Hebrides Ensemble

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

We’re getting used to the mayhem associated with the mad music of Jörg Widmann, through his associations with Scottish Orchestras (he’s back this week with the RSNO) and in his multiple personae as composer, conductor and clarinettist. It was in the first of these roles that he made his mark again over the weekend, when his 5-movement Octet featured in a thoroughly pleasant afternoon recital by the Hebrides Ensemble.

The event was part of the RSNO’s new partnership activity with smaller Scottish ensembles, which in Glasgow’s music calendar has added a occasional new Sunday treat. This one, consisting of eight mixed instrumentalists matching the requirements of Schubert’s famous Octet, offered a programme that dressed old works in new attire.

It should have opened with Cassandra Miller’s About Bach, but with the Hebrides’ artistic director and cellist William Conway unfortunately indisposed, that risk wasn’t taken. Though inevitably disappointing – appetites were whetted for the Canadian-born composer’s music several weeks ago when Lawrence’s Power and the SCO gave a compelling account of her new viola concerto “I cannot love without trembling” – the resulting programme, albeit shortened, had a satisfyingly purposeful flow to it.

The theme remained intact, opening with Mozart’s re-tailored couplet for string quartet of his own Andante (from the Symphony No 8, KV48) and one of the five Bach Fugues transcribed as K405. They made perfect bedfellows, bringing one genius mind into direct touch with another.

That eased the passage into Tom David Wilson’s Three Schuberts, a reimagining of short selected works by the earlier composer in which Wilson takes tasteful liberties, using the full mixed octet resources to apply hyperactive twists and modernist techniques. Thus the impish eccentricities of Schubert’s Moment Musicaux No 3; the supercharged sound world of Erlkönig, its adapted instrumentation lending it the same melodramatic OTT-ness of a Midsomer Murders soundtrack;  and the quivering spookiness of Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man) from the song cycle Die Winterreise.

All roads led to the grand finale, Widmann’s Octet, which took the art of reimagining to its furthest extremes. We had the benefit of replacement cellist Christian Elliott, who had performed it with Widmann himself, to prepare our ears for the zaniness to come. Clear references to Schubert were few and far between, including the famous octet whose scoring configuration it replicates.  

Nonetheless, a fearless performance was all that was needed to take Widmann’s wile and wit in the nature of its intentions. Tingling Stravinsky-like chords and timbres lit up the Intrada; the Menuetto, a scherzo (joke) in its literal sense, played mischief at every turn; the extended loveliness of the Lied Ohne Worte took us deep into the weirdly oscillating world of microtones; while the Intermezzo and Finale steered a manic course from full-on riot and surreal intensity to resolution. 

Very Widmann, but as for Schubert……….?

Ken Walton