The Schubert Ensemble:
Simon Blendis (violin)
Douglas Paterson (viola)
Jane Salmon (cello)
Peter Buckoke (double bass)
William Howard (piano)
Marianne Thorsen (guest second violin)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: February 2001
CD No: NMC D075
Although written for all levels of technical facility, there is no sense of any of the composers’ writing-down in terms of the music itself. That said, the pieces are all accessible – but imaginatively concise and repay attention. Nineteen composers are represented (Colin Matthews has two works) and each has written something that is intrinsically shapely, decorous and, I imagine, fun to play and absorbing to study. Some pieces are less than two minutes long, a couple just over six.
Judith Weir’s upbeat Arise, arise! You slumbering sleepers is an inspiring folksong for string trio over bell-effects from the piano (ladies first: this is track one) and bells also chime in Rory Boyle’s Campani in Aria (Berceuse) which transplants an original Christmas Carol into the piano quartet medium and a questioning lullaby. Piers Hellawell’s a white room has a Spanish feel and requires the strings to indulge in percussive effects. Gerald Barry’s automated Snow is white is all to do with Francis Bacon stuffing a chicken with snow, then dying! Howard Skempton is also mechanically-minded in La gora di mulino, a windmill’s action reflected in the music’s ’circular aspects’. Elena Firsova’s Frozen Time is a gem of a piece – a study in static motion with enigmatic instrumental lines that are romantically thawed. A gorgeous Welsh folksong informs David Matthews’s Y Deryn Du, while brother Colin supplies a haunting Waltz, a piece I love for its Waltonian sense of nostalgia; its companion March enjoys a robust innocence that should appeal to listeners and players of all ages – both pieces have a disarming simplicity quite unlike anything else I’ve heard from this impressive composer.
Imagery, legend and more folksong offer clues to other pieces – Pavel Novak has a fairytale as inspiration for Year of a Bird (three aphoristic months are heard here), Owen Leech reflects charmingly on Hungarian folksong, Sally Beamish suggests a HAUNTED HOUSE and David Knotts concerns himself with American Indian myth in Coyote Star Song. Meanwhile, Daryl Runswick uses canons to construct Follow, Follow (a piece for double bass players to inspect) and Roxanna Panufnik is obsessed with a particular note in Let me B. John Woolrich is also more concerned with abstract matters as his terse toccata, sparse calmo and ambiguous nocturnal demonstrate.
Both Edward Rushton and Stephen Warbeck enter pleas for peace. Rushton’s sustained rhythmic invention in Combat in the Year Thousand complements the composer’s vivid written introduction; Warbeck’s Less Fighting is an optimistic if shadowy (Shostakovichian) march that yields to contemplation (double bassists should also check this – and the David Matthews – out). Pianists should look at Philip Cashian’s atmospheric music for the night sky because he’s given you a solo over string trio harmonics. Finally American Jean Hasse (the fifth female composer represented) closes the disc with Next Dance, a gently syncopated movement of graceful melody that grows to a punchy coda.
The professional, well-established, much-travelled Schubert Ensemble (its instrumental line-up inspired by the Trout Quintet presumably) is a proficient and dedicated purveyor of its commissions. With superb sound and good notes, a white room proves to be a very attractive aural counterpart to the very laudable Chamber Music 2000 project. Who knows, a Schubert Ensemble of the future might be inspired because of this hands-on initiative. Highly recommended.