Elios Ensemble captivates at St Andrew’s season

Elios Ensemble (Karen Batten – flute and alto flute, Martin Jaenecke – violin and soprano saxophone, Victoria Jaenecke – viola)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace Season of Concerts

Music by Bartók, Igudesman, Debussy, Reger, Mansurian, Ginastera and Beethoven

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Tuesday 15 March, 7.30pm

This was the kind of programme that probably sorts out its own audience, or rather, it would sort them out if there were enough to provide a good statistical sampling.

On the one side are those who are drawn to a concert by names that are familiar, both composers and pieces; and on the other, Stendhal’s ‘Happy Few’, those who are enticed by a mix of the familiar and names that are evocative, half-heard, that arouse curiosity and suggest ambiguity and other-worldliness, as well as having an emotional force. You gauge the latter as much by what you have come to know of the performers as by the composers’ names and titles of the music.

How could you resist a programme that included a delightful early piece of Beethoven, another chance to explore Max Reger whose true nature, I feel, keeps eluding me; some of Bartók’s 44 Duos for Two Violins; and two names that merely rang bells?

Let’s go chronologically. Beethoven’s little six-movement Serenade Op 25 was written for these very instruments, and his writing for the flute, for starters, showed how acute Beethoven’s sense of instrumental timbre and capacities was. The first movement, starting with a veritable flute fanfare, belonged very much to Karen Batten.  Elsewhere, violin and viola were rewarded and these two superb, somewhat unacknowledged players had plenty of exposure, in particular in the Andante con variazioni.

Reger’s Serenade was very clearly based on Beethoven’s and afforded him the chance to show a levity and gaiety that are not qualities usually encountered. Written about a year before his death in his early 40s, perhaps he was attempting to redress the balance. It showed Reger as a perfectly gifted melodist (I read a recent review that remarked that he couldn’t write a tune to save himself – not true!). Generally, he had concerns other than merely writing tunes, which might have been a bit misguided.

This proved an engaging suite – like Beethoven’s, in six movements – that was sometimes thoughtful, often gay (original sense), entertaining in its treatment of the three instruments and achieving nicely, just what one felt Reger wanted.

Debussy’s contribution was the predictable Syrinx for solo flute where Karen Batten demonstrated her virtuosity as well as her feeling for the piece’s place as sinuous, sensuous impressionism, and a brilliant little show-stopper.

Bartók comes next, though his pieces were first in the programme. I’m not acquainted with the entire collection of 44 Duos, but after this brilliantly played foray in which the two violins were replaced by, variously, viola, alto and normal flute and soprano saxophone, I will be exploring them. The pieces played were Ruthenian Song (Ruthenia was the little territory at the eastern end of the inter-war Czechoslovakia, north of Hungary and Romania and now in Ukraine), Teasing Song, Slovak Song, Pillow Dance, Fairy Tale, Mosquito Dance (very nocturnally disruptive), Sorrow and Dancing Song.

Ginastera’s Duo was originally for flute – alto flute – and oboe in three movements; like much of his music, it’s a bit hard to place both geographically and chronologically. At times, it seemed like a serious Françaix or Ibert, even, at times, not very remote from Britten’s sound world. There was little evidence of the popular Latin American musical world, and one accepts the statement that it employs Argentinian folk music. Persuasively performed, the Duo nevertheless made less impact on me than most of the other pieces in the programme.

Tigran Mansurian was born in 1939 in Beirut of Armenian parents. His piece, Lachrymae, is for soprano saxophone and alto flute, offering a lovely exhibition of these two very distinctive instruments. In general terms it evoked the sounds of the region – Caucasus, central Asia, the Levant, which of course is as various in its music as in its history and its religions; the use of quarter tones was just one of the identifiable features. It was also curious to hear the soprano saxophone exploiting its lowest register, sounding like an alto sax. As it did with one or two of the Bartok pieces, the saxophone seemed radically to alter the character of the music, inevitably in a trans-Atlantic direction.

I thoroughly enjoyed Lachrymae, making a mental note to explore more of Mansurian’s music.

Finally came a name altogether unfamiliar to me: Aleksey Igudesman (born Leningrad 1973). A more knowledgeable friend described his stage (or cabaret?) performances, with Hyung-ki Joo, that are very clever, very musical and very funny. (See www.igudesmanandjoo.com). There were three pieces, all with their feet in Ireland, but their heads somewhere else, mainly in the former Yiddish world of Eastern Europe where Klezmer was endemic. They were highly entertaining; the first in the infectious rhythms made familiar by the phenomenon of the River Dance. I have never heard such a piquant rendering of Danny Boy which I recoil from in its usual boring, unadorned harmonic dress. Igudesman had devised such an engaging and amusing harmonic setting – comparable to, but even more diverting than, Britten’s folk song arrangements – that it became a new song. The Klezmer element was strongest in the third piece, Giora Feidman lost in Dublin. Loved all of it.

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