Review by georgeflanagin March 30, 2011 (7 of 8 found this review helpful)
This disc is /not/ a collection of musical fluff, but it /is/ a recital of unusual disc mates. Excellent but reverberant recording. Well worth buying for the Walton piece alone, which is a joy to discover.
During the writing of the review of the Tokyo String Quartet's late Beethoven recording, I spent the usual amount of time doing compare and contrast. This disc of two orchestrations is one of the ones in my collection, and I realized that it had escaped review at our venue, sa-cd.net.
Let's be clear what this disc contains. One of the pieces is Walton's own arrangement for string orchestra of one of his own quartets. The other arrangement is of somewhat vague origin, and it is of Beethoven's final quartet, Op 135. Both arrangements are played by, what sounds to me to be, the same forces.
Walton, /Sonata for Strings/:
The nature and origin of Walton's Sonata for Strings is more clear cut but less familiar, so I begin with it. The bulk of Walton's music is not well known, the possible exceptions being the cello concerto and /Belshazzar's Feast/. Walton was hardly prolific, had a Brucknerian level of revisionitis (although from a entirely different motivation), and he is known for writing just one or two compositions in any one form.
Walton's first string quartet is so slightly known that the pair of quartets is not numbered, and when people mention the second quartet it is sometimes referred to as "the Walton string quartet," or "Walton's lone quartet." (This is unfair to the first quartet --- it is an interesting product of its time, c.1920.) This second string quartet, in A minor and completed just after WWII ended, served as the source for the Sonata for Strings on this disc, finished around 1970.
The Sonata for Strings is an example of the best possible outcome from a composer's arrangement of his own work. I recommend that interested listeners secure for comparison a copy of the A minor quartet in its original form, perhaps the Doric's fine reading on Chandos if you want the best, or the Maggini's recording on Naxos if you want the best value. As you will hear, Walton took an already excellent example of his limited chamber music output and added something worthwhile.
I am particularly impressed that Walton was able to add complexity and subtlety without making the piece sound "thick." Equally impressive is the Amsterdam Sinfonietta's ability to play the piece at nearly the tempo used by the Doric Quartet in their performance of the original, and without muddying up the rhythm and flow. Generally speaking, orchestrated adaptations of string quartets suffer from the inability of the larger ensemble to stop, pivot, and restart phrases within the music. Examples: Shostakovich's Op. 83a and Op 110a; Mahler's orchestration of Beethoven's Op. 95 and Schubert's /Death and the Maiden/ quartet.
The brisk finale is perhaps the quartet's best movement, and somewhat surprisingly it is the movement that benefits the most from the additional orchestration's improvements. Walton went nearly 25 years from the first to the second quartet; 25 years from the second quartet to the Sonata for Strings. If there had been another quarter century available, we can imagine what might have followed.
Unfortunately, the reverberation of the acoustic space of the recording lets us down a bit from the quality of the playing and the splendor of the music. It is a wonderful space, and the recording is a handy showcase for SACD, but it is poorly suited for bringing out the most in this work of music. Examples such as this one are ill suited for the "star" system used at sa-cd.net: the recording is first class, but this piece of music and this recording setup clash in their purpose rather than their quality.
Unknown, Orchestration of Beethoven's Op. 135.
Beethoven was a master at reworking his own music: consider the progress from Op 103 (wind octet) to Op 4 (string quintet), or his piano trio versions of the second symphony and the septet. Fine work; but he was Beethoven, and we cannot be pretend to be surprised.
I have been unable to discover the arranger, but I suppose that it may be Candida Thompson. It is a straight-up arrangement of the final quartet for a modest sized string orchestra, not unlike Dimitri Mitropoulos' orchestration of Op. 131, recorded by Bernstein and the NYPO, Previn and the VPO, and probably others. In other words, it is more of a transcription than any type of transformation.
Fortunately, Beethoven's final quartet has enough bone to support some additional "meat." For the listener, this extra serving of weight is best enjoyed in the final two movements. In the the Lento it adds to the atmosphere and is used to provide additional dynamic range, and in the finale there is a considerable smoothing over of the rough edges after the catharsis following the "must it be?" moment, and that addition provides contrast.
Because the Beethoven work is not so reliant on sudden silences for its effects, the reverberation is not so distracting, and in the slower measures of the piece, the effect is "OK."
Although this disc was issued some time ago, there are still plenty of copies around, and the price has not risen to the stratospheric levels found with some out of print SACDs. Grab a copy while you can for the Walton.
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