Chamber Ensemble of London

Concert date: 16 September 2016
Reviewed by: JRC

Newton Abbot and District's concert season got off to a cracking start last Friday. The Chamber Ensemble of London [CEOL] braved storm delays on rail, and road diversions to give a concert with a strong west country flavour. Their programme included pieces from Richard Mudge, living and composing in Bideford in 1749; Clive Jenkins, who is alive and well and composing in the South Hams; and Andrew Wilson, for 22 years composing at Tavistock. In 2015 he became director of studies at the National College of Music, London.

It was the splendid full bodied resonance of the Ensemble filling the Courtenay Centre that caught the imagination via the sedate but rhythmic first movement of Mudge' s Concerto Grosso  No 5. Energy and spirit followed in the second movement, returning to a more restrained dance, but with great expressive contrasts, in the third. The finale of great vitality unexpectedly ended with a diminuendo.

Jenkins' Pastorale [inspired by the South Hams] and Allegro [inspired by Dartmoor ponies]had Peter Fisher taking the lead to a blend of rich melodic, and sometimes poignantly discordant, themes in the Pastorale; whereas in the Allegro jaunty, frisky mood changes gave way to a galloping tempo.

For those of us not greatly familiar with the Theorbo, which was about to take centre stage again, Dorothy Linell gave us a brief introduction including its use as a continuo instrument. Peter Fisher memorably added that 'if one spent 80 years with the theorbo, 60 years of them would have been spent tuning it!'

Giles Farnaby's Seven Pieces for String 0rchestra [arr Bantock] are short, and provided the Ensemble with another opportunity to paint cameo mood changes with music. 'A Toye' was delightfully melodic and contained, and set the Elizabethan scene. During his 'Dreame' a somnolent melody wafted over us - evidently Giles' dream was a pleasant one. Edgy conceit, rest, chirpy humour and a sober almost mournful 'Maske' were created before a surprisingly jaunty 'Tower Hill'.

Elgar's Serenade in E minor for Strings, Op. 20, brought the first half of the concert to a sumptuous conclusion. The Ensemble were at one with the music: sensitive phrasing and dynamics just flowed, with vibrato being judiciously used to produce that damp-eye /lump-in-the-throat feeling. Rich lush tones filled the hall.

Andrew Wilson then gave a short talk regarding his work The Tavy Dances. He stressed the elements of time - dawn to night - and place - River Tavy Head to Double Waters. The CEOL, who gave this work its World Premier in April this year, are fair steeped in it.
The 'Entree' takes us to a place where small melodic lines get hesitantly lost in discords, and a five-in-the-bar rhythm leads to small expansions and then a diminuendo to silence. Anyone who has investigated Dartmoor's river heads would have empathy with this mood. The 'Bourree' is confident and youthful with highs and lows, and a dancy rhythm that sparkles: Tavy Cleave. 'Siciliana' is subdued, and has the heaviness of a summer's afternoon in meadowland with a hint of the wistful or menacing dark waters: remembrance of times past at the ruined Tavistock Abbey. 'Round Dance' has the swirling energy of two rivers climactically merging together at night.
This work, being so championed by the CEOL, will surely enter the list of significant tone poems.

John Ireland's 'Cavatina' swept us into a lushly romantic phase, though it did seem nearer 'da capo' in structure than Cavatina. We certainly knew where we were with the Bagatelle: in lighter more playful mood.

Benjamin Britten's Simple Symphony for Strings starts with a 'Boisterous Bourree', and the CEOL's rendering certainly did its introduction full justice - though calming later for melodic developments. The well known 'Playful Pizzicato' movement was rendered as fresh as ever. The 'Sentimental Saraband' had many changes of texture, but overwhelmingly it is laden with emotion. 'Frolicsome Finale' is well named. It started dramatically, was lively and tuneful, and left us in very good heart.

We were thankfully given an encore, a Peter Fisher composition in the style of Paganini: variations on Widecombe Fair. Not only did we get virtuoso violin playing, we also had whistling winds thrown in; it was great fun.

How refreshing to have glorious works of Elgar and Britten in the same concert as those of less well know composers and not feel that one overshadows the others. Excellent programming and delightful execution. A memorable start to NADSA's season of concerts.