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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Serenade for Strings [29:46]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Divertimento [26:04]
LSO String Ensemble/Roman Simovic
rec. live, Barbican, London, October 2013
LSO LIVE SACD LSO0752 [55:50]

This disc was a lovely surprise and reminded me a little of the LSO Live Fauré Requiem, which took a smaller band of musicians and used them to explore an unusual pairing of works. It worked brilliantly there, and does so here, too.
Tchaikovsky’s evergreen Serenade sounds wonderful on this disc, with a sense of rich, luxuriant beauty to the strings in full flow. What makes it special, though, is the variety and care with which this sound is deployed. The opening C major rush, for example, is refulgent and lush, but the band then immediately pulls back and gives the subsequent statement a much less fat, more textured sound. It is that contrast of the rich and the well observed that marks out this reading, but never at the expense of musical attractiveness. Listen, for example, to the sound at the beginning of the Elegy, which is heart-stoppingly beautiful, full of tenderness, comfort and persuasive rhythms. As for the Waltz it chugs along with just the right sense of welcoming familiarity. The high-wire acrobatics of the finale then scamper along with relish before the end with its recall of the opening which sets the whole thing off beautifully.
The Bartók Divertimento is also extremely well done. There is a tremendous sense of “off we go” to the opening bars, and the rhythmic vitality of the finale is stunning, some aspects sounding so wired as to come very close to science fiction music. Furthermore, the whole thing is beautifully played, treating it with sensitivity and seriousness. That’s true in the outer movements. Even when the spidery, angular lines of the first movement begin to creep forwards, they always do so with a sense of beauty and fullness to the string sound. This is most triumphant in the slow movement, however, which here comes across as one of Bartók’s most soulful, poetic creations. The LSO strings clearly love this music, too, and they endow their sound with a sense of fullness and wealth that makes the whole thing a joy.
In both works, it’s difficult to know exactly what the role of Roman Simovic was as, while he is named, he isn’t credited as either leader or conductor, so I imagine was directing from his seat. He must have had a guiding hand in the sound, though, and if he did then he certainly did a very good job. He is one of the reasons why this is a disc well worth seeking out: an unusual coupling, but a highly successful one. Superb recorded sound helps to complete the package.
Simon Thompson