LABELS: Deutsche Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Metamorphosen; Serenade for Strings; Elegy for Strings; Adagio for Strings
PERFORMER: Smithsonian Chamber Players/Kenneth Slowik
CATALOGUE NO: 05472 77343 2 DDD
Is an ‘early music’ performing style necessary when playing string ensemble music of 1892-1945 on gut strings (customary when the pieces were written)? The Smithsonian Chamber Players think so, and the results are distinctive if not invariably convincing. Although a dusky sonority suits this mostly elegiac music, the lack of the wide, continuous vibrato of mainstream performances casts Barber and Elgar in a rather austere light. This results in a powerfully direct reading of Elgar’s Elegy, but the Barber Adagio loses its patient, cumulative line as each minute harmonic change takes on undue importance. The revelatory account is of Strauss’s Metamorphosen: restrained vibrato stunningly clarifies the textures of this wonderful but often muddy-sounding piece for 23 solo strings, and the flowing, intense and heartfelt performance is its own reward.
Members of the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra, who play instruments like those used in London around the turn of this century, produce their most satisfying Wagner in high-voltage, impetuously paced performances that contain hints of the portamento and tempo flexibility of a century ago. ‘Spontaneous’ may well describe their music-making; but the assertion that spontaneity is on display in the two rather different performances of each excerpt here is highly debatable. What we have instead are two contrasting conceptions per excerpt – usually natural and experimental in nature – rather than a general framework that nourishes spontaneity. Performers who can present two different conceptions with equal conviction and comprehension are rare, and the members of the NQHO are not yet among them. Consequently the playing lacks interpretative focus (and technical polish) too much of the time. David Breckbill