Academy of St Martin in the Fields at Cadogan Hall with Andrew Marwood and Steven Mackey

String Quartet in F minor, Op.95 (Serioso) [unattributed arrangement for string orchestra]
Four Iconoclastic Episodes [London premiere]
String Quartet No.2 in A, Op.68 [unattributed arrangement for string orchestra]

Steven Mackey (electric guitar)

Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Anthony Marwood (violin & director)

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 7 June, 2012
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Anthony MarwoodScaling-up string quartets can be an awkward challenge. Certainly, the rewards of expanding quartet scores to suit string orchestras can be extra heft and dynamic grunt, but too often it’s at the expense of the intimacy and directness achieved by four players. I’ve never been much taken by Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement of Shostakovich’s confessional Eighth Quartet for precisely this reason; the fierce honesty of the original seems somewhat diluted by resetting it for greater forces. But here was a challenge to that prejudice: the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, slimmed to 21 players, lent such cleansing and invigorating power to Shostakovich’s Second String Quartet that new depths were added to the composer’s spare palette of colour and connections made with his other wartime works that quite possibly wouldn’t have been conceivable in the original.

Suddenly the surging writing of the ‘Overture’ was akin to the parched sound of the Eighth Symphony, completed the year before the String Quartet. The Academy, directed from the violin by Anthony Marwood, hit the opening phrase with startling vibrancy and barely let up from there. When it came to the ‘Recitative and Romance’ of the second movement, Marwood’s fragile solos spoke volumes over the rich cadences of the lower strings. That same depth of communication – both soothing and wrenching – touched the work’s final pages, dispelling the slight concerns about the difficulty of coordinating the rhythmic intricacies of the ‘Waltz-Scherzo’ third movement. No arranger was credited, so whoever’s decision it was to draw out such affecting solos from the texture must remain a mystery; a pity, as this performance made a better case for augmenting Shostakovich than any I’ve heard.

Beethoven’s F minor ‘Serioso’ String Quartet benefited a little less from the orchestral treatment (Mahler’s?). It’s already such an economical and agitated statement of fizzing fury that expanding it loses some of the incisiveness inherent in the best performances of the original. Not that Marwood and friends failed to carry it convincingly: the force of much of their rendition caught us by the scruff of the neck and barely relaxed. The aggressively questioning link between second and third movements packed a particularly unanimous punch and, if the effort of keeping 21 players together without a conductor just occasionally told, this performance was a welcome reminder of the ferocity and drive of Beethoven’s vision.

Steven Mackey. Photograph: stevenmackey.comBetween these works, Steven Mackey proved that electric instruments need not overwhelm acoustic ones with Four Iconoclastic Episodes, his 2009 piece for violin, electric guitar and string orchestra. Mackey’s guitar duelled and danced with Marwood’s violin in an enchanting score that manages to suggest the rhetoric of popular music – repeated chords; simple harmony – with the means of classical without compromising the latter. The first Episode – ‘Like An Animal’ – owes a debt to John McLaughlin’s rock-fusion Mahavishnu Orchestra, though Marwood’s well behaved vibrato was several shades of ugly from the rock violin of the Mahavishnu’s album The Inner Mounting Flame. ‘Salad Days, the second Episode, introduces a snatch of half-remembered African music caught by the composer in the car and points up his ability to present something simple that changes in complexion as what’s behind it moves and alters. ‘Lost in Splendor’ offers the tantalising possibility of a chaconne structure to be unpicked with repeated hearings, while the final Episode – ‘Destiny’ – is redolent of 1980s’ rock guitar solos and the propulsive post-minimalist rhythmic transformations of composers such as John Adams.

The Academy’s vivid mine of colour cast each section in a different light; Marwood and Mackey’s duo held a real frisson of excitement. It’s a work that’s already garnered a number of performances – the mouth-watering prospect of Pekka Kuusisto in the solo violin part is scheduled for next year – and a recording is mooted. I can’t wait to hear Episodes again.

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