Ode to Sting

Lisaire String Quartet interpret classic Police and Sting tracks – watch a live performance

For its debut album release, the Northern Ireland-based Lisaire String Quartet has turned to the back catalogue of the artist formerly known as Gordon Sumner, stripped the vocals, and set the tunes for the classical quartet combination of two violins, viola and cello.

First violinist Lisa Henderson, originally from Newtownabbey, is the arranger. A first-class honours graduate in music and an experienced player, she certainly has the credentials. Add a Sting fixation stretching back to infancy, and you have the basic ingredients for this unusual, enterprising project.

And where else to begin but at the very beginning? 'Roxanne' was the Police’s first top ten hit, and the bumping, faux-reggae backbeat of its verses translates convincingly to the jabbing ostinato of second violin and viola, and the pump and grind of Scott Heron’s cello, mimicking Sting’s full-fat Fender bassline.

Henderson’s violin traces the melody, combining slinky phrasing with the little swoops and glissandos that characterise Sting’s original vocal. But the chorus, when it comes, is less convincing: it’s hard to replicate the full-on impact of a rock band with the throttle out on four acoustic instruments.

Repetition can be an issue too. Many of Sting’s songs – many rock songs, period – are strophic, one verse following another with no alteration in basic chord structure. The lack of a lyric, a story with words to follow, can be problematic.

That is addressed by the Lisaire players in 'Message in a Bottle' by clever variations of dynamic, and some of scoring. The long fade on the Police version is also cleverly avoided, with an abrupt full close, which works convincingly.

Where there is a middle eight, that helps. 'Every Little Thing She Does is Magic' has one, and it is cleverly scored by Henderson, sustaining momentum and varying the textures of the string writing. The difficult ad-lib coda to the number is also intelligently handled, and in places the pulsing inner rhythms of the arrangement recall Philip Glass, speeded up a little.

Pizzicato cello makes a sprightly intermezzo of 'Englishman in New York', with jazzy solos from violist, Martin Surginor. It also launches 'Every Breath You Take', where the flavour of the arrangement is diluted by the first violin part lying low in its register.

The beautiful 'Fields of Gold' has arguably a little too much textural detail included in it, and is one of the few numbers where tuning is inconsistent. 'Fragile' similarly emphasises an incipient Latin-American dance groove at the partial expense of the tune’s haunting ethereality. But these are not intended to be impersonations of the original recordings, and the song can take it.

'Valparaiso' does successfully distil some of that haunting quality, and an Irish folk influence – which Henderson herself detects in the arrangements – an influence you can also hear in the drone material at the start of 'Ghost Story'.

The wistful 'Shape of my Heart' shows Henderson’s craft as an arranger at its finest, factoring rhapsodic cello solos and poignant two-part violin harmonies into a memorably expressive closer to the album.

Sting himself apparently sanctioned this Lisaire String Quartet tribute, which will feature on the singer’s own website. He should be more than happy with it – Lisa Henderson has done classy work with his compositions, and the playing is consistently skilled and sympathetic.

A word of warning, though: this CD will bring out your inner karaoke singer. It brought out mine, much to the discomfort of those members of the Blain household who had the misfortune to venture within earshot when Ode to Sting was playing.

Ode to Sting is out now. Sign up for a free album track download.