Tuesday, 1 December 2020

In Motion: United Strings of Europe's debut disc features three contemporary works alongside two classics in a strongly coloured programme

In Motion - Schubert, Hindson, Boccherini, Corrales, Farr; United Strings of Europe, Amalia Hall, Julian Azkoul; BIS

In Motion
- Schubert, Hindson, Boccherini, Corrales, Farr; United Strings of Europe, Amalia Hall, Julian Azkoul; BIS

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 December 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A lively young string ensemble's debut disc features a characterful programme with three contemporary works alongside two classics

United Strings of Europe is a lively young string ensemble directed by Anglo-Lebanese violinist Julian Azkoul. The group's debut disc, on BIS, features an eclectic mix with three contemporary works, Matthew Hindson's Malinga, Arturo Corrales' Señores, les voy a contar…, and Gareth Farr's Mondo Rondo alongside Schubert's Quartetsatz in C minor and Luigi Boccherini's Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid. The ensemble is joined by violinist Amalia Hall (soloist in the Hindson) and conductor Franck Fontcouberte, who conducts the Hindson and the Corrales; the remaining works are directed from the violin by Julian Azkoul.

We begin with Schubert's 1820 Quartetsatz, his first work for string quartet since his teenage years. The ensemble (number some 13 strings) make a stylish sound and whilst Julian Azkoul's arrangement for string orchestra does add weight to the work, the sound is not overly luxuriant and the work makes a striking opener.

It is followed by Australian composer Matthew Hindson's 2009/2011 work Maralinga for violin and string orchestra. It was commissioned in 2011 by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. The title is an Australian Aboriginal word, but in this context it refers to a place. One of the Australian desert locations where in the 1950s the Australian government allowed the British government to do secret nuclear testing,  without considering the welfare of the Aboriginal inhabitants and Australian service personnel at the test sites.

Hindson's work is intense and dramatic, with the solo violin often to the fore particularly in a series of rhapsodic passages. But it is not a showy, bravura piece and soloist Amalia Hall really brings out the strong textures of Hindson's writing, digging in deeply. There is also some brilliant string writing, and the work gradually develops a strong rhythmic impulse leading to an exciting climax. But the solo violin's tendency to the rhapsodic, to slow things down prevails and the whole dies at the end. I am unclear whether there is a direct narrative here, but Hindson has created a remarkably intense and stimulating work.

Azkoul and his ensemble then takes us back to 1780s Madrid with Luigi Boccherini's Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid (Night Music of the Streets of Madrid) a seven movement quintet in which Boccherini used the street-cries, popular song, religious processions and even the Night Watch to create a picture of night in Madrid. It was a work never published in Boccherini's lifetime, as he said that you needed to understand Madrid street life to play it, but its imaginative and characterful narrative have gained the work popularity in modern times. Azkoul and his ensemble are quite free with their version, often improvising and taking us from the 1780s into the 21st century. The result is vividly engaging, and a fine showcase for the ensemble. Heard live, it is probably a strongly dramatic experience, but on disc I think I would have preferred something a little closer in style to Boccherini's day, without the touches of Arab modes and bluegrass.

We move back to the 21st century for Señores, les voy a contar…, by the Salvadoran/Swiss composer Arturo Corrales. The work is inspired by the myths and stories told him by his grandmother, and he has based the work on a song that she used to sing. We begin with multiple string lines sliding towards and between each other. Corrales layers his work, so that to the opening texture more and more insistent rhythm is added until everything unwinds again. Lasting a little over five minutes, it is a highly effective and rather engaging piece.

The disc finishes with New Zealand composer Gareth Farr's Mondo Rondo. Written in 1997 for string quartet, this three movement work is performed in Azkoul's arrangement for string orchestra. Each movement title is word play, linked to the work's title, 'Mondo Rondo', 'Mumbo Jumbo', 'Mambo Rambo'. Each movement establishes its own strong, contrasting character and for all the playful titles this is full of brilliant string writing, allowing the players to show off their sense of ensemble and vivid characterisation.

This disc forms a fine showcase for a lively young ensemble and is particularly notable for the three contemporary works on the disc, all by composers who were new to me. The programme notes, largely by Julian Azkoul, introduce each of the works. The mixed programming is evidently typical of the group, they describe their approach as one of promoting new music and re-contextualising familiar repertoire. So, if you are interested in brilliant string playing, a terrific sense of ensemble and vibrant character then this is certainly the disc for you.

Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828), arr. Julian Azkoul - Quartetsatz, D703 (1820) [8:34]
Matthew Hindson (born 1968) - Maralinga (2009/2011) [13:29]
Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805), arr. Julian Azkoul - Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid [11:02]
Arturo Corales (born 1973) - Señores, les voy a contar… (2010) [5:05]
Gareth Farr (born 1968), arr. Julian Azkoul - Mondo Rondo (1997) [11:36]
Amalia Hall (violin)
United Strings of Europe
Julian Azkoul (director)
Franck Fontcouberte (conductor)
Recorded March 2020, Church of St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London
BIS-2529 1 Hybrid SACD [50.44]

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