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Visions Fugitives - Music for Strings
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

Visions fugitives, Op.22 (selection, arr. R. Barshai) (1915–17) [16:35]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Fünf Stücke für Streichorchester, Op.44 No.4 (1927) [12:35]
Anton WEBERN (1883-1945)
Fünf Sätze, Op.5 (1909/29) [12:30]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Divertimento for string orchestra, BB118 (1939) [25:56]
Camerata Nordica/Terje Třnnesen
rec. February 2006 (Bartók) and March 2012, Algusytrum kyrka, Oland, Sweden.
BIS BIS-2126 SACD [68:35]

The Swedish string ensemble Camerata Nordica under Terje Třnnesen appeared on record for BIS in 2013 with an acclaimed all-Britten programme, but have also recorded for CPO (see review). This programme of 20th century music for strings ranges from the period just before World War I to a few days before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Labelled as ‘Music for Strings’, Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives is a set of miniatures, originally for piano. Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement for strings of a selection of these pieces is well proven and highly effective. Even with the technical demands here there are very few small intonation issues at the far extremes of the range with the relatively small number of strings per section. Camerata Nordica prove they have the chops to turn this into stunning music as well as deal with the technical problems. The pieces remain highly characteristic, very Russian and recognisable, and while the effect is different to the piano version there is enough bite in the sound, contrast of colour and variety to create a deeply involving experience. Once again I find it hard to nail my colours to the mast when it comes to a preference between this, Neville Marriner or Yuri Bashmet in this arrangement. Marriner is richer sounding but less agile and with heavier vibrato, and while Bashmet’s set of 20 is more complete there are some terrific moments on this BIS recording. If you sample the last three pieces I can guarantee you will be sold on the rest. The collection ends with the Dolente no. 16 which is an effective conclusion but I found myself wishing we had the rest as well.

Hindemith’s rather dryly titled Fünf Stücke from his Schulwerk für Instrumental-Zusammenspiel hides a set of rather lovely pieces, conceived as educational works but with the composer’s fine sense of harmony. They're performed here in a spirit of fun as well as touching expressiveness. Once again the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields from Decca Eloquence is a competitive alternative, with a warmer sound but less of an emotional edge: the Sehr langsam movement is a masterpiece here, and Terje Třnnesen is inclined to dig a little deeper than most.

Even a century on, Anton Webern is a defining figure in modern musical language. His Five Pieces Op. 5 were originally written for string quartet, and the open freedom in this chamber music setting can still be felt in the later version for string orchestra. Not quite as compact and extreme as his later works, this opus retains a striking pioneering spirit. It also remains drenched in Viennese expressionism and the full gamut of emotions, from angst to genuine grief, some of the music having emerged not long after the death of the composer’s mother. The more you listen the more the beauty of the writing takes over from the ‘proto-serialist’ modernity of the score.

Bartók’s Divertimento will for many be the best known piece in this programme. It was the last piece Bartók wrote in Switzerland before leaving for the United States in 1939. While there is dance-like energy in the first movement there is a dark shadow over the entire piece which never loses its grip. This wells up in the central Molto adagio which, especially bearing in mind the times in which it was written, is as full of haunting and sinister terrors as you can imagine in a single movement. The Camerata Nordica players relish Bartók’s ghastly vision with a rare rawness. Whichever alternatives you might have lying around this recording is certainly one worth hearing.

This is an attractive programme, superbly performed and recorded with an ideal balance between detail and atmosphere in 5.0 surround sound. From solos to the weightiest of tuttis this is a band which punches way above its chamber weight. Musical satisfaction and involvement is created at every turn of the music’s pages. The only disappointment here is the incomplete Prokofiev. Recording 15 dances of the 20 you would expect everyone to go the extra few feet to round off the set. It’s not as if there wouldn’t have been space on the CD. Camerata Nordica represents a modern sound which contrasts with that with the more orchestral scale of Neville Marriner from the 1960s and 1970s. Transparency, detail in colour and agility are the watchwords these days, which does not mean that the emotional impact of the music need be diminished; on the contrary. Don’t expect plush relaxation from this recording, but I can promise that focused listening will reap major dividends.

Dominy Clements