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S&H review

The Orbestra Ensemble and Charivari Agréable (PGW)



The Internet can provide welcome surprises. Receiving a new CD from Orbestra, an enterprising and unique 'cross-over' group based in Oxfordshire, which I championed in the early '90s, I looked up their website and was flattered to discover my own review of a Purcell Room concert series of theirs, reprinted in full from the defunct Strictly Off The Record, the progenitor of S&H - (see About Seen&Heard

Here are some edited excerpts from it:


- - its name is a conflation of orb (signifying the whole world) and orchestra. - - The Orbestra Ensemble is the most interesting group I've encountered in many months - - "composer in residence" Peter Cowdrey (b. 1963), one time pupil of Oliver Knussen, Cambridge scholar and traveller, a self effacing pianist and expert percussionist - - alongside classical skills at a high level they play a multitude of ethnic instruments. Peter Cowdrey's sister Liz plays violin and bassoon and she sings. Several members are multi instrumentalists and lend their voices as required. Paul Bevan (trombone) and Kevin Murphy (clarinet) turn their hand to exotic percussion instruments from time to time. - - - Patricia Cuberos was their charismatic singer, with many vocal techniques at her command - - the 50th anniversary of Béla Bartók's death (was commemorated by) Bartók's 3rd quartet - - in the unusual context of Cowdrey's pieces based on Eastern European folk tunes and Jewish songs, which he modestly characterises as "some arrangements, some compositions, some half and half" - - Transdanubian Swineherds' Music, based upon Bartók's 1936 recordings of peasant musicians - - can be relished on Orbestra's thoroughly enjoyable first CD, Hannibal HNCD 1367.

The Dufay Collective, in mediæval music with an Arabic flavour, began the second concert The Middle Eastern Connection on 31st March. The evening's centre piece was Peter Cowdrey's ambitious and strikingly original Concerto for Violin and Orbestra (1994), a sophisticated and individual conception with an audacious central movement for violin alone. This begins with an open E pedal which envelops representations of natural sounds before braking into a wild dance inspired by a Bartók recording of a primitive Turkish fiddle, heard in retrograde later. - - - Look out for Orbestra's return; interest and entertainment guaranteed.

P Grahame Woolf

Strictly off the Record (1995)

The new CD of music by Peter Cowdrey, Woman's Moods, is given by four members of the Orbestra Ensemble and has that central solo movement from the concerto, which evokes the Turkish kemence, and is retitled Awakening. For solo strings there are also The North Wind Playing for solo violin (an evocation of a fiddler on a Shetland cliff) and Hicazkar in a Turkish makam for cello. Elizabeth Cowdrey and Jacqueline Johnson play with verve and compelling immediacy in these recordings.

The project arose from the group's involvement in the 1995 Istanbul Festival. The liner notes writer Filiz Ali describes Peter Cowdrey as 'like a Dervish - - content with very little and goes around with music pouring out of the papers he carries', and says that 'this British group knows more about Turkish music than Turks themselves do'!

Of unusual interest is a group of seven songs, to poems addressing 'relevant' contemporary moods written in haste by the singer Patricia Cuberos (disenchanted at the time with the usual lieder themes of 'beauty, spirituality or nature'), and quickly set by Cowdrey. There are technical shortcomings in the recording, probably due to financial constraints - the studio sound for the songs is dry and the piano too recessed for my taste. If you want to try it, for something uncommon and - my lead criterion - unique, ORCD 2 Woman's Moods is available from Patricia Cuberos at and full texts will be supplied on request with the CD.

That CD may not be everyone's 'cup of tea' but their first, Transdanubian Swineherds Hannibal HNCD 1367, is a real gem which we have enjoyed listening to again, and about which I have no reservations at all. The full team as of 1992 is involved, and the settings of Eastern European, Norwegian and African tunes by Cowdrey are piquant and individual, all put together with full professionalism. This CD can also be ordered via .

Another Oxford connection is the ensemble Charivari Agréable, whose appearance at the Purcell Room with their Two upon a Ground programme was one of the happiest early music experiences this Spring. During the same week that Woman's Moods came through my letterbox, I received belatedly from Signum a batch of the Charivari's CDs, agréable indeed! This German-Malaysian-British ensemble was formed in 1993 at Oxford University as a core continuo group to explore a brilliant and virtuosic style of accompanying in the 17th & 18th centuries. The CD of their English programme as heard at the Purcell Room, SIGCD007, recaptures the combined refinement and spontaneity of the live performances.

They specialise also in French music of the period. The most bizarre story is that of Jean-Baptiste Forqueray, whose music was published in 1747 under the name of his recently deceased father! Jean-Baptiste had been ill advised enough to become a better violist and composer than his father Antoine, who had him on that account incarcerated in prison and banished from France for ten years on pain of death! Not great music, but enjoyable as given by the augmented Charivari Agréable Simfoinie on SIGCD008.

Best to my ears is a French viol music collection of music by Louis & François Couperin, Corrette, Dumage, Duphly, Dornel & Marais, which rings the changes deliciously upon bowed and plucked strings and keyboard instruments of the period. They are all scholars, but not purists in any restrictive sense, and Kah-Ming Ng describes how they adopt contemporary practice of the period by completing the compositional process in respect of instrumentation, ornamentation and free arrangements. The performances and their recordings are alive with a presence close to memories of hearing them live. Presentation and documentation are immaculate, with the easiest of codes to follow so that you know who is playing which instruments on each track. I have enjoyed all their CDs, but this one, with some ravishing large scale pieces lasting most of ten minutes, is my favourite: The Sultan & the Phoenix SIGCD0032.

The musicians of The Orbestra Ensemble and Charivari Agréable are based not far apart and share an untrammelled exploratory attitude. Neither group is afraid to experiment and improvise in preparing programmes. It they could get together, that might really spark something!

Peter Grahame Woolf




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