On record – Elgar Reimagined (Raphael Wallfisch, English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods (Lyrita)


Elgar arr. Matthews String Quartet in E minor Op. 83 (1918)
Elgar arr. Fraser Miniatures for Cello and Strings: Chanson de Matin, Op.15 No. 2 (1899). Chanson de Nuit, Op.15 No. 1 (1899). The Wild Bears, Op. 1b No. 6 (1908). Nimrod, Op.36 No. 9 (1899). Romance in D minor, Op.62 (1910). Sospiri, Op.70 (1914). Mazurka, Op.10 No.1 (1899). Pleading, Op.48 (1908). In Moonlight (1904). Salut d’Amour, Op.12 (1888). Adieu (1933)

Raphael Wallfisch (cello), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Producer Phil Rowlands Engineer Tim Burton

Lyrita SRCD 394 [69’27”]

Recorded 22 September and 9 October 2020 at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

This new release by the English String Orchestra focuses on Elgar, a composer championed by this ensemble throughout its 44 years of existence, whose music is given an appealing and (for the most part) instructive appraisal across the programme of arrangements featured here.

What’s the music like?

The principal work is the String Quartet in E minor, arranged by David Matthews. Second in a wartime triptych of chamber pieces, it is less introspective than the Violin Sonata preceding it but less emotionally charged than the Piano Quintet which came after, while arguably the most finely proportioned – not least in terms of the subtle transformation of thematic elements across and between its movements. In this guise, it follows on from the Serenade then Introduction and Allegro as the hitherto missing large-scale work for string orchestra of Elgar’s high maturity.

Matthews has been mindful to equate the soloistic with the ensemble potential of this music, so the result is neither straightforward transcription nor radical re-conception. The opening Allegro discreetly evokes an autumnal rumination as sets the tone for much of what follows; even finer is the central Piacevole, its main theme suffused with an intensity whose extent is only revealed at the close. If the emotional acuity of the final Allegro is marginally diffused, there is no absence of purposeful intent as the music proceeds to a coda of terse decisiveness.

The remainder of this programme comprises a sequence of Miniatures, arranged for cello and strings by Donald Fraser and played by Raphael Wallfisch. Ostensibly an 11-movement suite, its efficacy in terms of smaller groupings and even individual encores should be self-evident.

Chanson de Matin launches proceedings in mellifluous fashion, and if the cello’s assumption of the melodic line is slightly to the detriment of the original scoring, that could hardly be said of Chanson de Nuit whose sombre contours and inward character are unerringly realized. Nor does The Wild Bears lose out on vivacity, and if the arrangement conjures up Saint-Saëns, this only serves to underline the importance of ‘Second Empire’ French music on Elgar’s thinking. The cello’s dominance in Nimrod rather detracts from the subtlety of this Enigma Variation’s instrumentation – conversely, the Romance brings soloist and strings into even closer accord than the composer’s version with orchestra. The highlight here is Sospiri, which presents one of Elgar’s finest inspirations in a striking new light. Lighter fare comes in the robust tread of the Mazurka, followed by an eloquent take on the song Pleading. In Moonlight (adapted from In the South) responds well to such limpid treatment, as does Salut d’Amour in conveying its essence without cloying. A wistful take on the piano piece Adieu provides an affecting close.

Does it all work?

Very largely. The idiomatic nature of the String Quartet is enhanced by the ESO’s committed playing under Kenneth Woods, a follow-up to their recording of the Piano Quintet in Fraser’s orchestration (Avie), while Raphael Wallfisch’s conviction in the Miniatures is undoubted.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, not least as the quality of the playing is abetted by the naturalness of the sound and informativeness of annotations by Matthews and Woods. Heard together, these two parts of Elgar Reimagined make for desirable listening in this 165th year since the composer’s birth.



You can discover more about this release and make a purchase at the Lyrita website.  For more information on the artists, click on the names for Raphael Wallfisch, Kenneth Woods and the English String Orchestra – and for the arrangers, David Matthews and Donald Fraser 

Online concert – English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Tchaikovsky: String Quartet no.3


English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Tchaikovsky arr. Woods String Quartet No. 3 in E flat minor, Op. 30 (1876)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
12-13 July 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English String Orchestra launched its schedule for 2022 with another premiere – that of Tchaikovsky’s Third Quartet in an arrangement by Kenneth Woods, continuing a line of such rethinking which has previously included Brahms’s Second Piano Quartet (Nimbus NI6364).

Completed early in 1876, this work came about through the premature demise of Ferdinand Laub who led those premieres of Tchaikovsky’s previous quartets and whom the composer held in highest regard. Its tonic-key is unexpected yet influential (notably on Shostakovich), not least in an opening movement where the Andante introduction leads to an Allegro whose fervent striving never quite breaks free of the fatalism from which it emerges and to which it returns. Woods might have made more of that Allegro’s undulating emotions, but his take on its introduction and coda duly enhanced their sombre intensity. Nor was there any lack of wit or urbanity in the next movement, poised unerringly between scherzo and intermezzo, which could become almost as popular as the waltz of the Serenade for Strings in this incarnation.

Interesting that Tchaikovsky belatedly reversed the order of the middle movements, given the Andante funebre is the undoubted highpoint of this work and its impact would be diminished if heard earlier in the overall design. Moreover, Woods’ arrangement was at its finest here in terms of the interplay between solo and ensemble strings – those soliloquys for violin, viola and cello given added pathos by the greater textural depth; not least as the movement reaches its anguished climax then subsides into the chant-inflected elegy of its closing stages. Maybe the finale would have conveyed even more a sense of release at a swifter tempo, but Woods was scrupulous as regards its ‘non troppo’ marking; nor was there any lack of resolve as this movement headed on its impetuous course towards a decisive and life-affirming conclusion.

A convincing new guise, then, for arguably the finest of Tchaikovsky’s chamber works (not least compared to the over-inflated arrangements of Souvenir de Florence), and a welcome reminder of the ESO’s collective prowess whether heard in original pieces or transcriptions.

You can view this concert from 21-25 January at the ESO website, and thereafter for ESO digital supporters here. Meanwhile for information on the ESO’s latest release of the music of Steven R. Gerber, click here