Friday 14 February 2020

A vividly engaged account of Schubert's Death and the Maiden from the conductorless string orchestra, 12 Ensemble

John Tavener, Franz Schubert, Oliver Leith, Sigur Rós; 12 Ensemble; Sancho Panza
John Tavener, Franz Schubert, Oliver Leith, Sigur Rós; 12 Ensemble; Sancho Panza
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 February 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A vibrantly engaging account of Schubert's late quartet in a version for string orchestra by the vividly engaged 12 Ensemble

A string orchestra version of Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet? Well why not, after all Gustav Mahler did it. This new disc from 12 Ensemble on the Sancho Panza label (distributed by PIAS) places Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 'Death and the Maiden', in the ensemble's own version, at its very centre and surrounds the work by an eclectic mix of material, John Tavener's choral anthem The Lamb, Oliver Leith's Honey Siren and an arrangement of the song Fljótavík by Icelandic band Sigur Rós.

We start with Tavener's The Lamb in a remarkably atmospheric version, admittedly rather slow as compared with when I have sung the piece, which places variations of tone and tone colour at its centre.

The ensemble's new version of Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet sticks far closer to Schubert's markings than Mahler's re-invention of the piece. The ensemble adds a double bass part and distributes the four instrumental lines between tutti and solo moments (there are 12 players in the group -
In the opening statement of the quartet we can appreciate all the vividness and weight that 12 players performing in vibrant unison can bring, the big moments have a wonderful strength which combines with the ensemble's sense of urgency in this music. But there is delicacy too, we can get a real sense of intimacy and detail; this is a conductorless ensemble and you really feel that every player is committed to the piece. Of course there are losses, for all the players' unanimity and dedication we lose the sense of simple four people conversing, for better or worse this becomes more of a group exercise. With the second movement you have the magical sound of a large group of players performing very quietly, the sheen on the sound of the hushed ensemble at the opening of the movement is lovely. Despite a nicely relaxed tempo, there is still a fine feeling of pushing forward which is rather essential in a movement as long as this. As Schubert's variations expand, we also get some lovely detail and magical textures. The Scherzo is as robust as you might expect, yet with some delightful corners too, and a nice transparency in the Trio. The finale is full of tight rhythms and quiet urgency, it really grips you.

Oliver Leith wrote Honey Siren for 12 Ensemble in 2019, the piece is inspired by the sound of sirens (as the composer puts it 'I was thinking about sirens; the wailing kind, not the bird women singing on rocks'). It is in three movements, '[like thick air]', '[Full, like drips & then globs]', '[Like dancing in slow honey]'. The opening movement is atmospheric, like the dawn on a foggy day and there were hints of the opening of RVW's London Symphony. With the second, the glissandi start giving us a sense of these sweet sirens approaching from the distance, and Leith clearly enjoys getting individual lines to vary pitch so the even without the siren glissandi there is a tonal instability about the piece, a deliberate not-quite-in-tune-ness which comes and goes in a striking way. The final movement, the longest of the three, finally brings the sirens into focus leading to an intense climax which dies down to a single wailing siren retreating into the distance.

In 2016, 12 Ensemble had a residency in Iceland, in the remote eastern fjord town of Seyðisfjörður. As a memory of this Guy Button (then a member of the ensemble) arranged the song Fljótavík by the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. I am unfamiliar with the original song, but this version brings a hint of Nordic/Baltic minimalism to the piece combined with a hint of Peter Maxwell Davies in Goodbye to Stromness mode, and I can see why the group were keen to record it.

Whilst this new version of Schubert's Death and the Maiden will not replace my existing treasured recording by the Quartetto Italiano, I think that there is room on the library shelves for this vibrant new version which makes an intelligent case for a string orchestra version, and thrills and grips by turns in a wonderfully engaging manner, full of vivid musicianship. I am, however, slightly less convinced by the accompanying items, each is fascinating in its way, but I am not sure that, for me, they add up to a programme.

John Tavener (1944-2013) - The Lamb
Franz Schubert (1797-1828), arr. 12 Ensemble - String Quartet No. 14 'Death & the Maiden'
Oliver Leith - Honey Siren
Sigur Rós, arr. Guy Button - Fljótavík 

12 Ensemble (Eloisa-Fleur Thom, Roberto Ruisi, Venetia Jollands, Agata Daraskaite, Alessandro Ruisi, Oliver Cave, Charlotte Saluste-Bridoux, Luba Tunnicliffe, Asher Zaccardelli, Matthew Kettle, Max Ruisi, Sergio Serra, Gregor Riddell, Toby Hughes)
Available from the 12 Ensemble website

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