SCO: Mozart, Schumann & Strauss

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

As Brexit looms, with all its threatening implications for musicians, it seems significant that two Scottish groups should choose to perform works written in response to the destruction of German cities by the Allied forces during the Second World War.

Next week, the Dunedin Consort will sing Rudolph Mauersberger’s Wie liegt die Stradt so wuste, written after the bombing of Dresden, and, on the day after Remembrance, the latest concert in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s digital season culminated in Metamorphosen, Richard Strauss’s response to the destruction of the Munich Hoftheater, a venue that had shaped his career. The first sketches for the piece were entitled Mourning for Munich.

Ultimately, Metamorphosen has been seen as concerned with rather more than that, and many have found comfort in its unfolding cycle of sorrow, hope and fatality. The work of a master craftsman in the twilight of his career, it is usually heard in the 1945 version scored for 23 strings, but the SCO played the Septet, rediscovered in Switzerland 30 years ago and realised as a performing edition by cellist Rudolph Leopold.

As was the case with Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which the SCO played in its quartet version three weeks ago, the smaller forces brought more of an edge to the sound than we often hear. Without a conductor this is a big, demanding piece of chamber music, and the communication across the socially-distanced group, led by Stephanie Gonley, was exemplary. Bassist Nikita Naumov’s personal enthusiasm for the work, which he had introduced, was palpable, particularly when he played the quotation from the Funeral March in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony near the end.

There was arguably a bit too much presence from the bassist in the recital’s opening work, although that was the only quibble in a transmission that was beautifully balanced by engineer Calum Malcolm and filmed by Mauro Silva and Stuart Armitt. In a blind test, however, how many would identify the Bach-influenced Adagio and Fugue as by Mozart? Yes, the composer was harking back to earlier forms in creating it – originally for two pianos and then two violins, viola and bass – but it is rather bleak in tone, with none of the lightness and vivacity most associated with the composer.

Schumann’s six Etudes in Canonic Form are also less upbeat than Philip Higham maintained in his introductory remarks, if much less angsty than the troubled composer could be. The SCO’s first cello made this string quintet transcription of a work that also began life for keyboard before being arranged for piano trio. His fellow cellist in the group, Su-a Lee, usually had the duller job of playing the pedal notes in what is nonetheless a lively work, with animated contrapuntal conversations between the other four players.

Its brief movements deploy the form of the title, but it is the structure of the whole sequence that makes it lovely to listen to, using canonic form in the service of emotional language, with great variation, especially in the fourth of them, which is marked “tenderly”. Higham’s arrangement emerges as an inspired notion that will surely be enthusiastically embraced by young chamber musicians in conservatoires the world over.
Keith Bruce