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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48 (1880) [30:15]
Souvenir de Florence, Op. 70 (1892) [35:12]
The Russian Virtuosi of Europe/Yuri Zhislin
rec. All Saints' Church, East Finchley, January 2015

Time was when conductors regularly played the Tchaikovsky Serenade with a full symphonic string complement: Ormandy (Sony, regrettably cut), Munch (RCA), Dorati (Mercury), and Karajan (DG) all recorded it so in the 1950s and 1960s. Later, the trend was to use smaller ensembles, trading off sheer tonal heft for lighter textures and, with luck, a clearer interplay of parts. Vladimir Spivakov's Moscow Virtuosi and Yuri Bashmet's Moscow Soloists (both RCA, confusingly) have given excellent performances of this type.
The Russian Virtuosi of Europe, based in London and founded in 2004, have two South American tours to their credit along with appearances in Europe; at eighteen strong, the group isn't quite the English Chamber Orchestra, but it's better than ad hoc in size. Their performance of the Serenade frequently sounds impressive, particularly in the homophonic passages, where the attack is bold and the textures are full. There's an occasional lack of presence, however. In the first movement, the cellos' "scrubbing" counter-subject, at 2:15 and elsewhere, sounds dry — and, on its nervous first appearance, doesn't settle on the beat. In the Valse, the violins' ascending counterpoint beginning at 1:00 doesn't cut through at first, only becoming clearly audible as it rises.

The blemishes, though passing, are unfortunate, as Yuri Zhislin, presiding from the concertmaster's chair, leads a spacious, unfussy performance that keeps the languishing to a minimum. The opening movement is "rocking" and spacious. That Valse doesn't feel particularly waltzy, but flows pleasantly, incorporating some graceful ritards along the way. Crisply marked accents propel the Finale's tema russo. Only the cool, clear Élégie misses: it's suitably inward, but wants more warmth.

The Souvenir de Florence is another matter. It's an authentic chamber piece, originally a sextet, so the small orchestra represents, not a reduction of forces as in the Serenade, but an expansion. And since this, like other late-Romantic chamber music, strains at the sonorous and expressive boundaries of the genre, the larger framework makes sense.

Zhislin rises to the occasion with a taut performance. He attacks the first movement incisively, easing up for the second group without losing the basic pulse, driving through the closing stretti. The slow movement, meanwhile, has all the warmth that the Élégie lacked in the Serenade. The opening paragraphs wisely retain the solo violin and cello for the long cantabile lines, which the players project with an intense, bittersweet lyricism. The full sections join in for the brief agitated episode, and the movement closes with an affirmation of the chorale. Zhislin brings out the melancholic Russian-folk flavour of the themes in the latter two movements: an Allegro moderato with a playful middle section, and a lively finale.

The vivid reproduction is strongly directional, enhancing the sense of dialogue among the parts. The treble was steely at my usual listening level — a volume cut made for a pleasing, musical sound.

Well worth it for the Souvenir. In the Serenade, the aforementioned Bashmet, nuanced and burnished, remains one of my favourites. None of the high-octane versions is quite as good as I'd like — it's a shame about the heavy cuts in the Ormandy, including more than half the Finale — but Colin Davis (Philips) gets some big-orchestra ruggedness out of the English Chamber Orchestra.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.



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