American Stringbook

dogma chamber orchestra / Mikhail Gurewitsch

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American Stringbook Review

by James Manheim

There could be no clearer sign of the declines in the fortune of high modernism that tonal American music of the first half of the 20th century is being revived and is gaining new adherents even in Central Europe. Consider this release from the curiously named do.gma chamber orchestra in Germany, which uses the ubiquitous Adagio for strings, Op. 11, of Samuel Barber merely as a kind of encore and delves into some lesser-known works of the period. All of the works here (other than the Adagio) commanded attention when they appeared but were more or less lost during modernist rule, and all are worth a fresh hearing from lively, agile young musicians, which is exactly what they get here. David Diamond's Rounds for string orchestra of 1944 manages to combine in a tight structure of Copland-esque echoes, hints of jazz, the English pastoral implications of the titular rounds, and polyphonic devices based on them, all with the consciousness that it was written in a nation at war. Arthur Foote's Suite in E major, Op. 63, once a staple of American concert programming, is a basically Romantic work but has a totally individualistic quality exemplified in its slow movement, divided into blocks of pizzicato and arco music, with tentative combinations of the two. Barber's early Serenade for string orchestra, Op. 1, already has strong indications of his characteristic lyrical style. For a good example of the ensemble's energy here, sample the spiky first movement of the complex but accessible Symphony No. 5 of William Schuman, another wartime work. If there's a weakness on the album it's the Adagio for strings itself, which fares better with the large orchestra Barber had in mind with his transcription (done right, it generates chilling sonic effects) or in the original for string quartet rather than with the small group here. But there's very little to complain about in this fine German rediscovery of some great American music, and MDG's engineers, working in a monastery farmhouse, obtain superb results in this release in the label's Audiomax series.

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