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New England String Ensemble
The New England String Ensemble performed at Jordan Hall on Sept. 28.
Music review

An inspired opener for New England String Ensemble

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / October 7, 2008
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New England String Ensemble
Federico Cortese, Music Director; Irina Muresanu, violin
At: Jordan Hall, Sept. 28

The New England String Ensemble joined the rolling start to the classical music season with concerts Sept. 27 and 28, embarking on their 15th such circuit, their fourth under music director Federico Cortese. The 21-player group made a compact presence on Jordan Hall's stage, but a Danube-Oder-Canal program - Franz Schubert bookending works from eastern Europe - often aspired to symphonic scale.

Schubert's Rondo in A (D. 438) found both ensemble and soloist-violinist Irina Muresanu deploying burnished sounds: the group's deep, smooth-edged and silky, Muersanu's warm and tightly focused, like an electric wire. Cortese drew out debonair phrases; even Muresanu's emphatic moments remained within aristocratic parameters.

Muresanu later returned for George Enescu's Romanian Rhapsody no. 1, in a newly commissioned arrangement for violin and strings. The idea had some logic, based on both Muresanu's Romanian heritage and Enescu's own violin proficiency, but the orchestral original derives much of its rustic charm from an exuberant use of winds, harp, and brass.

Cristian Lolea's transcription never found adequate substitutes. Cramming the entire circus into such a small timbral space resulted in aggressive clutter. It's hard to begrudge Muresanu a chance to show off and she did, with crowd-pleasing fire and flair, but the vehicle never ran smoothly.

In between was a modernist gem, Witold Lutoslawski's 1972 Preludes and Fugue for 13 solo strings, given a gorgeous, incisive reading. Lutoslawski's carefully calibrated chaos and deliberately out-of-sync polyphony balances an instinct for dramatic, overarching gestures, gathering his scattered fragments into lyrical summations.

The group showed bite and color, from furious buzzing verging on white noise to eerie, undulating chorales. In the very nontraditional Fugue, the chase of motives nonetheless brought a familiar sense of virtuosic excitement. Only two of the seven preludes were performed, an option within Lutoslawski's flexible score. But Cortese's sharp interpretation made one greedy for the whole.

The second half was another transcription, of venerable provenance: Gustav Mahler's orchestral expansion of Schubert's String Quartet in D minor ("Death and the Maiden"). Mahler's touch is light octave doublings here, double basses augmenting cellos there, but the intimate epic scales up brilliantly. Individual interaction is replaced by an objective grandeur, similar to the allegorical energy of classical drama.

Cortese gave full rein to the added heft without succumbing to ponderousness. The Andante variations on the title song had a quiet, insistent momentum, while the final Presto was an accelerating dash: a running start to the new season.

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