Amsterdam Sinfonietta

The Bohemian Album

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The Amsterdam Sinfonietta is a professional ensemble of 22 string players; The Bohemian Album is the group's fourth Channel Classics release, but it has also recorded for BIS and Challenge. Since 2003, violinist Candida Thompson has served as the leader, and this disc shares some consonance with what the group has done before; the Dvorák Serenade for Strings in E, Op. 22, is not terribly far off the style of the Tchaikovsky, and ill-fated modernist Bohemians Pavel Haas and Erwin Schulhoff can be related to some extent to Shostakovich, which Amsterdam Sinfonietta has recorded at least twice before. So this is within Amsterdam Sinfonietta's comfort zone, even though it has not recorded Bohemian composers.

It isn't bad; the sound is certainly big, rich, and full and dynamically well-rounded and warm, though when the volume drops the music sometimes virtually disappears; more judicious use of compression might have helped that. The main thing that's a little cool is the band, and this sense of disciplined distance plays out well in the crazy, harrowing night ride that is Pavel Haas' String Quartet No. 2, Op. 7 "From the Monkey Mountains," heard here in a transcription for strings and sparingly used percussion. Haas' ex-quartet fairly rips out of the speakers with its eerie glissandi and ominous pedal points in the movement marked "Cart, Driver and Horse" and the monster movie-like drive of "A Wild Night." The Haas definitely works well in the string orchestra medium; the restraint, however, doesn't quite come off in the Dvorák Serenade. The "Tempo di Valse" almost sounds like Sibelius, and as pleasant as this is to the ear, it shouldn't; Dvorák is a tad more rustic than such a treatment might suggest. While the Schulhoff Five Pieces for String Quartet come off pleasingly, Amsterdam Sinfonietta does not quite manage to realize Schulhoff's cosmopolitan, world-weary sense of humor; this is more grave and serious sounding in the manner of Lutoslawski. One could argue that by challenging notions of traditional interpretation and style one can find new things in music, and more often than not, this is so. Part of the charm in Schulhoff, however, is his deliciously tongue-in-cheek wrong-note reinventions of popular dance forms, and the "Alla Tango Milonga" here is of such grave seriousness that one almost imagines Montgomery Clift wandering around in an empty train station in a film noir rather than an image that evokes the left-wing, Bohemian Schauhauses Schulhoff was known to frequent.

So nothing is wrong with Amsterdam Sinfonietta's The Bohemian Album except that the Bohemian part was left out. The Haas, however, makes it worth the experience; this work -- despite its strong grounding in Eastern European folklore and topography -- manages to transcend its ethnographic roots and well survives Amsterdam Sinfonietta's rather heavy handling.

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