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Dip Your Ears, No. 89

available at Amazon
Shostakovich, String Quartets 2 & 4 (arr.String Orchestra), Amsterdam Sinfonietta
The last recording of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, issued by Channel Classics in 2006, contained Walton’s Sonata for Strings and the souped-up Beethoven String Quartet op.135. An odd mix perhaps, and the Beethoven of questionable (though not without) musical merit. But the disc impressed all ears that heard it – and the reference quality surround sound on the hybrid SACD had much to do with it.

It’s not surprising that the Amsterdam Sinfonietta (AS) is the only professional string orchestra in the Netherlands (as the liner notes helpfully point out), because there is apparently so little repertoire to play that the 22-head strong group has to scavenge Shostakovich string quartets for their latest recording project. Whether they qualify as “highly neglected” or “rediscovered works” (that’s the repertoire the AS aims at presenting), I don’t know.

Having already recorded the 8th Quartet (in the famous Barshai orchestration) and the 10th, they turn their eye to the Second and Fourth Quartets which might well be two more of the ‘least untranscribable’ DSCH-quartets. (The liner notes admit readily that not all his quartets are equally well suited to be played by a string orchestra – a statement as refreshingly candid as it is true.)

The transmogrification in the present case consists of little more than having the quartet parts taken by more players (6 – 6 – 3 – 4) and adding a bass part which AS bassist Marijn van Prooij achieved to do in a very unintrusive manner.

The breadth and the slow sweeping element that the 19 players achieve expectedly resonates more with the slow(er) movements of the quartets, the Allegretto and the Andantino of Quartet No.4 in D, op.83 and the ‘Recitative & Romance’ of No.2, op.68. Sonorous humming lulls the ears into audial complacency, more effectively than four players ever could – in those moments where lull is actually desired. In the Romance the quality is almost that of a contemplative violin concerto. Beautiful!

The only problem after all that pliable playing: The ‘big band’ can’t quite jolt you back out of it, when necessary, either. That’s to the detriment especially of the Second Quartet – where the waltz loses all of its demonically dancing quality. The lean string quartet sound has a way of being acerbic and biting that a superbly drilled string orchestra just doesn’t.

For Shostakovich fans with SACD-players and surround sound set-up, this is going to be a very attractive release… for all others it won’t likely be a very urgent acquisition.

Channel Classics Hybrid SACD CCS SA 26007

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