KODÁLY: Dances of Galanta. BARTÓK: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. Divertimento.
Scottish Chamber Orch/Sir Charles Mackerras, cond.
LINN CKD 234 (5.1 channel) TT: 72:56

SIBELIUS: Pelleas and Melisande. Valse Triste. Belshazzar's Feast. The Tempest: Suite No. 2. Andante Festivo.
Scottish Chamber Orch/Joseph Swensen, cond.
LINN CKD 220 (5.1 channel) TT: 65:46

Lieder of Bruno Walter, Richard Strauss and Joseph Marx
Emma Bell, soprano/Andrew West, pianist
LINN CKD 238 (5.1 channel) TT: 58:33

RAVEL: String Quartet in F. DEBUSSY: String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10.
Párkányí Quartet
PRAGA DSD 250 208 (5 channel) TT: 56:40

HAYDN: Quartet in C, Op. 74 No. 1. Quartet in F, Op. 74 No. 2. Quartet in G minor, Op. 74 No. 3 "The Rider"
Kocian Quartet
PRAGA DSD 250 212 (5.1 channel) TT: 67:30

Sir Charles Mackerras's SACD is of particular interest as it presents Bartók's familiar Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste in a version approved by the composer for a smaller orchestra than usual (in this recording there are 34 strings). Don't expect massed string sonorities heard in Fritz Reiner's Chicago recording (or most others), but you will hear remarkably clarity as recorded here with two string orchestras, one on each side in front, other instruments in the center, beautifully captured by producer Tim Oldham and engineers Philip Hobbs and Calum Malcolm in this recording made in Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Feb. 29 and March 1,2004, sessions that also produced the Divertimento. Kodály's familiar Galanta dances, recorded March 7, 2004 at Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh, also receive this chamber approach, but I imagine most listeners would prefer a fuller orchestral sound in this repertory.

Joseph Swensen has been principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra since 1996. The American-born conductor (1960) of Norwegian/Japanese parents began his musical career as a violinist after studies at Juilliard, and had a recording contract with RCA which included Beethoven's violin concerto with Previn and the Royal Philharmonic. Swensen continues his solo career and has recorded concertos of Mendelssohn, Brahms and Sibeliius, but his prime interest appears to be conducting—including much contemporary music. This Sibelius collection is superb consisting of music that works well with a smaller orchestra (42 players as identified in the CD booklet). Andrew Keener was producer, Philip Hobbs and Calum Malcolm the engineers for this recording which was made in March 2003 in Edinburgh's Usher Hall.

The third Linn CD is a recital of lesser-known German lieder beautifully sung by a relative newcomer, soprano Emma Bell who thus far has performed much Mozart and baroque opera as well as many appearances on BBC programs. Her rich, supple voice is heard to great advantage in a dozen songs by Richard Strauss, four by Joseph Marx, and, of particular interest, nine lieder by Bruno Walter, from early in his career before he accepted the fact that he was a far better conductor than composer. Apparently some of these are first recordings; we have Tragedy I, II and III, three songs set to texts by Eichendorf, and three set to texts by Julius Wolff. Pianist Andrew West is the able accompanist. It's unfortunate CD notes don't give us more information about the music. Recorded in Potton Hall in April, 2004, producer was Tim Oldham, with engineers Philip Hobbs and Julia Thomas, all of whom have provided a natural surround sound effect with performers in front. Fortunately Bell's voice does not have the harsh "digital glare" that detracts from many digital vocal recordings. Texts are provided along with English translations—but the program could have been longer—less than an hour isn't much playing time for a full-priced disk.

The two Praga SACDs are important additions to the limited surround sound library of chamber music. The first offers the string quartets of Debussy and Ravel, two major works of the French chamber repertory, in sterling performances by the Párkányí Quartet an ensemble that began life in 1976 as the Orlando Quartet, comprised of violinists István Párkányí, and Heinz Oberdorfer; violist Ferdinand Erblich, and cellist Stefan Metzin and later twice received the Grand Prix du Disque for recordings on the Philips label. The quartet disbanded in 1984 but has now reorganized under their present name with a different cellist, Michael Müller. All are distinguished musicians individually, as are members of the Kocian Quartet: violinists Pavel Hula and Milos Cerny, violist Zbynek Padourek, and cellist Vaclav Bernasek. One could not find fault with any of these performances, but some listeners might find the close-up engineering rather distracting—one is almost inside the instruments. More music would have been welcome on the Ravel/Debussy disk which has somewhat short playing time.

R.E.B. (January 2005)