Soloists, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
Various works (see DG link below for full repertoire details)
Deutsche Grammophon 4839948 (55 CDs)
Written by Ben Hogwood
What’s the story?
This box set tells the story of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra – soon to celebrate their 50th anniversary – and the recordings they have made to date for Deutsche Grammophon. Formed in 1972, the conductor-less ensemble from New York have amassed an impressive body of work, spanning repertoire from Handel and Vivaldi to Schoenberg and William Bolcom, examined here across 55 CDs.
The group have enjoyed a fruitful relationship with DG, undertaking several projects. Among these are the Mozart wind concertos, with principals from the orchestra employed as soloists, and a clutch of hand-picked Haydn symphonies. Jed Distler’s booklet introduction, meanwhile, reveals a remarkable agreement which saw them commit the Schoenberg Chamber Symphonies and Verklarte Nacht to disc in 1989, in return for a version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons four years later.
Also included in this set is a previously unavailable account of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, a live recording from Warsaw in 2018.
What’s the music like?
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra records are known for their crisp ensemble and energetic, engaging performances, but also for their poise. While their approach to Baroque music might not appeal to historical purists, nobody can deny the enthusiasm they bring to the Handel Concerti Grossi Op.6, nor their vibrant collection of Vivaldi Cello Concertos with regular collaborator Mischa Maisky, or the Flute Concertos with Patrick Gallois.
Their Mozart is particularly enjoyable, the wind concertos blossoming under the ‘home’ soloists, who have the advantage of an immediate musical rapport with their accompanists. The Sinfonia Concertante, with soloists Todd Phillips (violin) and Maureen Gallagher (viola), is especially good, while horn players William Purvis and David Jolley, clarinettist Charles Neidich, flautist Susan Palma-Nidel, oboist Randall Wolfgang and bassoonist Frank Morelli also excel. The Flute and Harp Concerto, with harpist Nancy Allen, is sublime, while a generous selection of the wind Serenades and string Divertimenti are delightful.
The Haydn symphonies fare particularly well, too, and often have an irresistible zest. The account of the Symphony no.80 in D minor is notable in this respect, but there is restraint and darker feeling in the Symphony no.49 in F minor, ‘La Passione’, its introduction taken at a daringly slow tempo. Meanwhile the disc of Rossini overtures still defies gravity in the absence of a conductor, a remarkable achievement!
The inclusion of Mendelssohn’s Italian symphony boosts an already excellent account of the two piano concertos, with Jan Lisiecki. It is fresh faced and buoyant in the outer movements, with a balletic poise for the inner two. Meanwhile their account of Beethoven’s The Creatures of Prometheus has plenty of spring in its step, as does a wonderful disc devoted to music for strings by Grieg and Tchaikovksy. The Dvořák Serenades, too, fare particularly well, and there are two thoroughly engaging discs devoted to the music of Copland and Ives.
Best of all are the orchestra’s Stravinsky and Schoenberg recordings. The Stravinsky selection has excellent accounts of the ballets Pulcinella (the suite) and Orpheus, but equally valuable are the shorter pieces, where the composer’s gruff humour is caught to rhythmic perfection. The performance of Dumbarton Oaks could hardly be bettered. The Schoenberg has some eye-watering virtuosity in the Chamber Symphony no.1, an ideal way in for doubters of the composer – as is a translucent Chamber Symphony no.2 and a velvet-textured Verklarte Nacht.
Finally a mention for the orchestra’s Respighi, a colourful and moving trio of pieces comprising The Birds, a selection of the Ancient Airs and Dances and a particularly vivid account of the Trittico Botticelliano, showing off the composer’s colourful orchestration but also his deeply felt treatment of long-treasured melodies.
Does it all work?
Largely. One could argue that the disc of French orchestral music is a touch too glossy, or that the recordings of Bartók, Kodály and Suk do not quite have the authority a central European ensemble might bring to them. Even with those reservations, however, they are so well played that there is so much to enjoy, the slow movement of the Bartók Divertimento a particularly chilly example.
Is it recommended?
Unreservedly. This is a superb collection from an orchestra who are essentially a single instrument themselves, so together are their interpretations and their virtuosity. Their recording legacy for DG is unlike any other, and it is to be hoped it will blossom still further over – who knows? – maybe the next 50 years. This is a remarkably solid platform on which to build.
Listen and Buy
You can listen to clips and purchase this disc from the Presto website.
You can read Arcana’s interview with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra violist Dov Scheindlin here, and listen to a playlist picking out Ben Hogwood’s personal favourites here.