Wunderhorn Arranged

String Quartet in E minor, Op.44/2
Dover Beach, Op.3
Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn [arr. James Olsen – Commissioned by Wigmore Hall: world premiere] (Revelge; Das irdische Leben; Verlor’ne Müh; Der Tamboursg’sell; Urlicht;Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt; Lied des Verfolgten im Turm; Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?; Lob des hohen Verstandes; Rheinlegendchen; Der Schildwache Nachtlied; Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen)

Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano)

Simon Keenlyside (baritone)

Belcea Quartet
[Corina Belcea & Laura Samuel (violin); Krzysztof Chorzelski, (viola) & Alasdair Tait (cello)]
& Friends
[Emily Beynon (flute); Christopher Cowie (oboe); Matthew Hunt (clarinet); Ursula Leveaux (bassoon); Martin Owen (horn); Colin Currie (percussion); Lindy Tennent-Brown (harmonium); Corin Long (double bass)]

Paul Kildea

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 30 October, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Belcea Quartet’s performance of Mendelssohn’s E minor string quartet – actually the first of his Opus 44 to be composed, though numbered second – grew in stature and strength, culminating in a powerful and defiant finale.

Initially, there was a sense of the ‘precious’ about the playing, with not enough of the tensile quality needed to prevent this music from meandering, but on the repeat of first movement’s exposition, the material acquired its inherent purpose, and one could admire Mendelssohn’s ingenuity in developing his thematic ideas. The Belcea’s homogeneity of ensemble was wholly admirable, as was the players’ commendable sense of ‘give and take’. The second movement – a fleet-footed scherzo – was dispatched energetically, only relaxing for the viola’s melancholy and momentary interjections. I’d have preferred a more subdued accompaniment at the start of the Andante, which would have enabled Corina Belcea’s first-violin lines to have soared more freely, and throughout this movement, there was a certain want of a rapt, intimate quality. At least there was no lingering and self-indulgence. The volatile finale had inexorable propulsion, and the work moved determinedly towards its stern conclusion.

Samuel Barber’s setting of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”, for the unusual combination of baritone solo accompanied by string quartet, was given a performance of considerable conviction, thanks in no small measure to the distinguished and distinctive singing of Simon Keenlyside. His firm, rounded tone was responsive to the varied moods and hues of Barber’s music, including some hushed, expressive singing towards the end of the first stanza, and a more passionate outburst at the start of the last. If, on occasions, one ideally needed a more restrained string accompaniment, there was, nevertheless, evident rapport between singer and players, not least where individual instruments – notably the cello – ‘duet’ with the voice.

This is the third concert I have attended since the Wigmore Hall’s re-opening, and on each occasion, transcriptions or arrangements have been included. At the opening concert, Paul Kildea conducted the Nash Ensemble in the Schoenberg/Riehn arrangement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. James Olsen’s transcriptions of songs from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” similarly reduce the instrumental forces specified by the composer. In this instance, Mahler’s generally substantial orchestrations are rendered by quintets of wind and strings plus harmonium and percussion – similar indeed to the Schoenberg/Riehn arrangement minus the piano.

Again, the question which hangs in the air is: “why?”. Granted that performances of the original are not particularly frequent, but recordings of Mahler’s conception are readily available – some of which are extremely good. There is no question that James Olsen’s scoring is skilfully and expertly done, but the impact of the composer’s own soundworld is, necessarily, reduced, and one couldn’t help wondering throughout the performance how much more one would have preferred to have been listening to what Mahler actually intended.

The absence of heavy brass and certain percussion was distinctly noticeable, and single strings cannot, of course, convey the weight and colour of an orchestral string section. But the Belcea Quartet & Friends played extremely well, with some wind-playing which was alternately pointed and expressive, but I certainly did not care for a wheezy harmonium, which was particularly inappropriate in “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen.”

It probably goes without saying that the singing was on a very high level indeed, with Simon Keenlyside relishing the biting irony and swagger of songs such as “Revelge”, and Ann Murray providing colour and character, whether flirty in “Verlor’ne Müh” or despairing in “Das irdische Leben”. However, both singers seemed to want the tempos to move on in places. They were indeed on the slow side occasionally, and one empathised with the singers’ desire for more momentum.

There was no information provided as to the reasoning behind Olsen’s commission. These arrangements may fill a niche and, possibly, provide suitable companions for the Schoenberg/Riehn Das Lied arrangement.

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