Monday, 13 November 2017

CD Reviews - November 2017

The latest release in Chandos’ ‘Music in Exile’ series features chamber works by the Polish-born composer Szymon Laks (1901-1983).  Born in Warsaw, he settled in Paris in his twenties, but was interned and later sent to Auschwitz following the Nazi occupation of France.  There he survived by auditioning as an orchestral musician and then working as a music copyist to avoid the hard labour.  He conducted the Auschwitz orchestra, but in a post-war autobiography wrote about how music was used by the Nazis as an instrument of control, and to indulge the officers’ pretensions.  He survived the war and returned to Paris, where he remained for the rest of his life.  Yet he rarely expressed the trauma of these times in his music, which is often melodious, jazzy and highly engaging. The Canadian ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory, Toronto) perform here in works for a wide variety of musical forces.  The String Quartet No. 4 of 1962 has a jazzy, quirky feel in its opening movement, a smooth, but darkly eerie central slow movement, and a driving rhythmic finale.  Another quartet follows, but this time a Divertimento for the unusual combination of violin, clarinet, bassoon and piano (it also exists in another version for flute, violin, cello and piano).  Its opening movement is relaxed and expansive, yet still with that quirkiness.  Here the slow movement is mournful, mysterious and wandering, and it is played with beautifully understated tenderness.  The work ends with a twisting, turning dance, given great energy here. The only pre-war work here is a Sonatina for piano from 1927.  It has the same wandering, jazzy harmonies of his later works, with a clear French influence.  Pianist David Louie executes the sliding chromatic harmonies smoothly, and enlivens the skittering scherzino and the wild, swirling dance that finishes the work.  The Concertino for oboe, clarinet and bassoon is more complex and technically challenging, making great use of the three contrasting instruments.  The three players rise to its challenges here, with very precise nagging, bird-like trills in the finale giving this great character.   The Passacaille, in the version for clarinet and piano once again has that meandering, walking pace, with a mournful slow clarinet melody over and almost chorale-like piano.  It builds to a central climax with heavy piano chords and the clarinet reinforcing the melody on top, before a slow decline, finally settling on a major chord to finish.  The most substantial work, the Quintet for piano and strings on Popular Polish Themes, closes the disc.  Another rearrangement from a different work (his String Quartet No. 3), this is a lively and invigorating piece, full of swirling dances, mazurkas and rustic folk melodies, but those jazzy, bluesy harmonies are here too, particularly in the second slow movement.  The stamping dance of the third movement, with quirky pizzicato strings is great fun, surrounding a central delicate mazurka.  The beautifully simple folk melody of the finale, led by the viola, is contrasted with a second more rustic tune, with drone-like underpinning, making a lively conclusion to this enjoyable piece.  The ARC Ensemble players excel here in this fascinating and varied selection of works, well worth exploration.

Richard Tognetti directs the Australian Chamber Orchestra from the violin, and on this live concert disc, they perform selections from Bach’s The Art of Fugue, and Tognetti’s own arrangement for string orchestra of Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 130, with the famous Grosse Fuge as the final movement.  Bach’s The Art of Fugue had no indication of his intentions in terms of performing forces, and it is unclear whether it was purely an academic, educational exercise.  However, it is unlikely he would ever have envisaged a full chamber orchestra, complete with oboes and horns, and even the voices of the ACO players who discretely join in in the fourth Contrapunctus.  This effect might have worked in live performance, but on disc it is rather too gimmicky to survive repeated listening.  Nevertheless, the fugal lines are presented with great precision, and the overall sound is straightforwardly clear, if rather bass-heavy in places.  Their Beethoven had more to offer, although here there were still balance issues for me, with the bass line dominating in the first movement particularly.  They certainly produce a hefty sound, which worked for some of the time, but their Mahlerian Cavatina, whilst moving, lacked the aching fragility of Beethoven’s original.  The Grosse Fuge had brutal attack, and here the control and energy of the ACO really paid off.   All in all, this is one of those live discs that one possibly had to be there to fully make sense of, but Tognetti and the ACO are to be commended for never playing it safe. 

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, November 2017)