SCO: Barber String Quartet

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

The inclusion of the very colourful Nonet by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in the latest of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s digital concert broadcasts on its YouTube channel was particularly appropriate during Black History Month, and – surely as intended – prompts speculation as to why such an attractive work is not performed more often. Whatever discrimination the young composer faced as a student at the Royal College of Music in London, it is undeniable that the piece probably suffered from changes in musical
fashion. Composed in the last decade of the 19th century, it faces backwards towards Johannes Brahms rather than anticipating the modernism to come. Perhaps the more pertinent question is to ask what Coleridge-Taylor may have produced had he lived beyond his mid-30s?

There was a sumptuous depth-of-field to this performance, the four strings, four winds, and Simon Smith’s piano beautifully spaced in the venue. The Andante second movement is gorgeous, with double bass, bassoon, and Smith’s left hand combining in the underscore, while Maximiliano Martin’s clarinet had many of the brightest top lines, recalling Brahms’s work for the instrument in his later years.

Martin and Smith provided the recital’s opener, Leonard Bernstein’s Clarinet Sonata of 1941. This too is an apprentice piece, and a key work in the musician’s nascent composing career, the development from influence (Hindemith) to originality (unmistakable pre-echoes of the music that would find its way into Fancy Free and then On The Town) audible in the work’s two movements. It is in the dance rhythms of the second movement that the two players combine most effectively.

By far the most familiar music of the programme came at the heart of the central work: Samuel Barber’s String Quartet in B Minor. It is quite possible to prefer the original version of the Adagio for Strings in the work’s slow movement (much more edgy than the string orchestra arrangement, and not lush at all) and still have reservations about the context in which it appears. The work had a vexed gestation and some of its more startling details still jar, including the surprising viola figure that punctuates the abrupt ending of the first movement, and the sense of incompleteness about the brief final version of the finale. However Stephanie Gonley, Gordon Bragg, Felix Tanner, and Eric de Wit, although not a seasoned foursome, produced as communicative an interpretation as one might hope to hear, and the presentation was enhanced by some highly-skilled camera-work, with matching shifts of focus.
Keith Bruce