The Bohemian Album - Amsterdam Sinfonietta
Channel Classics CCS SA 24409
Dvorak: Serenade for Strings Op. 22, Haas: String Quartet No. 2 Op. 7 "From the Monkey Mountains", Schulhoff: Five Pieces for String Quartet WV 68
Amsterdam Sinfonietta has combined a romantic masterpiece of the string orchestra repertoire with two wild compositions from the inter-war period. Dvorák, Haas, and Schulhoff hardly make a conventional mixture, but all three of these composers had their roots in a region which was known for many centuries as “Bohemia.” One can hear this common ground in the rhythmic diversity, the influence of folk music, and the melodic inventiveness that characterizes their music.
Amsterdam Sinfonietta occupies a unique position on the Dutch music scene as professional string orchestra. It is regularly invited to perform in concert halls throughout the world as one of the very few large-scale string ensembles on the international scene. What sets Amsterdam Sinfonietta apart from the ‘regular’ chamber orchestras is the top priority it gives to a ‘chamber music mentality’. Every one of its musicians assumes the responsibilities of a solo player. This approach gives a high level of involvement on the part of the musicians when they perform as an ensemble, resulting in performances of rare dynamism and intensity that involve the listener in a vibrant live music experience. Usually the ensemble plays without conductor under the direction of Candida Thompson, concertmaster since 1995, who was appointed artistic director in 2003.
The Amsterdam Sinfonietta’s Walton/Beethoven disc CCSSA23005 was a Gramophone Editor’s Choice in 2005.
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Review by John Miller - October 27, 2009
An inspired compilation of music for string orchestra. The sweetly elegant Romanticism of Dvorak's Serenade is perfectly counter-poised by the gritty impressionism and modernism of Haas and Schulhoff.
Candida Thompson's firm direction of light and shade, delicacy and rusticity in the Dvorak and the totally committed response of the Sinfonietta players produces one of the most desirable and beguiling performances of this old favourite that one could imagine. Interplay between the string sections is crisp and clean, tonal warmth and richness abound, and the sometimes coy humour of the composer is captured perfectly in a scrupulously observant partnership.
Recording in the glamorous acoustic of the Philharmonie, Haarlem, engineer Jared Sacks presents a totally believable acoustic image of the orchestra, representing the section blocks coherently in sharp focus across a wide sound stage. The intimate sense of bow on string is finely conveyed, and the very important viola parts which Dvorak took much care with in this work stand out with great depth of burred tone, as do the resinous cellos and basses. The Philharmonie acoustic allows the body resonance of cellos and basses to develop fully, and this disc has some of the finest deep string bass that I have ever heard on a recording, so that every detail of this fabulous score is revealed anew. A few slight 'business' noises such as chair and stand creaks only add to the feeling of having the Sinfonietta in your listening room.
The string orchestra version of Hass's delightfully unorthodox String Quartet no.2 and Schulhoff's equally individual Five Pieces for String Quartet were appropriately hosted in the Baachzaal, Amsterdam, which has a slightly drier, cooler acoustic with markedly less bass resonance than the Philharmonie venue. This is appropriate for the sharply-etched textures and harmonic astringency of these surprisingly rarely-heard string works in their full string complement guises (both the composers' own arrangements). Hass's inspiration by a Summer vacation in the Moravian hills presents impressionistic essays on the landscapes and the basics of peasant life in both poetic and sardonic guises. He generates a multi-layered mosaic of fascinating textures which are fully revealed by the tremendous detail of the recording, with a dynamic range from the merest whisper of muted strings at the opening of the first movement to the startlingly vivid picture of the fourth movement's 'Wild Night', complete with a specially-written percussion part which adds spice and brilliance.
This excellent programme ends with Schulhoff, who together with his contemporary Hass was considered by the Nazi Regime to be 'entartete' (degenerate). Harmonically more adventurous and avant garde than Hass, his Five Pieces for String Quarte, daringly toys with popular musical forms such as the Viennese Waltz (appropriated by the Nazis as a cultural icon), Serenade, Tango, Tarantella and Slavonic dances. The result is a series of somewhat neurotic but amusing paradies, sometimes droll, sometimes scary, and always sleazy. The vignettes resound with instrumental colour and are laced with tantalizing near-quotes from various well-known tunes.
Without doubt this splendid disc will head the list of my Discs of the Year; consumately performed and recorded with spectacular realism it is a compulsory purchase.
Copyright © 2009 John Miller and HRAudio.net