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Rautavaara, Grieg, Vivaldi, and Albert Schnelzer: Arensky Chamber Orchestra, Clio Gould (violin, director). Cadogan Hall, London, 17.3.2011 (MB)

Rautavaara - Pelimannit ('The Fiddlers'), op.1

Grieg - From Holberg's Time: Suite in the Olden Style, op.40

Vivaldi - Violin Concerto in D major, 'Il Grosso Mogul,' RV 208

Albert Schnelzer - Emperor Akbar (British première, orchestral version)

Last September, I reported enthusiastically from the Arensky Chamber Orchestra's launch at the Institute of Directors. I am delighted to say that the performances at this concert proved of an equally high standard. A crack team of young soloists combined under the leadership of Clio Gould to provide an object lesson in stylish, dynamic string playing.

To stand out amongst a host of chamber ensembles, the ACO has resolved to do things differently, not for the mere sake of it, but to attempt to present works in interesting new ways, both through programming and presentation. Interesting connections abounded: Scandinavian string music from Einojuhani Rautavaara, Edvard Grieg, and Swedish composer, Albert Schnelzer - the string orchestral version of the latter's Emperor Akbar also fitting nicely with one of Vivaldi's two Mogul excursions, the D major concerto, RV 208.

As we entered the Cadogan Hall, members of the orchestra greeted us from a balcony above the stage with their own arrangement of folk material collected by fiddler Samuel Rinda-Nickola (1763-1818), thus preparing us for Rautavaara's The Fiddlers, which also makes use of Rinda-Nickola's material. A student work, indeed his op.1, The Fiddlers (or 'Pelimannit') is full of exuberance; at least it was in this typically energetic performance. The informative programme notes informed us that Rautavaara originally wrote a piano piece, which he subsequently arranged for string orchestra. From the idiomatic rendition here, one would never have guessed, though the composer perhaps sounds closer to the likes of Honegger than to his later voice (no complaints here). Depth and richness of tone combined with sharp characterisation of individual movements, relishing but never unduly exaggerating the composer's 'wrong-note' harmonies, to provide a memorable account. Another programming idea: perhaps this could be a potential companion piece to Bernd Alois Zimmermann's riotous Rheinische Kirmestänze ?

Grieg's Holberg Suite followed: another work originally composed for piano and subsequently arranged for string orchestra. It is an unfashionable work; indeed, one might say much the same of Grieg as a composer: a pity, since its evocation of the Baroque suite is charming and never resorts to pastiche. Lightly nostalgic, the ACO's account paid homage to an imagined eighteenth century, whilst making abundantly clear that this was a nineteenth-century work. Grieg's harmonies delighted, not least on account of well-judged harmonic rhythm under Gould's wise direction. The string tone itself was expressively rich, though never overwhelmingly so: light and rich are not necessarily antonyms. The Air ('Andante religioso') was sung especially beautifully, never descending into the realms of the maudlin. Gould's solos proved beguiling, but so did those from other section principals, amongst whom Steffan Rees's finely shaded cello line deserves especial mention.

Gould was the soloist for Vivaldi's Il grosso mogul concerto. I cannot claim to be a paid-up Vivaldian - Dallapiccola's line, popularised by Stravinsky, about writing the same concerto a few hundred times dies hard - but this was a fine reading that never outstayed its welcome. Once again striking was the richness, though not a 'Romantic' richness, of tone displayed by the orchestra as a whole, a fine backdrop for Vivaldi's - and Gould's - flights of violinistic fantasy. The slow movement, for solo and continuo, showed that there is variety within Vivaldi's box of tricks, even if I could not help thinking - heretically? -that Bach's arrangement remains superior to the original. But what a joy it was to hear such warmth from the orchestra: utterly distant from current attention-seeking 'authenticity'. I was put in mind of the English Chamber Orchestra in its heyday.

Finally came the British première of the orchestral version of Albert Schnelzer's Emperor Akbar, the quartet version of which was written for the Brodsky Quartet. Where the inspiration for Vivaldi's title remains obscure, Schnelzer pays explicit homage to Salman Rushdie's portrait of the Mogul Emperor in The Enchantress of Florence. Indeed, we heard readings from Rushdie prior to both the Vivaldi and Schnelzer pieces. Schnelzer, according to his biography, 'has openly declared that communication is a key element in his music.' I am not sure that there is anything particularly unusual about that, though the implication would seem to be that (relatively) straightforward is better. The dance-inspired rhythms and melodies were once again expertly despatched by the orchestra, though I could not help wishing that something a little more intellectually engaging were on offer. Ferneyhough perhaps: I suspect these players would cope…

The next ACO concert will feature Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, both in its original sextet version, and in the version for string orchestra, alongside an exhibition of new works from the Royal College of Art. Perhaps my belief in the original's superiority will be challenged; we shall see… For further details on the Arensky Chamber Orchestra, please visit the orchestra's website (click here).

Mark Berry


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