Music Reviews

InterContinental Ensemble – Breathtakingly Good

How many will actually hear that these symphonies are played by only 9 musicians? Ernst Spyckerelle, responsible for all the arrangements, puts it this way, “How can we expand the repertoire for nonet, uncover the chamber music in orchestral pieces, while also working our own group sound?” And: “Making a musical arrangement is best compared with translating a book, and I imagine that a translator must answer the same questions before he goes to work. How do I transform the original into a new form, whilst keeping the message of the work clear?”

Listening to this recording, I cannot but conclude that the result is breathtakingly good. In two ways: Firstly, crafting and distributing parts in such a manner that it easily fools the listener into believing that she or he is listening to a -reduced- symphony orchestra; Secondly, allowing each player to demonstrate individual skills in the combined, overall outcome.

The international character of the ensemble is reflected by its membership: Ernst Spyckerelle, Violin (Belgium); Iteke Wijbenga, viola, Alexander van Eerdewijk  oboe, and Simon Velthuis, cello (The Netherlands); Alfonso Manzanera Rojo, Clarinet and Daniel Garrido Iglesias, Bassoon (Spain); Jorge Hernandez, Double Bass (Mexico); Simao Fonseca, Horn (Portugal), and last but not least Eliska Horehledova, Flute (Czech Republic). The common denominator seems to be their relation to or study at The Amsterdam University of the Arts (Amsterdam Sweelinck Academy).

The name ‘InterContinental Ensemble’, is nonetheless justified by the presence of the new oboe player, Ivan Cheng, from Hongkong (succeeding Eerdewijk).

Some may claim that the music doesn’t sound as ‘lush’ as played with a full-sized orchestra. But the days of large symphony orchestras playing Beethoven and Schubert are well behind us. With a possible exception of the ninth, chamber orchestras now seem ‘de regueur‘ in this type of repertoire. And though I put a personal question mark here, even Brahms is no longer forbidden territory for Period Bands. Leaving this for what it is, the beauty of the ‘nonet’ format is that it reveals detail, structure, and gives better insight in compositional techniques, on condition that the arrangements are superior and the musicians play ‘sans faute’. The latter is all the more of importance as in a ‘symphonic nonet concept’ none of the strings can hide in the orchestral anonymity of ‘rank and file’, whereas fewer strings allow for more prominence, and henceforth closer scrutiny of wind players. 

The InterContinental Ensemble has taken up the challenge with verve. Playing Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms is a hefty programme. Opening up all sorts of questions about interpretation and getting it convincingly across to an audience. On the other hand, what we have here is so incomparably different from anything else, from anything existing, that it can only be judged in its own right. In Beethoven we look for brilliance and exuberance, in Schubert for emotionally laden content and in Brahms for respecting long melodical lines and, in this particular case, for a fair bit of nostalgic drama.

Nonets are generally known for their entertaining ‘salon’ character (Spohr, Lachner), though more comprehensive compositions exist, like Darius Milhaud’s chamber symphony ‘Le printemps’, Ernst Krenek’s Sinfonische Musik for nine solo instruments and Anton Webern’s Symphony, op. 21, But none have attempted to emulate large scale symphonic music and all it entails in terms of emotion. 

With the InterContinental Ensemble, and quite honestly much to my surprise, all the pre-cited qualities are there: the brilliance, the emotion the drama. But not only that. What seems to me of paramount importance is to discover what each individual player was able to contribute to the overall result, and – by no means easy – how they manage to keep symphonic coherence without apparent conductor. I think that in these departments the ensemble makes, with phenomenal precision, their strongest statement.

But there is more. With waning enthusiasm amongst the younger generation, it struck me that we have here a much more ‘mobile’ format than a full-sized orchestra, being more easily capable of reaching out to schools etc. without the need for large space nor breaking the communal piggybank. In that sense ‘traveling light’ has a further meaning than the two Ernst Spyckerelle gives for explaining the name of the ensemble’s debut release: “on the one hand it refers to the arrangements themselves, which have been slimmed down from a full orchestral setting to a version for nine individual players. On the other hand, it has a special, extra meaning for us, as we have come together from all corners of the earth, driven by our love for music.”

I wish these young, gifted musicians every opportunity to go out and about to spread the gospel of classical music, in the concert hall as well as amoungst the people.

My enthusiasm concerns in equal measure the quality of the recording. TRPTK, and more in particular, Brendon Heinst, have done a great service to musicians and music lovers alike.  

Copyright © 2019 Adrian Quanjer and

Written by

Adrian Quanjer

Adrian Quanjer is a site reviewer at HRAudio, with many years of experience in classical music. He writes from his country retreat at Blangy-le-Château, France. As a regular concertgoer, he prefers listening to music in the highest possible resolution to recreate similar involvement at home. He is eager to share his thoughts with like-minded melomaniacs at NativeDSD.


No comments yet