Last night took me to the South Bank for a concert by the Isis Ensemble at the Purcell Room, in a very enjoyable programme of twentieth-century classics for string orchestra. Interestingly, all but the second piece, the Britten Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings were in arrangements, beginning with Bernard Hermann’s suite of music from Psycho. This was fluently introduced from the podium by conductor Jacques Cohen, who proceeded to lead an impressive performance. Separated from its filmic context, the music seemed if anything more peculiar: the strangeness of muting the strings throughout, the chilly harmony and gruff writing for the basses. Most striking were the atonal passages which reminded me of the introduction to the graveyard scene in The Rake’s Progress. Cohen’s conducting here, as throughout, was economical, by turns vigorous and agile, as appropriate.
Next was the Britten, which although very familiar I don’t think I’d heard live before (to my shame). The Purcell Room was not the most conducive acoustic for the piece, but the horn playing by Katy Woolley was very impressive and in places, such as the ‘Elegy’, eerie and haunting. Barber’s Adagio for Strings I prefer in the original string quartet version, but Cohen and the Isis Ensemble made a persuasive case for Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, an arrangement of his Eighth Quartet, being better than the original incarnation. A piece which has sometimes struck me as a self-indulgent self-portrait was brought to life, through unsentimental tempos and extremes of attack and dynamic. The captivating whirlwind of the second movement pointed up connections with the very nearly contemporaneous Hermann score, whilst Cohen showed some slinky hip-work during the stop-start waltz. The fourth movement featured some wonderful cello playing by Andrew Fuller in the unutterably bleak folk melody which is the heart of the piece.
After that we had a light-hearted finale in the form of Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, a showcase for the leader Susanne Stanzeleit, and the opportunity for some appropriately rustic playing from the ensemble.