Saturday 25 April 2015

First class performances from Ben Palmer and the Orchestra of St Paul’s of transcriptions of string quartets by Elgar, Malcolm Arnold and Robert Simpson

It is certainly not a new idea to transcribe string quartets for string orchestra, the most famous example being that of Rudolf Barshai’s transcriptions of a number of Shostakovich’s quartets now known as Chamber Symphonies.

A new release from Somm Recordings  brings together arrangements by David Matthews  of string quartets by Elgar and Malcolm Arnold as well as Robert Simpson’s own arrangement of the Allegro Deciso from his String Quartet No.3.

All are played by the Orchestra of St Paul’s  conducted by Ben Palmer

Somm Céleste Series SOMMCD 0145

The Orchestra of St Paul’s under Ben Palmer bring some fine sonorities to the opening of the Allegro Moderato of Edward Elgar’s (1857-1934) String Quartet arranged for strings by David Matthews. Palmer manages to bring many subtleties in dynamics and texture, missing nothing of Elgar’s wistfulness. The size of the orchestra, listed as just 16 players, goes far in enabling a great flexibility of playing.

The Piacevole (Poco Andante) brings beautifully light textured playing, with the highest degree of sensitivity with fine hushed moments of strange, otherworldly beauty, perhaps more so than in the original.  These players build to moments of fine power and expressiveness before the most exquisite of codas.

There is a fine rhythmic spring to the Finale - Allegro Molto with playing of tremendous agility and spirit, great dynamic control and phrasing, before racing to a coda that, in this performance, recalls the Introduction and Allegro for strings.

All Elgarians will surely wish to hear this effective arrangement, brilliantly played.

The opening of the Allegro of Sonata for Strings arranged by David Matthews after the String Quartet No.2 by Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) positively glows. Matthews cleverly highlights the individual string lines in some most effective passages. This is an arrangement that brings out this music’s strange unsettled nature, highlighting more than ever the violent dissonances as the movement progresses.  

The Maestoso Con Molto Rubato - Allegro Vivace opens with a striking double stopped solo for violin, drawing some fine emotion before an Irish jig appears (Arnold lived in Ireland at this time). The orchestra brings rich, broader textures with some fabulous string playing, the lower strings providing some terrific underpinning of the rhythm and texture. A slowly shifting string theme casts a gloomy shadow in the Andante, the pathos and tragedy increasing as the movement progresses. There are moments of intense sadness and introspection. At times Arnold surely anticipates his Ninth Symphony. Later there are some very fine rich lower chords as the music pours out its emotional heart before dying away at the end.

There is a surprisingly light and sunny opening to the Allegretto – Vivace – Lento the more so in this arrangement. There is more fine string playing here, reducing to moments of withdrawn beauty. The Vivace brings fine incisive playing, full of energy and intensity, pointing up the underlying turmoil of this music, rising in intensity before leading into the lento with lovely string sonorities.

Robert Simpson’s (1921-1997) own arrangement of the Allegro Deciso from his String Quartet No.3 brings a sunny texture, though full of drive and energy, something that features in much of Simpson’s music. The music rises up more and more before bringing a distant, quieter, yet still energised quality. The St Paul’s orchestra bring some fine, sensitive sonorities together with lovely hushed moments as they build this extraordinarily fine piece, continually propelled forward with such fine playing right to the decisive coda.

If this doesn’t encourage listeners to seek out Simpson’s quartets then I don’t know what will.

I found the Arnold and Simpson arrangements particularly fine and the performances are absolutely first class. The recording made at St Mary’s Church, Walthamstow, London, England is excellent as are the booklet notes from Ben Palmer. 

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