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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Verklärte Nacht, opus 4. (1899) 31:15
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)

Andante Festivo (1922) [4:33]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)

I Crisantemi (1890) [6:53]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)

Chamber Symphony for String Orchestra, op.110a (1960) [23:02]
The Helsinki Strings
Csaba and Geza Szilvay, conductors
Schoenberg, Sibelius and Puccini recorded in Helsinki in December 2000. Shostakovich recorded live in concert in Düsseldorf, December 1999.
FINLANDIA APEX 0927-43423 DDD [66:17]

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Arnold Schoenberg’s epic tone poem Verklärte Nacht, originally composed for string sextet, was completed in 1899, but had to wait until 1902 to receive its first performance. No doubt this was Schoenberg’s first masterpiece; certainly it was his first mature composition. It is inspired in part by Richard Dehmel’s five-stanza poem in which a woman confesses to her lover that she is pregnant by another man. The man, in a most altruistic act, accepts her anyway and tells her that the love they share for each other will bind him to the child, regardless of his not being the father. Harmonically, this music is high octane Wagner, intensely chromatic and lacking in a clear tonal center. A foretaste of things to come, one early player of the work commented that it seemed as though someone had smeared the score to Tristan und Isolde when the ink was still wet.

A solemn hymn-like work, Sibelius’s Andante festivo is contemporary with the Sixth Symphony and is a little gem in its own right. Originally written for string quartet, it is better know in its current guise for string orchestra and timpani ad libitum.

Shostakovich’s chamber symphonies are actually sanctioned orchestrations of his string quartets. Rudolf Barshai arranged the eighth quartet with the composer’s approval and supervision. It is one of the Shostakovich’s most introspective and autobiographical works. He once said to a friend that he doubted that anyone would write a work in his memory after he was gone, so he decided to write his own. Although completely effective, this work is a bit of a pastiche of a number of earlier works, with quotes from more than a half-dozen preceding compositions. Most famously, it contains the D-Es-C-H motif, which is a spelling of the composer’s initials derived from the German note names.

Puccini produced little else besides his twelve operas. I Crisantemi was originally written for string quartet in 1890, in memory of Amadeo, the Duke of Savoy. It is a nostalgic little work, and opera lovers will recognize material that later would appear in Manon Lescaut.

The Helsinki strings are a fine ensemble. They play with warmth and romantic abandon where called for in the Schoenberg, and with firm, precise articulation in the more technical passages of the Shostakovich. All of the works on this disc receive excellent performances, well paced, and with a fine sense of ensemble and line. If there is a distraction at all, it is the persistent cougher in the audience during the live performance of the Chamber Symphony. It is too bad that this couldn’t have been edited out in some way, for after its third occurrence, it goes from a hazard of a live concert to an outright annoyance. Small bother though, for the performances are outstanding and the repertoire is amongst the best of its genre.

Kimma Korhonen provides a good essay, and the English translation by well-known Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntajärvi is idiomatic and precise. Sound production by Finlandia’s engineers is of the first order. The sound is lush and has a warm, hearty bloom. Balances between the sections are perfect, and perfectly captured.

There should be nothing to deter a fan of string music from buying this disc, except for the aforementioned asthmatic, which mars a bit of the Shostakovich. Highly recommended.

Kevin Sutton



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