After a time as principal cello with the Royal Opera in Stockholm, she is now a freelance cellist in Oslo.
Haydn's cello concerto in C is smiling, elegant and graceful; played here to the manner born. Wærvågen's gorgeous cello tone is applied both to her naturally phrased cantabile lines and clearly articulated passage-work. Although there is no written instruction for a cadenza in the first movement, there is a traditional sequence in a bar close to the conclusion which indicates insertion of an extemporized flourish, and like most other soloists of this work, she obliges with an enjoyable cadenza, presumably of her own invention.
The slow movement is a haven of calm, strings only, playing eloquently and poetically, while Wærvågen's part is thoughtful and musing, with a lyrical contemplation which is most pleasing. A zesty finale has a light, balletic elegance, rather than the aggressive style sometimes present in recent performances. I did take out several SACDs to compare with this performance, but after just one hearing, it was obvious that the Allegria's came out of the top drawer in their utterly delightful version of Haydn's Concerto in C.
The other side of Allegria's musical sandwich is the popular Chamber Symphony, a version of Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, adapted for string orchestra by Rudolf Barshai, a conductor and friend of the composer. The quartet was written at a troubled time for Shostakovich, first being diagnosed to suffer from a serious muscle weakness disease and his forced joining of the Russian Communist Party. His daughter and a close friend believed that this five movement piece was an self-epitaph, some other friends saying that this was confirmed by the composer's musical signature at the beginning of the first movement as the first four notes. However, the Eighth Quartet is clearly full of extra-musical significance, but exactly what it signifies is unclear.
Even more so than the Bartók Divertimento, the Chamber Symphony (which is played here as a single movement, although given track numbers) is a highly personal and psychologically active piece. There are other clues about the composer's intents by the use of Jewish melodies and musical styles, and quotations from the Catholic 'Dies irae', together with quotes from his own works, such as the Cello Concerto, an aria from Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, tunes from the Fifth Symphony and also a Russian revolutionary song (“Languishing in prison”).
All this uncertainty, and the fact that the chamber music now becomes public by its orchestration, give string orchestras and their conductors considerable latitude in modes of expression. The Allegria's view, directed by Maria Angelika Carleson, is so vivid - a performance of trenchant intensity - that I felt drained after the final notes, but at the same time elated, as if somehow I had been communicating with Shostakovich.
An important contribution to the success of this issue is its exemplary sound. I wanted to say that the 5.0 multichannel was perfect, but that is not possible, given that recording is making an illusion for an audience. I can, however, say that the East Frederikstat Church in Eastern Norway has a superb acoustic for music making with ensembles about the size of Allegria, and that Balance Engineer Thomas Walden has achieved an illusion of the orchestra (and the soloists) that is absolutely convincing. The gentle ambience (amplified somewhat in the Haydn, making a sound like the Concert Hall in Esterhazy) illuminates the clearly arranged orchestra, which focuses as if there were individual players, rather than the usual generalised blocks of sound. Even with only two double basses, there are strong and directed bass lines. All in all, a believable illusion type of recording, one of the finest I have heard. The perfectly balanced solo cello sounds almost tangible. Subtle changes of resonant overtones and resonant reactions to changes in bowing are all there, Wærvågen's Nicolas Lupot cello (1823) having a sweetly dark overall tone.
The disc arrives in a 3-gate DigiPak, with a detachable booklet. Unusually, the booklet has a blank (just green) cover, slightly annoying because you never know which way up you've got it. It contains a clever linking of the three pieces of the programme by Morten Carlsen of the Norwegian Music School, but I'm not at all convinced by his derivation of the disc's title as VOLT22 (with the 22 as a superscript). Hopefully, Ensemble Allegria isn't going in the same direction of topographic annoyance as does their rival string orchestra 'DOG.MA'.
A delectably emotional programme; prodigious musicality with astonishing reality and fidelity of sound. This is certainly one of my top 5 recordings 2015. Unmissable!
Copyright © 2015 John Miller and HRAudio.net