I recently discovered the composer Szymon Laks via a fascinating disc of his 3 published string quartets (#3-5), played by the wonderful Messages Quartet on the Dux label. It is such great music which I so thoroughly enjoyed, I sought out more by this Polish composer. I stumbled upon this SACD of music for string orchestra, which includes a work by Laks, and immediately ordered a copy. It also appears on Dux (Dux Record Producers), which is based in Warsaw, Poland.
This program features music for string orchestra by Polish and Hungarian composers, beginning with the 1936 Sinfonietta by Szymon Laks. It is a really nice piece, essentially a string serenade in all but title, in four contrasting movements: Overture, Serenade, Rondino and Finale. It is tonal, pleasant, interesting and full of inspiration - written by an obviously very talented and accomplished composer. I hear hints of the British countryside rollicking around the vivacious Overture, while the central movements are brimming with charm. The Finale develops into a compelling Fugue and Variations, again displaying British overtones. I ultimately find his string quartets to be even more rewarding - more creative and possessing a more individual and unique compositional voice, but this airy, light-hearted Sinfonietta is nonetheless very enjoyable.
The Miklos Rozsa Concerto for String Orchestra, however, is not. I just could not get into this piece, even though it comes from a well-known, well-established composer. From the very opening phrase, the first movement is annoyingly unmusical and gruff, based on an unmelodious motif. It fails to develop into much of anything of substance or purpose. The second movement tries harder with some pleasant violin themes, but still falls short of developing a truly memorable tune. Even the opening viola solo is not terribly melodic. Not until the 3rd movement Allegro giusto did the piece finally make a positive impression. Its rhythmic propulsion and energy were engaging and proved to be quite good - and certainly the best part of the piece. I hasten to add that my tepid response to the work has nothing to do with this performance of it. (More on the excellent playing of the Erdody Chamber Orchestra later...)
I admit to just casually listening to this disc up to this point, not in reviewer mode at all, moving about the house completing monotonous tasks while keeping an ear tuned to the music coming from the stereo. Until, that is, the next piece began. I was drawn back into the music room to listen more closely to what I was hearing.
Gyorgy Orban is a composer completely unknown to me, and his Sopra canti diversi turns out to be one of the highlights of the disc. The booklet tells us this is the third movement of a much larger cycle, which is dedicated to the marvelous Erdody Chamber Orchestra, who plays it here. It's comprised of three descriptive movements, subtitled 1. Christmas Song; 2. Snowstorm; 3. Fly Bird, Fly. As in the Laks, I hear hints of a British string serenade about it, especially in the first movement (which, incidentally sounds nothing like "Christmas" music). One immediately recognizes that Orban is a masterful orchestrator, with more variety in the writing than in the previous two works. The scoring is rich in harmony, punctuated with pizzicatos all through the orchestra. The second movement, curiously, sounds nothing like a "snowstorm". Rather, it is a lyrical interlude, with gorgeously singing strings (first the violins, then the violas, then together in octaves). The finale doesn't quite fly like a bird, but does return us to the open, airy spaces of an English landscape, which reminded me once again of the Laks. The piece overall is picturesque, with Bartok-influenced folksong elements adding to its appeal. It is beautifully scored and delightfully entertaining.
The final work, however, is the real discovery. And it ended this concert with a "WOW" from me. Wojciech Kilar is a name which is obstinately, vaguely familiar to me. But I simply could not place it. Listening to the piece made me even more curious...Where do I know this composer from? Well, searching the booklet, I read that Kilar is a composer of avant-garde music and, like Rozsa, gained popularity for his film music. Ah-ha! Searching Amazon, I discover exactly where I know him from. He wrote a film score that I have always loved - the wonderful, somewhat minimalist music, based on a catchy, simple, indelible motif, for a movie I like very much: The Ninth Gate, starring Johnny Depp. (He also wrote other memorable scores such as Bram Stoker's Dracula and Death and the Maiden.) Listening to his Orawa recorded here, the similarities to The Ninth Gate are unmistakable. It is minimalist at first, reminding me a bit of Philip Glass, but several minutes in, it expands into a symphonic rhapsody, with full-scale cinematic orchestration reminiscent of John Adams. Again from the booklet: "The title Orava (or "Orawa", as it appears on the track listing) is a small mountain stream flowing through the northern areas of the former Orava County." The music begins as a trickle, but soon develops momentum, erupting into white-water rapids, about to flood over its banks. (I was reminded of Adams' Two Fanfares for Orchestra, which starts so simply with Tromba lontana, then grows and grows until reaching an overwhelming climax in Short Ride in a Fast Machine.) But not quite. The music is firmly rooted on solid ground and the piece ends with a shriek of string glissandos into the highest register, culminating with a shouted exclamation from the orchestra members. And then, from me: "Wow". And it was done.
The Erdody Chamber Orchestra is a splendid group of about 20 string players, conducted by its leader/concertmaster, Zsolt Szefcsik. Their playing is fabulous - thoroughly involving, robust and dynamic - brimming with energy and musical insight. There is something extravagant about getting to hear new music played by a committed, accomplished group of musicians, which brings the invigoration of new discovery. Dux lavishes the production with the full multi-channel SACD treatment and the sound is excellent. It is warm, detailed and dynamic, providing the group a full-bodied presence which never sounds "small". Even in climaxes, the sound expands effortlessly and naturally without manipulation from the recording engineers.
What began as a casual listen just for enjoyment turned out to be an engrossing musical experience which immediately prompted me to write this review. That doesn't happen often, which says something for this particular release. With the exception of the Rozsa, this music is enlightening, enriching and musically rewarding - and the Kilar, in particular, is really fantastic. With excellent playing and recording, this disc is highly recommended.