Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra (Boni) – ‘Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence and Serenade for Strings’ An SACD review by Mark Jordan

Is it possible for a composer to have too many well-loved works for yet another one to squeeze itself into listeners’ hearts? How can we otherwise explain the relative obscurity of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ‘Souvenir de Florence’? Though originally a chamber music work for six players, this new Pentatone hybrid release is by no means its first recording by a full string section. Yet still the piece languishes on the distant fringes of the symphonic repertory. Perhaps this recording will move it yet another step closer to the mainstream where it so richly deserves to be.

The fact that the ‘Souvenir de Florence’ is nominally in ‘D minor’ may mislead some listeners. This is far from being one of Tchaikovsky’s brooding, melancholy minor-key pieces. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to think of any other work in a minor key that sounds as playful and joyous as this one. Additionally, some listeners may have avoided the piece in its fleshed-out garb due to the simple fact that it was originally written for string sextet and most “inflationary” arrangements of chamber pieces lose the charm and intimacy of the originals. But this piece is so beguilingly amorous and clever, it survives the expansion with charm intact. It helps enormously, too, that Marco Boni and the Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra are alert to the mischievous and flirtatious moods that Tchaikovsky sprinkles so liberally throughout the piece. Even the contrapuntal fugato passages in the finale come off as bursts of high spirits instead of seeming like laborious passages of learned technique. Furthermore, the intimacy of the work is maintained here by a modest complement of strings: Six first violins, six second violins, four violas, four cellos, and one double bass.

The opening movement immediately grabs one’s attention with lively melodies deployed with unerring mastery. The minor tonality serves to give many turns of phrase a wistful air, but Tchaikovsky’s sense of delight with the music is palpable. Bearing a fairly late opus number and dating from the early 1890’s, the piece gives us Tchaikovsky at the height of his powers, bold in melody and harmony, vigorous in rhythm, and completely assured in structure. One can detect in this opening movement the sophistication of characterization and shading that bear witness to the composer’s extensive background in passionate symphonic music, as well as in deft ballet music. The amorous slow movement makes this work seem as much a serenade as its more famous disc mate, the familiar ‘Serenade for Strings’, though it ranges even further afield in its lively explorations. The ‘Allegretto moderato’ scherzo features very witty playing from the Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra string players, with a high-spirited trio continuing the fun. The finale starts off with a distinctively Russian theme. Boni resists pushing hard early in the movement, to allow room for a cumulative buildup of excitement that takes off running in an irresistible coda that ends the piece in D major, though with the second degree of the scale (the note E) flattened (to E-flat), giving the passage a delightfully careening, almost drunkenly boisterous feel that is very similar to the end of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Symphony No.1 in G minor’ from early in the composer’s career. Boni tightens the reins in this coda, taking us for a memorable wild ride that somehow still manages to be elegant and poised. Boni has proven before to be a genial and wise conductor who knows when to steer and when to let things flow on their own, and this performance further testifies to his judgment. It is certainly no mistake that the ‘Souvenir de Florence’ receives top billing here, as it absolutely deserves it.

Meanwhile, the more familiar work here is Tchaikovsky’s lovable ‘Serenade for Strings in C major, Op.48’, a work that the composer wrote around the same time as his ubiquitous ‘1812 Overture’. Tchaikovsky’s correspondence tells us that he detested the overture, which was a commissioned work required to be noisy and festive. He counterbalanced work on the onerous overture by writing this warm-hearted ‘Serenade’, which has been a staple of the repertory ever since, with its lilting second movement ‘Waltz’ entering the lists as one of Tchaikovsky’s all-time greatest hits. The remainder of the work is no less delightful, with a broad first movement that stays just this side of sentimentality, a gravely tender ‘Elégie’ marked “Larghetto elegiaco”, and a finale based on a stomping Russian theme.

The ‘Serenade’ has usually been performed over the years by the full string sections of symphony orchestras, giving the piece a very sumptuous sound. Those who are intractably committed to that sort of sound may take exception at this recording, as Boni keeps with the same complement of twenty-one string players as in the ‘Souvenir’. Though the piece loses a little in depth of sonority (though not that much in this case, considering the rich reverberance of the recording made in Amsterdam’s Waalse Church), it makes felicitous gains in intimacy. Thus the first movement, which sometimes gets a touch bloated (as in the Erato recording that Gennady Rozhdestvensky made in the early 1990’s), keeps its momentum going without neglecting to tug at the heartstrings. Boni eases into the famous ‘Waltz’ without pushing the tempo like Paavo Berglund did in his Bis recording with the Stockholm Chamber Orchestra, but at the same time Boni discreetly keeps it from sagging. His attention to transitional detail is welcome after the high notes trail off, when he negotiates the pickup back into the regular tempo without any players rushing or lagging, which is not the case in far too many recordings. Boni’s ‘Elégie’ is understated, which proves more touching than those who pour on sumptuousness. The finale moves along merrily, though of course without the weight of string tone one gets from, for instance, Karajan’s Deutsche Grammophon recording, where the silky strings of the Berlin Philharmonic prove to have considerable steel beneath their velvet sheen.

The CD layer on this Pentatone hybrid disc is quite fine, matching or surpassing most regular digital recordings. Indeed, it is so good that the switch over to the stereo Super Audio Compact Disc layer of this DSD recording does not make a significant difference. But the change to the multichannel SACD program is exciting, with its sense of bringing one into the performing space with the orchestra. Interestingly, Pentatone’s recordings, engineered by Polyhymnia International, have consistently proven among the most effective multichannel recordings on the market. The engineers have placed their microphones in such a manner that they expand the perceived depth of soundstage without diffusing the impact and locationality of the sound. There is an easily identifiable but by no means intrusive reflection from the rear surround channels, and a good deal of reverberation bouncing around everywhere (perhaps a shade more than is ideal, even), which is typical of recordings made in churches. But the rich textures and warmth of the recording match the conceptual approach of Boni and the Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra perfectly. The microphones used are Neumann KM 130, 143, and Schoeps with Polyhymnia microphone buffer electronics, alongside Polyhymnia’s own custom-built microphone pre-amps. To what degree these customized elements influence the final sound, I could not say; suffice it to say that these are beautiful recordings. Considering that there is only a single double-bass in the chamber orchestra, there is no separate low frequency effects channel, so this is a 5.0 multichannel recording instead of 5.1, but its sound is rich from the bass up through the treble in a way that low-resolution recordings simply cannot match.

Though a few may quibble with the reverberation of the recording or the size of forces used, this release justifies itself very nicely, and is warmly recommended, especially for the ‘Souvenir de Florence’. If you don’t know that work, then this becomes a mandatory acquisition. Try it, you won’t be disappointed. Then pass the word!