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Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
Fratres for trombone, strings and percussion (1977/2017) [12:35]
Vater unser for trombone and string ensemble – (2005/2017) [3:23]
An den Wassern zu Babel saßen wir und weinten, for trombone and chamber orchestra (1976/2017) [7:38]
Pari Intervallo, for clarinet, trombone and string orchestra (1976/2017} [3:57]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Keyboard Concerto in D minor (after Oboe Concerto by Alessandro Marcello), BWV974 (1714) (arr. van Rijen) [10:00]
Keyboard Concerto in D major (after Violin Concerto Op 3 No 9 by Antonio Vivaldi), BWV972 (1713) (arr. van Rijen) [7:51]
Keyboard Concerto in C minor (after Violin Concerto in E minor Op 1 No 2 by Benedetto Marcello), BWV981 (1714) (arr. van Rijen) [12:27]
Hein Wiedijk (clarinet)
Camerata RCO/Jörgen van Rijen (trombone)
rec. 2016/17, Singelkerk, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Reviewed in stereo and SACD surround
BIS BIS-2316 SACD [58:32]

I well remember that my first exposure to the rarefied tintinnabuli music of Arvo Pärt was the recording of Fratres by the Kronos Quartet on their 1988 album ‘Winter was Hard’- indeed I still have the vinyl to prove it. It beguiled and fascinated me. I soon got to know the versions for 12 cellos and for violin and piano, which featured on the (even earlier) Pärt portrait Tabula Rasa on ECM. To cut to the chase, I’m really not sure that this by now frustratingly ubiquitous piece really works in this trombone adaptation, which seems to be modelled on the violin and piano version. Maybe it’s a matter of personal taste. Van Rijen’s playing is unquestionably fine, but its opening comes across more like a practice exercise than the introduction to one of Pärt’s most iconic and, depending on one’s mood at the time, most moving inspirations. To my ears it sounds rather dislocated here and superfluous to the ‘body’ of the work. The very gradual crescendo and decrescendo that encompass other, more tactful versions of Fratres are barely perceptible here since the dynamic of the trombone seems rather generalised. The piece thus emerges like a theme and variations, involving varying degrees of virtuosity from the soloist and alternating loud and soft dynamics in the strings and percussion. I wondered if the effect would be different through two speakers, having started with the surround option but, if anything, the trombone appears relatively louder and the balance with the orchestra seems awkward to say the least. I’m aware that composer and soloist collaborated on the arrangement, but I suspect this time it might be a ‘version’ too many. Although the ‘tune’ never fails to send shivers down my spine, this version strikes me as a bit of a curiosity more than anything else.

I found the other Pärt items more successful, perhaps due to their relative unfamiliarity. Vater unser was originally a beautiful setting of the Lord’s Prayer for high voice and piano or strings. Van Rijen simply plays its vocal line with tact and sensitivity over the string version that Pärt originally provided for the counter-tenor Andreas Scholl. An den Wassern zu Babel saßen wir und weinten was originally conceived as a four-part wordless anthem for choir and organ; the voices basically required to intone the vowel sounds of the Kyrie. It convinces in this trombone guise and van Rijen’s purity of tone lends both empathy and gravitas to this hauntingly beautiful piece. The brief Pari Intervallo, written as a memorial to a friend of the composer, is possibly most often heard in its organ manifestation. This arrangement pairs a solo clarinet with the trombone and the string orchestra. The soloists simply play a sequence of overlapping, suspended notes above a gentle string backcloth. It is a mathematically elegant design, and is most affecting in its apparent simplicity.

And so to van Rijen’s trombone versions of three Bach keyboard concertos, which are in themselves arrangements of original works by the brothers Alessandro and Benedetto Marcello and by Vivaldi. All have a pleasing vivacity and are beautifully played. While the recording in both formats is warm yet detailed, I would argue that the surround option is perhaps more successful in these adaptations. The simplicity of Arvo Pärt’s music presents a unique challenge for recording in this format; possibly even more so when a solo trombone is involved. But the greater variety of timbre on display in the Bach ‘transformations’ emerges with both vividness and clarity through multiple speakers. None of these concertos plumbs any great spiritual depths, though the D major work (after a Vivaldi violin concerto) affords van Rijen considerable opportunity for virtuosic display – a challenge from which he emerges cum laude. The longest of the three, the C minor work after Benedetto Marcello’s E minor violin concerto, features a four-movement design. The orchestral playing in the first and slow movements is wonderfully layered and the dynamics tastefully contrasted while the spirited Prestissimo finale projects a delicious swagger and features some ripe solo violin, as well as van Rijen’s fine trombone playing.

On paper this is an elegantly constructed programme with the four Pärt works alternating with the Bach arrangements. Perhaps I’d have placed Fratres more centrally, as I suspect other listeners may find this version somewhat cumbersome, but if the idea of an hour-long recital of Pärt and Bach, arranged for trombone and chamber orchestra, appeals, then I can’t imagine anyone feeling short-changed by these performances or by the typically fine BIS recording.

Richard Hanlon

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