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Boris BLACHER (1903-1975)
Orchestral Variations on a Theme by Paganini Op.26 (1947) [14:34] *
Orchestral Ornament Op.44 (1953) [14:37] +
Studie im Pianissimo Op.45 (1953) [7:48]
Orchester Fantasie (1956) [19:19]
Louisville Orchestra/Robert Whitney
Louisville Orchestra/Jorge Mester +
Louisville Orchestra/Lawrence Leighton Smith *
rec. Louisville, 1985 (Orchestral Variations) 1968 (Orchestral Ornament), 1954 (Studie im Pianissimo) and 1966 (Orchester Fantasie)

There were three premiere recordings in this Blacher release, another in the more-than-welcome retrieval series issued under the aegis of First Edition. That wasn’t the case of course with one of his best-known works, the Orchestral Variations on a Theme by Paganini, which dates from 1947. Lightly and elegantly scored – note the piccolo and three flutes – this evinces a comprehensive contrapuntal mastery that never palls. The elegant pizzicati that underpin the gauzy waltz-like section are just a single example of Blacher’s control of rhythm and texture. The writing is bold, jaunty, brassy as well – excitingly laced with galvanizing and buffeting cross rhythms. Lawrence Leighton Smith does the honours on the rostrum – and excellently so, the Louisville Orchestra responding with wit and precision.
Orchestral Ornament is cast in four sections. It’s a sophisticated example of his use of spare textures and of his metrical control. The opening is sometimes composed of only single string voices, which imparts a rather desolate feel. The slightly cagey but artful dance of the second section generates an almost Straussian direction. Note too the trumpet principal’s fat, cornet-like tone – always a distinctive feature of the Louisville recordings (who was he?). This is a work where the beauty resides in its austerity; everything is laid out with precision but with no loss of warmth.
Blacher wrote in the original LP sleeve-note that Studie im Pianissimo was a “Nocturne – if you want to call it that.” This rather equivocal statement disguises an ingenious grid of seven bar patterns throughout its compact length – only eight minutes – and the use of instrumentation (increased or removed) to change dynamic levels. Finally there is the 1956 Orchester Fantasie. Though this verges on the tersely atonal at various points it’s not remotely schematically off-putting. On the contrary there’s pawky humour and lashings of brass and string colour throughout. The rhythmic variety conjured by Blacher is also of unflagging variety and interest. In the central Adagio the poignancy of the single string voicings is notable, though rather maliciously undercut by the whimsical answers of the winds and the repetitive indifference of their ascending and descending lines. This balance of depth and caprice is a constant wonder. So too are the pungently dramatic arabesques for winds and harp in the Vivace – with jazzy percussion as well. The Coda ends with brusque, terse and perhaps appropriately unresolved drama. This is one of Blacher’s most effective and all-embracing orchestral works and a must-hear for adherents.
The performances are invariably a little dated now and some of the tougher writing clearly caused sectional discipline. But these are otherwise dedicated and affirmative traversals and still give a huge amount of pleasure.
Jonathan Woolf




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