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Peter Il'ych TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Serenade in C, op.48 (1880) [28:00]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841–1904)
Serenade in E, op.22 (1875) [28:04]
Edward ELGAR (1857–1934)
Serenade in E minor, op.20 (1892) [11:30]
Silesian Chamber Orchestra/Jan Wincenty Hawel
rec. Silesian Philharmonic Concert Hall, Katowice, June 2006
DUX 0560 [67:34]

The Silesian Chamber Orchestra was formed in 1981, bringing together graduates of the Katowice Music Academy, by Jan Wincenty Hawel (rector of the Music Academy from 1981/1986 and 1990/1996) who conducted it until he handed over the helm to Massimiliano Caldi in 2006. Therefore this recording must be one of the last performances he gave with his orchestra. And what a good orchestra it is! A small band -  to judge from the photograph in the booklet it probably consists of four first and for second violins, three violas, three cellos and two basses - with a beautiful sound, which has been beautifully recorded.
The three works presented here were written within the short span of 17 years - not at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries as the booklet tells us - and what a variety of styles and expression we are offered.
The Serenade by Tchaikovsky is the biggest in terms of musical substance. It’s a fine piece – made all the better by not being filled with Tchaikovsky’s often over-the-top angst – which is delightful to listen to, easy-going and a pleasure to spend time with. Unfortunately, Hawel rushes the fast sections of the outer movements leaving one feeling rather breathless, the middle movements, by contrast, being perfectly paced. I also had the feeling of a lack of a full bass in the first movement slow introduction and coda – but then we’re used to hearing this work played by a symphony orchestra string section which, obviously, being larger makes a fuller impression.
The other two works on the disk fare better. The Dvořák Serenade is truly delicious, with perfect tempi, a sense of light and shade - which can go missing in a bigger performance - and a real feel of what the original serenades were intended for – entertainment music. This isn’t a work which reaches any deep emotions and Hawel doesn’t go looking for any profound meaning behind the notes he simply lets his players give of their best and play the notes. It’s fantastic.
Elgar’s Serenade, is equally delightful and Hawel does something which I’ve always thought possible – he convinces me that the slow movement is actually the forerunner of the great slow movements in the Symphonies so well does he handle the smaller scale of the music whilst keeping in mind a bigger concept. The small orchestra suits the music well – indeed, I once heard it played, at a friend’s funeral, by just nine players and it was just as beautiful what that compliment.
I must make mention of the notes in the booklet which with regard to the Tchaikovsky and Dvořák works are fine, but it would appear that Agnieszka Jez has never heard the Elgar work nor knows much about the composer. She claims that the Serenade was written when the composer’s career “… had reached its peak.” As it was written seven years before the Enigma and Gerontius and 16 and 18 years, respectively, before the two Symphonies this is seriously incorrect. Another curious statement is “… Elgar thoroughly revised most of his earlier pieces, which in his view were not mature enough. Among a select group of compositions which passed the composer’s ‘vetting’ procedure was an obscure serenade dating from the composer’s youthful period. Despite numerous changes and improvements, the Serenade in E minor retained the freshness of the original.” Now this is something which will have all Elgarians (myself included) salivating. The news that the Serenade we know and love has a predecessor which, although not quite as good as the present work but which is as fresh (and no doubt as delightful) as newer work is tantalising. I went to Jerrold Northrop Moore’s Edward Elgar - A Creative Life (Oxford University Press, 1984) for some confirmation and I am sorry to have to disappoint you but this simply isn’t so. The details are that on 7 May 1888, the Revd. Vine Hall conducted Three Sketches for String Orchestra at a concert of the Worcester Musical Union. Elgar wrote, “I have … written … three movements for string orchestra, classical Style … I like ’em!” Moore tells us that “The three movements (of the Serenade, op.20) may have been based (my emphasis) on the sketches (from 1888).” As I’ve never heard of any modern performance of the Sketches, nor have I read any mention of the manuscript of the work might I suggest that this information is spurious at best. Perhaps Ms Jez is party to information which has been missed by modern scholarship – if only that were so.
This is a fabulous disk. The playing is superb, the recording smooth and clear, made in a good acoustic and the interpretations - apart from my reservations about the tempi in the Tchaikovsky - are most satisfying. This would be a welcome addition to any collection.
Bob Briggs


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