Scottish Ensemble: Quicksilver

5 Feb 2009 in Highland, Music

OneTouch Theatre, Eden Court, 4 February 2009

Colin Currie

AN ELEMENT of discovery is always at the core of Scottish Ensemble programming, and this latest tour, Quicksilver, is no exception. The world premiere of a newly commissioned work, “now you hear me, now you don’t” by Austrian composer Kurt Schwertsik was the highlight of the evening.

Performed with brilliance, precision and sensitivity by solo percussionist Colin Currie and the Scottish Ensemble, this five movement work for marimba and strings presented an unexpectedly rich and evocative series of “soundcards”. It is relatively rare to hear a work that features solo percussion, and Currie’s performance demonstrated beautifully the range of the instrument, guided by the playful wit, vivacity and delicacy of Schwertsik’s composition.

As a catalyst for conjuring images in the mind of the listener this is a wonderfully mysterious and cinematic piece of work. Schwertsik’s comment that; “Since childhood I have adored circus magicians who entertain me and keep my hope for eternal wonders alive” is extremely interesting and very apt, as his own work communicates that same magical quality. This concert left me wanting to explore more of the composer’s works which include opera, ballet music, song cycles, and concertos for instruments such as violin, timpani, guitar, double bass, alphorn and trombone.

The excitement of a Scottish Ensemble performance is also in the rediscovery of familiar works such as Mozart’s Divertimento in F, K 138 which opened the concert. Written in 1772 at the age of 16, the vivacity and energy of Mozart’s composition, coupled with his command of musical form, shone in this performance. The freshness and vigour of this 18th century composition was communicated beautifully by the whole ensemble, especially in the first and final movements.

Igor Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète, composed in 1928, provided a surprising homage to 19th century ballet music, particularly that of Tchaikovsky. Commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge for performance in the Library of Congress in Washington DC, it would have been fascinating to have seen this original production featuring Balanchine’s choreography.

Although Stravinsky’s innovative use of density and texture in the strings provides some of the work’s key moments, this depth and intensity is sharply contrasted with a brand of Romantic melodic sweetness that washes over the listener. Exquisitely laden chords seem at odds with gently undulating strings in this work which drew a divisive response when it was first performed.

Although the sweeping tide of movement in the strings has its charms, the most compelling force in this work is its depth of tone. The use of musical texture in the string ensemble to colour the work instead of scoring a wide variety of instruments is extremely interesting and powerful, utilised to great effect by contemporary composers such as Arvo P&aauml;rt. Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète perhaps greets the ear as a pleasing and palatable ballet based on the God Apollo, but it also contains a greater sense of musical legacy both in its inspiration and influence.

The encore, the waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, concluded the evening perfectly, utterly transporting the audience and providing a taster of the Ensemble’s Luminous concert, touring in march with that piece alongside additional works by Biber and Mendelssohn. The Scottish Ensemble’s superb musicianship, collaboration with international soloists and commitment to commissioning and performing new works makes each new tour an eagerly anticipated voyage of discovery.

© Georgina Coburn, 2009