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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
String Quartet in G minor, op. 10 (arr. string orchestra by Joseph Swensen [25:00]
Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Serenade for Strings in C major, op.48 [29:48]
NFM Leopoldinum Orchestra/Joseph Swensen
rec. 2019, Wroclaw, Poland
CD ACCORD ACD271-2 [54:56]

Many string chamber works have been successfully adapted for string orchestra, sometimes by the composer, sometimes by someone else. One thinks of Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht or Barber’s Adagio on the one hand, and on the other, Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement of Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet (known as the ‘Chamber Symphony’) or Mahler’s version of Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet.

To those, we can now add the Debussy Quartet, in this very fine arrangement by Joseph Swensen, the American violinist, conductor and composer. He directs these performances with the excellent Polish Leopoldinum Orchestra, whose home is the National Forum of Music in Wrocław, Poland. Swensen is well-known in the UK too, mainly through his long association with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

The Debussy Quartet is a relatively early work, and though in many ways a highly characteristic piece, it comes from the period before he fully settled into his radically new approach to musical composition. Less than a year after this quartet, he composed the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, and one can say that his work – and indeed Western music – could never be quite the same again.

Nevertheless, the quartet is a wonderful piece, much loved by string players, and so often paired on CD with another great French quartet, that by Ravel. I have to say, though, that I discovered it anew in this version; rather as I find with Verklärte Nacht, the change to the string orchestra scoring gives the piece new life. Swensen’s arrangement is so very good in that the transformation sounds completely natural and convincing. He has retained solo instruments for some moments, such as the beginning of the slow movement and the recitative-like passages in its middle section. Then the finale begins with solo ‘cello, greatly enhancing that feeling of gradually awakening after a beautiful dream.

There is also a remarkable flexibility, so essential in Debussy, to the phrasing and timing of the performance, which is a tribute both to the quality of the players and to Swensen’s understanding of this composer’s style. It is a pity that the rather bland booklet notes don’t make it clear exactly when this adaptation was made by Swensen; and neither, I’m afraid, could I verify for sure that this is its first time on CD.

The recording was made in the main hall of the National Forum of Music – one of Poland’s major concert venues - but has quite a ‘close-up’ sound, giving a welcome sense of intimacy, and preserving something of the essential chamber music character of the music.

However, that sound quality does not work quite so well for the Tchaikovsky Serenade that completes the disc. This is a more ‘symphonic’ work than the Debussy, and needs perhaps a little more ambience around the sound to make its impact. Unlike the quartet arrangement, the Tchaikovsky has been recorded countless times; and while it is interesting to hear it played by a relatively small string body, this is not a performance that would in itself strongly commend the CD to me. But as a coupling to this splendid Debussy, it is more than adequate.

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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