This is the second recording I have encountered by the Polish Baltic Neopolis Orchestra on the wonderful Dux label. This one is special in that it presents a program of world premier recordings released on the occasion of the orchestra's 15th Anniversary. This is a smallish string ensemble (7/5/4/3/1), utilizing various soloists in a variety of combinations. They are recorded so skillfully by the Dux engineers they never sound "small" or undernourished. The group produces a vibrant, full, airy sound which is a pleasure to listen to.
The highlights of the CD for me are the first two pieces, for concertante combinations and string orchestra, rather more so than the two more “traditional” concertos which come later in the program.
Beginning with the fabulous 13 Variations on a Polish Melody (for violin, cello and string orchestra), Marcelo Nisinman introduces the theme, an old Polish Ave Maria, as a densely scored chorale, which, surprisingly, is a little schmaltzy. But that is thoroughly deceptive! In less than a minute, the variations take off in a totally different direction - instantly contemporary - with some jovial, festive dance music. A quirky jaunt is soon followed by a gypsy tango reminding me instantly of Piazzolla. Intrigued, I read in the booklet Mr. Nisinman is a bandoneon player (a specialized type of accordion used for tangos, also called a concertina) and he mimics that in his score with imaginative orchestration, punctuated with audacious string effects such as sharp glissandos and percussive pizzicato.
The music is ever-changing, each variation lasting only a minute or so before switching gears. Along the way we hear some slow interludes, others more dramatic - like movie music for a suspense sequence. There is a pizzicato movement, a high-energy rhythmic section, and even a glamorous Hollywood-esque variation which had me laughing out loud! So did the one which has the strings strumming like a banjo. A whirlwind of sul pont flurrying gains momentum and tension before submitting to the reappearance of the chorale theme, taking us to the end of this hugely entertaining piece.
The 2 soloists are skillfully incorporated into the overall fabric of the string orchestra rather than highlighted as if in a concerto. They essentially add extra layers of color, texture and variety to the music. This is a descriptive and highly imaginative piece which I absolutely loved.
I could say the exact same thing about The Second Space, for string quartet and string orchestra by Mikolaj Piotr Gorecki. (Not the Gorecki; Henryk’s son). While both works are exactly the same length in overall timing (just over 11 minutes each), the Gorecki is even more colorfully orchestrated, with interesting interplay between string quartet and orchestral strings. There are just enough players in the orchestra to illustrate the contrasts in color and texture between four and tutti.
The music starts hesitantly, with brief, episodic rhythmic pulses, before the rhythms become so restless and compulsive they can no longer be contained. Soon, a fervent melody played by the quartet begins to soar above it, adding ardor and tension culminating in an intense, climactic passage for all 4 players in unison. It ends abruptly with a hushed atmosphere created by the tutti strings transfixed in its wake. This is a spellbinding moment. The serenity continues, punctuated with articulate interjections by the quartet, combined in unison, in what is surely the most alluring passage in the entire program.
A lyrical passage follows, with an ardent solo from the cello, before the entire group again takes over with propulsive rhythmic energy. And so it goes to the end - atmospheric passages interrupted by impulsive rhythms, as if the composer is teasing us, inviting us, daring us to stick with him to the end, where a burst of energy concludes what has been an amazing experience.
I initially thought the piece had some compositional elements with origins in Minimalism, but the composer describes it as Spectralism. That is a musical form new to me and I had no idea what it was. After researching it a bit, I can say that is exactly what I’m hearing! And I paraphrase: a genre of electronic music which creates a rich, immersive experience through complex soundscapes and textures, often with elements of ambient, experimental, dreamy, ethereal sound.
That’s a lot of descriptors, but this music has so many of those characteristics, it fits. And what I love about it all is that there are residual hints of tonality in the atmospheric passages, which are "dreamy" and "ethereal" but have heart and emotion and inspiration too. This piece is worlds away from the monotony of Minimalism - just the opposite, actually. It is so varied, rhythmically propulsive and musically engaging, it’s mesmerizing. The playing of it here by the Baltic Neopolis Orchestra (BNO) is absolutely sensational. And it should be noted the piece was composed for them on commission.
Now to the concertos - the first for violin, the second for viola.
As might be ascertained from its title, Lukaszewski’s Neopolis Concerto was written with this orchestra in mind. And it suits the group and its soloist, concertmaster Emanuel Salvador, perfectly. There are 3 movements which bear no tempo or stylistic indications, other than simple metronome markings. The first and second movements are similar - both slow-moving and songful. The First aches with longing and solitude, while the Second is slightly more sanguine. But the music isn’t forlorn. And Salvador doesn’t over-sentimentalize it, keeping it simple and singing. He varies the intensity of his tone and vibrato judiciously, never weighing it down with too much richness. The 3rd movement is more lively, almost a Scherzo, yet continually infused with an attractive lyricism. And here too, Salvador’s lightness of tone brings out its best qualities.
This is a wonderful concerto - a pleasant alternative to the usual fireworks and dazzling bravura heard in the typical violin showpiece. This requires a bit more insight and thoughtful expression. (Even the cadenzas are mostly lyrical.) It is played most beautifully here in a sympathetic and persuasive reading.
Ewa Fabianska-Jelinska’s Viola Concerto rounds off the concert, featuring Ukrainian violist Andriy Viytovych (viola professor at London’s Royal College of Music and violist with the Royal Opera House). Its 3 movements are more varied than in the previous concerto, with an opening Vivo pesante and final Allegretto giocoso surrounding a central Adagio. However, there is a pervading darkness to it, even more so than in the violin concerto.
In the opening Vivo, a solo bass viol establishes the pesante indication in a ponderous minor key, continuing as the cellos join in a few bars later. Soon, the viola makes its first appearance, rhythmic and articulate above the gloom, setting forth a propulsive energy which predominates much of what follows. There is an extended, lyrical cadenza too, providing a moving respite from the rhythmic restlessness which inhabits the entire movement. It is an interesting solo part with much variety, marked by an occasional elongated glissando. A tutti declaration leads to an abrupt pause, taking us to the Adagio, which picks up where the cadenza left off with an a cappella viola. The atmosphere is hopeless now, especially when joined by the bass viol in a most unusual and intriguing duet. In the booklet, the composer describes this movement as “searching for a path of light” and an “escape from chaos”, but I don’t hear it that way. It seems to be resignation. However, the light begins to appear in the final Allegretto giocoso risoluto, beginning with another a cappella cadenza from the soloist. Soon, the entire orchestra joins in with everyone in an optimistic mood. But while subtle dance elements provide the giocoso, a pervading emotional reflection is never far away.
Much like Lukaszewski’s Violin Concerto, this work avoids flashy displays of brilliance, providing the soloist an outlet for deeper musical expression instead. It is skillfully written for the viola, often exploiting the lower register. And Viytovych relishes it with richly textured tone and effortless artistry in this moving performance.
I have enjoyed many releases from the Polish Dux label in recent months, featuring masterful performances of innovative repertoire. And this newest one continues the positive experiences. And, significantly, the recorded sound is excellent. As noted above, the BNO is presented with a richness of color and body of tone in a natural, relaxed perspective which is never forward or gruff. The booklet doesn’t tell us where this was recorded, but the acoustic is warm, detailed, airy and spacious - perfect for this music.
All in all, this is an interesting and rewarding program of some terrific new music. And I enjoyed it very much - especially the innovative and thoroughly imaginative two works at the beginning.