Amsterdam Sinfonietta offered a program with three Russians and a French composer, and, perhaps more interestingly, featured three works orchestrated by other composers. This offered interesting insight into how different orchestrations can be, some staying close to the original work and sound of the composer, and some adding new dimensions that may not have met the approval of its original composer, but are still worth listening to.

Christianne Stotijn © Marco Borggreve
Christianne Stotijn
© Marco Borggreve

Adrian Williams’ orchestrations of Debussy’s piano works La cathédrale engloutie, La fille aux cheveux de lin and Golliwog’s Cakewalk for string orchestra belong to the second of these groups. Although at moments the music was quintessential Debussy, such as the solo violin part in La fille, at other times I found myself wondering if the music wasn’t as much, or perhaps even more, Williams’ as it was Debussy’s. And of course the question then arises of whether an orchestration or arrangement of someone’s else’s work must remain close to their sound. No matter what the answer to that question is, Williams’ orchestration very clearly played to the strengths of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta. They are a chamber orchestra who excel at beautiful, dynamic and heavy strings, and their performance was a very good one with principal cellist Kaori Yamagami being particularly impressive.

Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death is a work that has been orchestrated many times by great names including Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov and Shostakovich, which made me very curious as to what Theo Verbey’s 1994 orchestration would sound like. It stayed rather close to the original piano score (definitely more so than, for example, Shostakovich’s orchestration – which sounds as much like Shostakovich as it does Mussorgsky). This meant that the orchestra played a subdued role, which the Amsterdam Sinfonietta did surprisingly effectively. This allowed for the real star of the evening, mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn to become the focal point. Stotijn is an incredible singer: her voice is clear, warm and powerful and her stage presence is mesmerizing. But what made this performance memorable was her understanding and execution of the songs. In the first song, ‘Lullaby’, Stotijn demonstrated the different characters, the mother and Death, with intonation and body language, and she continued this throughout the song cycle. This meant that even for someone who does not understand a word of Russian, it is entirely clear what the songs mean and what is going on. Mussorgsky’s figure of Death has many different faces; he is seductive, soothing, aggressive, even joyful – and all of these elements were present in Stotijn’s performance.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg is something of a forgotten composer, although recently his work has been getting some more attention, especially at the Weinberg Festival in Utrecht last year. The Amsterdam Sinfonietta performed the world premiere of his 1948 Concertino for violin and string orchestra in 2009; Weinberg himself never heard it played. In contrast to some of his contemporaries, Weinberg’s music has an instant appeal. It’s full of melodies that will linger in your head for days and harmonies that make you smile, but somehow without becoming predictable or boring. Candida Thompson, usually concertmaster of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, played the violin solo elegantly and powerfully. The violin’s opening melody set the scene for the entire performance; it was the kind of moment when you know you can just sit back in your chair, close your eyes and relax.

Shostakovich dedicated his String Quartet no. 10 to his good friend Weinberg, which makes the inclusion of Barshai’s arrangement for string orchestra all the more appropriate. As opposed to Verbey’s and Williams’ arrangements, Barshai’s orchestration of Shostakovich’s string quartets were actually approved by the composer himself. The Amsterdam Sinfonietta is obviously very comfortable with Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, though thankfully that doesn’t mean that they offered the concertgoers a run-of-the-mill performance. What often strikes me about the Amsterdam Sinfonietta – and in their Shostakovich performance this was once again very clear – is that they somehow manage to give musical works an intense emotional depth. The Chamber Symphony has both light and dark elements, and it is always the darker ones, the feeling of persecution, that the Sinfonietta bring out so powerfully. This is probably why at the end of this concert I'd almost forgotten what the Debussy sounded like, even though their performance was solid – it is the more brooding music that the Amsterdam Sinfonietta make an impression with.