Performing string quartets in orchestral settings is a fascinating affair. Among the most famous forays to the genre are Gustav Mahler’s 1896 (unfinished) adaptation of Franz Schubert’s Death and the Maiden (1824) and Dimitri Mitropoulos’s string orchestra version of Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet in C sharp minor, op. 131 (1826), championed by Leonard Bernstein.
Transcribing chamber settings to symphonic strings is not only about massed sonorities. I fondly recall attending a workshop by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique some years back, where they performed the quartets of Schubert, Ravel and Webern in orchestral guises. In his introduction to the Ravel, Gardiner pointed out that with string orchestra, the music’s striking family relationship with Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1893-1902) began to emerge out of the fabric, something that rarely happens in its original quartet guise.
Thus an orchestration, when properly done, can bring forth layers inherent in the music, but somewhat hidden in a chamber setting. Perhaps this is one of the musical reasons why some composers, such as Anton Webern, Samuel Barber and Pierre Boulez have also chosen to rework their own quartet movements into versions for string orchestra.
Adapting quartets for massed strings is not simply about doubling the violin and viola parts and dividing the lower voices between the celli and double basses. Rather, it is a delicate process of adjusting the textures and dynamics in such a way that both retains the essence of the music and transcribes it idiomatically to orchestral forces. Obviously, not all string quartets lend themselves into such practices; thus being sensitive to the hidden potential of an original score is the key to the process.
Among the many orchestral adaptations around, David Matthews’s 2010 arrangement of Sir Edward Elgar’s String Quartet in E minor, op. 83 (1918) is surely one of the finest examples. Solid and insightful, Matthews’s adaptation is both a loving salute to Elgar’s original as well as a worthwhile alternative for performance.
When brought to sounding reality with such commitment and enthusiasm as Artistic Director Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra on their latest online concert outing, the communicative powers of the Elgar/Matthews score have an absolutely spellbinding effect over the listener.
Written between 25 March and the Christmas Eve of 1918, Elgar’s only (surviving) string quartet belongs to the group of late masterpieces the composer wrote while recovering from the physical and psychological ailments brought upon him by illnesses and the toll on the long years of the Great War. Written along the Violin Sonata in E minor, op. 82 (1918) and the Piano Quartet in A minor, op. 84 (1918-19), and followed by the Cello Concerto in E minor, op. 85 (1919), the String Quartet presents us with a composer whose lifelong experience and perspective have brought forth a musical language of tremendous craft and depth.
The twenty-five-minute quartet is cast into three movements, yielding to a fast-slow-fast overall musical architecture. The riveting outer movements, marked allegro moderato and allegro molto, respectively, frame a radiant Piacevole (poco andante) central movement, where Elgar briefly quotes his Chanson de Matin (1889-90).
The second movement contains some of the most captivating music ever penned down by Elgar. A combination of delicate morning dew and sublime undertones of yearning, the piacevole adopts an airy mood, while unveiling in passionate textures. A paradox perhaps, but one gorgeously clad in music. Performed with sensitive translucence and astonishing intensity by Woods and the ESO strings, the central movement transports the listener in time and space in quasi-theatrical manner, without ever resorting to any exaggeration or routine; a case in point of music-making at the highest level.
Both wonderfully characterised, the outer movements come off brilliantly with the ESO and Woods. The extended sonorities of the orchestral strings serve Elgar’s writing exceptionally well, thanks to ever beautifully shaped musical phrases and pristine balancing. As a whole, the Elgar/Matthews score is a veritable delight, wholeheartedly recommended for newcomers and seasoned devotees alike.
English Symphony Orchestra
Kenneth Woods, conductor
Sir Edward Elgar: String Quartet in E minor, op. 83 (1918), arranged for string orchestra by David Matthews (2010)
Recorded at the Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth on 22 September 2020
First released on the ESO Youtube channel on 14 May 2021, 7 pm
© Jari Kallio