Some reviews refer to our old name (Isis Ensemble) –
the name may have changed by the ensemble is the same!
cherish this well-engineered and satisfying disc
Stuart Millson, The Quarterly Review
Founded a decade ago, Isis is a professional chamber orchestra, achieving a strong reputation for adventurous programming; a policy which has resulted in this latest disc of string transcriptions of pieces such as Pictures at an Exhibition, which we tend to think of as belonging to the world of the full orchestra.
Arranged by conductor and composer Jacques Cohen, Mussorgsky’s gallery loses none of its colour, drama and well-drawn characters and scenes in this pared-down version. For the listeners who are familiar with Ravel’s orchestration, you might wonder how the Isis Ensemble manages to make up for the lack of snare-drums and breathless, virtuoso trumpet passages – not to mention the hypnotic atmosphere of the troubador by the old castle. But somehow, the panoply of the full orchestra is reproduced by the clever and exciting re-drawing of the score for strings. Rachmaninov’s Prelude, Op. 3, No.2 is also given a convincing and beautiful performance, as is the Brahms Sonata, Op. 120, No. 1, with Anna Hashimoto as the most impressive clarinet soloist. Listeners who relish the sound of a string orchestra – but a string band that achieves a wide sense of sonority – will cherish this well-engineered and satisfying disc.
very well played and recorded, an excellent showcase for the Isis Ensemble and its music director
Edward Greenfield, Gramophone : Music for Strings CD
Jacques Cohen, conductor and music director of the Isis Ensemble, has here assembled an attractive collection of pieces by different composers, with which the group have had some notable successes. The most striking piece is the set of Variations on a Ukrainian Folksong by Malcolm Arnold. Originally for piano solo, Arnold wrote it while he was still first trumpet in the LPO for a Ukrainian violinist colleague, John Kuchny. Here Roger Steptoe has arranged it very ably for strings, making a striking work from modest beginnings. Fascinatingly, the theme will be recognised by many listeners for its refrain ‘Yes, my darling daughter’.
Cohen himself offers Yigdal, a fantasia on a traditional Jewish theme, while the Suite for Strings by teenage Salomon Cuellar concludes with a delightful Allegro full of cross-rhythms. The Bee Sting Dance, which opens the disc, is an unrelentingly vigorous piece with an oriental flavour, full of cross-rhythms. The concluding item is a meditative prayer, Modlitwa, which Andrzej Panufnik wrote just before his death. His contribution is the opening and closing music, with the central episode filled in by his composer-daughter Roxanna. A mixed bag, very well played and recorded, an excellent showcase for the Isis Ensemble and its music director.
crisp and sensitive performance… full of vitality and subtle melodic shaping
Tim Homfray, The Strad : Music for Strings CD
It is customary to put the encore at the end. On this CD it comes at the beginning, with Rohan Kriwaczek’s Bee Sting Dance in Rohan’s Kitchen, a wild, five minute romp, which incidentally establishes the virtuosity of the Isis Ensemble. There is no explanation here of how the CD was compiled; perhaps it is just to showcase the ensemble and its conductor, composer and arranger Jacques Cohen. The ensemble is certainly impressive. There is a powerful undercurrent of energy in even the quietest sections of Cohen’s Yigdal, a fantasia on a traditional Jewish theme. This is an intense and sombre piece, to which the ensemble brings an almost vocal passion, with some fine solo playing.
Salomon Cuellar, who was born in 1990 and is currently studying at Dulwich College in London, must be more than happy with the crisp and sensitive performance of his Suite for Strings, full of vitality and subtle melodic shaping. The other original work here is the Modlitwa (Prayer), left incomplete by Andrzej Panufnik when he died in 1991 and completed bt his daughter Roxanna. The orchestra responds to its sad, meditative nature with gentle playing, imbued with warmth and restraint. Malcolm Arnold’s Variations on a Ukrainian Folksong gives the orchestra its greatest workout, with a multitude of vivid colours and virtuosic flourishes, which it dispatches with aplomb. The recorded sound is rich and clear.
