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Stephen Francis Vasta
MusicWeb International, January 2014

If you listen carefully to Waldemar Żarów—the principal clarinetist of the Iuventus Orchestra, who is being showcased here—you’ll discover that the crisp, precise-tongued attack he uses in detached passages still allows each tone to maintain a round, pillowy quality. He turns this technique to particularly good use in a deft, undulating reading of Debussy’s Première rapsodie.

Żarów’s individuality as a musician is easier to fathom. He unfailingly elicits from the rhythms, particularly in triple meters and subdivisions, a grace and buoyancy that animates the long musical line. This brings the best out of Jean Françaix’s Tema con variazioni, originally for clarinet and piano, but played here using the composer’s transparent string accompaniment. The soloist and orchestra have Françaix’s harmonic and rhythmic quirks well in hand, and draw plenty of character from both the lively and the more spacious variations.

Alicja Kieruzalska, the principal bassoonist of Iuventus, joins Żarów in a sprightly, lively account of the Strauss Duett-Concertino. Her dusky timbre, full without approaching the saxophonish density of some players, nicely complements Żarów’s brighter tone. She matches his waltz-like buoyancy, especially in the finale. The two generally “play off” each other well…

The youthful chamber orchestra…plays handsomely. The solo string introduction to the Strauss is drenched in vibrant tone; the Première rapsodie is clear and airy.

…a strong contender for the Françaix and the Rapsodie. © 2014 MusicWeb International Read complete review

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, November 2010

Let me begin by saying that those of you who still appreciate the visual and tactile pleasures of a beautifully designed LP jacket will surely appreciate the care and cost that have gone into this Polish-produced album. Enclosed in an outer heavy-gauge cardboard slipcase, the booklet is printed on stock almost heavy enough to substitute for paper plates. Notes are printed side-by-side, instead of successively, in Polish and English, with the Polish side of the page on a white background and the English side on a mustard-colored background. Full-page, high-quality color photos of all the artists are included, along with a complete members’ roster of the Sinfonia Iuventus.

Claude Debussy’s first official duty upon being appointed by Fauré to the Paris Conservatory’s board of directors in 1909 was to provide two works for the following year’s clarinet competition. He completed the Première Rhapsodie, originally for clarinet and piano, within a month’s time, and then sat on the jury judging the candidates (there were 11 of them). A year later, he orchestrated the piece. The second competition piece he provided, the Petite pièce, was a work of only 36 bars designed to test the candidates’ sight-reading skills, as they were not allowed to see and practice it ahead of time. (Debussy’s Deuxième Rhapsody is for saxophone.)

La Mer is Debussy’s largest orchestral work. Its instrumentation is sizeable; seldom, however, does Debussy use these forces en masse. Rather, as Paul Henry Lang has noted, the score is “a vibrating, oscillating, glimmering sound complex, caressing the senses” and “shimmering in a thousand colors.” Completed and premiered in 1905, the work heralded a sea change (no pun intended) in orchestral writing. It was not particularly well received in France, but its severest criticism came from this side of the pond, with one Boston critic punning that the piece ought to be titled Mal de Mer (Seasickness). Through it all, Debussy remained unfazed, and though he didn’t live to see how enormously popular La Mer would become, his musical instincts never failed him.

Dating from 1947, the Duet-Concertino for clarinet, bassoon, and strings was Richard Strauss’s last instrumental composition. The piece, in three movements, is, in effect, a chamber concerto featuring two oddly mated solo instruments. Strauss himself jokingly described the piece as a princess (clarinet) dancing with a bear (bassoon). To me, this dance resembles speed-dating or, perhaps better yet, fast-flipping through a Rolodex of the composer’s lifework. It’s all there in little ticklers, from his earliest chamber works to his vast tone poems and his operas; once or twice, there’s even a half-blank dance card that hints at the Four Last Songs yet to come. As with practically everything Strauss wrote, the piece is masterfully and brilliantly crafted.

Jean Françaix’s Theme and Variations for clarinet and string orchestra, which closes the program, subtly and cleverly returns us full circle to Debussy’s Première Rhapsodie at the beginning; for Françaix’s piece, written in 1974, was commissioned by the Paris Conservatory for the same purpose, a pièce de concours for the school’s clarinet department. Keeping its function in mind Françaix composed a piece to challenge the player technically, but one that would engage the listener with a breezy, jazzy, accessible style. As a result, Françaix’s Theme and Variations, like Debussy’s Première Rhapsodie, has retained a favored place in the clarinet repertoire.

