Review: CLASSICAL MUSIC: Guildhall String Ensemble's 10th anniversary concerts Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
Though still too young to be called an institution, the Guildhall Strings, aged 15 this year, are a valued asset in British musical life, and much treasured by composers. The support they've received through a decade and a half has just been mirrored in three world premieres, one for each of three recent Wigmore Hall birthday recitals. These were long and involving programmes, but the watchword for the new works was brevity. Rather than asking for one big piece, the Guildhall Strings had spread the load with three smaller offerings, no less sincerely written, but doubtless intended as upbeat concert openers.

For the second of the three occasions, last Monday, Diana Burrell caught the mood with her aptly titled Gate. For the first, on Friday 11 April, John Woolrich's The First Leaf, a terse expression tersely expressed by the players, made for a less clear-cut start. One of its composer's more inscrutable epigrams, it seemed, at first, mistakenly placed as the leading item. Only later, after Paul Nicholson had taken the role of soloist in Bach's E major Harpsichord Concerto, and ensemble director Robert Salter had led a firm and finely balanced account of Stravinsky's Concerto in D, did Woolrich's parade of basic contrasts begin to feel less arbitrarily arrayed. The mood was also lightened by a bright, precise Brandenburg Concerto No 4, with Piers Adams and Pamela Thorby on recorders. Wobbly violas marred Brandenburg No 6. Ample compensation, however, was a polished reading of Stravinsky's 1928 ballet, Apollon Musagete, captured in all its radiant drollery.

John McCabe's birthday offering at the third and last concert on Friday was cast in the form of a tightly knit bundle of thematic stitching: his Six-Minute Symphony. McCabe is an imposing symphonist, and this symphony- in-embryo was no less impressive than its full-length cousins from the same stable. In a three-movement pattern that managed to include a fleeting scherzo within a slow movement, it opened and closed with stately chords suggesting the ceremony of the French Overture. The mood chimed well with Bach's first Orchestral Suite, where the strings were joined by a woodwind trio of Emma Feilding and Clare Hoskins (oboes) and Rachel Gough (bassoon). In Bach's Brandenburg No 1, the addition to the ensemble of hornists Richard Watkins and Martin Owen helped counter the blanket sound of massed oboes, otherwise a little overwhelming in the intimate confines of the Wigmore Hall.

Oboist Nicholas Daniels introduced the slow movement of the second Brandenburg with "happy birthday" as a dolorous addition to the tune. The concerto itself, last item of the evening, was a more lively encomium to the ensemble's present and future. With Crispian Steele-Perkins, Daniels found reserves of warmth in Copland's urban elegy for cor anglais and trumpet, Quiet City. Copland's Nonet was an intriguing rarity, a study in unusual sonority that just missed the target in terms of form. That's true of many more successful pieces, of course. Given the players' loving performance, it was hard to guess why this one's not better known.