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Astor PIAZZOLLA (1921-1992)
The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (La Cuarto Estaciones Porteñas) (arr. L. Desyatnikov for violin and strings) (1965-70) [26:04]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Rondo in A major for violin and string orchestra D438 (1816) [14:48]
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Moz-Art à la Haydn (1977) [12:12]
Oblivion (1982) [4.48]
Nicola Sweeney (violin)
Irish Chamber Orchestra/Katherine Hunka (violin)
rec. 2016/19, ICO Studio, University of Limerick, Ireland

Under their leader and sometime musical director of eighteen years, Katherine Hunka, and their Artistic Partner/Principal Conductor, Jörg Widmann, the 22-strong Irish Chamber Orchestra has forged a dynamic path. Adventurous cross-genre programming, innovative musical and community partnerships and new commissions from young Irish composers have characterised the Orchestra’s energetic and ambitious approach to music-making.

So, it’s not surprising to see some unlikely bedfellows nestling beside one another on this disc, though connecting threads soon become apparent. While their sound-worlds may be vastly different, both the Argentine Piazzolla and the Russian-born, German-speaking Schnittke, frequently employ a playful-cum-serious integration of diverse musical styles, enhanced by intertextual allusiveness, and in her liner book article, Joanna Wyld suggests that these two composers also share with Schubert a ‘spirited quality’ which often has a ‘visceral effect’ on the listener.

Hunka and the ICO must have ruminated thoughtfully on the best partners for Piazzolla’s ‘nuevo tangos’ as they released a disc of The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires and Oblivion on the Orchestra’s own label in 2017, recordings which have been transferred to this new disc. Piazzolla’s Seasons were not conceived as a unified suite, being composed separately between 1965 and 1970, for diverse contexts. ‘Summer’ was written first, initially designed as instrumental music for a play by Alberto Rodríguez Muñoz, but it appears at the end of the sequence presented here – in the arrangement for violin and strings which Leonid Desyatnikov made for Gidon Kremer, inserting wry references to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. So, we move through the wind-swept, scrunchy leaves of ‘Autumn’ into the melancholy of ‘Winter’, before the rhythmic life which stirs in ‘Spring’ erupts into the ebullient colour-fest of ‘Summer’.

Desyatnikov may have excised the bandoneón and electric guitar of Piazzolla’s original version, but in ‘Autumn’ the Irish Chamber Orchestra persuasively mimic the screech, whistle and blare of a tango band, relishing the more grotesque sounds and snarls – one can literally feel the grain of the high violins’ sul ponticello shudders and the percussive stamp of the double-basses’ dark, lithe tread. The players match the tonal vibrancy with rhythmic vigour, but segue smoothly into, first, some lump-in-the-throat soulfulness from a solo cello (the player is not identified but I presume the soloist is the ICO’s Principal Cellist, Christian Elliott), and subsequently some cadenza-like expressive roving from Hunka herself. She creates an impression of wilful, crisp assertiveness – the jagged lines retain their swagger – but the ensemble sneakily quell her elaborations, luring her back into the accelerating swirl which races excitedly to the close.

There are further virtuosic flights in ‘Winter’, interrupting the divided cellos’ melancholy theme and intermittently replacing the prevailing sentimentality with a cooler search for expressive depths – and heights, as the solo violin pushes the tempo forward and staccatos, with granite cleanness, thrusting up into the chilly stratosphere. The ensemble is terrifically taut, making the softer reflections all the more touching. Desyatnikov’s intertextual insertions don’t always come where one might expect them, and the appearance of a snatch of Vivaldi’s ‘Summer’ in the dark depths of Piazzolla’s ‘Winter’ ensures that irony prevails – presumably when it’s winter in Buenos Aires, Venice is gleaming in the summer sun. A firecracker kicks off the electric vivacity of ‘Spring’, with its Stravinskian rhythmic fizz and Prokofiev-like percussive slaps, trills and ricochets. Hunka balances chiselled double-stopped incisions with melodic sensuousness, and towards the close proves that she would make a fine folk-fiddler. The complex contrapuntal interlockings at the start of ‘Summer’ have just the right touch of wild heat, before sinking with Hunka’s swooning glissandi into a sultry steaminess. The boisterous enthusiasm at the close suggests that the players enjoyed this performance every bit as much as I did.

The dance with the past is resumed in Schnittke’s Moz-Art à la Haydn. If Piazzolla sought to integrate contrasting idioms, then Schnittke delights in the conflicts between them. The composer wrote several ‘Moz-Art’ works, for eclectic instrumental combinations; the K416d sketches which are the starting point for this 1977 à la Haydn version (for two violins and chamber orchestra) had also inspired a Moz-Art for flute, clarinet, three violins, viola, cello, double bass, percussion and organ two years earlier, and would engender a Moz-Art à la Mozart for eight flutes and harp in 1990.

Here, Mozart’s fragments are combined with the wry conclusion of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony. Ideally, it should be seen and not just heard, though producer Andrew Keener does his best to convey the ‘live theatrical vibe’. The ‘scenario’ opens with thirteen dark-enshrouded musicians improvising around incomplete fragments of a humorous pantomime the Mozart wrote in 1783, of which only the first violin part and some sketches have survived. When the lights come up Haydn, Mozart (some shards of the ‘Great’ G minor Symphony) and Schnittke collide in the brightness, until players leave the stage one-by-one, à la Haydn’s Farewell.

Murmurs and pizzicato scales emerge from an aural hinterland; gentle intimations and oscillations initiate momentum and a sense of a pulse; then in burst the solo fiddles, ‘scrubbing’ bare fifths, inviting the ensemble to similarly bare its teeth before launching into a lop-sided faux-gallant dance. Incongruity and bemusement prevail: just when a recognisable gesture seems about to take more stable form, it is submerged back within the kaleidoscope. As the ICO’s Principal Second Violin, Nicola Sweeney, melodises mournfully with Hunka, above a strummed cello accompaniment, laughs and coughs, scrapes and bangs can be heard until a piercing crescendo and plummeting glissando triggers an avalanche of fleeing footsteps. A few attempts to get some counterpoint, or even a melody underway, are thwarted by the music’s own capriciousness, and in the end the double basses’ Hadean rumble pulls the ever more fragile pizzicato scales back into the void.

The elegance of Schubert’s Rondo in A major, perhaps inevitably, struggles a little to emerge from the shadows between the emphatic spirits of Piazzolla and Schnittke, but the air soon feel cleansed. Humka’s pure tone and silky, insouciant legato phrasing are beguiling – what a startling change after the grit, grain and frisson of the Piazzolla! – and the ICO are terrifically responsive, always rhythmically alert, with propulsive dynamic contrasts and flexible tempi.

After all the fun, Piazzolla’s late tango, Oblivion, makes for a poignant, and haunting, last word: a sensuous sunset of nostalgia.

Claire Seymour

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