Reflections - TrondheimSolistene
2L 2L-125-SABD (2 discs)
Classical - Orchestral
Benjamin Britten: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Igor Stravinsky: Apollon Musagète
Composers reflect their contemporary world, and today’s performers mirror our time. The three works on this album all have a high degree of intensity and a strong personal character, as tributes, visions, fantasies, interpretations. As musical reflections they have these qualities in common, but at the same time they are very different works composed by three distinct musical personalities. Passion. Perfection. Raw intensity. With these fundamentals, the chamber orchestra TrondheimSolistene is carving out its own musical images in immersive audio.
Review by John Miller - February 14, 2017
The title "Reflections" on this BluRay from 2L is discussed at more length than usual at the beginning of the booklet. In summary, it states that the three pieces featured are strongly personal and of great intensity - tributes, extensions, visions, homages, fantasies and interpretations. The composers themselves produced such "reflections"; i.e. those of music's progress in the twentieth century. I would add that Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) were all composing at the same time.
Presently there are 9 SACD recordings of Britten's 'Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge for String Orchestra Op. 10': Scottish Ensemble, Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Karajan/Philharmonia, Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, Camerata Nordica, Kiev Chamber Orchestra, Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, LSO String Ensemble, and the latest being Trondheim Solistene. I can say that all these are very good performances; perhaps they have been "reflecting" Britten's own recording with the ineffable English Chamber Orchestra. For example, as I noted in my reviews, three of them have reflected performances which show different aspects of Britten's masterpieces: "Kiev for a late evening; a relaxing and moving experience in a lovely acoustic, the Scottish Ensemble for a perhaps uncomfortable and confrontational revelation of the Britten's spikier and more abrasive side, and the Netherlanders simply to blow my socks off"!
Where does Trondheim Solistene fit in this group? Frank Bridge (1879-1941) was Britten's teacher from 1927-1931. As a wonderful salute to his friend and mentor, Britten wrote 'Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge', composed in 1937 in only a few weeks. It was intended on the musical side as a true virtuoso work that boldly exploited the resources of a string orchestra, presenting a major challenge to them. It also cleverly characterises Bridge in its series of deeply personal movements, ranging from lovely sweet melodies in Romance (His Charm) to the chilly but solemn weirdness of Chant (His Reverence). And wit too invests several movements; listen to the 'Vienna Waltz' which begins without anything which resembles waltzing, then cautiously gives an attempt to mimic Viennese style, which soon collapses on itself.
The Trondheim soloists, guided by cellist and director Øyvind Gimse, cleverly compile the approaches mentioned above and meld a stunningly energetic performance into a highly charged version which can stand with Britten's own. They are aided by sitting in the helpful resonance of Selbu Church, Norway to form a circle, with the 'divisi' group of a string quartet interpolated around the circle.Two double basses sit just left of centre outside it. I suspect that part of the detailed clarity and vigour of their music-making reflects a strong unification of the players in the seating circle, which was captured by 2L in their BluRay and SACD multichannel versions.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) comes next for further delectation. His 'Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for Double String Orchestra' appeared in 1910 and reached final revision in 1919. This piece has a special attraction to me from my school days. At the end of one school summer, we went into the hall for a Music class, and were amazed to see that a new 2-manual electric organ had been installed, attached to large modern loudspeakers. After playing some Bach examples on the organ, the Music Teacher revealed a new record player, stereo this time, to which each of the large speakers attached. On the record, IN STEREO!, was VW's Tallis Fantasia from Sir John Barbirolli's 'English String Music'. This brilliant piece of music and its glorious playing by the Sinfonia of London drew me into a life including HIFI and the Classics.
Regarding the times of the Barbirolli (16:19) and Gimse (14:45) versions we have to consider that two of the published scores give different suggested times of 14 minutes and 16 minutes repectively; that the Trondheim players are all quite young compared with the Sinfonia of London and that the score contains many extended diminuendi and pauses, the lengths of these being made "on the fly".
Without doubt, Barbirolli's performance still remains at the highest point for renditions of the Tallis Fantasia. II would have no hesitation in suggesting it is now accompanied by Gimse and his strings. Vaughan Williams (an agnostic!) was asked to help with production of the musical side of The English Hymnal, a book that was to become the stable of Anglican congregations throughout the country. In the process, VW became attached to the 'Third Psalter Tune' of Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis, written in 1567, and he composed his Fantasia based on this tune, knowing that this early piece of music fitted well into the spirit of his own writings of English folk music.
