Album review: c/o chamber orchestra’s exquisite disc debut

Rarely have I come across with an equally delightful debut album than c/o chamber orchestra’s Divertissement! On BIS Records. Working from the beginning without a conductor, the Berlin-based collective of thirty musicians from a dozen European countries has been around for seven years now. On their first disc appearance, the c/o musicians provide us with the most invigorating playlist of musical pieces titled as divertimentos.

A somewhat vague category, originally referring to light-hearted sonic entertainment, an eighteenth century rendition of elevator music, perhaps, the divertimento was thoroughly redefined by Mozart, whose forays to the genre are, in fact, instrumental theatre at the highest level. Yet, despite all their finesse, the Mozart divertimenti remain true to spirit of entertainment, elevating the genre to the next level and beyond.

On their debut album, the c/o chamber orchestra picks up where Mozart left, with their astonishing performances of four substantially different, yet equally amazing takes on the genre, ranging from the late nineteenth century to the present day. There are two works are scored for the full ensemble, framing a double wind quintet and a string orchestra piece, resulting in intriguing variety of texture and colour.

Setting the disc in flamboyant motion, the album opens with its title piece, Jacques Ibert’s ravishing Divertissement (1929/1930) for chamber orchestra. Originally conceived as incidental music for a production of the comic play Un chapeau de paille d’Italie (The Italian Straw Hat, 1851), the composer subsequently adapted his score into a six-movement concert suite. In Ibert’s Divertissement, dazzling virtuosity and unrestrained comedy shake hands, giving rise to musical narratives of hilarious originality.

The mood is established in the marvellously upbeat Introduction, followed by a surreal Cortège, incorporating fragments of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March and pre-echoing Monty Python. A serene Nocturne ensues, providing perfect contrast in mood and texture with its evocative stillness. After a joyful pairing of a Valse and a Parade, the suite is brought to its close with a resplendently chaotic Finale.

A take-no-prisoners performance from the musicians of the c/o chamber orchestra, Ibert’s Divertissement is given a riotous disc outing, one of dexterous orchestral playing and brilliant sonic comedy. An aptly exuberant take beautifully recorded at Berlin’s acoustically incredible Jesus-Christus-Kirche by the BIS team, the Ibert is pure joy.

Going back almost forty years, Émile Bernard’s Divertissement pour instruments à vent, op. 36 (1894) is quite different affair. A three-movement piece for ten musicians, Bernard’s score looks into the past and the future alike. On one hand, the music displays its Mozartean roots, and on the other, there are premonitions of the entertainment of twenties and the Hollywood Golden Age embedded here and there.

As a whole, the music is fabulously crafted, unraveling with a wondrous array of wind sonorities in elaborate counterpoint. Performed with sensitivity and inspiration by the c/o players, Bernard’s Divertissement is a gem.

Fast-forward to 1939, Béla Bartók’s Divertimento for String Orchestra, Sz. 113 is one of the absolute masterpieces of the genre. The composer’s final score written in Europe before his emigration to the United States, the three-movement Divertimento was written in an intense fifteen-day creative burst, while the composer was staying at Paul Sacher’s Swiss estate. For Bartók, the concept of divertimento is not so much about entertainment, in the traditional sense, but rather a feast of music-making on the top of the game.

Based on a fast-slow-fast scheme, Bartók’s score displays many folk-like idioms, as seen through the composer’s highly personal style. In comparison to his recently completed Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936), the musical fabric displays a more distilled style, paving the way for Bartók’s final, American masterpieces.

Although the first movement, Allegro non troppo, opens with a relatively straightforward presentation of its folk-rooted main material, the music soon wanders into a sonic forest of dark shadows, with occasional rays of light breaking through the age-old thicket of branches and leaves. A musical adventure par excellence, admirably conveyed by the c/o strings.

Reinventing the slow movement was perhaps one of Bartók’s key contributions the the history of music. At the core of his Divertimento, one of the composer’s most eloquent examples of night music comes at play, with its slowly unfolding, moonlit layers of string lines. The juxtaposition of deep undercurrents and high-register strokes gives rise to gripping tensions, compellingly delivered by the c/o players. The awe-inspiring tremolo passages midway into the movement come off with chilling intensity, mixing the dreamscape with nightmarish overtones.

The Allegro assai finale with its electrifying introduction and masterfully fugal conclusion is a virtuosic one, clad in splendid whirlwind of rhythm and colour by the c/o. Well served by the translucent recording, the performance demonstrate an ideal mix of pristine clarity and sonorous heat.

The album closes with Michael Ippolito’s spellbinding Divertimento (2017) for chamber orchestra. The four-movement score is conceived in symphonic manner, with an opening Con moto setting the music in captivating motion with a riveting orchestral tableau. In the marvellous Aria burlesca second movement, a main melody unfolds, interrupted by cracking pizzicati, giving rise to a brilliant scene of instrumental comedy.

The joyful spirit carries over to the third movement, a steadfast menuetto, clad in fabulous textures and (slightly) tipsy rhythms. The Allegro finale is primed by a luminous Adagio introduction, broken by timpani. The movement proper comes off as an aptly turbulent fugal maze, celebrating the timbral multitudes and contrapuntal designs enabled by the instrumental line up. Concluding with an ingenious mixture of a sublime chorale and a turbulent whirl, Ippolito’s finale is a delight.

The c/o chamber orchestra completely owns the Divertimento, providing the score with a superlative disc premiere. An exciting closing for an extraordinary album, the Ippolito piece is both a perfect sum-up of the divertimento genre as well as an uplifting score of its own right. One of the most inspired albums of 2021, thus far, Divertissement! Is a disc to be recommended with resounding enthusiasm.

c/o chamber orchestra

Jacques Ibert: Divertissement (1929/1930) pour orchestre de chambre

Émilie Bernard: Divertissement pour instruments à vent, op. 36 (1894)

Béla Bartók: Divertimento (1939) for string orchestra, Sz. 113

Michael Ippolito: Divertimento (2017) for chamber orchestra

Recorded in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem in August 2018 (Ibert, Bernard, Ippolito) and October 2020 (Bartók)

BIS Records BIS-2499 (2021), 1 SACD

© Jari Kallio

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