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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Serenade for Strings in C major, op.48 (1980) [29:46]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Divertimento, Sz113 (1939) [26:04]
LSO String Ensemble/Roman Simovic
rec. live, 27 October 2013, Barbican, London
LSO LIVE SACD LSO0752 [55:50]

Two strongly contrasted works make up the programme on this disc, though each has a well-established place in the repertoire of the string orchestra. Tchaikovsky’s String Serenade is one of his most satisfying compositions. Although clearly written con amore, it has none of the overwrought emotions and self-dramatisation of the late symphonies and is packed with fine themes and ideas. Bartók’s Divertimento, on the other hand, is a dark, intense work of the late 1930s, in many ways a companion to the great Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.

Both works are well represented in the catalogue, so I was interested to see what the LSO players made of them. This is not, I should emphasise, the whole LSO string section, but a scaled-down body of around twenty-five players. Therein lies something of a problem; Bartók had an ensemble of similar dimensions in mind when he composed his work – it was written for the great Basle Chamber Orchestra under Paul Sacher – while Tchaikovsky surely was thinking of a more fully symphonic sound.

So the Divertimento works well – this is a lively, stylish performance, full of the rhythmic ‘kick’ that Bartók’s essentially folk-inspired music must have. I’ve always been fascinated by the first movement, with its nonchalant theme that seems to have the wind gradually taken out of its sails as things progress. This is done well, as is the succeeding movement, one of the finest examples of Bartók’s ‘night music’. Here, the recorded sound is not kind to the character of the music; it sounds too cramped, ‘studio-ridden’. Despite the extreme dynamic contrasts the players achieve, the ‘Gothic’ atmosphere doesn’t register anywhere near as powerfully as it does, for example, for Spivakov and his Moscow Virtuosi on Capriccio, or Solti and the Chicago players on Decca. The finale, however, finds the ensemble on top form, responding viscerally to Bartók’s brilliant string writing.

As I’ve hinted above, the Tchaikovsky is not so successful. It calls for a richer, denser texture of string sound. Fine though these players undoubtedly are, there is a sense, in the big ‘forte’ passages, that they are straining a bit too hard. Unfortunately, the same goes for the conductor, Roman Simovic, who turns out to be one of those who lets out stertorous ‘snorts’ when urging his players to achieve a big sound. I didn’t notice this in the Bartók, no doubt because it is a different kettle of musical fish — if you know what I mean. However, in the Tchaikovsky, it becomes seriously irritating.

When playing softly, or in a more relaxed way — as in the famous Valse, which is beautifully done — the effect is much better, and there is some superb playing. I say this, even though Simovic is inclined to overdo the ‘pp’ at times – the beginning of the slow movement is effectively inaudible, and the whole movement sounds somewhat affected. Again, there is fine musicianship, and expressive, stylish playing but you’d expect that – this is the LSO after all.

As in the Bartók, the most successful movement of the Tchaikovsky is the finale, which, after the slow introduction, has a delicious sparkle. Sadly though, the lack of tonal weight comes back to haunt the ensemble near the end, where the stately music from the first movement returns, here sounding seriously underpowered.

The recording is mostly fine, other than my reservations about the acoustic properties mentioned above. I was rather disturbed however at the peculiarly booming double bass pizzicato, which sounds for all the world as if it has been artificially boosted in some way – I hope not.

Neither of these recorded performances would be anywhere near my first choice on CD but if you are after this particular coupling of works, this is a perfectly respectable issue.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous review: Simon Thompson