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Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Serenade for Strings in E, op.22 (1875) [30:22]
Serenade for wind instruments, cello and double bass in D minor, op.44 (1878) [23:41]
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Alexander Schneider
Douglas Boyd, Mark Pledger (oboes); Richard Hosford, Nicholas Rodwell (clarinets); Robin O’Neill, Christopher Gunia (bassoons); David Nissen (contrabassoon); Jonathan Williams, Stephen Stirling, Kevin Abbott (horns); Christopher Marks (cello); Enno Senft (double-bass)
rec. 1984

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Sanctuary Classics –  a company which embraces ASV, Black Box and others – is reissuing a number of distinguished COE recordings, under the orchestra’s very own label.  This particular disc was first issued on ASV in the mid-1980s, and has always been an eminently attractive coupling, bringing together Dvořák’s two serenades, one for string orchestra, the other predominantly for wind, with the addition of cello and double bass.  It is a pity that there is not more precise information on the disc or case about the date and venue of the recording – all I could find was the year 1984 given in my old ASV copy.
They are contrasted but highly characteristic works, both originating from the 1870s when the composer was approaching the summit of his career.  Of the two, the string piece has the more typically serenade feel to it, with its five varied movements and relaxed atmosphere.  The wind piece with its dark minor tonality feels more like a mini symphony, though the folk song and dance nature of much of the material keeps the music light and entertaining. 
Schneider and his young (at the time!) COE players give idiomatic and beautifully prepared performances of each work.  The opening Moderato of the Serenade for Strings is on the slow side, but this does allow Schneider to move the music forward in the livelier middle section.  The expressive Larghetto is done very beautifully, again a little slower than one is perhaps used to, but drawing out the poignancy of the drooping melody, though without any sentimentality.  The quick movements – scherzo and finale – have plenty of vigour, the finale in particular benefiting from Schneider’s emphasis of light and shade.  This is a work where Dvořák, as he went on to do in the New World Symphony and the Cello Concerto – as well as the other serenade on this disc – interrupts his final movement to recall themes from earlier movements (track 5 around 4:35). Without sacrificing any of its charm, Schneider’s finely paced performance gives the whole work a little more weight and substance than it sometimes receives.
Much the same is true of the wind serenade, though this work sits slightly closer to the realm of chamber music than does the earlier serenade.  It requires excellent solo playing from first oboe and horn in particular, and Douglas Boyd and Jonathan Williams are well able to provide that.  Indeed the whole ensemble performs majestically, and, though the stringed instruments are subsidiary to the wind for most of the time, there are a few lovely moments for the cello (e.g. the coda of the beautiful Andante con moto, track 8 at 6:17) which Christopher Marks brings out expressively.
The most obvious competitor for this disc is Neville Marriner’s version of the same coupling with Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Field on Philips.  There is little to choose between them, though Marriner is broader and more relaxed in the Moderato of op.22, and the recorded perspective in op.44 is a shade less intimate, more orchestral.  There are also good versions by Andrew Davis and the Philharmonia, though these are pretty ancient, being recorded in 1968 and 1975 respectively, and you have to purchase the whole RCA box of the complete symphonies to get them.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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