The string orchestra has been peculiarly well-served by composers throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Composers who take easily to the large-scale orchestral palate somehow find another facet to their creative personalities when approaching these slimmed-down forces.
Take, for example, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade. It is a fine piece: warm and humorous and elegantly romantic. Here is Tchaikovsky without recourse to the great tragic brass chords that power his symphonies, or to the glistening woodwind and percussion textures that brighten his ballet scores. Yet, the master is far from becalmed by this lack of wind. Rather he seems to sail miraculously, with melodic assurance. And, if this particular voyage does not offer thrills and stormy dangers, or take us to treacherous, unmapped shores, it does at least give us time to reflect, and marvel at the dappled lights upon the now-choppy, now serene waters.
Well, I grant that Tchaikovsky as master mariner might be a fancy too far. But this is the great man as master musician. The Serenade has a maturity and an emotional poise that always impresses. To dismiss it as an occasional piece, or as the “lighter” Tchaikovsky is to miss the point. It remains one of the most delightful and emotionally fulfilling works in the Russian’s canon.
I become similarly enraptured by another string Serenade: that of Dvorak. It perhaps, on occasion, lacks the full assurance of the Tchaikovsky and possibly some ideas are overplayed a little, but it is a piece to cherish. Then there is Grieg’s lovely Holberg Suite, and advancing into the twentieth century, substantial works by Britten, Vaughan-Williams and Tippett. And, towards the end of his life, Strauss wrote his Metamophosen, a work of such grim introspection that it ought to cast aside any notion that the piece for strings is merely the serious composer on a day-trip.
For my money at least the finest piece for these forces is Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro. Elgar sets up his orchestral strings against a string quartet creating a kind of Concerto Grosso. For Elgarians the piece has all the expected hallmarks – the melodic poignancy, shifts from wistfulness to rambunctiousness and back again, that unerring ear for effective sonorities. But for the benighted crew of non-Elgarians, meanwhile, there remains much to relish free from the nervy gestures and winsome melancholia that some find off-putting in that composer. The Introduction and Allegro is Elgar as chamber-symphonist: emotionally thrilling but reigned in, elegant. Though it perhaps lacks the overwhelming punch of, say the Second Symphony – it’s no “pilgrimage of the soul” – it is nonetheless entirely absorbing, satisfying and, without doubt, complete.
In the programme for the first performance of the piece, Elgar quoted from Cymbeline: “A smiling with a sigh”. Well, that could well stand as the epigraph for almost all of Elgar’s compositions, but it is peculiarly apt here. The Introduction has a resplendent opening tutti, a descending minor-key phrase, forceful and resolute. The melodic idea that follows is ascending, but tentatively, questioningly so. The ensuing song-like melody (smiling and sighing) is immediately heart-warming, but it drifts and seems to find no resolution before the forthright opening phrase interjects. The song melody enters again, briefly, but is blown away by the wind. At this point, the questioning ascending phrase returns, but this time in the major mode. A corner has been turned and we move into the Allegro proper.
Don’t for a moment think, though, that all this descending phrase set against ascending phrase activity – the darkness and light schtick – is in any way schematic, let alone obvious. The sheer imaginative power of the themes ensure that we rise above that. That opening, descending phrase is couched in triplets (the three-against four dance is the rhythmic charge powering much of the piece), and it starts on high and sinks to the depths over three octaves below. The ascending phrase has great character, and the song-theme skilfully combines repeated notes and drooping thirds in a manner that, well, quite simply, touches the heart.
The ensuing allegro finds ways to use all these ideas, combining them with breathtaking skill and imagination resulting in a rapturous, cracking fugue. The final pages revisit the opening ideas, with the song-theme finally getting its full voice.
Elgar wrote very effectively for string orchestra. His early Serenade has always been justly popular, while the later Sospiri seems to be gaining popularity now, a darker, more sophisticated utterance. But it is the Introduction and Allegro that stands with Elgar’s greatest works.
I wish that there were more opportunities to attend string orchestra concerts. Of course, the symphony orchestras frequently include a strings-only offering as part of an evening’s programme, for which we must be grateful. What pleasure it would give, though, to hear an entire programme and relish the variety on offer. The adventurous ensemble, shouldering this task, could open with one of Mendelssohn’s string symphonies: these are mere juvenilia, to be sure, but works by the boy Mendelssohn penned a few short years before the adolescent Mendelssohn gave the world some of the greatest masterpieces of Western classical music. Mendelssohn’s juvenilia is inventive, quirky and chock-full of that promise that was met when the greatest teenage genius of them all finally took the stage.
After Mendelssohn, why not Bartok’s Divertimento, that draws on the same spiky waywardness that Mendelssohn had borrowed from CPE Bach? After Bartok, let’s have Warlock’s Capriol Suite (though we’re stretching the point here as this was originally written for piano duet, though the string orchestra version remains the most popular incarnation, even above the full-orchestral version). After the interval, and since we have already sullied the purity of the form with Warlock, we can have Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence (originally for string sextet). This can be followed by Vaughan-Williams’s Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus (in which the strings are joined by a harp) and we can end – why not? – with Britten’s Simple Symphony, the second movement of which explores with great energy, the range of pizzicato possibilities.
And yet, we still haven’t found room for comparative rarities such as Suk’s Serenade, with its playfulness and yearning, or for any downright rarities. Non-rarities, also, mustn’t be forgotten: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, anyone, or the Thomas Tallis Fantasia?
At this point, our fantasies move on from the odd string orchestra evening, to a weekend festival. If I had my way, the green-rooms of London would be so cluttered with instrument cases you’d swear the mafia had come to town, and the city’s music shops would be reporting a run on rosin.