Waldemar Żarów, born in 1984 in Rzeszów, Poland, plays one mean clarinet. It takes less than one minute—from 5: 10 to about 5:35—in the Françaix to establish that. At this point, the score requires the player to jump from the lowest to the highest notes on the instrument, and the precision and cleanness with which Żarów accomplishes this is breathtaking. But his playing is about much more than technical acrobatics. His performances in the Debussy and Strauss reveal an artist pure of tone and full of heart. His sensitive partnering with bassoonist Alicja Kieruzalska—in her own right a highly accomplished player who was born in Toronto and took her degree at the Frederic Chopin University of Music in Warsaw—is further confirmation of Żarów’s remarkable talent and musicality.

The Polish Sinfonia Iuventus is a newborn, having been established in 2007 by order of Poland’s minister of culture and national heritage. The ensemble is composed of the most gifted graduates and students of the country’s music academies, with membership restricted to those under 30. In other words, it’s a youth orchestra along the lines of the European Community Youth Orchestra and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. These ensembles have proved their mettle in some of music’s most challenging repertoire, and Sinfonia Iuventus acquits itself quite respectably in Debussy’s La Mer on this disc; but I’m not about to claim that the performance rises to the level of older classic versions by Reiner (Chicago), Munch (Boston), and Karajan (Berlin), or somewhat more recent accounts by Boulez (Cleveland), Dutoit (Montréal), and Rattle (Berlin). While the Sinfonia Iuventus’s young players lack nothing in enthusiasm or skill of execution, in somewhat shorter supply are the tonal sensuousness and unambiguous eroticism that are at the core of this score. Expressed more coolly and clandestinely in the composer’s earlier Afternoon of a Faun, the sexual implications in La Mer’s rising and falling waves are unmistakable; and that’s what is not fully projected in this otherwise well-rehearsed performance with Gabriel Chmura leading his student charges.

For the clarinet works and the fantastic playing of Waldemar Żarów, as well as a beautifully produced and recorded CD, strongly recommended.

Patrick Hanudel
American Record Guide, November 2010

The Sinfonia Iuventus is Poland’s equivalent of America’s New World Symphony in Miami Beach. The word “Iuventus” (Latin for “youth”) has a double meaning of sorts—all the musicians must be under the age of 30, and the ensemble itself is only three years old, founded in October 2007 by the Polish Minister of Culture and National Heritage. Here, under the baton of the noted Polish-Israeli conductor Gabriel Chmura, currently the music director of the Polish Radio Symphony in Katowice, the Sinfonia Iuventus presents not only the orchestra, but two of its principal woodwinds: clarinetist Waldemar Zarow and bassoonist Alicja Kieruzalska.

Zarow begins the concert with the Debussy Premiere Rhapsodie, orchestrated by the composer, and finishes it with the Francaix Theme and Variations, scored for clarinet and strings by the composer. In between, the orchestra performs Debussy’s La Mer, and Kieruzalska joins Zarow for the Strauss Duet-Concertino (1947) for clarinet, bassoon, and string orchestra, one of the composer’s late works for winds that combines neo-classical structure with neo-romantic sensibility.

The Sinfonia Iuventus is not an ordinary youth group. They play like a professional ensemble; and their refinement, teamwork, and musicianship surpass not only almost all American youth orchestras, but most American orchestras. The rendition of La Mer is at once dreamy and intense, and if the fastidious listener disagrees with the interpretation, he or she should take it up with Maestro Chmura, who clearly has a vision for the work. Chmura also deserves kudos for his deft handling of the concerto vehicles, especially the conductor’s nightmare that is the Strauss.

The orchestra’s principal clarinetist and principal bassoonist are genuine young talents that have yet to make the transition from orchestral player to soloist. Zarow, for example, has a silky legato and fluid technique, but his timbre needs more clarity and power, and his articulation needs more diction—his tongue often comes across as afraid to make contact with the reed. His phrasing is beautiful, yet he does not bring any original or compelling ideas to the table. He is not comfortable playing above mezzo-forte, and in moments such as the exciting climax of the Premiere Rhapsodie, his colleagues understand what the music needs better than he does.

