Coming to some arrangement

MUSIC Nieuw Sinfonietta Amsterdam Queen Elizabeth Hall, London The sinfonietta played with taut, grainy sonority and discipined attack
Click to follow
An arrangement can tell us a surprising amount about a work's subtext, and it can also reveal as much about the arranger as it does about the work arranged.

It is astonishing, for instance, how much of the very essence of Elgar's creative personality goes into his arrangements of other composers. He often makes them sound like himself, reminding us how much of his symphonic thinking resides in the sheer sound of his orchestra.

On Monday evening in the Queen Elizabeth Hall the Nieuw Sinfonietta Amsterdam brought us a whole programme of arrangements under its conductor Lev Markiz, and very thought-provoking they were. Truth to tell, if the version for string orchestra of Beethoven's String Quartet in F Minor which opened the programme had not been by Mahler, we might not have taken it so seriously.

Mahler's attitude was purist and restrained to a degree, and apart from a very discreet use of the double-basses he just transfers the Quartet lines to the orchestra. What we learn from such a version of what is quintessentially a chamber music piece is that there is a world of difference between performers playing for an audience and performers playing for themselves while an audience overhears.

The Nieuw Sinfonietta played splendidly here, with a taut, grainy sonority and highly disciplined attack. But somehow the Quartet textures were depersonalised in being delivered by a large body of strings, and what in the original is a flexible give and take became a series of rigid statements, powerful but one dimensional.

Mahler was taken to task by critics of his time for performing the Quartet like this, and his very plausible excuse was that four players do not have the presence to make an impact in a large concert hall, and the music deserves to be heard by more than just a handful of chamber music enthusiasts. True enough, but more is probably lost than gained in the exercise.

It was fascinating to compare the results of Mahler's arrangement with Shostakovich's of his own Eighth Quartet, which closed the programme. Significantly, he called it a chamber symphony, and the powerful dynamism and intensely introverted expression that the large body of strings generated suggest that the original Quartet stepped outside the bounds of chamber music, finding its true mtier in the later version. At all events, it made a fine impression in this outstanding performance under Markiz's direction.

Framed by the string arrangements was Henze's most beautiful orchestration of Wagner's 5 Wesendonk Lieder. Using double wind and horns as well as strings, Henze dwelt on the gorgeous lower sonorities of which a full wind group is capable, and created a dazzling array of textures. The clarity of line and process that he achieved focused the more complex orchestral polyphony's relationship to early Schoenberg, and if the arrangement was to a certain extent anachronistic, the result was a feast for the ears. Jard van Nes was the passionately committed soloist.