String chamber orchestra is engrossing at Clowes

Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Indianapolis Star

By Jay Harvey

London's venerable string chamber orchestra with the slightly stuffy name rousingly concluded the 2009-2010 "Clowes Presents" series Saturday night.

Led by Lithuanian-born violinist-violist Julian Rachlin, the 20-piece English ensemble offered a richly varied program that showcased its star without compromising its group integrity.

That three of the program's four pieces were arrangements indicates that for expressive and stylistic breadth, it's necessary for such a virtuoso band to go beyond music written originally for the modern string family.

Edvard Grieg's "Holberg Suite" was the program's one work coming in this format right from the composer. The performance featured a fine blend of lyricism and urgency in the substantial "Air."

On either side of intermission, Rachlin offered his soloist gifts on violin and viola in transcriptions of, respectively, Beethoven's "Kreutzer" and Schubert's "Arpeggione" sonatas.

The latter work seemed more effective in this unusual garb: The piano accompaniment, when transferred to a string group, showcases Schubert's sustained lines that flow through shifting harmonies. This was particularly telling in the slow movement, as the viola's characteristic middle range nestled comfortably in the sonic spectrum.

Though the programming was too inspired to quibble about, Beethoven's great A major sonata sounded a bit odd with Rachlin's colleagues standing in for the piano. In the opening movement, with lower strings replacing the pianist's left hand and the violins the right one, the effect was a bit like those widely separated stereo recordings of the 1950s.

Yet there were compensations: The ritards and holds near the end of the first movement packed lots of drama before the whirlwind finish, and the "skipping" variation in the second movement was one of several displaying almost tactile contrasts of texture.

The long concert was stunningly capped by Astor Piazzolla's "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires." With its extended techniques for soloist and ensemble making the work even more picturesque than its Vivaldian model, it showed how fit the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields can be even when it goes far afield.