Review: The song remains the same

Classical Music: Brunel Ensemble Victoria Rooms, Bristol
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For the past three seasons, the misleadingly titled Brunel Ensemble and its founding conductor Christopher Austin have been quietly establishing in Bristol one of the best subscription concert series to be found anywhere in the regions.

Despite its name, the Brunel is an orchestra, but flexible in make-up - able to put on mixed chamber programmes alongside straightforward symphony concerts like last Saturday's in the Victoria Rooms, which had Copland's Appalachian Spring and Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No 1 plus a commissioned work by Simon Bainbridge for a "chamber orchestra" of 50 or so. The Copland (written in 1944) was actually the oldest music on the programme. Yet the hall was packed, the audience mainly, though not exclusively, young and the atmosphere keen and attentive.

A glance through the season's other programmes show that Austin has abandoned the stereotyped small-orchestra mix of standard classics, a bit of Stravinsky and Hindemith and the odd new piece. Instead the balance favours new work hung in what looks like a gallery of the conductor's personal obsessions, mostly modern, but with some odd exceptions: Tchaikovsky (because of a Russian theme in the series) and Brahms's D major Serenade, easily the earliest work in the whole season. The fusion looks, and is, stimulating and that of course is why the audience turns out.

The orchestra, also youthful, plays with the verve you'd expect. Saturday's Copland was excellent: sinewy and danceable, and with the brilliantly clean violin-playing without which this music falls flat after only a few minutes. The Shostakovich concerto, with the band's principal cellist Betsy Taylor as soloist, was more workaday, a touch stiff and with some shaky ensemble. But Bainbridge's Three Pieces - far from easy because musically clear, and therefore exposed - were a real success, well-prepared, and done with much refinement and intensity.

On the surface they look a curious trio. The first piece flirts with the rising flute motive in the "Abschied" finale to The Song of the Earth, and in fact is so close to the Mahler in feeling that it soon becomes it and has to stop. But the two other pieces, a "shimmering" Scherzo followed by what Bainbridge calls a sombre "orchestra chorale", pursue ideas suggested by the "Abschied": above all, that of a sung line threading a more or less unbroken course through accompanying traceries which, at the same time, map out an inert or slow-moving harmonic field. The third piece in fact oddly suggests the "Farben" movement of Schoenberg's Five Pieces, which is a kind of frozen chorale without a melody. Bainbridge adds the melody, sometimes shadowed, but at the same time underscores the inertia with regular (soft) thwacks on a bass drum.

Much of this is beautiful, and always the effect is precise, etude-like. But something is left unsaid as well. The powerful empathies that guided Bainbridge's wonderful Primo Levi settings, Ad Ora Incerta, are silent here. What sticks in the mind is the detail, fine touches of melody and texture. The whole feels more provisional, as if something might eventually be added.

Stephen Walsh

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