Sheherazade as chamber music? Reduced to four members? Somewhere up there, Leopold Stokowski, the man who made this music a big-orchestra showpiece, is having a fit – especially since this recording is so successful in terms of the transcription and performance by the Zurich Ensemble. The four musicians – violin, piano, cello and clarinet – have the music in their souls and, through a combination of cunning and artistic will power, have made the piece their own.
The small-might-be-better trend was also manifested over the summer with Ensemble Festivo playing Schumann’s Fourth Symphony with 10 instruments – somewhat convincingly but not nearly on the level of this group, whose transcription by Florian Noack and Benjamin Engeli is full of shrewd insights that save their endeavour from palm-court kitsch and give the music a greater sense of dramatic narrative. The solo violin (beautifully played by Kamilla Schatz) is pretty much intact, though the violin joins in with the cello and piano to create rhythmic momentum when necessary. Orchestral strings are replaced by piano, which also covers the harp arpeggios. The clarinet creates a primary voice in the texture when the solo violin is otherwise occupied. Of course, limitations are to be expected. With less sound to work with, grand rubatos aren’t possible. Also, the group practises certain sleights of hand with spatial effects that are possible in the recording studio. If this four-person group isn’t about to summon an imposing Cinemascopic span of sound, why can’t depth of field replace lost grandeur?
Sheherazade is framed by lesser-known works: a suite of incidental music by Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1955) for A Thousand and One Nights (pleasant enough but incidental) and Khachaturian’s Trio for clarinet, violin and piano, a 1934 piece that’s a bit of a find, full of attractive ideas that never fall back on the animal energy of his better-known works. (David Patrick Stearns / Gramophone)