Young Hearts on Fire
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Sinfonia for strings No.10 (1821-1823) [9:24]
Erich KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
String sextet Op.10 in D major (1914) [35:37]
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Sonata a quattro No.6 (1804) [14:10]
Ensemble Caméléon
rec. 21-24 May 2010, Studio 1, The Netherlands Broadcasting Music Center, Hilversum

Given the dramatic title Young Hearts on Fire, this programme presents the work of three child prodigies, and very impressive it is. Mendelssohn’s ‘String Symphonies’ are more commonly played by string orchestras, and the rich sound of the Sinfonia No.10 in B minor as played by the English String Orchestra under William Boughton in the resonant acoustic in which they appear for the Nimbus label (NI5142) is fairly typical in its weight of multiple strings. Ensemble Caméléon’s lighter, chamber-music sound is highly effective in its clarity, and their judicious use of vibrato is also a marvellous feature of all of their performances here. The opening Adagio sets up an emotional scene reminiscent of late Schubert, and the light pizzicato of the double bass is highly atmospheric. The Allegro second movement has plenty of drama, but the lyrical charm of the music is very much brought to the fore, and the dynamic layering of melodic line and Mendelssohn’s imaginative accompaniments are done perfectly.

Less well known than the other works here, Erich Korngold’s String sextet Op.10 in D major is a highly approachable work in four movements. Playful moods in the opening Satz are contrasted with a dark Adagio, which opens with a Mahlerian major/minor gesture. The two first movements are substantial at over 10 minutes each, but the final two, a wistful Intermezzo and virtuosic Finale don’t see this piece running out of inventive steam. The only other recording of this work I could come up with as a reference is on the Pan Classics label (PC10120), played by the Vienna String Sextet. This ensemble is more emphatically ‘romantic’ and heart-on-sleeve than Ensemble Caméléon, and their intonation is less reliable, so I’m glad to stick with this release from Challenge Classics. I much prefer the Caméléon’s directness of expression, more literal to the text of the music than literary, affecting what might be perceived as the mood of the times. They play with a great deal of deeply felt expression, but allow the subtle little touches of outside influence and prescient imagination shine through, setting the brain spinning with associations both directly felt and barely perceived.

Rossini’s ‘String Sonatas’ are again more often heard through a full string orchestra, and the sparing, vibrato-free, almost in the manner of an ‘historically informed’ early music ensemble opening of the Sonata a quattro No.6 is something of a shock when placed next to the Korngold, but we are after all only just into the19th century with this piece, and the Mozartean influence is most clearly felt here. Ensemble Caméléon clearly enjoy the ‘retro’ nature of this music, but also revel in Rossini’s genius for uplifting melody and rollicking sense of good humour. Even the slower central Andante assai is more ‘up’ than anything else in its harmonic language and melodic gestures.

This is popular music, and is frequently to be found in sets of all six sonatas. All perfectly good in their own way, the Hungarian Virtuosi on Naxos 8.554419 and the New Berlin Chamber Orchestra on Capriccio C10630 as a pair of examples sound pretty tubby in comparison with Ensemble Caméléon, as will any full orchestra against fleet, expertly placed single voices. The best of the string orchestra versions still include the classic Decca version with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields with Sir Neville Marriner, but this Ensemble Caméléon recording sounds anything but thin by comparison, the voicing of the parts all in proportion, and filled with joyous lightness and air. The character of the individual players seems to bring this work in particular to vivid life, heightening the little conversations between parts and imparting the music with unusual drive and sparkling energy.

Very nicely recorded, my only complaints with this disc are that it could have been just a tad longer, and the booklet notes inform us about the young composers but tell us precious little about the actual music. Other than those minor quibbles I’ve enjoyed these pieces hugely in this context.

Dominy Clements

I’ve enjoyed these pieces hugely.