SCO: Adams/Mozart

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

There have been some delightful threads to follow through the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s digital chamber music concerts, with its subtly changing cast of musicians, uniformly excellent sound mixing and evolving style of careful visual presentation.

The modern element of this programme is a selection of three of the 12 movements of John’s Book of Alleged Dances, a Kronos Quartet commission from John Adams that dates from 1994. In its original version, it references the work of John Cage in the use of a prepared piano rhythmic backing track, which proved a bit of a challenge for even the technologically-adept American group for whose individual members particular passages were specifically written.

This SCO quartet – Stephanie Gonley, Marcus Barcham Stevens, Felix Tanner, and Donald Gillan – neatly side-steps that problem by playing only movements 5, 3 and 8, none of which requires the rhythm track. They are each quintessential Adams though, particularly the first, and by far the longest, “Pavane: She’s So Fine”. It both celebrates and subverts an earlier form and the formal roles of the members of a string quartet. Gillan deserves particular praise for his playing of the very high cello part, written to showcase the Kronos’s Joan Jeanrenaud.

The briefer joys of “Toot Nipple” and “Stubble Crotchet” – classic Adams titles – displays his signature rhythmic style, the latter an encapsulation of his practice in miniature that can’t help but bring a smile. Dancing to any of this would surely be a challenge, but one that choreographers have risen to since the work was composed.

More specific to the narrative of this season is the sextet that follows, Mozart’s Grande Sestetto Concertante. With Gonley again leading, Philip Higham replacing Gillan, and violist Brian Schiele and bassist Nikita Naumov joining the group, the piece often sounds very little like Mozart. That  was also true of the Mozart Adagio and Fugue, which was included in the Queen’s Hall concert of November 12 (and still available to view until Saturday December 12), although that work consciously looked backwards. The more obvious reason this time around is that Mozart didn’t actually write it. The score is an arrangement of his Sinfonia Concertante, published almost 30 years later and the work of an unknown hand.

Cast your mind back to the days of audiences in concert halls, and the original work was in the last programme played by the SCO in March, with Nicola Benedetti and Lawrence Power as the soloists. If it sounded like scaled-up chamber music then, this might have been expected to be a back-to-basics exercise, but the arranger has had no particular urge to employ Mozartian building blocks.

More influenced by Beethoven, the music shares the solo lines around the members of the group, with Higham and Naumov providing the propulsion in the Presto finale. The opening movement loses none of its Maestoso in this reduced orchestration, and the moving central Andante seems to acquire a more Mediterranean feel in its flow, but is no less moving., available to Sunday January 3 2021

Keith Bruce

Image: The SCO’s Philip Higham & Nikita Naumov play Mozart