Kieruzalska has a bigger presence, but her sound is rather foggy and colorless, and while she has solid fingers and articulation, she is more interested in playing securely than saying something meaningful. She also has a handful of less-than-acceptable intonation moments that many players blame on the instrument rather than choosing to solve them through voicing techniques.

Overall, though, the Sinfonia Iuventus has an undoubtedly bright future as one of Europe’s leading youth orchestras. As far as further in-house concerto programming goes, the strings and the brass are particularly impressive in the Debussy selections and the Strauss, and their sections should be the next place to look.

Richard A. Kaplan
Fanfare, November 2010

This attractively packaged CD is labeled Sinfonia Iuventus and Its Soloists, Vol. 1. The Sinfonia is a professional youth orchestra; that is, its members are recent graduates (and students) from Polish conservatories. Similarly to Florida’s New World Symphony, the members are age-limited; when they reach 30, it’s time to move on. The aim of the series of recordings inaugurated here is not only to showcase the orchestra, but to spotlight one of its especially gifted members with each release. This is therefore as much Waldemar Żarów’s CD as it is the orchestra’s; indeed, he is featured in three of the four works, or well over half the total duration. A more traditional approach would have been to present a program of representative orchestral works incorporating a single concerto, more like what one would expect in a typical concert program; the Sinfonia’s strategy instead constitutes generous support in launching careers of such talents as Żarów, the 26-year-old clarinetist featured here.

To cut to the chase: Young Żarów is a superb talent indeed, with a full, dark, plummy sound and a consummate technique. His selection of pieces is intriguing: no Mozart or Weber here; only the Debussy could be regarded as standard repertoire. This work, more colorful in its orchestral garb than in the more frequently heard original version with piano, is a study in instrumental control—breath control in its long phrases, tone control in its soft passages in the altissimo register, and finger control in its awkward passagework—and Żarów excels in every respect. The playing may seem a bit under-characterized at times, but this is for the most part introspective music, and the soloist can hardly be faulted for his tastefulness!

The Strauss, in which Żarów is joined by the orchestra’s principal bassoonist, Alicja Kieruzalska, is likewise pretty understated stuff; written only two years before the composer’s death, it is typical of the autumnal style familiar from his Oboe Concerto and the string sextet from Capriccio. The performance is top-notch, with lovely solo work from both players, and the wonderfully transparent recording allows us to hear more detail in the string accompaniment than most versions. With my longtime favorite version—by Gerard Schwarz and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, with soloists David Shifrin and Kenneth Munday—no longer listed, this version is as good as anything available.

Only in the little-known Françaix Variations—again more frequently done with piano—does Żarów allow himself to be flamboyant. Like Françaix’s wind chamber music, this piece is light-spirited but technically formidable, and Żarów dispatches it handily.

Of course, La Mer, the one purely orchestral work here, presents an entirely different sort of challenge. This is in many ways, however, a truly striking performance and recording; the playing is remarkably polished, with the many potentially problematic passages sounding absolutely professional. I’m thinking, for example, of the music for divisi cellos and for horns in the central section of “De l’aube à midi sur la mer,” or the treacherous woodwind figurations in “Jeux de vagues.” Only a too-cautious tempo in the latter, perhaps, causing the music to lose much of its impact, betrays the work of a “training” orchestra, and this may be more Chmura’s problem than that of his players.

Finally, comment must be made on the recording quality: Rarely, if ever, have I heard so much intricate orchestral detail in La Mer—the pianissimo cymbals, timpani, and lower strings in the opening movement, or the harp glissandos with glockenspiel at the top in the second. And yet, the balances sound very natural; the strings may be a bit thin, but even augmented by additional musicians, the Sinfonia’s string sections are slightly smaller than one could expect from a major orchestra in this repertoire.

In many ways, then, this is a most impressive release. While the La Mer may not be competitive with the classic versions by Reiner, Boulez, Ormandy, or Ansermet, it is rewarding in its own right, and stunningly recorded. Żarów’s contributions are absolutely first-class by any standard. If this first volume is any indication, Sinfonia Iuventus and Its Soloists should prove to be a most rewarding series.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group