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Scottish Ensemble - Ravel and Shostakovich - McAlister Matheson Music


01 July 2003
McAlister Matheson Music

I have to admit that, in general, I am not greatly enthused about the idea of transcribing string quartets for string orchestra. In my experience, reductions (usually for solo piano) tend to be more illuminating than clothing works for a limited number of instruments in often inappropriately rich orchestral textures. I doubt that the most frequently performed of these transcriptions, Schubert's Death and the Maiden, would get so many outings were it not for the fame of its arranger, Gustav Mahler. Clearly, Rudolph Barsai, founder of the famous Moscow Chamber Orchestra, would profoundly disagree with all of this! His arrangements of Shostakovich's Eighth and Tenth String Quartets, made with the composer's blessing, have long since entered the standard string orchestra repertoire. More recently, Clio Gould and the Scottish Ensemble commissioned him to write a version of the Ravel String Quartet. After a highly successful Scottish tour, they recorded it for Linn Records. And, while not being able to equal the enthusiasm of Brend Feuchtner, who contributes a sometimes contentious liner note, I think that the Petite symphonie à cordes has every chance of joining Barshai's Shostakovich arrangements in the regular concert repertoire. Crucially, it doesn't feel like an arrangement; nowhere do Ravel's precisely chiselled lines become thickened or blurred. I am more than happy to make its acquaintance, especially in a performance as good as this one. The Scottish Ensemble has done nothing better on record than this. The delicious Assez vif scherzo is delivered with fizzing élan, while the très lent third movement is played with just the right degree of tender restraint - very touching. The Shostakovich is also very well played, but here i'm back on my hobbyhorse; I just don't think that any performance of the chamber orchestra version could equal the intensity of a really great account of the original quartet. Listen to the recently reissued Borodin Quartet recording and see if you agree! No reservations at all about the quality of the Scottish Ensemble's playing, or the realistic reportage of linn's engineering.
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