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Review: English String Orchestra at the Elgar Concert Hall

Norman Stinchcombe reviews the English String Orchestra at the Elgar Concert Hall in Edgbaston

John McCabe modestly describes his new work for double string orchestra as “a big slow piece with quick bits”. Pilgrim is inspired by a symphony of Vaughan Williams, one of McCabe’s musical heroes.

Vaughan Williams’ fifth symphony used themes from his opera A Pilgrim’s Progress but, surprisingly, it’s not that sublime work which fired McCabe’s imagination – it was the old man’s fiery and feisty ninth symphony.

So there’s a questioning, questing turbulent character to McCabe’s work: a timorous, niggling theme, passing from one section leader to another, is resolved only right at the end in a well-deserved moment of tranquillity.

The performance, conducted by Kenneth Woods, was vigorous and thrusting, maintaining tension even through extended quiet passages.

The rhythmic clash with which Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra begins , and which generates the first movement’s amazing energy, got off to a slightly sticky start and the central adagio sagged occasionally but the finale zipped along convincingly.

The orchestra was at its finest in Vaughan Williams’ wonderful Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. Woods placed the string quartet in the centre of the first orchestra with second at the back of the platform , giving the spatial interplay of the themes ideal clarity.

The contributions by the first violin (Michael Bochmann) and viola (Helen Roberts) were tender and touching. Fittingly, given the venue, Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings got an exhilarating performance: rhythmically crisp with the composer’s “devil of a fugue” winningly despatched – a fitting climax to a well-programmed concert.

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