Sunday 13 September 2009

The Rose Street Ensemble present another interesting programme

Ever since I first met them a year or so ago, through my friend Caroline who is one of their first violins (hence this review's shameless plug tag), I've been looking forward to Rose Street Ensemble's next concert.

Last August they played a fascinating programme which drew works and their inspirations side by side, for example Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was preceded by the original Tallis (with a wonderful split choir effect) and so on. Perhaps most interestingly of all, Bartok's Romanian Dances were preceded by crackling old field recordings made by Bartok himself.

This year's programme, while interestingly chosen, was not quite so insightful. The theme was émigré and so grouped together the works of Hans Gal, Rachmaninoff and Bartok. The three pieces for string orchestra were separated by some lieder and readings of the composers' own writings by Crawford Logan.

Gal came first, not a composer I can remember having come across before. Following the war he relocated to Edinburgh and was involved in the establishment of the International Festival. They played his Serenade for Strings, op.46. The ensemble, under the baton of James Lowe (whom we previously met with the SCO back in December) played with a nice rich sound, all the more impressive when one considers this is a scratch orchestra of amateurs and professionals that only meets once a year and had its first rehearsal only a week and a half earlier. It was an interesting and lyrical piece, but, since I've not heard it before, harder to judge further.

This was followed by Logan's first reading. It was thought-provoking, and at often times displaying a grim humour as he described the conditions of internment. Sadly, his voice was rather overamplified and one couldn't help but wonder if amplification was even needed at all in a comparatively small space like Canongate Kirk.

After this alto Judy Brown took to the stage to sing Gal's Five songs for middle voice and piano, op.33. She had a nice voice, if perhaps a touch thin at times, and pleasantly free of vibrato. I'm not the biggest fan of lieder and these didn't seem to be great examples of the genre. Simon Smith provided solid piano accompaniment.

Then it was time for Rachmaninoff, and the order was reversed with the songs kicking things off. This time soprano Emma Morwood was accompanied by Robin Hutt in a selection from Songs, op.34 (nos. 1, 5, 8 and 14). Unfortunately, I didn't care for her voice at all. There was an excessive vibrato lending it the siren like quality that I dislike so much about Eva Marton. Of course, I don't really know the piece, so this may be what was called for and judging from the reception, I seemed in a minority on this view. The final song vocalise was perhaps the nicest, and most nicely done.

Following another reading, we got the Romance and Scherzo from his first string quartet, rearranged by the composer for string orchestra. Interestingly, we first got a taste of this from the smaller Rose Street Quartet back in August. I wasn't swept away by it then but much preferred it in the thicker orchestral sound. Lowe brought a nice wit to the closing coda and in his hands the trio section did not appear as weak as the programme note suggested.

After the interval it was the turn of Bartok and the music of the evening that was most to my taste. Judy Brown and Simon Smith returned to the stage for a moving performance of a selection from Eight Hungarian Folk Songs, BB47. They had a nice melancholy air and piano and voice blended beautifully. It was helped by the fact that Brown's voice seemed a better fit to the music than with the Gal.

Logan gave a final reading before the final piece. They had saved the best until last with Bartok's Divertimento for Strings, BB118. Not a work I thought I knew, though it turns out I have it on a disc by Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Lowe exhibited brilliant control, from impressive quiet playing to pulsing drama. It was not an easy piece, and while it may not have been note perfect it was played with such drama and passion that it didn't matter. The adagio was riven with a seething tension beneath the surface, calling to mind the opening of Shostakovich's 11th symphony which has a similarly low and ominous feel to it. They then launched into the thrilling finale, Lowe accentuating the drama at every turn, yet also bringing humour to the lovely waltz pastiche. It was a fantastic performance, something underscored by the fact that on listening this afternoon, the Mackerras disc didn't quite seem to have the same energy.

The concert was being held to raise money for the charity War Child. What a shame it will be another year or so until they present another one. With any luck we might get such string orchestra gems as Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra, Strauss's Metamorphosen or Mahler's arrangement of Schubert's Death and the Maiden Quartet which the SCO played so well last season. Scottish audiences don't have to wait so long to hear Lowe again, he'll be conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on 28th September in James MacMillan's Tryst. Where's Runnicles will be there.

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