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In Motu
Nino ROTA (1911-1979)
Nonetto [27.22]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Nonet No 2, H374 [16.10]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Symphony No 4 in A major "Italian", Op 90, MWV N16 [28.46]
Intercontinental Ensemble
Rec. Westvest90 Church, Schiedam, Netherlands, 17-19 May 2021
TRPTK TTK0071 SACD [72.19]

This is the first CD by the Intercontinental Ensemble (a nonet) to come my way, and I shall certainly seek out their debut album, Travelling Light, also on the TRPTK label (TTK0021), from 2018. That CD gives the clue to their sound: it contains reductions for nonet of Beethoven’s Second Symphony, Schubert’s Unfinished, and a movement from Brahms’ Third.

Throughout this new release, the ensemble’s sound leans towards the symphonic rather than the more conventional chamber sound – there is a weightiness, well-captured by the astonishingly rich SACD sound, at the cutting edge of state-of-the-art.

I recently waxed enthusiastic about an extraordinary performance of Rota’s great Nonetto ion ALPHA 746, finer than any I had heard. I noted: ‘Demands on the players are very great, not simply in terms of virtuosity and ensemble but in sensitivity and mood. Because of the clarity of textures, (all credit to the sound engineers), there is no hiding-place for the routine. The nine players here rise to every challenge with Úlan, poise and character. A great performance of a great work.’ In that performance, the focus was very much on its chamber quality: here we have a more a sense of the work as that of a film composer, with a studio orchestra, in a strong sound. Tempos are consistently broader than in the ALPHA recording, and there is a firm sense of structure – this is a recommendable alternative, revealing the work in a different light.

Similar points apply to the great three movement Nonet of Martinů. This is a fine performance, bring out the underlying muscularity of the work, without losing detail or virtuosity.

My reservation, which some may not share, is with the reduction of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony. Overall, this is a good performance, attentive to Mendelssohn’s conception, and naturally bringing out the richness of the horn and woodwinds. There is something symphonic about the sound, but the balance did not satisfy me. This symphony revels in a glorious string sound, and not only in the concluding Saltarello, but the four fine players here (violin, viola, cello and double bass) are proportionately, and inevitably, too light in balance. I felt the loss acutely despite gains in the other timbres. This performance, for all its felicities, would not be in my personal top five for this work, despite the evident musicianship on display.

Michael Wilkinson

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