Chamber Symphony for 12 Instruments,
Chamber Symphony for 23 Players.
Chamber Symphony for 15 Soloists,
Gregory Wolynec, cond; Gateway Ch O
SUMMIT 592 (SACD: 66:45)
I think the Gateway Chamber Orchestra made a smart move for this, their second release, when it decided to focus on lesser-known works. That’s not because it means the orchestra won’t bear comparison to other, better-known ensembles; if nothing else, this album shows that they have excellent soloists, fine sectional and overall blend, and thoughtful leadership. But by concentrating on 20th-century chamber symphonies—by their nature, lesser known-works in an orchestral world largely dominated by 18th and 19th century music—they avoid having their album become part of the musical background. It’s difficult to stand out in a crowded field. True, the Schoenberg is well represented on CD, but it isn’t that well known, and both the Schreker and Enescu go virtually unheard and seldom recorded.
The Enescu is admittedly a tough sell. As I’ve written before, it lacks both the sensuous warmth and expressiveness of his earlier scores, and concentrates upon a refractive prism of transformative play for effect. I’ve come to greatly enjoy it over the years, but there are many other Enescu scores I would recommend as far more representative of their composer. This one is very good, but suffers from bad timing: it comes on the heels of a version by Hannu Lintu leading the Tampere Philharmonic (Ondine 1196-2) that I recently found little short of ideal. A point by point comparison between the two weighs in Lintu’s favor. For example, the arpeggiated “strummed” piano figures in the opening moments of the piece are spread slightly wider, the phrasing more flexible from the Tampere musicians. That remark about phrasing applies as well to the chromatic figure around a minute into the first movement, which also receives a crescendo as it travels upwards, and a diminuendo as it moves back down. By contrast, there’s little dynamic variation from the Gateway ensemble. Again, the very folk-like Romanian theme that appears unadorned around 1:40 on both recordings and acquires modal harmonies and coloration about half a minute later is part of the continuous texture under Wolynec, while under Lintu, its introduction is greeted with a slowed tempo, the different solo treatments that follow carefully limned, and the harmonization delicately pointed.
I won’t suggest that this distinction invariably holds true between the two recordings. That would be unfair to the Gateway musicians and inaccurate: Their fourth movement in particular attains a level of spirit and coherence rivaling the Tampere Philharmonic. And in general, Wolynec/Gateway turn in what would, under any other circumstances, be slightly better than the best of the other performances available, Ian Hobson/Sinfonia da Camera (Albany 1100). But it has to be said that Lintu understands what the other recordings of the Chamber Symphony seem to miss, that it is truly a chamber work of orchestral dimensions. The voicing of each entry in Enescu’s complex tapestry is individually characterized better than on any other album I’ve heard, without any attendant loss of drive.
The Schreker is another matter. While Wolynec and his 23 musicians easily demonstrate just how warm a sound and rich an effect you can achieve with these numbers, the issue is only incidental to the real strength of their reading, as I see it: an ability to vary dynamics, intensity, and color according to the logic of the musical moment. Among Schreker’s many gifts was the ability to conceive imaginative, lyrical music in terms of an extraordinarily varied orchestral palette, and the Gateway Chamber Orchestra faithfully demonstrates one of the primary reasons his music deserves to be revived. Textures are ever-transparent, and the late German Romantic style perfectly caught. This is musical advocacy of a high order, which is the only advocacy that counts.
The version of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 heard on this album is the original for four string and 10 wind performers. Though the composer grew to think it unsatisfactory (and arranged it for full orchestra; Webern went the other way, and arranged it for piano and string quartet), in its original format it is an engaging, beautifully balanced work. Here, even more than in the Schreker, the Gateway musicians impress by the clarity of their textures, and that’s not an easy task in a dense piece filled with active, frequently independent inner parts. Nor is this achieved at the expense of tempo or momentum. To their credit as well, they catch and highlight the Symphony’s occasional humor and high spirits, particularly in the finale—the canonic horn signal theme entries and the “off-key” harmonic progressions before the work’s conclusion, for instance: no mean feat. I would place this version equal to my favorites, Chailly/Royal Concertgebouw (Decca 436467), the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon 429233), and Boulez/Domaine Musicale Orchestra (Accord 4768862). (A fourth, featuring Reinbert de Leeuw and the Schoenberg Ensemble, is sadly out of print.) Each offers a different view of this many-sided work, and none is as colorful as this one.
Though the Enescu doesn’t find these musicians at their best, the Schreker and Schoenberg definitely do. And it’s a best that maintains a high standard. With excellent sound and full personnel listings for each piece, this one’s recommended.