Review: CUSE

HARRY HICKMORE thinks that this string ensemble may have played their cards a little too early.

Bach cambridge university string ensemble Classical concert CUSE Finzi James Wicks Magdalene orchestra st giles church Vaughn Williams

St. Giles Church, Saturday 20th October

The Cambridge University String Ensemble seems to go somewhat under the radar in a town with a concert calendar as swamped as Cambridge’s. It’s no surprise that their first concert of the year was poorly turned out, with extra seats optimistically set out at the side, unoccupied and gathering dust.

The venue itself, St. Giles Church (just up the road from Magdalene Bridge), immediately proved problematic. With an ensemble far too small for the vast space, the first piece on the programme, Finzi’s Romance, began nervously and never really recovered. Problems including tuning issues, a sound that lacked resonance and a poor sense of ensemble were only exacerbated by an acoustic that took no prisoners. More concerning, however, was the lack of expression: the Finzi demands a richness and depth of sound, but with a dynamic range as narrow as CUSE’s, the work described as “highly passionate” in the programme notes was instead cold and bare.

The British theme continued in the concert’s final instalment. Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis is difficult to bring off, though after some initial hiccups, the ensemble seemed to find their feet and began to play as a unit. There were valiant attempts made to contour the music, but once again the lack of dynamic range hampered the orchestra’s expressive capacity.

The orchestra seemed infinitely better suited to Bach in the central items of the concert, Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and the Violin Concerto in A minor. The sound of the reduced orchestra of the former was worlds away from both the Finzi and the Vaughan Williams; clear articulation brought out Bach’s textural ingenuity and at last the music had a sense of momentum. If not technically perfect, it was certainly lively.

Reverting back to full forces in the Violin concerto, deficiencies in the ensemble’s playing were again brought to the fore as they returned to their old habit of ignoring the dynamic contrast this music so desperately needs. James Wicks was a competent soloist, with an astoundingly beautiful sound that was sustained but never cloying. However, he never seemed to engage with the ensemble, which left the orchestra and soloist often seeming out of sync.

It was a daring move to programme a concert so early on in the term and I can only assume that CUSE were under-rehearsed – the music lacked the bite this kind of repertoire demands. The venue did them no favours either; memories of awkward school concerts in odd-shaped churches came flooding back, and unfortunately for CUSE, the similarities didn’t end there. I may forgive them this time, but they need to up their game considerably if they want an audience at their next concerts.