This is the latest release by an ensemble whose debut CD was released some nine years ago. Most recently this ensemble released a fine recording featuring Simone Dinnerstein playing piano concertos by J. S. Bach and Philip Glass. This recording is focused on the virtuosity of this small string orchestra by focusing on some unusual but highly listenable pieces from the early twentieth century to the present.
The lovely cover art (by Bill Flynn) conjures images that evoke Picasso’s drawings of Igor Stravinsky conducting. The album evokes a feeling of an early twentieth century salon and makes the most of this rather small ensemble which counts 20 musicians on this release. The issue here seems to be quality musicianship exploring unusual but very listenable music.
The disc begins with the too little heard Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge (1937) by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). Bridge was one of Britten’s teachers and a fine composer as well. This is the piece that first brought Britten international recognition but it is not frequently played or recorded as one might expect. It is a very entertaining set of variations and one can only surmise that this ensemble will likely tackle some of Britten’s other early string orchestra pieces like the Simple Symphony (1934).
After that workout we are treated to another set of variations. This time by one Ethan Wood, a violinist with the ensemble. His contribution is a set of variations on the French song, “Ah vous dirais-je, Maman” (better known to some as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”). This little fantasy is billed as “a folk tale for 18 players based on characters created by W. A. Mozart”.
And, finally, we have a lively transcription of Sergei Prokofiev’s ” Vision Fugitives” Op. 22. Originally for piano, this string orchestra version is a unique but interesting idea. The ensemble handles this complex music well and this version provides a perspective on these little miniatures that will produce discussion among fanciers of the original piano versions.
All in all this is basically a pretty conservative program stylistically but the intelligent choices of repertoire and the wonderful execution make this a stand out release with incredible potential that will leave listeners waiting for their next release.
It has been interesting to watch the progression of Philip Glass’ career. From his driving amplified ensemble music that so entranced this writer to as near groupie status as he will ever be to the more mainstream orchestral work of his work since at least the 90s the fascination remains at some level.
The familiar arpeggios are still to be found along with basically diatonic harmony with occasional polytonal sections. What is interesting about Glass’ third piano concerto is a sort of chamber romanticism. A Far Cry is a small chamber orchestra ideally suited to works like the Bach first piano concerto. Though technically originally written for harpsichord pianists have successfully broken the taboo on strict adherence to using the harpsichord and have developed techniques to optimize the sound of the piano (which has very different qualities from a harpsichord).
Simone Dinnerstein is an artist who I first met (albeit virtually) on Facebook. Her reading of the Goldberg Variations from a few years ago seemed to signal her entrance into the mainstream of performers. The choice of works on this disc are a sort of characterization of her interests. She is an accomplished Bach performer with, obviously, an interest in new music. So pairing her as soloist with A Far Cry whose interests appear to be in a similar range was perfect.
The performance of the Bach G minor piano concerto (No.7) is as delightful as it gets. Dinnerstein and the ensemble seem work together very well. These intense little chamber orchestras seem to be proliferating and one could speculate on the economic and political reasons for that but what is more interesting is the commitment and intensity that these small ensembles can bring to music.
The Glass concerto has the feel of a sort of miniature romanticism. This writer heard it as echoes of Brahms but on a far more intimate scale. It is difficult to say whether this new work (or for that matter, the other two piano concertos) will become a regular part of the repertory but it is clear that Glass continues to have his champions both in musicians and listeners.
There is nothing groundbreaking here and that is not what is apparently intended. What we get in this recording is a couple of dedicated and thoroughly enjoyable performances by clearly dedicated musicians. This is not an original instruments or musicological discoveries type of album. It is simply good music making.
If you are a fan of Philip Glass and/or Simone Dinnerstein you will want this disc. But don’t forget to pay attention the this little chamber group. They are superb and energetic musicians and this reviewer expects to be hearing more from them in the near future. Maybe we will get a new set of Bach and/or Mozart concertos. Here’s hoping.