Bow at St.Andrews – tightening the strings….

Bow String Ensemble

Musical Director – Rachel Hyde

Concertmaster – Kathryn Maloney

GRIEG – Two Elegiac Melodies Op.34  / GORECKI – Three Pieces in the Old Style

TCHAIKOVSKY – Serenade in C Major for Strings Op.48

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 10th July, 2011

This concert was the Bow String Ensemble’s second outing, following its inaugural concert last October, also at St.Andrew’s. On that occasion the new ensemble made an admirable job of the concert’s first half, but, given the rehearsal time available to amateur players, simply couldn’t do justice to what was practically a full-length program. The result resembled what I thought was very much a concert of two halves, disconcertingly so when setting one against the other. Happily, this time round, a less ambitious, though still demanding program produced a far more consistent and satisfying overall result for all concerned.

Being an ex-percussionist rather than a string player myself, I find a certain fascination, even mystique about string playing, all to do with the sound produced by ensembles. Some of the notes and phrases produced by this group in places during the course of the concert were of “sit-up-and-take-notice” quality – and not always in passages where one would expect a mellifluous sound as a certainty. All the “sections” of the ensemble had wonderful moments, places where the tones had unanimity of focus and the phrases either “flowed like oil” or tugged at the heartstrings.

That there was also, especially in the larger work of the concert, the Tchaikovsky Serenade, a rawness of intonation and a few out-of-sync passages could be easily put down to lack of rehearsal time. But, unlike the struggle experienced by the ensemble last year to make the Dvorak Serenade properly “speak”, I felt that, for all the occasional roughnesses we were given a performance of the Tchaikovsky that truly captured the music’s heart. It was more than getting the notes right – I thought the players’ tones conveyed the character of parts of the score so well and whole-heartedly in places, as to suggest that, with more rehearsal time, the group’s potential to realize performances of comparable through-quality would result, to everybody’s enhanced satisfaction.

As with last year’s performance of the “Holberg” Suite, Grieg’s music proved an excellent concert-opener, on this occasion with the Two Elegiac Melodies Op.34. Easily dismissed as “lighter” fare, they’re actually as characteristically heartfelt and richly-layered as any music by the composer, and reward the detailed, sensitively-nuanced playing encouraged by Rachel Hyde with a most attractive and readily-grasped lyricism – they are, of course, transcriptions for strings of two songs by the composer, “Spring” and “Heart Wounds”.

I thought the ensemble’s tones at the outset had a grainy, nostalgic quality, tightly held, with dynamics controlled beautifully throughout, giving the feeling of every note having been “considered”, so that the accompaniments “told” as appropriately as did the leading lines – I also liked the unmoulded sounds made by some of the notes when “leaned into” – they had a marked visceral impact which contrasted well with the “other-worldliness” of some of the more hushed passages. “Heart Wounds” seemed more inward a piece than “Spring”, one that I suspect is more difficult to “sing” because of its chromatically-inflected melody line. This is music which sounds appropriately “cold”, with flecks of sunlight in places like the tiny ‘cello counterpoint, accompanying the melody’s turning to the major key, and clouding over again when the violas introduce the tune’s second-time though. Focusing upon these nicely-realised detailings may seem as if this review might be losing sight of the forest for the trees – but they’re part of what made the performances of this music by the ensemble resonate in the memory long after the last sounds had died away.

In her spoken introduction to the concert conductor Rachel Hyde had described the three Gorecki pieces as being “lovely, but with some really scrunchy sounds in places” – and so it proved, with the last of the trio of pieces transforming an elegiac beginning into a bell-like threnody, some claustrophobic harmonies providing the crunchy bits as promised, relished by musicians and audience alike, as the sounds alternated between outward brazenness and inwardly-sounded echoes. The first two pieces were nicely differentiated, firstly an oscillating, ritual-like processional not unlike parts of the famous Symphony No.3 (“Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”); and then a cheerful folk-dance, very out-of-doors in feeling, richly textured with dynamics that dipped, swooped and soared – the ensemble seemed to take to the different moods of the music like a duck to water.

So the Tchaikovsky Serenade was splendidly prepared for by these goings-on, and the grand, dignified opening – so ceremonial and heart-on-sleeve at one and the same time – didn’t disappoint. The tones may have been close to raw in places as the players again “leaned into” their bowings, but the result was appropriately heartfelt, especially throughout the questioning repetitions leading up to the allegro. The playing brought out the music’s Italianate quality, Rachel Hyde’s tempi and general control perfectly gauged to allow the ‘cellos time to make something of their counterpoints, and the violins and violas elbow-room for their chromatic back-and-forth figurations. The Mozartean exchanges kept their rhythmic poise,though intonation suffered in the exposed dovetailing as the music turned for home just after the pizzicati colorings – the players were much happier with all this the second time round in a lower key (C as opposed to G), a sense of real enjoyment coming though, reflected in the “juiciness” of the playing of the opening’s reprise at the end.

The Waltz, one of Tchaikovsky’s most well-known, was by turns forthright and yielding, again with that attractive “Italianate” quality so well caught by the violins in thirds, though the minor-key episode that followed sounded relatively scrappy – fortunately, amends were made by the warmth of  the major-key recap., the violas having a fine time with their counterpoint (it must be such a joy to play this work!), and the coda brought off most enchantingly by all – the pizzicati ending got a special burst of delighted applause!

I loved the Elegie all over again in this performance – a beautifully “caught” opening, the tones coloured and weighted to perfection, and the last phrase “dug into” most satisfyingly – the following pizzicato sounded a bit “muddy” at first, then cleared, and the violins started the melody confidently, seemed to “lose their nerve” momentarily at the first rallentando, but then pick up again in support of the ‘cellos. Throughout I thought the performance poised, open and nicely charged with feeling – Tchaikovsky’s candidly-open “weeping” towards the end brought out some less-than-ingratiating tones, though the players recovered for the coda, giving us a most atmospheric, “Russian-sounding” final chord.

Straight into the finale, then, songful at the beginning, and with energy and bite to the dance at the allegro (the second violins couldn’t match the confidence of the firsts in the opening exchanges, but the pizzicati leading to the second subject were full of life and bounce!). Though the ‘cellos sounded a little unhappy with their theme, they then dug into the development with gusto, Hyde and the players keeping the momentum going splendidly, the up-and-down scales rocketing with energy just before the grand return to the work’s opening. Most deservedly, conductor and orchestra got a great ovation from the “in-the-round” audience, Hyde inviting comments at the end and getting one or two bravely-delivered contributions!

A quick word regarding Rachel Hyde’s invitation to children present to move around during the performance of the music – while laudable in theory I did find the audience movement distracting during the playing, and wondered whether other people also found that it actually “took” from the concert’s musical ambience – one can be warmly welcoming of children at concerts by way of dispelling a lot of the usual “stuffiness” that people associate with classical music performance, but as this wasn’t anywhere presented as a “young audience” event, I didn’t think that offering people carte blanche of movement was entirely appropriate. Perhaps I’m the one being overly stuffy, now, but I still feel that somewhere there’s middle ground with all of this that can strike a balance at concerts between enjoyment and respect, constraint and comfort – and not just for youthful concertgoers!