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Carl NIELSEN (1865–1931)
Symphony No. 4 The Inextinguishable [34:18]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Sinfonia da Requiem
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Miraculous Mandarin
Suite [20:20]
Texas Music Festival Orchestra/Daniel Hege
rec. live, 21 June 2014, Moores Opera House, University of Houston, Texas
HIGH DEFINITION TAPE TRANSFERS BD-A no catalogue number [74:39]

The Immanuel and Helen Olshan Texas Music Festival was established in 1990. Each year it takes the form of a four-week summer school during which some 90 young musicians, aged between 18 and 30 who are “on the cusp of a professional career”, receive intensive tuition from, among others, players from the Houston Symphony and the orchestra of Houston Grand Opera. The course is based at the Moores School of Music at Houston University. During the Festival the students give a number of concerts, usually featuring demanding programmes. This BD-A disc preserves one such concert given as part of the 2014 Festival.

The technical proficiency of young musicians nowadays is often jaw-droppingly good and on the evidence of this disc the quality of the musicians who assembled in Houston in 2014 was very high. Not only that, but they play with huge commitment. The catalogue contains top-notch recordings of all three of these works by some of the world’s leading orchestras and conductors. However, I’m not going to make comparisons on this occasion. That’s not because I feel that this orchestra and conductor would be embarrassed by the comparisons – that is not the case – but more because this is a pretty unique programme and it’s a live event.

What a programme it is. Here are three tremendously powerful twentieth century works, all of them placing great demands on the performers. Indeed, seasoned professionals might take a sharp intake of breath if faced with the prospect of playing all three scores in one evening. The members of the Texas Music Festival Orchestra seem completely undaunted. I wonder if the works were presented in this order at the concert itself. One thing that makes me wonder is that the Nielsen is greeted by an ovation that is as enthusiastic as it is well-deserved and the symphony would seem a pretty obvious concert finale. On the other hand the applause for the Bartók sounds more respectful than anything else; mind you, The Miraculous Mandarin is music that’s not for the faint-hearted. By the way, there is no applause at the end of the Britten. Anyway, let’s consider the works in the order they’re placed on the disc.

The Nielsen symphony gets off to a surging start though Daniel Hege gets his players to relax nicely in the second subject. We hear a very spirited account of the first movement and all sections of the orchestra play very well indeed: the orchestra is well disciplined and all sections produce good, full sound. I was struck in particular by the firm bass foundation. The strings and timpani achieve a good sense of suspense in the transition to the second movement. The Poco allegretto is relaxed, as it should be, and there’s a good deal of admirable work from the woodwind choir. The strings attack the Poco adagio quasi andante with great commitment and Hege’s decision to divide his violins left and right pays dividends. The TMFO gives a gripping account of this movement, building it to a potent climax. The start of the finale opens with an exciting sugar rush of energy. There’s an abundance of tension and vigour in this performance and the two sets of timpani come across vividly. By the time the end of the symphony is reached you feel that the triumph of the spirit has been deservedly won. I’m not surprised that the audience is highly appreciative at the end. This is a symphony that demands a high degree of commitment and these young players demonstrate that in spades. Daniel Hege definitely has the measure of this terrific score.

The Britten gets off to a tremendous start; the doom-laden timpani and other bass instruments register very powerfully indeed. For a couple of minutes thereafter I wondered if Hege had allowed the tension to drop but I don’t think he does. Rather, the music is built patiently and incrementally as the dead march proceeds. This movement is a tense and troubled affair and Britten really challenges his players; the challenges are well met here. The movement’s final climax is intense and dramatic. The ‘Dies irae’ second movement is packed with technical difficulties, which are well addressed by these players. The music should be spiky and menacing and this orchestra achieves that. The closing ‘Requiem aeternam’ comes off well too. Hege and his players manage to achieve the balancing act between surface calm and an inner edginess in the music – an edginess, moreover, that sometimes comes to the surface very powerfully. As in the Nielsen, the orchestra shows not only proficiency but great commitment and that’s why the performance is so successful.

Bartók’s suite from The Miraculous Mandarin is presented on a single track. I rather regret that but HDTT are not the first record company in my experience to do that. The plot is an unwholesome, lurid tale and Bartók wrote music to match. The orchestra gets out of the starting blocks with edgy, rhythmically pronounced playing at the very start. Later I admired the spooky solo playing of the principal clarinet. As the story unfolds the TMFO woodwinds frequently offer suitably pungent playing while the brass are consistently menacing. The chase has plenty of snarl and drive and overall this is a vivid, atmospheric account of Bartók’s score. Hege and his young players bring out the drama and give a convincing, strongly projected performance. As I said earlier the applause seems a bit muted, certainly by comparison with the reaction to the Nielsen symphony but, then, Bartók has just fed his audience a diet of pretty strong meat.

If you pick up a disc by an orchestra of which you’ve never heard then you are bound to be uncertain what awaits you. I must say I was impressed by the assured and highly proficient performances preserved here and I enjoyed the concert very much. There are a few very slight imperfections in the playing, though nothing that concerned me unduly. These and a few undistracting extraneous noises remind us that this is a live concert. There’s applause after the Nielsen and Bartók items but silence follows the quiet ending of the Britten. The recorded sound is pretty good. It’s a bit close-miked, as is often the way with live recordings, but not to an excessive degree. What matters is that the playing is clearly ad excitingly reported. Engineer John Proffitt has done a good job. The documentation is on the rudimentary side.

If, like me, you think this is a cracking programme then I think you’ll enjoy this Texan concert.

John Quinn


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