Scottish Ensemble – Paul Sacher Tribute

Concerto in D
Metamorphosen [Version for string septet]
Divertimento for Strings

Scottish Ensemble
Jonathan Morton (violin)

Reviewed by: Dave Paxton

Reviewed: 24 January, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This concert was dedicated to Paul Sacher (1906-1999), a devoted conductor and patron of the music of his century. Appropriately, these three works were each commissioned by him.

The finest performance was of Bartók’s Divertimento (1939). Although ostensibly lighter than Bartók’s earlier Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, darker, harrowing emotions gnaw at the seams of each movement: the outbreak of war was imminent and Bartók noted, in a letter, the “war-fever” that was encompassing Europe. The twelve players of the Scottish Ensemble found, in the central Molto adagio, the work’s emotional core. The movement progressed fluidly in lengthy melodic paragraphs, the Ensemble’s bowing gentle but firm, the beat strongly articulated. The central episode, almost a funeral march, garnered great power, with subtle inflections of tempo grippingly injected, a sense of melodic fragmentation was clearly and harrowingly conveyed.

The outer movements displayed the band’s technical security and interpretative imagination, the contrasting themes of the opening Allegro non troppo (one a searing pattern of repeated notes, played in octaves) were effectively differentiated and the juxtaposed passages of solo and ensemble timbres effectively melded into a homogenous yet varied whole. The purposeful rhythms of the Allegro assai finale were matched to an opulent, richly hued string tone, yet nimbleness and intricacy were also present; the violin ‘cadenza’ (placed early in the movement) was proudly lyrical in Jonathan Morton’s hands, while Bartók’s incongruous interpolation of a ‘pizzicato polka’, a moment reminding one of the work’s sometimes misleading title of Divertimento, was here comic rather than ironic.

Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen was composed in 1945, and it similarly, though more explicitly, describes a war-torn environment. By quoting and manipulating the funeral march theme from Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony, one of the proudest peaks of German music, Strauss shows the collapse of the country’s cultural heritage, the score’s marking of ‘In memoriam’ most telling. The version performed here, for seven players as opposed to 23, loses richness of sonority but gains chamber-music intimacy that allows one to clearly chart the progression of the Beethoven quotation. The Scottish Ensemble’s consistently luxurious timbre made for powerfully swelling climaxes, but the score’s contrapuntal lines could be marginally unclear, resulting in a loss of direction during the more introspective passages. There was, however, a great fluidity of tempo throughout, which captivated the ear, even when the instrumental lines were not clarified.

Stravinsky’s Concerto in D, from 1946, suffered from various problems of intonation, which could be harmful in this delicately dissonant writing, while the finale’s rhythms never really bounced. Nevertheless, the piece was also designated cleanliness of articulation and thoughtfulness of interpretation.

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