A Debut Disc of Beautiful Comedy

On WCRB’s CD of the Week, the soloists from the Montreal Symphony call on their virtuosity to bring out the light-heartedness in Beethoven and Richard Strauss.

Symphony orchestras are miraculous for what they can do as one complex entity. They possess a special chemistry that tunes their musicians directly into one another. And smaller miracles tend to crop up, too. Groups of orchestral players get real joy from stepping out of the bigger entity and finding camaraderie and spontaneity in chamber ensembles. Here in Boston, we’ve got the Boston Symphony Chamber Players and the Boston Cello Quartet. Now, in Montreal, the Soloists of the Montreal Symphony have begun a new series of recordings, and WCRB has chosen their first as our CD of the Week.

Humor defines the disc, with two big pieces that are clever and light of heart: Beethoven’s popular Septet, Op. 20, and Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Richard Strauss’s tone poem for large orchestra that’s been whittled down to just eight minutes with five players. The uncanny virtuosity that comes from every player on this recording is a requisite for getting the funny stuff to work, and the sheer truth and beauty of sound that producer Carl Talbot coaxes from his setup makes every bit of lyricism an absolute joy to hear.

Concertmaster Andrew Wan is the Artistic Director of the Soloists and his flexible, communicative sound really grabs you in the Strauss arrangement. Till was a real-life 14th-century peasant whose adventures were told and retold over time, built into a great story about a poor rascal who played pranks on everyone, from kings to peasants. Legend has turned Till into a metaphor for freedom, and Strauss’s tone poem has become legendary, too – for its humor and its difficulty. This arrangement for five players by Austrian composer Franz Hasenöhrl doesn’t make it any easier, but it’s tremendous fun to hear it like this, with an audible twinkle of the eye giving it so much life.

Beethoven’s Septet, like the Strauss, was a hit from its very first performance. Audiences have tended to love it a whole lot more than Beethoven ever did, in part because of its smiling tunefulness. Here again is that beautiful sound, with soulful playing from everyone, including clarinetist Todd Cope, who joined the Montreal Symphony five years ago, and Stéphane Lévesque, principal bassoonist with the OSM for 20 years now. And Principal Horn John Zirbel gets it just right.

Listen to a track from the album:

For more information and to purchase this recording, visit ArkivMusic.