On record – Orpheus Chamber Orchestra: The Complete Recordings On Deutsche Grammophon (Deutsche Grammophon

orpheus-chamber-orchestra-complete

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.

Reading

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.

Playlist: Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at 50

by Ben Hogwood

Last week Arcana published an interview with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra violist Dov Scheindlin, in recognition of his time with the orchestra and their significant birthday. 50 years is a long time for a chamber orchestra, let alone a conductor-less one! Joining the celebrations, Deutsche Grammophon have released a 55-CD box set of all the orchestra’s recordings for the label.

Arcana have drawn on personal experience to select a playlist of recordings from the orchestra too, mostly from the DG archive. They range from a perky Haydn symphony to sparky Stravinsky pieces, from the wonderful open-air freshness of Grieg‘s Holberg Suite to the instinctive genius of Brad Mehldau‘s recently-released variations.

If I had to pick a favourite it would be a quite wonderful disc of Respighi orchestral works, crowned by an account of Trittico Botticelliano, a set of three orchestral responses to Botticelli pictures that is both colourful and intensely moving. Listen to the third picture, The Birth of Venus, and you will see what I mean:

BBC Proms – Steven Isserlis, LPO / Jurowski: Stravinsky, Bach, Walton & Hindemith

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Steven Isserlis (cello, below), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (above)

Stravinsky Jeu de cartes (1935-6)
Walton
Cello Concerto (1955-6)
Bach (arr. Goldmann)
14 ‘Goldberg’ Canons BWV1087 (1742-4 arr. 1977)
Hindemith
Symphony ‘Mathis der Maler’ (1933-4)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Thursday 12 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse; pictures (c) Chris Christodoulou

Vladimir Jurowski this evening concluded his highly impressive 14-year tenure as Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra with a thoughtfully conceived and well-proportioned programme; one which typically played to this orchestra’s strengths as much as to his own.

Although it can seem something of an ‘also-ran’ in the context of his compositions from the period, Stravinsky’s Jeu de cartes lacks for little in terms of that rhythmic effervescence as was engagingly evident in this performance – Jurowski pointing up the humour and even occasional glimmers of pathos that inform what can easily seem music written on autopilot. The LPO responded with a trenchancy and alacrity as held good throughout this ‘ballet in three deals’, the tonal punning of whose culmination at least ensures a humorous outcome.

Walton’s Cello Concerto used to be regarded with even less favour than Stravinsky’s ballet, but this piece (written by its composer at much the same age) is now seen as more than the enervated recycling of past success. Steven Isserlis (above) has long advocated its cause, and there was little doubting his commitment in a reading of perceptiveness and finesse. At times his spare and even fragile tone tended to recede into even so restrained and transparent as this, Jurowski mindful to rein in those brief climactic moments of the outer movements, but the artful interplay of the central scherzo did not lack for incisiveness or irony. Nor, after the second of the solo variations in the finale, was there any absence of rapture as soloist and orchestra are reconciled in drawing the music through to its close of fatalistic acceptance.

After the interval, a novelty in an arrangement by composer-conductor Friedrich Goldmann (1941-2009) of the 14 canons latterly identified from Bach’s printed copy of his Goldberg Variations. Arranged for a Stravinskian post-classical orchestra, these intricate and arcane studies in canonic dexterity emerge from gentle aridity to luminous elaboration with spare, methodical elegance such as intrigues and disengages in equal measure. Hardly something one expected to hear at such an occasion or this venue, though worth hearing all the same.

In its reiterating the values of Enlightenment humanism, moreover, this prepared admirably for Hindemith’s Symphony ‘Mathis der Maler’; premiered on the cusp of Germany’s descent into barbarous self-destruction, and a plea from the committed – however reluctantly – artist for a rational response as might be worth emulating today. The alternately radiant and tensile unfolding of Concert of Angels was perfectly judged, as too the plaintive resignation of the brief if affecting Entombment. The Temptation of St Anthony then made for an elaborate finale, but Jurowski paced it superbly – the plangent central interlude thrown into relief by the impassioned episodes on either side, then its anguished introduction by an apotheosis whose ultimate wresting of triumph from adversity remains thrilling as a statement of artistic intent.

A performance to savour, then, not least as John Gilhooly presented Jurowski with the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in recognition of services to music – an accolade with an illustrious history, which can rarely have been more deserved than on this occasion.

