Scottish Ensemble - Tchaikovsky & Shostakovich - American Record Guide

Joint review with BKD 095

The sound on both of these discs is just superb. The standard CD has depth and detail and plenty of "air" around the instruments. The SACD gives just a little bit more of the same. It is truly an audiophile production that combines technical achievement with, one senses, the taste and discretion of people with strong musical sensibilities working the control panel. Linn is the audiophile record label of the Scottish audio equipment company long known for its high-quality turntables; and they have again given us vivid, spacious, topnotch sound. The good news is that it's in service of performances truly deserving that kind of presentation.

Rudolf Barshai's adept, respectful adaptation of Shostakovich's Quartet 8 as a "chamber symphony" for string orchestra has become a repertory staple of chamber orchestras; and his similar arrangements of Quartets 4 and 10 have had a fair amount of exposure, too. His arrangement of the Ravel quartet is new to me. It is just as idiomatic and enjoyable as the earlier efforts. The Scottish Ensemble, under two different leaders, is immaculate in its unanimity of attach, rich tone, and expressive warmth.

The performances retain the nimbleness of the one-instrument-per-part of the original scores while adding the greater body and sensuous enjoyment of massed strings. This works particularly well in the lush, masterly Ravel; one hopes the orchestrator of Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition would approve.

The chamber symphony version of the Shostakovich Quartet 10 is not heard as often as Quartet 8, but the Scottish Ensemble and conductor Gould build as strong a case for it as Barshai in his classic recording with the European Chamber Orchestra (DG). Barshai may elicit just a bit more one-the-edge angst from his players, but the firm, three-dimensional tone of the Scottish group almost compensates for it.

Tchaikovsky's Serenade has been recorded many, many times. For a small ensemble performance the Scottish group gives us one of the warmest, most expressive, yet polish traversals I've heard. And you may know what I'm about to say next: if a group of 19 very assured players is very good, the whole string section of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy (Sony) or the London Philharmonic under Stokowski (Philips) is even better. That may be an unfair comparison. On its own, this is as elegant and Mozartean an account of this work as one is likely to hear. It is certainly aided by Linn's warm and full yet detailed high-resolution SACD sound.

The arrangement of Quartet 2 is by Jonathan Morton, who leads this performance and the Tchaikovsky from the violin. It's just as compelling as Barshai's chamber symphonies. The music is less angst-ridden than Quartets 8 and 10 but lends itself to the string orchestra presentation just as readily.

Perhaps some day all the Shostakovich quartets will appear in this sort of arrangement. In the meantime, the Scottish Ensemble has given us two hours of solid, satisfying enjoyment. 

American Record Guide
01 July 2015