a triumph for contemporary music…, this disc is compelling from start to finish
AllMusic.com, James Manheim : Music for Strings CD
In its quiet way, this British release is something of a triumph for contemporary music. The music is mostly unfamiliar, with only one short excerpt from a famous piece (the “Old Castle” passage from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, arranged for strings), and a couple of rarely heard pieces by moderately well-known composers, Malcolm Arnold and Andrzej Panufnik; in the latter case what is heard is the composer’s final work, unfinished and completed by his daughter, Roxanna Panufnik. No one is going to feel on familiar terrain here. And yet the pieces all seem to hang together and appeal to the listener at a basic level. A good deal of the music is funny, something thought to be impossible without the existence of a commonly agreed-on musical language. But perhaps that’s what’s happening here: a language is gradually being agreed-upon as widely comprehensible. None of this music rejects tonality, and all of it is touched by the idea of simplicity that has arisen at various times over the last century in response to the efforts of systematizers. But none of it is minimalist, or neo-classic, or neo-Romantic. The biggest find is the Suite for Strings by 16-year-old Swiss-born composer Salomón Cuéllar, whose fast-slow-fast movement pattern clearly suggests Baroque models. The composer makes something entirely new out of these by now extremely established materials, which is quite a trick. He builds the outer movements out of basic voice-leading progressions that are timed in unusual ways, with a note proceeding long enough in the cellos to make you think it’s a drone but then giving rise to a new direction. Rohan Kriwaczek’s Bee Sting Dance in Rohan’s Kitchen, combining two preexisting pieces in this new string arrangement, is a brisk updating of the old virtuoso violin dance encore pieces, and conductor Jacques Cohen’s Yigdal combines traditional Jewish materials with aspects of minimalism. The ensemble is superbly trained, sensitive, and, perhaps most important, successful in avoiding having the fun drilled out of it; Arnold’s Variations on a Ukrainian Folksong (1944) is a masterpiece of understated humor, answered by the sublime calm of the Panufniks’ Moditwa (Prayer). Intelligently programmed, this disc is compelling from start to finish.
“a particularly fine performance of Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, warm-hearted and handsomely textured”
Matthew Rye, The Strad : Summer Serenade, St. James’s Piccadilly, London:
Given the plethora of arrangements of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition it is surprising that it has taken until now to appear in a transcription for string orchestra. Composer-conductor Jacques Cohen justifies his version on the grounds that it tackles the sustaining problems of the piano original while keeping the uniformity of its colour. It’s certainly a virtuoso piece of work, full of invention and ingenuity. Particularly impressive were the Shostakovich-like angst that emerged in ‘Gnomus’, the trudging lower strings of ‘Bydlo’, the luminosity at the end of ‘Con mortuis…’ and the opulence of broken chords for ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’. The strings of the Isis Ensemble conveyed all the work’s moods and characters with enthusiasm. ….The Isis Ensemble’s concert had begun with a particularly fine performance of Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, warm-hearted and handsomely textured.
The Isis Ensemble created a sumptuous sound, with conductor Jacques Cohen highly sensitive to the music’s ebb and flow.
Joanne Talbot, The Strad: Summer Serenade, St. James’s Piccadilly, London:
The Isis Ensemble created a sumptuous sound, with conductor Jacques Cohen highly sensitive to the music’s ebb and flow. ….The undoubted highlight was a brilliantly performed premiere of Cohen’s own impressive Yigdal. The hymn taken from the Jewish liturgy betrays an exotic Eastern influence allowing for an attractive yet edgy harmony to underpin the captivating, mournful melody that infuses the 13-part string instrumentation. While the texturing often reminded one of Lutoslawski, Cohen has developed an individual voice, and the piece received an enthusiatic reception.
Bernard Hughes, Blog: Purcell Room
Last night took me to the South Bank for a concert by the Isis Ensemble at the Purcell Room, in a very enjoyable programme of twentieth-century classics for string orchestra. Interestingly, all but the…. Read more
Agnes Kory, www.musicalcriticism.com: Macmillan Charity Concert, St. James’s Piccadilly, London:
Cohen’s timing and control is excellent… The whole concert benefited from Cohen’s clear vision of structure, disciplined passion and reliable direction… Music making on the highest level. It was a joy and a privilege to hear them.