United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2014 (2) – Schoenberg, Stravinsky: Hebrides Ensemble, Graham F. Valentine (narrator), Queen’s Hall, 9.8.2014 (SRT)
Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht (arr. Steuermann)
Stravinsky: The Soldier’s Tale
The Hebrides Ensemble describe themselves as a collective, which is a good way of saying that, more so than most chamber groups, they are a group of brilliant soloists who come together to produce something that is greater than the sum of the parts. That makes them perfect for something like The Soldier’s Tale, which consists of seven soloists who shine individually but complement one another only in an off-hand manner. Each ploughs their own furrow to Stravinsky’s common aim, though, and his story of the soldier who sells his violin/soul to the devil was brought to life brilliantly by Graham F. Valentine, who gave his own version of Jeremy Sams’ translation of the narration.
It was a peculiarly Scottish take on the story: the soldier rests, for example, by “a burn, a bonnie spot”, and that’s the least Hibernian of the interventions. It worked magnificently, though, and Valentine’s ability to inhabit multiple characters at the same time really made the story come to life. It still felt a touch too long, and I’ve long felt that Ramuz’s narrative works best when treated to some judicious cutting, but if you’re not going to enjoy it in company like this then it’s hard to see how you ever will! As befits the story, it was Stephanie Gonley’s violin that sounded best out of the band, but that’s to do an injustice to what was a great collective achievement, held together by the direction of William Conway. Every mood sparkled appropriately, be it the rambunctious, gaudy swagger of the Soldier’s March or the beautiful tinge of regret in the Pastorale.
Even finer, though, was the stunning arrangement of Verklärte Nacht that began the concert. We heard it in the version for piano trio made by Eduard Steuermann, Schoenberg’s composition pupil and if this threatened to make the music less sensuous and involving then that never happened. There is a danger that the multiple layers of Schoenberg’s string sextet texture could become hardened by the inclusion of a piano, but this never sounded like a piano sonata with string accompaniment. If anything, it made the lines even clearer and more radiant, as well as bringing to life the characters in the drama.
More than in any other performance I’ve heard, the violin and the cello seemed to take on the role of the two protagonists of the poem, to electrifying effect, both in the woman’s strident lament and the man’s generous acceptance. The transparency also emphasised other elements, such as the isolation of the cello at the opening, or the glorious turn to D major towards the end, and the arpeggiated ripples of the final bars really jumped off the page. The playing itself was magnificent, too, distinguished not just by musical sensitivity but by intense communication which brought the whole thing gloriously to life. And this is only the start! Bring on the rest of the Queen’s Hall series.
The concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and will be broadcast on Friday 15th August. The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 31st August in venues across the city. For full details click here.