SCO / Bacewicz / Bach / Beethoven

Queens Hall, Edinburgh

In referring to the three “B”s in classical music, we usually mean Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. This SCO strings-only programme went two-thirds of the way, replacing the Romantic Brahms with the more modernist voice of the 20th century Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz. 

Not that she is as obscure as was probably the case before Covid. Social distancing has given some of her more economically-scored works a practical and convenient attractiveness that goes beyond their intrinsic musical charm. The latter quality was in full view in the 1949 work chosen to open the programme, the Quartet for Four Violins.

It belongs to that period in her compositional journey, post-World War II, when Bacewicz embraced neoclassical principles, in her case owing much to the influences of folk music. It’s not long in this three movement quartet, beyond the wiry austerity of the eerie opening Allegretto, before the music changes gear and rustic ribaldry sets in.

The echoes of Bartok are unmistakable, yet with a stamp of individuality and beautifully crafted string writing (Bacewicz was, herself, a notable violinist) set on edge by the electrifying synergy of four violins. This quartet of SCO fiddlers formed an incisive ensemble, evenly matched and harnessing as a result the work’s full dynamic potential, from the sustained soulfulness of the slow movement to the razor-sharp energy of the finale.

If the SCO’s remarkable versatility is surfacing with regularity in these Thursday night chamber music releases, here was another example, as the music switched from Bacewicz to Bach, and a breathtaking medley from Bach’s Art of Fugue. In four of the Contrapuncti leader Benjamin Marquise Gilmore led a string section that adopted a convincing Baroque performance style.

It wasn’t simply the technical absence of vibrato, but a more deep-rooted purity of tone that gave these performances such a richness of texture more often associated with the best of period bands. Every strand of Bach’s increasingly complex counterpoint bore its own personality and sense of place without ever destroying the gorgeous combined homogeneity. The chorale prelude “Vor deinen Thron tret’ich hiermit” – applied to the collection when it was posthumously published by Bach’s son – was a heavenly way to bring such a sublime musical offering to a close. 

The peacefulness was immediately shattered by a full string version of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, a monstrous masterpiece conceived as the original finale to Beethoven’s Op 130 String Quartet. To hear it filled out like this is to witness an exaggeration of its anger and intensity, which was both gripping and fearsome. The downside was some raggedness of attack and intonation, particularly within the first violins. Just one weak moment, however, in an hour’s worth of delights.
Ken Walton