This release immediately caught my eye - not only because of its attractive cover and interesting repertoire on offer, but it reminds me of another clever, innovative release from BIS - the 2021 album entitled "Divertissement!", played by the splendid c/o chamber orchestra. (Please see my review of it elsewhere on this blog.)
This new one contains music which is slightly larger-scaled and perhaps less overtly "modern" than the Divertimenti on the earlier collection. But despite the fuller orchestra, these Sinfoniettas are actually more delightful and light-hearted. And thoroughly enjoyable.
I am familiar with conductor Dima Slobodeniouk from his wonderful YouTube videos with the Orquesta Sinfonica de Galicia. (His Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique sticks in my mind above all the rest as being quite sensational.) He has built that orchestra into one which is almost - but not quite - among the top-tier orchestras. On this new SACD, he conducts the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, which sounds to be of similar caliber. Slobodeniouk was their principal conductor from 2016 - 2021 and this recording was made near the end of that tenure, in January 2021.
Up first is Poulenc's delightful Sinfonietta - one of his rare attempts at full-scale symphonic composition. The booklet reminds us he was not naturally inclined towards the genre and wrote little symphonic music. Nonetheless, his Sinfonietta is a mature work, energetically pleasing and very fun. The jaunty, short motifs, so characteristic of Poulenc's writing, are everywhere, strung together creatively but often not fully developed. In other words, unmistakably Poulenc. The end result though is entertaining and the variety of moods appealing. The first and third movements remind me very much of his Piano Concerto, which was to come 2 years later (in 1949). The molto vivace second movement is splendid, one of his very best creations, and the finale is most engaging. The orchestra plays it with boundless energy - and a smile - and Slobodeniouk ensures its lightheartedness is endearing.
The Prokofiev which follows it reveals an even more assured compositional accomplishment and musical creativity. Perhaps Slobodeniouk, born and trained in Moscow, has a greater affinity for this composer. But the orchestra plays with an extra involvement and the music-making takes on a soaring quality which brings the piece to life as rarely heard before. Even though written while Prokofiev was still in his teens, it is a marvelous work of remarkable inventiveness and musical substance. And I have never heard it brought off more convincingly than here.
The concluding Britten is another fascinating work and Slobodeniouk reveals its depth of musical abundance without allowing it to become heavy or serious. It was originally scored for double quintet (woodwind/string) and is played here in its 1929 revision for small orchestra - essentially the original score with an added second horn plus more string players. It is Britten's Opus 1, and like the Prokofiev, written while still in his teens. But it bears many hints of the Britten to come and is enlightening and fully developed structurally. The central set of Variations, for example, is wonderfully creative.
The recorded sound on this multi-channel SACD is excellent throughout. There is a marvelous soundstage and the orchestra is well focused within it. I often miss a bit of richness to massed string sound from BIS and this one is no exception. I suspect a reduced number of strings was utilized for these works. However it's not serious and the transparency is impressive, revealing much inner detail, just right for this music. It is refreshingly free from excessive heaviness in the bass which has been the case with many Chandos releases these days.
All in all this is a splendid release, very enjoyable from beginning to end, offering 3 wonderful pieces not often encountered. It is expertly played, conducted and recorded. Very highly recommended.