Fundamental to the various and marvellous effects of this Fantasia is that VW also wrote for another 'divi' orchestra, splitting the strings into three parts of three different sizes. There is the large orchestra, a smaller one of nine players and a string quartet, all intended to play in a large acoustic, such as a cathedral (Gloucester Cathedral's 'Three Choirs Festival' housed its première). The middle-sized orchestra acts as a haloed echo to the main one, while the quartet brings in music from distant parts. This, of course, was adopted by the 2L engineers in Selbu Church into their circle, with the large string group occupying the same places in the circle as for the Britten, the small orchestra in a straight row behind the circle, and two soloists from them together with two from the main orchestra at the front of the circle.
If you have multi-channel and your amplifier is able to digitally compare the distances to your sitting place and adjust performances of your speakers in order to acoustically equalise the room, the effect of the 2L church set-up is thrilling, especially when the Quartet's music magically seems to hover inside the circle.
The final work on this BluRay is Stravinsky's Apollon Musagéte (1928, rev.1947). Stravinsky conceived Apollo as a "ballet blanc" – a "white ballet" with classical choreography and monochromatic attire. The music follows this, and immediately the Trondheim players produce gravely beautiful music of another world where time stops during the birth of Apollo (a Greek and Roman god of music) and The Muses (Greek goddesses who ruled over the arts and sciences and offered inspiration in those subjects. They were the daughters of Zeus, lord of all gods). The subsequent musical movements are each characterised as if there was a real ballet troupe in the church; meditative cellos, impeccable balances, intensive meditations, sensitive inflections, luminous textures and even light-hearted amusement (not a character we usually apply to Stravinsky). Arriving at the final Apotheosis brings a searing set of chords, which then slip back into the gentle, austere original Apollon theme with bloom on the strings which bring the final cadence.
Once more the multichannel experience captures one as it lives and breathes in the reverberant space of Selbu Church. Not a 'divisi' by Stravinsky, Apollon Musagéte is simpler in structure than the other pieces on this disc, it being part of a ballet and not a concert piece. The first violins and cellos are seated at the front in an arc in the previous circle space, with the double basses in between, and opposite, is another double set of chairs in an arc for second violins and violas.
Looking down the choosing menu items on the right of the BluRay screen, I came across the item "Behind the Scenes". This is a substantial TV programme of rehearsals of three movements from the Britten track, filmed in the circle of strings in the Church and guided by first 'cello player Øyvind Gimse, with some contributions from the other players. A non-player will find this fascinating, as Gimse's amazingly detailed comments, examples and the orchestra's attempts to follow them shows how the truly superbly playing on this diskdeveloped. Gimse speaks both in Norwegian and English (there is are English subtitles), and his demonstrations and thoughtful interpretations of the score made me wonder whether we really need conductors, as the orchestra finally takes a worked-upon recording!
'Reflections' arrives in a slender 2-disc CD box with a splendid booklet, full of information about the programme and its recording processes, including coloured maps of the respective orchestral arrangements. There are many pages of coloured photos of the Selbu Church and close-ups of the microphone array for the various recording types (2.0 LPCM 192/24, 5.1 DTS HDMA 192/24, 9.1 Auro-3D, Dolby Atmos and mShuttle: MQA + MP3 - which allows you make copies to play in cars etc.) I have only listened with 5.1 multichannel and 2.0 Stereo.
2L explain the policy for their method of 'Immersive Audio', "a sonic sculpture that you can literally move around and relate to spatially; surrounded by music you can move about in the aural space and choose angles, vantage points and positions." If you have the emerging new expansions of multi-media, then "Dolby Atmos and the Auro-3D on this Pure Audio Blu-ray delivers a new standard in immersion, fully enveloping the audience in a cocoon of life-like audio. Recorded in discrete 12.1 at DXD resolution."
Rich though the BluRay disc is in providing music and many kinds of audio, there is also a Hybrid SACD with MCH 5.1 DSD and Stereo DSD. The only difference in 5.1 for both discs I could find is that the SACD had a slightly smoother upper band, particularly in the top violin zone.
In summary, the BluRay concert of Britten, Vaughan Williams and Stravinsky was a fine choice of programme and was played creatively in styles and techniques making exalted performances of these challenging pieces. The music on the discs is expanded by 2L with a variety of audio versions, particularly "Immersive Audio". I find the extra cost for the two discs is very well worth their purchase. Highly recommended in many ways.
Copyright © 2017 John Miller and HRAudio.net