The LSO String Ensemble Excels in English Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Elgar, Vaughan Williams & Britten: LSO String Ensemble/Roman Simović (Director), LSO St Luke’s, London. 21.4.2016. (LB)

Elgar Introduction and Allegro

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis

Britten Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge

London is awash with first-class chamber orchestras and ensembles that specialise in the performance of the repertoire for string orchestra, and especially the rich vein of music by British composers, but the London Symphony Orchestra and its management ought to be congratulated for maintaining a forum in which members of the LSO, 26 of them on this occasion, can escape the relative anonymity of the symphony orchestra to have their musicianship challenged and utilised in a wholly different manner.

That the musicians relish this opportunity is evident from the enthusiasm of their performances, and this passion must also surely beneficially impact upon their more routine professional commitments.

This afternoon’s lunchtime concert given by the LSO String Ensemble at LSO St Luke’s, recorded for a deferred broadcast, was the second in the BBC’s ‘Elgar up Close’ series, and the programme that began with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, also treated us to Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis, and Benjamin Britten’s virtuosic tribute to his teacher, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.

The distinctions between performance in a symphony orchestra and a chamber ensemble are subtle, and critical, but regrettably also commonly misunderstood. BBC presenter Fiona Talkington, for example, committed the faux pas of referring to Roman Simović as conductor of the LSO string ensemble, rather than as its leader/director, but in her subsequent on stage conversation with principal cellist Timothy Hugh about the work the ensemble does, the unique challenges it involves and the distinctive rewards of such work, this little misunderstanding was fortunately sensitively corrected.

The ensemble itself, under the charismatic and committed leadership of its director Roman Simović, wrestled admirably and mostly successfully with the technical and musical demands of this challenging genre and repertoire. Whilst the ability and inclination to follow respectfully is an overwhelmingly highly prized ingredient in achieving good ensemble and musical outcomes in a symphony orchestra, such passive obedience is required to be replaced by informed and spirited initiative in an ensemble of this size, without a conductor.

The ensemble set off with great vigour in Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, performing it with a seemingly ingrained stylistic awareness. The big but diffuse body of sound they produced was at times in danger of overwhelming the solo string quartet, and Elgar’s ‘devil of a fugue’ presented some challenges to cohesion. Overall however, it proved to be a successful curtain raiser to Vaughan William’s more introspective Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

The ensemble’s generally robust approach didn’t serve the Vaughan Williams as well as it had the Elgar, and their performance of what is in essence a meditation, proved to be a little more romantic in outlook than reminiscent of Thomas Tallis and a bygone age. There were however many tender moments, even if the inherent possibilities for tonal contrast, with the small off-stage group and a solo quartet, could have been more effectively exploited.

Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge is a real tour de force and the theme and each successive variation was delivered with great virtuosity, enthusiasm and style. However, in the interests of greater continuity I would have preferred if less time had been taken between variations,

It is not often that the viola is required to spend as much time in the limelight as it did today, but Edward Vandespar and his seventeenth century Brenzi viola made a particularly well-judged and distinguished contribution to proceedings, with touching solos in each of the three works.

Roman Simović gracefully acknowledged the hearty applause of the packed auditorium, and embraced his principal players, acknowledging their vital contribution, and that of the whole ensemble, to the successful outcome to their collaborative lunchtime musical journey.

Leon Bosch

The concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 11th May 2016 at 1:00pm.


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