Friends of Chamber Music

Date: Tuesday, 6 May 2003 at 20.00
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Playhouse

Reviewer: J. H. Stape

Brahms: Sextet for Strings in B-flat Major, Op. 18 Shostakovich: Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet, Op. 11
Mendelssohn: Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, Op. 20

Violin: Kenneth Sillito (lead), Harvey De Souza, Mark Butler, Paul Ezergailis
Viola: Robert Smissen, Duncan Fergusson
Cello: Stephen Orton, John Heley

Created in 1967 from the larger orchestra of the Academy of St Martin-in-the Fields, the Academy of St-Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble performs chamber works, touring extensively in Europe, Asia, and North and South America. Its Vancouver stop closed the Friends of Chamber Music's 2002-03 season on a high note that was long sustained and vigorously polished, with meticulous playing and a long matured musical sensitivity generously displayed in a highly diverse programme of nineteenth- and
twentieth-century works.

Brahms's "Sextet for Strings in B-flat Major, Op. 18," is music of a ravishing melodic character, densely textured and with a plethora of musical ideas. The exploration on offer rung out the work's relaxed and equable qualities with consistent clarity and brightness.

The opening Allegro set the tone for the entire evening--one full of stylish and richly characterized playing. The weighty playfulness of the Andante, wholly Germanic in its serious approach to fun, gave an opportunity to show how nimbly the Ensemble shifted moods and rhythms. The six variations moved from a gypsy-like opening through a section that imitated a tinkling music box. The Scherzo provided welcome contrast to this solemn fun not a moment too soon: joyous, rambunctious, even noisy, this was a respite from seriousness that returned in the plump stateliness and serene grace that characterizes the closing Rondo.

Having strutted its stuff in a complex, muscle-tiring late-Romantic work, the Ensemble took what seemed an impromptu intermission, with one of its members re-appearing after the applause had long died down without his jacket and cup of tea in hand to ask us to take our own break!

Two parts of what were to have been a five-movement work, Shostakovich's "Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet, Op. 11," fully justified just such a pause, for the complete shift in mood from plummy Brahmsian contentment to a Modernist soundscape of neurotic intensity and pressure could not have been more thorough.

The Prelude's disconcerting opening measures with their fury and stress lurch towards an inner world of melancholy reflectiveness. The Scherzo emphasizes a frenetic pace that segues into a driving and madly nervous near-dance. Dauntingly varied in emotional range and dynamics, the piece was splendidly articulated by players whose assured, and effortlessly playing was both illuminating and unostentatious, very much in the typically understated English tradition.

The concert's formal ending was a taut and fluent rendition of Mendelssohn's "Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, Op. 20," written in 1825 when the composer was a mere sixteen years old. The soaring melody of the first movement Allegro moderato ma con fuoco threatens to burst from the confines of the octet form into the world of the symphony. Details emerged sharply defined, and the overall effect was one of sheer radiance. The soulful Andante was gently coloured. By way of vivid contrast, the Scherzo, played with verve and immediacy, conjured up sprites and will-o-the-wisps in a delightful fantasia that in modern terms might be called a case of happy jitters. The devilishly quick Presto was taken with almost swaggering bravado by musicians who had been put through their paces. The final measures, if retaining a fully dignified character, must be the closest to a "Knees Up, Mother Brown" mood that Mendelssohn or his time ever came to.

The encore tradition has sometimes been cavilled at for lowering the prevailing mood in order to give a concluding schazzam, but the Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble, wholly in keeping with its tasteful playing during the length of the evening, opted for a quieter, more reflective work to send the audience out in the world's hurly-burly, choosing the second of Grieg's "Two Elegiac Melodies: Last Spring." Its plaintive character and yearning for transcendence were conveyed with almost unbearable tenderness.

© 2003, J. H. Stape