Serenade for Strings, Op.20
Hamartia (Cello Concerto) [London premiere]
Life Studies – III, VI & VIII
Shostakovich arr. Barshai
Chamber Symphony, Op.110a [String Quartet No.8]

Li-Wei (cello)

Scottish Ensemble
Clio Gould (director & lead violin)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 19 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The Scottish Ensemble has its origins in the Scottish Baroque Ensemble founded in 1969. A string group, it consists of 15 players, only two of whom are male. Clio Gould, the director, plays on a ‘Rutson’ Stradivarius of 1694, lent by the Royal Academy of Music. The Ensemble makes a speciality of playing contemporary music and of doing educational work while on tour in Scotland.

Elgar had a soft spot for his Serenade – an early work, but already characteristic. The young Elgar served us a bar or so of mellow if easygoing melancholy. Thereafter, the music uncoiled into an Allegro piacevole (pleasing) and almost nimble. The Larghetto, well thought of in its day, was a little off-colour here – serene but pallid. Victorian pensiveness – listless and yet somehow full-blooded – is out of fashion today. The cellos and single double bass lent richness to the proceedings – and the yobs in the audience launched into immediate acclaim, rather than show respect and awaiting the last movement, which scampered here, there and everywhere most lithely and engagingly.

Hamartia, Stuart MacRae’s cello concerto, is named after the Greek word for ‘tragic flaw’. A connection between the title and the music is not entirely clear. There is neither an obvious hero nor an obvious tragic flaw. The music stirs in psychological rumination. The cello plays sustained melody, mostly on the upper reaches of the strings, in contrast to discordant, brusque, chordal statements from the massed strings. We may be witnessing an ardent yet gentle spirit trying to break free of the brutal demands of the flesh. We may be witnessing harsh reality trying to induce lofty idealism to place its feet on the ground once in a while. We may be hearing both.

This is stern stuff, whose slightly tedious (and certainly unvarying) contrasts were caught very well by the soloist, Li-Wei, and the Ensemble, the latter manifesting a richness of tone that it had somehow missed (or eschewed?) in the Elgar. There was commendable harshness to the resolute tone – a thickness intended to be impenetrable. The music’s inner heart was reached, I am sure. Its sounds were not pretty, though there was reassurance and hope. As Tom Service’s programme note declares, Hamartia “has the atmosphere of a strange, archaic ceremony.”

Nicholas Maw has written eight Life Studies, commissioned for the Cheltenham International Festival of 1973. The three we heard were in distinct contrast to Stuart MacRae’s sober austerity. These three selections – and the playing – were engaging; I recalled the probing, toying and experimental frame of mind present in Beethoven’s Bagatelles, especially the later ones.

As for the Shostakovich string quartet amplified for string orchestra by Rudolf Barshai, I admired the commitment and the passionately intense playing, especially during those sudden, grating, anguished moments. I appreciated the few scattered passages when solo instrumental tone became audible.

I must say, however, that Barshai’s arrangement leaves me uneasy and unsatisfied – despite knowing that Shostakovich gave his approval. I can understand the eagerness of players to be involved in such searing music, but great chamber music isn’t further illuminated through effecting larger sonorities. Here, ‘more is less’. I make one exception: Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler.

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