This was a real doozy of a concert. The superbly coordinated Amsterdam Sinfonietta, lean and sharp under leader and artistic director Candida Thompson, touted their wares in Britten and Shostakovich with performances of lucid clarity and dark undercurrents. The three pieces were written within six years of each other, sharing similar tensions but under different motivations, and the 22 players of this impressive string orchestra projected warmth and vitality, standing as they performed and with the stage dressed in simple, subdued lighting.

Ilker Arcayürek
© Muziekgebouw

With the atmosphere set, principal viola Georgy Kovalev stepped up to perform Britten’s Lachrymae, performed here in the composer’s later arrangement for viola and strings. The piece is a set of variations on a theme by John Dowland, but with the theme itself revealed right at the very end rather than at the beginning and with the variations giving the clues, rather like a musical whodunnit. The combined forces seemed to nurture a natural flow to the music, mixing strained tension with distant, ethereal layers and Kovalev producing a rounded, resonant viola sound with a wonderfully rich but clear lower register, contrasting evocatively with some more crystalline delicate textures, while the orchestra worked harmoniously under Thompson’s carefully understated direction. And the Dowland theme, when it eventually arrived, was played intimately with a purity and a tinge of sadness.

The Amsterdam Sinfonietta
© Muziekgebouw

Shostakovich wrote his String Quartet no. 4 in D major at a time when his music had, yet again, been denounced in a new Soviet crack-down on “formalism” in music. Added to this, Shostakovich had incorporated a strong element of Jewish folk music influences, not really recommended during Stalin’s new wave of anti-Semitism. In this arrangement for string orchestra by Marijn van Prooijen, the ensemble brought out Shostakovich’s exploratory, clean lines with an acute awareness, the searing upper strings in the Andantino giving an air of desolation and desperation, while the moto perpetuo of the third movement was kept finely balanced. The players let rip in the final Allegretto, with full-on sardonic jauntiness laced with a sour bite and irresistible and relentless force in the central climax before closing in a mood of quiet darkness.

Felix Klieser, Ilker Arcayürek and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta
© Muziekgebouw

The ensemble was joined in Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings by Turkish tenor Ilker Arcayürek, lending his Lieder background to the piece, and accomplished horn player Felix Klieser, who, having been born without arms, plays the French horn with his toes. The performance was captivating and convincing, Arcayürek sensitive and lyrical in his storytelling, Klieser exuding sheer musicality and virtuosity, both blending sophisticatedly with the strings and showing emotional depth. The highlights, however, were in the nuances – the ebbing phrases, the subtle changes in mood, Arcayürek moving from the whimsical to the melancholy, and Klieser’s versatile and dynamic horn playing showing incredible control over variations in timbre. There were tempestuous moments too, soloists leaping wildly between registers to great effect, the strings luminous and glistening, leaving the solo horn, now off-stage, to have the final word.

This performance was reviewed from the Muziekgebouw video stream