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Arpège at Blackheath Halls, 30 November 2003
Philippa Davies flute Christina Rhys harp Stephen Stirling horn Louise Williams viola

Four friends decided to play together in the belief that their disparate instruments could blend into a viable ensemble. Arpège is a brave modern venture, a chamber music group equivalent to the broken consorts of Elizabethan times.

The problem is repertoire; no fear of competing in the chamber music 'canon', dominated as it is by string quartets. So, in the early stages, they are bound to succeed or fall by resorting to arrangements, and by building programmes taking turns in trios, duos and solos.

That they have succeeded triumphantly was demonstrated at Blackheath in one of the most enjoyable of all the Sunday Morning concerts this year.

Arpège's programming flair was demonstrated by their theatrical start at Blackheath. The Recital Room was plunged into darkness (were we in for another concert with "Lighting Design" which is becoming all too fashionable?) and through open doors front and back we heard Siegfried's horn call and, without pause, Debussy's Syrinx. A brilliant juxtaposition! That sequencing and staging left us agog for what was to follow and, once the lights were up, we were guided with unusually interesting programme notes, presumably written by member(s) of the group.

John Reade's Dances of Harlequin (c.1982) make a deft, accessible companion for the Debussy Sonata for flute, viola and harp, which received one of the clearest and most lucid accounts of a work which can seem to ramble without scrupulous balancing of timbres and tempi.

Arrangements for horn and harp during the morning were Saint-Saens' Romance Op 36 and three of Vierne's songs to Greek poems, bereft of their texts, but no-one complained! The accompaniment of Britten's Lachrymae had been through arrangement of its piano original to a version with string orchestra, before arriving at Christina Rhys's adaptation for harp (scarcely a note changed); the best of all and the high point of the second half.

Well placed before the interval was Arpège's most important commission to date, the London premiere of a moving Epitaph and Refrain from Giles Swayne, for a Ghanaian relation who failed to establish himself in UK, eventually 'dropping out' and dying destitute.

In this subtle and evocative score, Swayne seeks to generalise his specific sadness to represent 'the struggle faced by so many others in Sackey's position' - timely this week in view of the government's hardening towards immigrants and asylum seekers. He is a leading composer of the middle generation and this major work establishes a path that other composers who hear an Arpège concert will want to follow. The morning ended with a further proof of the self-sufficiency of flute(s), viola, horn and harp in an ingenious arrangement of numbers from Bernstein's orchestral score for Candide.

Arpège's highly desirable first CD (Arpège 505129500011) has more successful arrangements of music which wears well with a change of clothe;, Ravel's Pavane and his piano Sonatina, a Mozart duo, more enjoyable for flute and viola than the original vln/vla scoring, and, best of all, that Britten Lachrymae, possibly even more convincing as being (for me) the definitive representation of Britten's vision than when heard live.

The CD is expertly recorded by Ben Connellan and most strongly recommended; order from info@arpege.co.uk. Arpège's next CD must, without fail, feature Swayne's Epitaph and Refrain which, meanwhile, awaits a broadcast on Radio 3, please!


[See also review of Giles Swayne's Magnificat]


© Peter Grahame Woolf