SCO / Ravel, Debussy & Milhaud

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Thursday digital chamber music series just gets better and better. This latest one – the first in its extended Autumn tranche of concerts – threw in a whole lot of jazz influence voiced via the titillating early 20th century French musical inflexions of Ravel, Debussy and Milhaud. Nothing beats a dose of regenerated blues for shaking off the pandemic gloom, especially in performances as gripping as these.

Ravel’s 1927 Violin Sonata featured a notable star from last week, SCO guest leader Maria Wloszczowska, this time in duo partnership with Edinburgh pianist Peter Evans. She cuts a charismatically unpretentious presence on stage, authoritative yet compliant, incisive in gesture but eliciting a natural expressive warmth. The dissonant pokes of humour that gently infiltrate the silken fluidity and filigree detail of the opening movement did so with infectious charm.

Then a playful Blues, a beguiling central movement whose woozy lyricism vies with antagonistic syncopations. Wloszczowska and Evans engaged fully in its whimsy and the saucy dialogue that ultimately achieves its seductive purpose, before gifting the sonata’s final skittish moto perpetuo with all the inexorable fervour its kinetic insistence invites.

Debussy’s Cello Sonata seemed the perfect complement with which to follow, its opening rhetoric mindful in establishing an intuitive but exhilarating stream of thought, which SCO principal cellist Philip Higham expressed with crafted, glowing intensity. Once again, Evans was an inspiring collaborator, receptive to Higham’s architectural vision and purposeful in initiating those restless interruptions that breath fire into Debussy’s logical narrative and the quicksilver charm that enlivens the closing moment.

In many respects, the piano quintet version of Darius Milhaud’s 1920s’ ballet score La Creation du Monde is inevitably more high class drawing room in character than the raunchy Harlem-style jazz club textures evoked by the original 17-instrument line-up. But there is a certain ironic charm in the way its refined rescoring establishes a sort of perverse decadence.

With violinist Kama Kawashima and violist Felix Tanner now completing the ensemble, and in a performance driven by a combination of sultry sensuality and raw rhythmic drive, the realisation of its risqué primitivism was palpable and profound. Whether in the biting aggression of the Fugue, the steamy laid-back ecstasy of the Romance, the terse rhythmic menagerie that defines the short Scherzo, or the whimsical gamesmanship of the Finale, this was a cracking conclusion to a quirky programme.
Ken Walton

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Image: SCO guest leader Maria Wloszczowska