The Royal Hospital Chelsea was founded in 1682 by Charles II to provide soldiers with a rewarding retirement location, and the grounds and buildings are all fitting for the residency of the Chelsea Pensioners. Their concert season ranges from choral music for Remembrance to string quartets and piano trios, but tonight’s performance saw string orchestra classics from the London Serenata.

Magdalena Filipczak
Magdalena Filipczak

The players were led by William Vann, organist and director of music at the Royal Hospital, and he was an extremely animated and enthusiastic conductor. He began the first item almost as soon as he stepped onto the podium and his energy didn’t falter throughout.

St Paul’s Suite is one of my favourite string works, and this performance did not disappoint. Holst named it after the girls’ school he taught at in London, and the suite draws heavily on folk material, introduced to him by his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams. The first movement, “Jig”, has a jaunty sea theme alternating between 6/8 and 9/8, and “Ostinato” is a very appropriate title for the second movement; the poor second violins have a quaver sequence on E, D and C throughout (except for eight bars when the first violins have it an octave higher). The third movement, “Intermezzo”, has a powerful lyrical melody from the lead violinist over soft pizzicato chords, and he matched the intensity when playing solo to when it was played tutti. It really is one of the nicest melodies I know, and when transposed up an octave it is simply exquisite. The difficult triple-stopping in this section was also handled admirably by all the players. The movement ends with a quartet playing the material with altered harmonies, and Vann appropriately stopped conducting to allow the players to shine. In the last movement, we get the folk songs: Dargason from the violins and Greensleeves from the cellos, and Holst combines them beautifully. At just over twelve minutes, this really is a masterpiece, with such a huge range of material and technique; all the players clearly invested in the challenge, and triumphed.

Although some find Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings too schmaltzy and self-indulgent, the players here got it just right. Originally scored for string quartet, Barber arranged it for string orchestra in 1936 due to its popularity, and I was extremely glad of this tonight; I forgot there were only string instruments playing, as the warmth and timbre felt like a whole orchestra. The famous three-note rising sequence was handled perfectly, and the sound created by only nineteen players here was quite extraordinary.

To end the first half we had Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite. I have been playing these as piano duets for years (which I didn’t realise is what Warlock originally wrote for), but like Barber, due to popularity he rearranged for string orchestra. All six of the dances in this suite are deceptively simple in texture and rhythm but have luscious modal harmonies. The first movement, “Basse-Danse”, has catchy hemiolas, and “Pavane” has a very simple rhythmic ostinato shared between the parts. “Tordion”, the third dance, features some fiercely difficult high pizzicato playing, and “Bransles” has a staccato crotchet melody that feels breathless, with no rests until bar 22. The fifth, “Pieds-en-l’air” is calm and tranquil, and hugely contrasting with the final “Mattachins”. This has the alternate title “Sword Dance” which captures it perfectly; there are cheeky chromatic notes and extreme cluster chords, one containing a B flat, C, D and E. Warlock uses unrelated and unexpected chords and somehow manages to cadence into the tonic. Similarly to the Holst, this work is very short (lasting only ten minutes) but manages to achieve a lot.

The London Serenata played perfectly throughout the first half with a rich, homogenous sound. After the interval Vann transferred to the harpsichord, the double basses vacated, and the soloist Magdalena Filipczak came to the stage. She sensibly referred to the fact that Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is a very predictable choice, and to add interest she read the sonnets that the music was written to accompany, possibly written by Vivaldi himself.

The concert programme had a whole page listing her various awards, and this talent was evident. She led the players behind her admirably, and listened to them carefully, rather than taking charge. Although the set of four violin concertos is so well known, she handled some fiendishly difficult semiquaver passages with ease. The orchestra also managed the changes of mood superbly. The echoes and trills in the Allegro of Spring were well controlled, and the famous semiquaver broken chords from Filipczak were spotless, as were her rapid descending scales in the Presto of Summer. In the Allegro of Autumn the runs were impeccably timed against the orchestra’s pulse, and the Largo in Winter had an elegant and lyrical sequential melody.

The programme tonight could be described as safe, but the standard of playing was such that the music seemed refreshed. It felt very appropriate hearing British string music from Holst and Warlock in such a historic and important place, and the addition of Barber and Vivaldi created a well-rounded programme which proved extremely enjoyable.