Phoenix rises to make the most of folk

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Phoenix leader, Dan Russell. Photo Peter Hislop

Music / “Songs & Folk, across the ages”, The Phoenix Collective. At Wesley Music Centre,  November 21. Reviewed by GRAHAM MCDONALD.

I WILL admit to approaching classical musicians who propose to play “folk” music with a degree of trepidation.

Sometimes it works, but on other occasions it can be little more than mawkish parody. Instrumental folk music is as much about feel as the notes on the page. Pleasingly, this concert by The Phoenix Collective was carefully chosen and well played with attention paid to the sense of the original source material where necessary.

The concert opened with a suite of Danish wedding-dance tunes arranged by the Danish String Quartet. This was in three sections with a lovely interplay between the two violins in the first, slow introductory section. The second dance used a traditional-sounding harmony line from the second violin before joined by the viola and cello. The third part started with a 12/8 jig before shifting to a fast 4/4 reel. The jig was not quite bouncy enough and the reel too fast and blurry, and did not quite work.

The Phoenix Collective. Photo: Peter Hislop

The last of these was a pared down arrangement of a Swedish waltz, again by the Danish String Quartet. It was not really recognisable as a waltz anymore, though a very pretty arrangement with a minimalist feel.

Next was “Cypresses No 9”, a string quartet arrangement of a song setting by Antonin Dvorak. This was like little fragments of melodies strung together in a most interesting way. The group’s leader, Dan Russell followed these pieces with a solo improvisation around the well known Irish air, “Si Bheag, Si Mhor” mixed in the “Waltzing Matilda”. Somewhat fancifully, he attributed Matilda’s melody to an Irish convict source, when it is generally accepted to come from an early 19th century Scottish tune, “Thou Bonnie Woods of Craigielea”.

Florence Price was an African-American composer of the early 20th century, and her “Five Folksongs in Counterpoint” for string quartet was published around 1950. This performance was not, I suspect, all of it, but one of the earlier songs followed by a stirring arrangement of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” where the melody was stated by the cello, taken up by the viola and then to the violins with loads of variations with the original tune poking through from time to time.

The major work of the concert was the String Quartet No. 2 by Alexander Borodin, written in 1881. A good string quartet can sound more than the sum of its parts, that there are more than four musicians on stage, and the Phoenix Collective did this in this work, which was beautifully played.

The concert finished off with a couple more Scandinavian tunes that rounded the evening off well.

This is a most accomplished quartet with an adventurous approach to music with an admirable curiosity about what a string quartet can do. More, please.


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