Thursday 31 October 2013

Review: Amsterdam Sinfonietta and Candida Thompson - Weinberg Concertino, Shostakovich Chamber Symphonies

For their 25th Anniversary, the Amsterdam Sinfonietta have chosen to record an album of Russian music, under the leadership of Artistic Director, Candida Thompson. The SACD disc comes in a handsome package, along with a 'making of' DVD as an extra (which I am yet to watch - I may add a note here if anything interesting arises). Excellent sound comes as a standard with this ensemble, who have previously recorded string orchestra arrangements of Shostakovich's 2nd and 4th Quartets. The Weinberg concertino has been recorded elsewhere, to be found on the Naxos label's 2011 release, with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Sanderling, with Sergey Ostrovsky as soloist. This rendition is clearly the stronger option, if only as a document from the ensemble that gave the West-European premiere of the work in 2009.

Weinberg's Concertino, Op. 42

The Concertino for Violin and String Orchestra was written at the beginning of July 1948, while Weinberg was on holiday. This may perhaps explain the pastoral nature of the work. The three movements never stray far from the lyrical vein. The solo part is demanding throughout, particularly in the finale, but the ensemble writing is not particularly taxing. These factors combined would go to suggest the work may have been written as a holiday-relaxation exercise, while the accessibility and tunefulness might suggest an ambition to please official requirements for composers, particularly following the Composers' Union debacle witnessed at the start of the year. The Concertino can be viewed as a sister-work to the full-blown Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 43, written immediately afterwards. Indeed, the two share a lyrical mood, but the cello concerto is a near-symphonic work, with passages of heightened drama.
   The Concertino appears to have been 'written for the drawer' (i.e. Weinberg never heard it performed during his lifetime). It was certainly performed in Moscow in 1999, with a festival celebrating the 80th anniversary of the composer's birth. PeerMusic published the score in 2007, and it was the Amsterdam Sinfonietta who gave the Western premiere in 2009.


With this in mind, the handling of the Concertino is excellent. The Amsterdam Sinfonietta have a keen reputation for attention to detail, above all, dynamic control and balance. This is on full display throughout this recording - the pastoral mood of the Weinberg is communicated beautifully. The remaining pieces on the disc follow a recent trend of pairing a Weinberg work with Shostakovich that outdates it by some twenty years or so. In this case, Rudolf Barshai's arrangements of the Eighth and Tenth Quartets. The choice of the latter is perhaps obvious - Shostakovich's Tenth Quartet is dedicated to Weinberg, reflective of their quartet-writing 'competition' during the 1960s. The Eighth quartet is arguably Shostakovich's most famous work, a good for an opener for this disc.
   I myself have never been a great fan of Barshai's arrangements, dubbed 'Chamber Symphonies', even though they were made with Shostakovich's blessing. Perhaps I just enjoy the more intimate instrumentation of the string quartet. However, the renditions on this disc serve to change my mind; at least, for the duration of the album. Their approach to balance brings out many subtle shades in the Eighth Quartet, ones that are just not achievable in the quartet genre.

Overall, I rate this disc excellent, for the craftsmanship on display throughout and the sensitive approach to the music itself. For other recommended listening, I advise the Naxos 2011 rendition of the Concertino for comparison, and Rostropovich in the Weinberg Concerto.

Naxos Link

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