Tuesday 1 April 2014

Love Journeys

Jacques Cohen and the Isis Ensemble
Jacques Cohen and the Isis Ensemble
Sibelius, Panufnik, Brahms, Cohen, Dvorak; Anna Hashimoto, Marie Vassiliou, Isis Ensemble, Jacques Cohen
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 31 2014
Star rating: 4.0

An intriguing combination of new and old in this programme of music for strings, voice and clarinet

Composer/conductor Jacques Cohen brought his Isis Ensemble to the Purcell Room on Monday 31 March 2014 for a concert which combined both new and old in intriguing ways. (See my interview with Jacques on this blog). We had the world premiere of Cohen's own Love Journeys with soprano soloist Marie Vassiliou, Brahms's Clarinet Sonata in F minor arranged by Cohen for clarinet and strings (with clarinet soloist Anna Hashimoto) and Roxana Panufnik's completion and arrangement of her father's Modlitwa, plus Sibelius's Romance in C Op. 42 and Dvorak's Serenade for Strings Op. 22

Sibelius's Romance is a short work which the composer wrote just before his Second Symphony in 1902. There is a strong Sibliean cast to both the melody and its treatment. Cohen and his players brought out the work's rich textures with their full-blooded playing.

Andrzej Panufnik was asked by his friend the poet Jerzy Pietrkiewicz to set a prayer (Modlitwa) that he had written to music. Panufnik set the outer sections, but left the middle section unset as he felt it was too beautiful to set to music. Panufnik's daughter Roxanna set the middle section and then arranged the work for string orchestra. Panufnik's opening theme, with its strange major/minor bitonality is strangely haunting, his daughter's middle section develops this to create more complex textures. The result is a highly effective string piece.

Brahms's Sonata in F minor is one of a pair Brahms wrote in 1894 for clarinettist Richard Muhlfield. Cohen's arrangement of the sonata preserves the clarinet part and simply orchestrates the piano part for string orchestra. The result had surprising effects on Brahms's music. In the first movement soloist Hashimoto impressed with her lovely flexible tone, but I thought that Cohen's highly effective arrangement was perhaps a bit too discreet and that the accompaniment did not always sound like Brahms. This continued into the Andante second movement where the sustaining qualities of the strings meant that Brahms's harmonies were shown in a new, and rather modern light. In fact, there were moments in this movement when you could have imagined listening to an early 20th century English piece. Hashimoto brought wit and charm to the Allegretto, and string arrangement highlighted this delightfully. Cohen's quite gently Vivace allowed both soloist and orchestra to relish the nice details in the music.

I did wonder whether string orchestra was quite the right vehicle for this orchestration, as the body of strings has to play down at times to balance the soloist. It did not quite feel like the meeting of equals that is in Brahms original, and I wondered what this version would be like if played on single strings.

Cohen's Love Journeys sets poems from James Joyce's early Chamber Music (written in 1907). Cohen has selected seven poems which depict the course of a love affair over spring and autumn. The cycle was written for soprano Marie Vassiliou, who sang the solo part. Apart from the sixth poem that Cohen set, Warriors from the Sea, all the poems in the cycle have the feel of lyrics with a sense that Joyce was invoking folk poetry and songs. Cohen's setting takes a more complex view, though his language is essentially tonal. In the first song, By the River the rich accompaniment full of slides in the string parts complements the rather expressionist vocal line. Cohen has written the piece for 20 independent string parts so that the accompaniment has a richness and flexibility, with some magical textures.

Goldenhair opened unaccompanied, with Cohen then adding very discreet accompaniment. A simple and effective movement which did rather evoke the more folk-ish elements in the Joyce poem. Time for Love had fine drama in the accompaniment, but I wanted the vocal line to be more memorable than it was. That said, Vassiliou gave a vividly dramatic and highly involving performance. The hints of folk music in the melody line of Amid the Green Wood were given edge by the way Cohen used his multi-part string accompaniment to quietly striking effect.

The first four songs are all about the start of the love affair with the promise of spring, though Cohen's settings rather emphasised the more melancholy characteristics, making them seem more complex and with more undercurrents than the words at first imply. Next came a richly dramatic Interlude for strings alone with Cohen using the multiple string parts to create some fascinating textures.

The final three songs all reflect on the love affair coming to an end. Winds of May was all slithering strings with the vocal line leaving all hints of Irishness behind and getting close to the text's underlying meaning. Warriors from the Sea is perhaps the most complex of the poems, and the most striking of Cohen's settings. Starting with a moving pizzicato bass line we have a very strong string accompaniment with a highly expressive, expressionist vocal line given full value by Vassiliou. Until the final screams of despair, however, this felt very much like extreme emotion recollected in tranquillity. The final song, The End of Love, was rather poignant with some lovely moments in the vocal line.

This was a fascinating and striking piece which I think I would really need to hear again. At times I felt a bit of a pull between the lyrical vocal line and the strong accompaniment, as Cohen's writing for 20 independent strings really needed a bigger, dramatic voice as soloist which is somewhat at odds with the way Cohen has written the voice part. I also have to confess that there were many moments when I found the musical material in the string accompaniment rather more striking than the vocal material (despite Vassiliou's brilliantly involving performance), and did wonder whether a purely instrumental version of the piece might not work well.

The final work in the programme brought us firmly back to string orchestra repertoire, with Dvorak's Serenade written  in 1875 when the composer was working on his Fifth Symphony. The opening Moderato combined a feeling of gentle lyricism with a richness of tone in the playing. There were moments of nice delicacy and some lovely sprung rhythms in the middle section. The Tempo di Valse was a complete delight with a nice sway to the waltz rhythms and nice strong bass line (Cohen used a 6:4:4:4:2 line up so we had four cellos and two basses), and nicely flowing middle section. The Allegro Scherzando brought some vividly incisive playing, though the tone did get hard in the heat of the moment, and there was a lovely singing quality to the middle section. The Larghetto had a lovely swing to the melody lines, with their long breathed phrases.

Overall the playing in the serenade was vivid and involving, with the players clearly enjoying their interaction with the music though I have to confess that there were one or two little corners where the pressure of rehearsal time seemed to show up. They finished with a nicely vigorous Allegro vicace with a very fiery main theme and some well characterised episodes.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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