Music for Strings

Serenade for Strings in E minor, Op.20
Clarinet Concerto, Op.31
Music for Strings
Holberg Suite, Op.40

Michael Collins (clarinet)

Scottish Ensemble
Jonathan Morton (violin / director)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 August, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Proms Saturday Matinees are now established as a regular fixture in the Proms season, not least as Cadogan Hall is the ideal venue for performances poised between orchestral and chamber. A medium that the Scottish Ensemble has made a virtue in the decade or so of its existence, and which was fully in evidence throughout this contrasted but well-balanced programme.

Played by just 12 strings, Elgar’s Serenade (1892) might risk losing its autumnal warmth, but there was no lack of repose in the Scottish Ensemble’s performance – bringing out the reticent lilt of the first movement and an appealingly easeful regret in the central Larghetto, before the finale wraps up the work with self-effacing skill. Notable too was the degree to which this group has overcome a persistent failing of non-conducted outfits: conveying interpretative nuance without sacrificing unanimity of ensemble.

Gerald Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto (1949) is a work that might seem to necessitate a larger string body, but again the Ensemble found an ideal accommodation between clarity of texture and warmth of expression. It helped to have such an advocate as Michael Collins as the soloist (hard to believe it is now 29 years since his performance of it at the Final of the first BBC Young Musician of the Year helped launch his career), and his handling of the simmering agitation and ambivalent gaiety of the outer movements evinced an identity that has only deepened over the years; while the Adagio, its ruminative melancholyand lambent repose beautifully integrated, remains a highlight of mid-twentieth century British music.

It was only right that the music of Dame Elizabeth Maconchy feature in the year of her centenary, and though there are several major orchestral works crying out for revival, a performance of Music for Strings is justified by having received its premiere at the Proms in 1983 (since when her music has been conspicuous by its absence!). Maconchy’s attributes of formal rigour and expressive fervour are well in evidence – and if the piece as a whole is perhaps not among her finest, this may have beenowing to an account that, technically immaculate, ‘hung fire’ in the opening movement and invested the finale with not quite enough conclusiveness. The ‘Scherzo’ was piquantly acerbic, however, and the ensuing ‘Mesto’ confirmed why Maconchy’s writing for strings is fully the equal of her predecessors.

Choosing a British piece for strings to round off the programme would not have been hard, but music by Grieg could hardly be thought inappropriate in the centenary of his death and a performance of his suite From Holberg’s Time (1884) – to give the work’s title its correct translation – could never be unwelcome. The Scottish Ensemble took care not to overemphasise the subtitle ‘Suite in the Olden Style’ – rightly so, as Grieg’s inspiration from the Baroque era (like that of Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin three decades on) is more inspirational than actual. Fine as were the odd-numbered movements, and given with the right incisive elegance, it was the wistful ‘Sarabande’ and elegiac ‘Air’ that were the undoubted highlights.

As before, the performance – under the discreet but always attentive direction of leader Jonathan Morton – was a fine one: concluding a wholly pleasurable afternoon recital and making one anticipate the Scottish Ensemble’s forthcoming season of concerts at Wigmore Hall with renewed keenness.

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