An Intriguing Programme, Expertly Executed, from The ISIS Ensemble and Jacques Cohen

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sibelius, Panufnik, Brahms, Jacques Cohen, Dvořák, Anna Hashimoto (clarinet), Marie Vassiliou (soprano,) ISIS Ensemble, Jacques Cohen (conductor) Purcell Room, London, 31.3.2014 (RB)

Sibelius – Romance in C Op 42
Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik -Modlitwa
Brahms – Clarinet Sonata in F minor Op 120, No. 1 (Arranged for Clarinet and Strings by Jacques Cohen)
Jacques Cohen Love Journeys for Soprano and Strings (world premiere)
Dvořák – Serenade for Strings Op 22

This concert was an intriguing mix of familiar works in new guises, lesser-known works and completely new pieces of music.  Aside from the Brahms Clarinet Sonata, I was not familiar with any of the works being performed and it was a refreshing change to be introduced to such a fascinating collection of new pieces by a well-drilled string ensemble.  Modlitwa by Andrzej Panufnik and his daughter Roxanna has been recorded by Jacques Cohen and the ISIS Ensembles on their Music for Strings CD (review) and I would recommend getting hold of it.

Sibelius’ Romance in C is a short work which the composer wrote in 1902 shortly before completing his Second Symphony.  I was struck by the richness of sound in this performance with the strings achieving a poetic intensity and lushness that really seemed to encapsulate the romantic feelings conveyed by the work.  From Sibelius we moved to Modlitwa (or ‘Prayer’) which is a setting of a prayer to the Virgin of Skempe by the Polish poet Jerzy Pietrkiewicz.  Cohen and the ISIS Ensemble captured beautifully the sense of religious reflection and communion that runs through the piece.  The work came across as a seamless whole in spite of being composed by two different (albeit related) composers.

The first half of the recital concluded with Cohen’s arrangement of Brahms’ First Clarinet Sonata.  Although the programme notes underlined that the work is a sonata for equal partners rather than a concerto, it would be an excellent choice for the concerto slot in a mainstream orchestral concert.  Anna Hashimoto gave us flexible and supple phrases in the opening movement and she shared an excellent rapport with the strings.  The arrangement successfully brought into focus some of Brahms’ learned harmonies and his inventive textures and sonorities.  I wondered if Hashimoto and the ensemble might do a little more to bring out the appassionata element of the music but the blend of sound throughout was gorgeous.  Hashimoto captured perfectly the sense of wistful nostalgia and the autumnal resignation of the slow movement.  The lilt and sway of the dance came to the fore in the third movement while the finale was light and playful with soloist and orchestra making the most of the sparkling counterpoint and cross rhythms.

The second half opened with the world premiere of Cohen’s Love Journeys which is a setting of seven of the poems from James Joyce’s Chamber Music.  The work charts the progress of a love affair from the early promise and bloom of young love to the painful feelings associated with the breakdown and end of the relationship.  Cohen’s work reminded me of vocal works by a number of British composers and seemed to follow in the footsteps of Britten’s great song cycles.  Marie Vassiliou brought a strong, richly coloured voice to the cycle and she had a real feel for Joyce’s language.  I loved the particularly Celtic flavour of Goldenhair, the striking colours in the strings and Vasilliou’s vocal power in Time for Love and the delicate pastoral shades depicted in Amid the Green Wood.  There is a string interlude in the middle of the work depicting the passing of time before the Winds of May which, with its sliding scales, seems to capture the emotional disintegration of the relationship.  The penultimate song is the climax to the piece and Vassiliou and the ISIS Ensemble gave it a highly charged and dramatic performance.  The final song reflects on the transience of love and here Vassiliou did a magnificent job in assuaging her string partners before the final sense of resignation and acceptance with Love is aweary now.  It is a great piece and I hope it finds its way soon into the mainstream concert repertoire.

The concert closed with Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings, which the composer wrote at the same time as his Fifth Symphony.  The work is in five movements and it is well worth getting to know.  I loved the way in which Cohen and the ensemble shaped the irregular five-bar phrases in the second movement waltz to make it sound slightly off-kilter.  There were some exquisitely delicate Mendelssohnian figurations in the scherzo while the slow movement had a lovely Romantic bloom.  The finale brought the evening’s very diverse proceedings to an upbeat close.

This was a great concert from Cohen and the ISIS Ensemble and I do hope these works by Cohen find their way into larger concert venues and are introduced to a wider audience in the not too distant future.

Robert Beattie


Click here to read a recent conversation between Jacques Cohen and Robert Beattie

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