Any recording by MDG,
the audiophile company run by sound
engineers Werner Dabringhaus and Reimund
Grimm is worth listening to; this is
no exception. Here they take a relatively
unknown chamber orchestra and take on
some of the greatest classics of string
The Kiev Chamber Orchestra
was founded in 1963, and is Ukraine's
leading ensemble. Their conductor, Roman
Kofman was their first concert master
and remained with them until moving
to Bonn last year, when this recording
was made. These three Britten pieces
have been recorded so many times, and
so well, including by the composer himself,
that one would hardly expect this version
to be among the main contenders. Nonetheless,
on its own terms, it is commendable.
Symphony is based on pieces he'd
written from the age of nine. While
it presents no virtuoso challenges,
it needs to be performed with verve.
Here, the Kiev Chamber Orchestra perform
with a real sense of enjoyment. Boisterous
Bourrée starts dramatically,
then expands into lyrical territory.
This is music that must be a joy to
play, as so many string techniques are
used. Playful Pizzicato, for
example, is a witty ode to single plucked
strings! The Kiev musicians bring a
great sense of warmth and humour. The
long third movement, Sentimental
Sarabande, opens with the strings
shimmering, then like the first movement,
opens into expansive lyricism. Kofman
gets his players to respond here as
if they were playing a great Romantic,
rather than a 20 year old Englishman,
still finding himself as a composer.
There are lovely passages here, almost
song like. When the music returns to
the gaiety and plucked strings of Frolicsome
Finale, you are left wondering how
Britten might have developed had he
lived in different times.
For me, Les Illuminations
was a big disappointment. The orchestra
played well and there are some lovely
details, such as the violin solo in
Fanfare and Antique. In
the Interlude, the strings weave
diaphanously, from one passage to another.
Indeed, I found myself focusing on the
piece as an exercise in string playing.
But Les Illuminations was written
to be sung, the texts being so singular
that they need to clearly heard. The
meaning of symbolist poetry isn't precise,
for Rimbaud was opening new frontiers
"beyond" conscious meaning.
But it does not follow that the singing
of these texts should be imprecise.
Indeed, ideally, singing should be even
more clear and forthright to bring out
the complex imagery. Franziska Hirzel
is Swiss, and specializes in contemporary
opera, and in theory, might prove a
good interpreter. However, here she
lets her voice elide when the text is
biting. Consonants disappear into an
amorphous stream of indistinct sound.
The orchestra holds the piece together,
but if the central, and recurring, phrase
"J'ai seul le clef de cette
parade sauvage!" (I alone have
the key to this wild parade) is unconvincing,
then the whole piece is without purpose.
The orchestra is back
on firmer ground with Variations
on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Bridge
was Britten's teacher, who shaped his
taste for modern and European music,
for Schoenberg instead of Stanford.
Bridge was very much an isolated outsider
in the music circles of his time, but
Britten remained his loyal champion.
The Variations, based on Bridge's
Three Idylls for String Quartet proved
immediately popular, launching Britten's
international career. Britten uses a
variety of forms, a March, a Romance,
a Waltz, a Bourée, a Funeral
March, an Aria. The orchestra whips
from mood to mood with aplomb, relishing
the ingenuity. For example, the Viennese
Waltz is a parody: the Kiev players
make much of the "ghostly"
passage that creeps in towards the end,
and soon reflected in the Moto perpetuo
which follows, and in the final Fugue.
As the booklet notes say "as far
as compositional technique is concerned,
one remarkable feature stands out......the
broadening of the sound in the multiple
division of all the instrumental groups
over a tonal range of five octaves".
Indeed, it is in this piece that the
Kiev Chamber Orchestra shows just what
it is made of – skilled ensemble players
with a feel for the variety, imagination
and colour of Britten's works for string