This is an attractive pair of releases from a group called United Strings of Europe. It is a small string orchestra (4/3/3/2/1) whose members, according to the booklet, are "bound by friendship and years of experience playing together". They're enterprising and extremely ambitious too: "determined to reach beyond the concert hall, the ensemble has developed an innovative education program..."
They play very well indeed. It is immediately apparent their ensemble playing is founded upon rich experience and accomplishment. And BIS provides them superb SACD recorded sound.
I was not familiar with much of this music; a lot of it is comprised of arrangements for string orchestra by the group's leader, Julian Azkoul, rather than original compositions specifically for such an ensemble. On the face of it, all of this music appears to be, at minimum, interesting. But listening, much of it is obstinately unmemorable.
Disc 1, in motion (2020), opens promisingly - an adaptation (by Azkoul) of Schubert's sketch of a movement intended for a 12th string quartet, which was never completed. It's wonderful music lasting just 8 minutes, which is so good one laments that Schubert never got around to finishing it.
Another highlight of this disc is a contemporary work which concludes the concert, Gareth Farr's Mondo Rondo. Originally for string quartet, it works splendidly for string orchestra - cast in three clever, contrasting movements: Mondo Rondo, Mumbo Jumbo and Mambo Rambo! I laughed out loud just at the titles but was thrilled to hear the music living up to them so perfectly, with compositional creativity and enormous entertainment value. Farr, a New Zealand composer, is a percussionist and his music reflects that in its driving, rhythmic energy. Yet there is an attractive lyrical element as well. The piece reminds me very much of my two all-time favorite contemporary works for string orchestra: Paul Patterson's Sinfonia for Strings (RPO Records, Geoffrey Simon, conducting) and David Diamond's Rounds for String Orchestra (Elektra/Nonesuch, Gerard Schwarz, conducting). Farr establishes his own unique character, especially with effective orchestration, highlighted by pizzicato in the 2nd movement and the imaginative (and prolific) use of glissandi in the finale. It is spectacularly played here by this fantastic group. Great stuff!
Elsewhere, however, the arrangement (again by Azkoul) of Boccherini's Street Music of Madrid isn't all that interesting, and the short piece by Corrales, with its constant use of glissandi slipping and sliding throughout the orchestra left me feeling a little queasy. And then there's Hindson's Maralinga, for solo violin and strings, which is decidedly the most overtly "modern" piece on the program. Its opening glissando screech from the solo violin in the highest register (very closely mic'd for maximum shock value) comes as an unpleasant jolt after the richly Romantic Schubert. It is dissonant and almost angry music, softening at times, reminding one of the gypsy flavors of Ravel's Tzigane. It's a rather interesting piece which I might have appreciated a lot more if only it had been programmed in a more appropriate spot. It's quite out of place and so very unexpected coming immediately after the Schubert. Annoying from the very first note, committing to its 13-minute length was simply too much.
Moving on to the second volume, renewal (2021), it's a pity 22 minutes of it is taken up with music for soprano. Yes, the strings accompany her, but a vocal song-cycle does not really belong in a program of string music. I don't usually enjoy this type of thing in the best of circumstances and I found it particularly unwelcomed here. The same can be said for Mendelssohn's 6th Quartet in this unnecessary adaptation for full string orchestra. It becomes pretty intense with the extra weight and loses some of its intimacy and communicative ability. Surely more appropriate music could have been chosen than either of these.
However, not all is lost. I enjoyed the two Caroline Shaw pieces, one of which is her ubiquitous Entr'acte, which is showing up everywhere these days. And rightfully so; it's a pleasing work, instantly soothing and peaceful. The highlight of this disc, however, is undoubtedly the piece which comes first on the program: Joanna Marsh's In Winter's House. It sounds rather similar to those by Shaw, and also vaguely reminiscent of the film composer, Thomas Newman's music. It is richly scored and possesses a heartfelt melancholy within its gloriously singing outpouring of musical expression. It is sheer loveliness, and at only 4'30, ends much too soon.
I enjoyed the superb playing and recorded sound heard on both of these discs. However, I must ultimately judge them on the likelihood I will ever listen to them again. I suppose time will tell. But as good as they are, in all honesty I can't help but proclaim them curiously unmemorable.