Thursday 4 June 2015

Transcriptions for Strings by Jacques Cohen

Isis Ensemble - Transcriptions for Strings - Jacques Cohen - Meridian
Jacques Cohen Transcriptions for Strings, music by Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov, Brahms; Anna Hashimoto, Isis Ensemble, Jacques Cohen; Meridian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 27 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Imaginative transcriptions for strings of three classic works

The Isis Ensemble, under its founder and music director Jacques Cohen, have a wide repertoire from Bach through to contemporary pieces, including works by Jacques Cohen himself. On this new disc on the Meridian label they combine these to present a group of Jacques Cohen's arrangements of classic pieces, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Rachmaninov's Prelude Op.3 No.2 and Brahms' Clarinet Sonata Op.120 No.1 with clarinettist Anna Hashimoto.

Mussorgsky's bravura piano work Pictures at an Exhibition was written in 1874, inspired by a commemorative exhibition of works by Mussorgky's friend the artist Victor Hartmann (1834-1873). In the work, Mussorgsky depicts 10 of the pictures all linked by a promenade. It is a challenging work for the pianist, Mussorgsky was in fact a fine pianist, though it did not become well known until after his  death. Since then it has undergone a number of transfigurations, Ravel's orchestration being the best known but there are also orchestrations by others like Henry Wood (the Wikipedia page lists over two dozen).

Most orchestrations use the wider orchestral palette to enhance the vividness of Mussorgsky's writing, though of course you lose the sheer wow factor and sheer imagination of the strenuous piano part. There have been more limited instrumental palates used too, I remember one for brass band. On this disc Jacques Cohen restricts himself to just the 20 string players of the Isis Ensemble, and uses a remarkably imaginative touch in his writing, giving the players some fine challenges.

Jacques Cohen and the Isis Ensemble
Jacques Cohen and the Isis Ensemble
After the fine sweep of string tone in the Promenade, we have a wonderful selection of timbres and varieties of tone from the players in Gnomus. Il vecchoi Castello has a lovely dark tone from the lower strings and a fine viola solo, whilst Tuileries rather evoked memories of Elgar's Serenade for Strings (!). Bydlo moves from a wistful solo to another fine sweep of string tone, and the Ballad of the Unhatched Chicks has some lovely chirpy perky moment. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle combines big dark string tone and a characterfully edgy solo violin. Limoges is a delightful scherzando with wafts of Elgar in the string writing again, which skitters straight into the dark and rather powerful Catacombs. Cum mortuis in linguia mortua is mysterious and atmospheric, with transparent string textures. The hut on fowl's legs is dramatic and driving, with some striking varieties of texture. The great gate of Kiev is an impressive achievement, but rather lacks the richly chorded grandeur of the original.

The short Rachmaninov prelude is highly effective and would certainly make a nice encore movement.

Where the orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition clothes Mussorgsky's inspiration in new colours and timbres, that of Brahms's Clarinet Sonata Op.120 no.1 reveals a slightly different work. Brahms wrote the piece late in his careerer, in 1894, when he returned to composing inspired by the clarinet playing of Richard Muhlfeld. In orchestrating the work, Jacques Cohen has changed the balance between soloist and accompaniment. Here the clarinet and strings function more as equals, with the Allegro appassionata developing into an absorbing dialogue with the passion and tone from the soloist, complemented by the vibrant strings. The Andante un poco Adagio has a finely rhapsodic clarinet, supported by sustained, warm tone from the strings. Though I hesitate to use the analogy again, I did rather find the result Elgarian. The Allegretto grazioso is beautifully gracefully and again there is more of a partnership between the clarinet and strings as the pass the flowing phrases between them. The delightfully breezy Vivace brings the movement rousing close.

This is a lovely disc. Of course, not quite to everyone's taste as not all will appreciate hearing familiar works in new guises. But the performances from the Isis Ensemble are full of elan, and Jacques Cohen's arrangements mine some nicely imaginative timbres and textures. Do give it a try.

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881), arr. Jacques Cohen - Pictures at an Exhbition [35.45]
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), arr. Jacques Cohen - Prelude, Op.3, No.2 [3.47]
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), arr. Jacques Cohen - Sonata Op.120, No.1 [24.32]
Anna Hashimoto (clarinet)
Isis Ensemble
Jacques Cohen (conductor)
Recorded 27-28 February 2014, church of St Edward the Confessor, London
MERIDIAN CDE 84632 1CD [64.04]

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