You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage

In concert – Lawrence Power, CBSO / Nicholas Collon: Stravinsky, Britten & Shostakovich

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Lawrence Power (viola), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Nicholas Collon (above)

Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920, revised 1947)
Britten Lachrymae Op.48a (1950, orch. 1976)
Shostakovich Symphony no.5 in D minor Op.47 (1937)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 26 May 2pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This second in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s live concerts, heading out of lockdown, featured works from the first half of the last century – focussing on wind then strings, before bringing the whole orchestra into play for one of the defining symphonies from this period.

It was an astute move to open with Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments as, 14 days short of the centenary of its premiere to a bemused London public, the extent of its innovation and influence was there for all to hear. The performance was attuned to its bracing alternation of diverse musical types, and while the elongated platform layout might have caused passing uncertainties, Nicholas Collon made a virtue of its fluid continuity right through to the final chorale which ‘remembers’ Debussy with an emotion the more acute for its hieratic restraint.

It may have entered the repertoire but slowly, Britten’s Lachrymae is now well to the fore of the viola’s still limited concertante output and Lawrence Power gave a potent rendering of a piece conceived for William Primrose then orchestrated for Cecil Aronowitz. The evocative if sparse writing for strings is a reminder this was Britten’s final creative act, bringing out the ambiguous shadings of these variations on Dowland’s Flow my tears (played and sung at the outset by Power) which culminate with a rendering of the full song in all its grave elegance.

Speaking beforehand, Collon (who gave a perceptive account of the Ninth Symphony with the CBSO some years back) spoke of his pleasure in utilizing the extent of Symphony Hall’s platform to programme a work on the scale of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Accordingly, this was a performance whose impact and intensity were evident from the outset; the opening movement unfolding gradually but with keen underlying intensity though its searching, then wistful main themes, to a surging development and climactic reprise before subsiding into a fateful coda. If the scherzo was less capricious than it often is, Collon’s trenchant handling   of its outer sections exuded an acerbic charm – offset by the trio’s deadpan humour (with an airily whimsical solo from leader Jonathan Martindale), before a pay-off of ominous import.

The ensuing Largo is the work’s emotional heart in every sense, and this afternoon’s reading made the most of its fraught eloquence with some limpidly unforced string playing then, in the mesmeric central episode, woodwind soliloquys of a spectral remoteness. Nor was there any lack of gravitas as the movement reached a baleful culmination, and from where Collon oversaw a faultless transition through to those consoling final bars. Always difficult to bring off, the finale had the virtue of almost seamless progression through its high-octane opening stages then the musing introspection at its centre – Collon making light of some tricky tempo changes on the way to an apotheosis of unremitting focus. The tonal ambivalence between triumph and tragedy might have been more acute, but its inevitability was never in doubt.

An impressive way to conclude what was almost a full-length concert (and one these players had to repeat just three hours later). The CBSO returns next Wednesday with a less strenuous programme which will include a welcome outing for Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony.

For further information about the CBSO’s current series of concerts, head to the orchestra’s website

For further information about the next concert on Wednesday 2 June, click here

Igor Stravinsky – three personal favourites on the 50th anniversary of his death

by Ben Hogwood

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

Stravinsky was a true revolutionary, and at Arcana we are looking forward to exploring the music behind that revolutionary voice later on in his anniversary year.

For now, here are three personal favourites of mine. The first is the ballet Petrushka, written in 1911 when Stravinsky was emerging from the influence of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. This was the piece that switched me on to the composer’s colourful and descriptive sound world, highlighting his thoroughly original harmonic thinking:

The second is a much later ballet, Agon, written in America in 1957. By this time Stravinsky had explored a number of different styles, and was beginning to push the boundaries of tonality along with a new, more austere form of orchestration. In spite of that, there is an appealing warmth to the sparse textures of this, his final ballet:

Finally, a true favourite – the Symphony of Psalms. I was fortunate enough to play the cello in a performance of this and I can honestly say it was one of the most enjoyable 25 minutes of my musical life. The first chord is quite unlike anything I had heard before, but as the piece progresses Stravinsky’s use of the choir and orchestra is highly unusual for anything written in 1930, culminating in a wonderful, meditative Laudate Dominum that could easily go on for eternity. This performance conducted by Pierre Boulez is one of the best:

Stay with Arcana for some exciting explorations of Stravinsky later in 2021, but for now raise a toast to a wholly original voice.