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)
The Gateway Chamber Orchestra is composed principally of performance faculty at Austin Peay State University in Nashville, supplemented by other area musicians. The playing on this disc far exceeds expectations for such an ensemble, however, which can suffer from having members past their prime playing years, or from the infrequency with which they can find time to rehearse and perform as a group in between their teaching and solo performance responsibilities. These folks, in short, can
! It’s a good thing, too, because this program, featuring chamber symphonies by three near-contemporaries, is a challenging one. The ensemble varies from 12 players (Enescu) to 23 (Schreker)—the Schoenberg calls for 15—and, especially in the first and last of these,
Taking the works chronologically, the Schoenberg (1906), which established the genre, is the most uncompromising of the three scores. Combining the four traditional movements into one continuous one, like Liszt’s Piano Sonata (and predating Sibelius’s Seventh by almost 20 years), it’s a dazzling transitional work in which tonality is still very much alive, if greatly enriched by chromaticism and by harmonies in whole tones and fourths. The Gateway musicians play the devil out of it; my only two complaints about the performance are, first, that the instrumental balances unduly favor E♭-clarinet and horns, and second, that conductor Wolynec allows the slower episodes to drag, resulting in a total timing of 23:05; by comparison, the knockout version by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra under Gerard Schwarz comes in at 20 minutes flat. That recording, unfortunately, has apparently never appeared on CD. It’s worth seeking out, though: in addition to being more taut than the present version, it’s played by a group of top-flight virtuosos with whom even the highly competent professionals of the Gateway group can’t really be compared.
Franz Schreker’s diaphanous work, written a decade after the Schoenberg, makes more of an impression with its instrumental and harmonic colors than with its thematic materials. It’s still strikingly beautiful music, though. Again the Gateway plays superbly, but again Wolynec sometimes lets things sag: The performance takes 27:08 compared with Schwarz’s 24:18. The Enescu, dating from 1954, was his last work; it’s smaller in scale (both in duration and in sonority) than the other two works, sounding generally understated, even desultory. It is, to my ears, redolent of Fauré and perhaps Honegger, and has little of the vigor of his earlier works. The performance features particularly fine playing from trumpeter Richard Steffen.
Quibbles aside, this is a stimulating program of music that (with the possible exception of the Schoenberg) is played too infrequently. The playing is outstanding and the recording, in two channels or five, is transparent and pleasingly ambient. Recommended.
Richard A. Kaplan