Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Introduction and Allegro for Strings (1905) [14:08]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) [14:26]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10 (1937) [25:25]
LSO String Ensemble/Roman Simovic
rec. live, 3 February 2016, The Barbican, London
LSO LIVE SACD LSO0792 [53:59]

There have been some previous releases on the LSO’s own label of performances by the LSO String Ensemble, directed from the first desk by Roman Simovic, the orchestra’s leader. Claire Seymour admired very much a release that paired arrangements for string orchestra of quartets by Schubert and Shostakovich (review). An earlier release of original compositions for string orchestra by Bartók and Tchaikovsky similarly impressed Simon Thompson (review). I’ve not heard those discs so this was my first encounter with Simovic and his colleagues and although the playing is as splendid as you’d expect from the string section of a virtuoso orchestra I’m afraid two of the three performances left me rather underwhelmed.

Actually, though I referred to the string section of the LSO it’s only a portion of the orchestra’s string choir that’s on parade here. Simovic leads an ensemble of 26 players: 7/6/5/5/3 in the Elgar and Britten. For the Vaughan Williams piece the players are divided up into two distinct groups.

I don’t know if it was a coincidence that the first two works chosen for the programme were premiered by the LSO. Elgar wrote his Introduction and Allegro for Strings for the newly-formed orchestra and he himself conducted them in the first performance in March 1905. Elgar deliberately designed the Introduction and Allegro as a piece for the full string section of a symphony orchestra to play though down the years there have plenty of successful performances and recordings by smaller ensembles. In this present performance the Introduction isn’t as big-boned and hearty as many that I’ve heard and I don’t think that’s because the LSO String Ensemble is a chamber-sized group. Rather, it seems to me that Roman Simovic is aiming for a cultivated, lyrical style. The Allegro begins in quite a relaxed vein though good momentum is soon established. When we get to the passage that the composer referred to as “a devil of a fugue” (7:10), the playing is lithe and crisp. Later, when the work’s true climax arrives with the reprise by the full band of the ‘Welsh hymn-tune’ I don’t really think that the moment is as big and grand as it should be. In short, this is very well-played and the approach is interesting but I felt it didn’t by any means tell the full story. How much was missing was soon confirmed when I made a comparison with Sir John Barbirolli’s classic 1962 recording with the Sinfonia of London (review). It is said that Elgar commented that it was hearing JB play the work that made him realise what a big piece it was. It may be that Barbirolli used a bigger body of strings than Simovic had at his disposal but it’s the style that’s so different. In Barbirolli’s hands the music has a sweep and a sense of surge that I find absent from Simovic’s performance.

Still, I can admire a good deal about Simovic’s account of the Elgar piece but, with the exception of the quality of the playing, the same is not true of the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia, which just eludes Simovic. This, too, was a piece that the LSO unveiled under the direction of its composer, though I’m not aware that the piece was written expressly for them. The occasion of the first performance was a Three Choirs Festival concert in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910. Right from the start Simovic moves the music forward. There’s nothing wrong with that in principle but I’m afraid that the forward movement is achieved at the expense of the magic that should be present; the performance seems perfunctory. The forces are divided into two groups (5/4/3/3/2 and 2/2/2/2/1) and the second string orchestra is nicely differentiated in this reading. The four principals, playing from the front desks of the main orchestra, make a fine contribution (from 5:05 onwards). However, despite the quality of the playing the spirit of the music seems completely absent. The last three minutes or so sound beautiful but by then it’s too late. Did the performance need the guiding hand of a conductor? Perhaps, though it’s not long since I experienced a magnificent live performance that was directed by the leader of the orchestra concerned (review). No, I’m afraid the sad truth is that the performance needed to be shaped by someone who understood the piece. Once again, Barbirolli is the gold standard (review). In his studio recording the music has time and space to breathe. Moreover, he conveys a sense of the mystery and of the music’s architecture. I don’t think it’s insignificant that Barbirolli’s recording plays for 16:13, nearly two minutes longer than Simovic takes. Despite the quality of the playing this LSO version is one of the most disappointing and superficial that I can recall hearing.

Matters improve tremendously in Britten’s Frank Bridge Variations. The brilliance of Britten’s invention is expertly conveyed and the wide variety of moods conjured up by the different variations all register. The March is very incisive, the playing razor-sharp, while the Romance is affectionately inflected. Simovic leads a rendition of the Aria Italiana that is full of brilliance and dash. Later, and in complete contrast, the Funeral March is tremendously intense and the cellos and basses provide a wonderfully weighty and solid foundation. The Fugue with which the final section opens is very athletic. I liked this performance as much as I did a recent one conducted by Sakari Oramo (review). There Oramo uses a smaller body of strings but they’re a bit more closely recorded than is the case on this LSO Live recording; on balance I prefer the LSO recording which doesn’t place the players as close to the listener.

In fact I liked the sound on this LSO Live SACD. It’s present and clear. The notes by Wendy Thompson are serviceable though she’s wrong to say that in the VW Fantasia the solo quartet are part of the second string orchestra and I’d certainly take issue with her description of the work as just “a minor masterpiece” (my italics).

The quality of string playing on this programme is excellent but the short duration and the controversial interpretations of two of the three works spoil the disc for me.

John Quinn

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