This superbly engineered disc continues one element of the
recorded trajectory of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta which is to
present augmented arrangements of string quartets. They’ve already
had some success with their engorged versions of Shostakovich’s
second and fourth quartets, Beethoven’s Op.135 and Verdi’s quartet,
amongst other things. Now we come to a very different repertoire.
The vin ordinaire, as it were, is Dvořák’s evergreen
Serenade in E – which is an authentic work authentically performed.
But we then have Pavel Haas’s Quartet No.2 and Ervin Schulhoff’s
Five Pieces, which have been inflated to chamber orchestra size.
I have no rooted objection to this in any way. In fact it’s
been done before in the case of the Haas. The Australian Chamber
Orchestra and Richard Tognetti recorded it in his own arrangement
(minus the final movement’s percussion part) on Chandos CHAN
10016. It was coupled with equally large-scale versions of Haas’s
teacher, Janácek – the First Quartet – and Szymanowski’s Second.
One has to accept that this arrangement will change the character
of the work. For the Haas the Sinfonietta has six first violins,
six seconds, five violas, four cellos, two double-basses and
the percussion part. The result, it needs hardly stating, is
a bigger, chewier, generally slower, less mobile, less rhythmically
accented performance than one for the quartet. It masks the
tensile, changeable, sheer strangeness of the quartet writing;
it’s like bathing a face in shaving foam. This is particularly
of concern in the Janácek-derived Moravian rhythms, where the
verdant nature writing sounds heavier than with the eponymous
Pavel Haas Quartet recording [Supraphon SU 3877-2]. The effect
here and elsewhere – especially in the cart-lurching pictorial
that is the second movement - is a smoothing out of the tensile
and tactile writing; the bilious lurches and wayside folkloric
dances are flattened. My further objection is that these folkloric
episodes are written explicitly for an appropriately sized band;
turning them into a regimental string section defeats the object
spectacularly. I suppose I could go on; the lack of intimacy
of the spectral third movement, the turning of novel sonorities
into rather generalized amorphous gestures; the lack of genuine
wildness in the finale. But equally I suppose, in the end, the
chamber sized version is something else and should be judged
on its own terms. The playing is really first class in this
respect; this is a truly crack ensemble.
The Schulhoff Pieces are again written for quartet. And again
they lose their tart astringency and become more malleable,
more parochial in their new arrangements. The second piece,
a Serenata, is taken really rather slowly – it’s marked
Allegretto con moto - and elsewhere we lose the occasional
echoes of Stravinsky. One could quibble too that the tempo for
the Alla Tango Milonga doesn’t really work taken quite
this slowly. The blurry beefed up Tarantella ends another
wonderfully played but to me rather dispiriting reading. Turn
to the Schulhoff Quartet on VMS 138 for the real deal.
The Dvořák Serenade gets a light, brisk and eventful performance.
It’s certainly airy and nourishing but other performances have
found more light and shade; the expressive mastery of Talich
and the Prague Soloists in 1951 is an object lesson to one and
I said that I had no real objection to these souped-up arrangements.
It’s the effect they have that concerns me. It would incidentally
be nice to know who made the arrangements and whether the Haas
is derived from the Tognetti version with percussion added,
or not. Despite the playing and the superlative recording, I
can’t see why anyone should prefer to experience these two inauthentic
versions to the original incarnations, unless it’s for the pleasure
of hearing the fine playing.