Tippett, Little Music for Strings; R Strauss (arr. Leopold), Metamorphosen; Adams, Shaker Loops; Shostakovich/Barshai, Symphony for Strings Op. 118a – Orchestra of St. Paul’s, conducted by Ben Palmer (Purcell Room, 4th October 2010)
In any area of life a little tension can be exquisite, but what if that tension comes from a contemporary string ensemble evidently under strict instruction to avoid vibrato? Iconoclasts are not just inevitable but necessary, and I can see that conductor Ben Palmer, with his hand-picked, self-made Orchestra of St. Paul’s is making a statement by bringing the no-vibrato rule from beyond the baroque to newer works. I imagine that he has a strong rationale. Someone with such lucidity in his programming and his choice of performers and the resulting muscular, vibrant performances would not be doing so gratuitously. I can see, for example, the rationale for the Tippett, whose cultural influences in Little Music for Strings were from an age in which vibrato on stringed instruments was evidently not fully evolved. But was Tippett thinking of this vibrato-free sound when he composed the piece? I can’t find a statement on this from the composer himself so perhaps if there isn’t one, Palmer is as authorised to make his decision as those who maintain the vibrato-filled status quo.
It’s a fascinating experiment, but I would contest that there are other factors to bear in mind in a venue such as the Purcell Room, where nothing is hidden. This is what makes it one of the loveliest small venues in Europe: an intimate, relaxed, rather chilled-sixties-retro setting (I always feel remiss for not having worn a polo neck and slacks), an honest acoustic, and a valued location for new and emerging artists and risk-takers who have not yet found a large audience. The Purcell Room is an excellent place to find the early work of our musical future. But this acoustic honesty – or lack of resonance – evidently makes the (perhaps) authentic no-vibrato policy particularly terrifying for the player, and it’s hard to hold your nerve, or indeed to break the habit of a lifetime if (for non-baroque specialists) you’ve spent twenty years training to perfect your modern technique. The release of tension during those moments when a little vibrato was allowed back into the playing (and blessedly those moments increased in frequency as the programme progressed) was palpable, and perhaps that’s exactly what Palmer intended. If so, he needs to work on relaxing the shoulders and eyebrows of his players in the meantime.
This was a programme of dedication to landmark composers – not just from Palmer himself but also the composer-arrangers who have successfully adapted cherished works to the constraints and liberation of a small string orchestra (the Orchestra of St. Paul’s also being specially reduced for the occasion). Strauss’s Metamorphosen is a Marmite piece of music. Just the mention of it to some can leave them in raptures, and for others there’s a grimace, or at least a slight sniff that perhaps he was being too indulgent. I love Strauss and feel disappointed by those who don’t. In fact, I often suspect that it’s because they’re afraid to admit to any emotional fluctuation. This ‘first-rate second-rate’ composer (as he reportedly described himself) has seen me through teen angst and infatuation (I would still send a sensitive adolescent to Der Rosenkavalier for their first opera), a need for respite through mid-life frustrations, and the taut misery of later-life bereavement, and I rather relish his high romantic assault on the English stiff upper lip.
Rudolf Leopold’s seven-part arrangement of Metamorphosen (in effect, Strauss’s war requiem) felt, however, a little meandering and contrapuntally murky. Voicing is difficult in this work and on occasion I wanted to hear entries and departures from the line more clearly. There’s a slightly awkward sense of the endless if the structure is not really grappled with and I wonder if this might be the sort of piece which begs full-score familiarity from each player – the interwoven lines are so complex that it may not be enough to know when it’s your ‘turn’. I quite understand the trust that Palmer has for his superbly-selected team, but on this occasion perhaps a little more direction for entries might have given a stronger sense of the shape that the piece should take.
Palmer strikes most true with the more angular music of the twentieth century. This is the stuff he was born to conduct. He has palpable rhythmic assurance and a tremendous sense of impetus and he shows utter assurance in the very area of music in which other conductors often stumble. The second half began with the most vibrant rendition of John Adams’s Shaker Loops I have ever heard. It’s a terrible admission to make but part of the excitement of this piece is its precariousness: it feels as though anyone could ‘fall off’ at any moment at one of the seemingly indistinguishable entries or microcosmic harmonic gear changes. But of course the real satisfaction – almost catharsis – comes from the completion of the piece triumphantly intact. The ensemble was fantastic: their communication and exchange of ideas across the bows was electric. This was edge-of-the-seat stuff.
The Shostakovich/Barshai Symphony for Strings was gloriously energetic and incisive. This arrangement of Shostakovich’s tenth string quartet feels like a true work of devotion from Rudolf Barshai, (who had a notable career as violist– founder member of the Borodin Quartet – and conductor). It captures absolutely the spirit of Shostakovich and as a work of expansion, rather than reduction, it is quite astonishing. I felt absolutely caught up in this performance as much as if it had been of the scale of one of Shostakovich’s mammoth symphonic works. The variety in colour, the filigree detail and the sheer intensity of the swashbuckling bowing was remarkable. This was a superb gathering of soloists working as a fine ensemble. There was truly wonderful leadership from violinist Alexandra Reid, especially during the treacherous Adams – but also terrific playing from the leader of the seconds, Francesca Barritt, who possesses a delicious sound. The double bass player, Pippa Macmillan, took her place confidently in the centre of the seating plan, and gave great gravitas and beauty to the bass line, aided by two fine cellists who each had opportunities in the evening to demonstrate their abilities as compelling soloists. But my most treasured moments of the evening came from the violas, with their confident, warm, utterly assured sound and a certainty of when their ‘moments’ were to be enjoyed.
The Orchestra of St Paul’s on stage is a resplendent manifestation of a Big Arts Lie. We know that before us is the concatenation of years of practice and backache, but we rather like it when it looks as though they’ve just picked up an instrument and found a way to play it. Such nonchalant excellence is a delight to behold. How they will fare in the forthcoming arts cuts is a matter for serious consideration (given that Arts patronage in the American style remains anathema to the British and I imagine will do for at least another generation, at least until we become accustomed to our new responsibilities). I suspect that, for those who are sustained and thrilled by music, it is for these fine, vital, independent groups that the time to whip out the Gift Aid forms is upon us.