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Reviews: Chamber Symphonies - Gateway Chamber Orchestra

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Site review by Geohominid June 21, 2012
Performance:   Sonics:    
The Gateway Chamber Orchestra is a relatively new ensemble which made its début in 2008 with Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1, which features on this disc. Based at Austin Peay State University, the ensemble is built from a pool of professional musicians from the University and hinterland. They are conducted by Gregory Wolynec, Professor of Conducting at the University. Their first SACD (Mozart, Strauss: Wind Serenades - Gateway Chamber Ensemble) was hailed by Fanfare Magazine as a "leading rendition for both works on the disc".

It was Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) who created the genre of Chamber Symphony early in his career in 1906, as a way of paring down and concentrating his developing ideas about musical progress, moving away from rich tonal harmonies and emphasising the complexity of individual parts. His Chamber Symphony No. 1 for 15 soloists Op. 9 has an unusual, and some would have said, unbalanced list of instruments, for which Schoenberg even supplies a seating map, with a pair of horns at the back, in front of them a row of woodwind, comprising flute, oboe, D-clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon and contra bassoon. At the front are a viola, two violins, violoncello and contrabass, from left to right. The music is composed with a series of melodic cells which are exhaustively developed and combined, much as in a symphony by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, i.e. it has a Classical basis, and is structured with a strong formal cohesion, a characteristic of Schoenberg's music.

Mahler, who was both fascinated and horrified by Schoenberg, gave much support to save the younger composer from the wrath of Vienna's critics. However, having finished conducting a rehearsal of the Chamber Symphony with the composer present, Mahler requested that all the orchestra should play a loud C-chord, and walked out.

Of the three Chamber Symphonies presented here, Schoenberg's, after a few brief modulating slow bars, is the most ebullient and galvanising. In a single movement, it rushes away through a gamut of moods and modes, sometimes sweet, sometimes pungent, pausing from time to time for a few bars of sensual expressionism before hurtling off again. The melodic cells leap from instrument to instrument with great alacrity, challenging the players to keep a tight ensemble, which poses no coordination difficulties for the Gateway players. They also pay considerable attention to interior tuning, so that linking the various types of note production does not pose a problem.

Franz Schreker (1878-1934) took a very different view of the Chamber Symphony. A German composer, much-respected conductor and teacher, he was a conservative in keeping Late Romantic ideals for his base-line; however, he was excellent at gathering together more progressive ideas from Mahler, Korngold and Richard Strauss and others into his own music. Schreker was also a master orchestrator, as this Chamber Symphony shows. In 1912, Schreker joined Schoenberg in the Vienna Music Academy's Faculty. Written in 1916, the piece reverses Schoenberg's purpose of minimising, and requires 23 players, and even more instruments. It was given its first performance a year later by members of the Faculty.

Schreker's instrumentarium includes: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, timpani and percussion (bass drum, tamtam), harp, celesta, harmonium, piano, 4 violins, 2 violas, 3 cellos and 2 basses. All in all, it is a reduction - of the massive symphony orchestras required for his operas. Its celestial, starry opening leads to a succession of sections with an impulsive flow of melodic warmth and rich harmonies. Although in one continuous movement, there are distinct elements, such as a recurring sorrow-laden adagio, a delicate scherzo, lightly dancing and chattering, which recalls Mahler's Ländler scherzi; also an impressive allegro which surges to glittering climaxes. The final coda draws one into an unforgettable sun-drenched leave-taking. This colourful, beautifully written and played piece offers no problems to listeners gingerly exploring C20th music.

George Enescu (1881-1955) is only slowly regaining ground in knowledge of his work. Best known as a world-class violin virtuoso, he was an obsessive judge of his own compositions, leaving only a mere 33 in his catalogue, while scholars have unearthed hundreds of MSS with unfinished pieces that were discarded. His Chamber Symphony for 12 instruments, Op. 33 of 1954 is thus a mature work, very densely scored. Flute, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano are used with great finesse in textures which look black on paper but are made transparent here by the Gateway players.

Although played consecutively, there are four clear sections to the work, helpfully given separate tracks on the disc. A fresh, verdant and relaxed Molto moderato features flute and strings in an impressionistic manner which Wolynec clearly sees as reminiscences of Enescu's studentship at the Paris Conservertoire. Even though some atonal techniques are used, the music could almost have been written by Debussy, with dreams and fantasy swirling though the composer's imagination. The following Allegretto is a scherzo, although not in triple time; droll, sardonic woodwinds confer seemingly by improvisation, leading to brassy climaxes.

A brief Adagio has grumbling deep bass over which a solo trumpet keens - jazz-inflected, but in the style of a military bugle. Enescu's final Allegro molto moderato, even shorter, continues with the solo trumpet already featured. Affairs become progressively more agitated and fragmented before slipping back into the pastoral, Debussy-esque mood, suddenly halted by a throw-away gesture.

While Christian Mandeal's RBCD recording of the Enescu Chamber Symphony with the Bucharest Philharmonic Orchestra might find more Romanian elements in some folk-song type material, Wolynec's players vividly characterise this intriguing piece just as they do all through this clever programming: these particular three Chamber Symphonies really illuminate one another when placed side by side, providing a handsome listening experience. Apart from the Schoenberg there are few recordings of these works, and none have such superb sonics, courtesy of SoundMirror. Set in a larger and appropriately more characterful acoustic than the Mozart/Strauss, which easily holds the full force of Schreker's formidable band, each ensemble is clearly layered, with individual players clearly located, yet the overall effect is of a natural concert performance.

If you haven't yet been introduced to Schreker, this would be a fine place to start, as it places him in context with contemporaneous composers who followed different paths. The Gateway Orchestra sound enthusiastic and deeply involved in these Chamber Symphonies, and given the wonderful sound, it could be hard to pass this disc by. My only and probably trivial annoyance was with the inconvenient 8-side fold-out note sheet rather than a booklet, which inevitably involves folding issues of the map type while you are trying to find a particular item.

Copyright © 2012 John Miller and