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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Divertimento for String Orchestra (1939) [24:20]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quintet No. 2 in G major Op. 111 (1890) [30:16]
Amsterdam Sinfonietta/Candida Thompson
rec. 2016, Stadsgehoorzaal, Leiden, The Netherlands

The Amsterdam Sinfonietta has produced a series of attractive albums on the Channel Classics label, including Shostakovich, Mahler, and music from Bohemia. These were released with an SACD layer whereas this is conventional stereo only.

With Bartók’s Divertimento this orchestra enters stiff competition in the catalogues, but the Amsterdam Sinfonietta has performed the work often, and has waited many years before committing it to a commercial recording. Composed under the shadow of war while Bartók was the guest of Paul Sacher in Switzerland, the Divertimento expresses both joy and relief at being at work once more after a creative block of several months, and the dark and uncertain future of Europe. These contrasts of brief shafts of light in the first movement, and the powerful but relatively simply expressed sense of doom in the second, the strings often playing without vibrato and creating a seriously anxious and scary mood, are communicated superbly in this performance. Dynamic extremes are explored to the full, as is the vital energy of the folk-music energy of the last movement, which is both supremely disciplined and utterly compelling.

Brahms’s String Quintet Op. 111 is hard enough to play in its original chamber music version, let alone with complete string sections in an orchestral arrangement. Candida Thompson admits these technical challenges, commenting that “all the intricacies of the solo voices have to be found and polished, but in my view it lends itself to becoming – dare I say it – a ‘symphony for strings’ when one approaches it with so many more players.” With the admirable sonorities of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, part of the strength of this performance is that it keeps as much its chamber-music spirit as it does transfer the work into orchestral realms. The playing has a fresh and spontaneous feel, with a lightness of touch that reaches through every desk of the orchestra, the quietness of the dynamic in the middle of the first movement at around 6:00 a baseline from which Brahms’ more dramatic passages can make their full impact without sounding forced or inexpressive. The Adagio second movement has a stately elegance and yearningly amorous warmth of character that I could listen to all day, and the quirky Un poco allegretto is given an amiable character that nevertheless keeps us guessing. The Hungarian character of the final Vivace ma non troppo presto is full of fun, the appearance of its csárdás tune understated to start with, but the vibrant energy of the whole thing carrying us through to the end with extrovert high-kicking exuberance. There’s also an extra track with this dance including added whoops from the orchestra, which may or may not appeal but is good fun.

I searched for competitors to this recording but only managed to find a few versions with string orchestra. The Camerata Salzburg conducted by Séndor Vegh on the Capriccio label is good, but without quite the depth and involvement of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta. The CAvi-music label has the Camerata Bern playing an arrangement of the quintet by Käthi Steuri and Antje Weithaas which is also very good. This is a little sweeter sounding and more laid-back than the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, whose recording mentions no arranger by the way.

The Bartók Divertimento for String Orchestra has numerous classic recordings available. Sir Georg Solti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Decca Eloquence has a powerful authenticity (review), and if you want to go back further there is Ferenc Fricsay with the RIAS Symphony Orchestra in moodily atmospheric mono (review). The BIS label has the Camerata Nordica conducted by Terje Třnnesen (review) in a fine performance, but one with pulls the tempi around more and gives a more fussy impression than Candida Thompson’s in the first movement. Třnnesen is also nearly two minutes longer in the central Adagio, and listening back now it seems over stretched.

If this programme appeals then have no hesitation in purchasing this fine disc. The performances are superbly prepared and colourful and lively, oozing that aura of live playing that comes from frequent stage experience with both works. The Stadsgehoorzaal Leiden is like a mini Amsterdam Concertgebouw, with both a concert hall and theatre vibe which suits this music well in being not too dry, and not too symphonic in scale. With expert and impressively vibrant performances such as these you can’t go wrong.

Dominy Clements


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