MUSIC / Incredible string band: Stephen Johnson on I Musici de Montreal at St John's

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The Independent Culture
LINKS between the old Italian I Musici and this newer Canadian group don't go much further than the size and constitution of the forces. Where I Musici stuck largely with the Italian baroque, I Musici de Montreal range widely in time and nationality in their search for repertoire. Tuesday's concert at St John's, Smith Square, had an interesting symmetry. Two shortish 20th-century pieces were framed by two string orchestra arrangements, by their composers, of big works originally for string sextet: Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht and Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence.

The style, too, couldn't be less like the old I Musici. Instead of cultivation, suavity and a sometimes low electrical input, the Montreal team can bring intensity, energetic characterisation and a willingness to take risks - all a reflection of their musical director, the Russian cellist Yuli Turovsky. And yet those very strengths can also be weaknesses, as both the Schoenberg and the Tchaikovsky showed. The absorption, sweep and powerfully projected expression in parts of Verklarte Nacht were of the kind that can lift the small hairs on the back of the neck. But there were also moments of tonal roughness and precarious intonation.

Everything about Souvenir de Florence suggested a much worked-over interpretation. The players plainly knew what was required, but an air of contrivance hovered over many a detail: rubato that at one recurring point in the first movement sounded like a sudden switch to half-speed; in the finale's second theme, loud- soft contrasts of such extremity that some notes disappeared altogether. During the scherzo Turovksy repeatedly executed a strange, jerky dance which was mirrored all-too-faithfully in the playing. Again, the flavour was strong but not often subtle.

Impressions in the two 20th- century pieces were more positive. We hear Ernest Bloch's music so infrequently these days that it's easy to forget he was once an important influence on many British composers. Yuli Turovsky's impassioned and heroically-shaped solo performance in the Three Pieces for Cello brought Bloch's pungently expressive lines to abundant life, and made it easier to understand why he could have exerted such a fascination.

Jacques Hetu's Adagio and Rondo for String Orchestra, the one example of Canadian music in the programme, turned out to be a good deal less assertive than the Bloch. A transcription of a string quartet written in 1960, it is well- crafted, transparent in texture and technique, and quietly appealing. Chromaticism wedded to strong harmonic sense and gentle elegance of line make it easy to follow and digest. I Musici de Montreal played it with respect and, in the Adagio, unusual restraint. Even the finale's Bartok / Martin-ish dance rhythms showed a light touch - a pity there wasn't more of that in the Tchaikovsky.