The Scottish Ensemble Pay Homages to Schubert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Akhunov, Tabakova, Schubert: Maxim Rysanov (viola); Scottish Ensemble/Jonathan Morton (director), Wigmore Hall, London. 24.10.2015. (LB)

Sergey Akhunov In Schubert’s Company Der Erlkönig      

Schubert Arpeggione Sonata [arr. D.Tabakova]

Dobrinka Tabakova Fantasy Homage to Schubert

Schubert arr. Mahler – String Quartet No.14, “Death and the Maiden”

The Wigmore Hall, which has always played host to string quartets and other more traditional chamber music formations, has in recent years been extending the scope of its activities to include larger groups, and the Scottish Ensemble follows in the formidable footsteps of The Academy of St Martin in the Fields and also the Britten Sinfonia, amongst others.

Their concert at the Wigmore Hall this evening was seemingly all about Schubert and Maxim Rysanov; of the four compositions on the programme, two were inspired by Schubert, two were arrangements of works by Schubert, and three of the four works featured the viola as soloist.

Although string orchestras were not entirely uncommon during the 20th Century, the symphony orchestra was the dominant protagonist in the musical arena, but the advent of the conductorless string ensemble presented something wholly new, and decidedly different. Sir Neville Marriner’s Academy of St Martin in the Fields started its musical journey as a conductorless string ensemble in 1959 and can probably be credited as the pioneers in this genre, but in the ensuing decades many other similar groups, including the Guildhall String Ensemble, The Goldberg Ensemble, and most recently, Camerata Alma Viva, have flourished.

The Scottish Ensemble we heard this evening inherits, and impressively reinvigorates, the outstanding legacy bequeathed to them by Lionel Friedman’s Scottish Baroque Ensemble, which he founded in 1969.

The programme this evening began with two pieces for solo viola and strings by Sergei Akhunov (b. 1967). Akhunov is a composer with a mature, powerful and distinctive voice, and his two pieces, In Schubert’s Company (2013)’, inspired by and based on the theme from Schubert’s Adagio and Rondo Concertante D.487 and Der Erlkönig (2014) inspired by Schubert’s Lied of the same name, consummately utilised the possibilities for the solo viola with strings. His exploitation of Schubert’s thematic material was exceptionally skilful, but it is the originality and complexity of his personal commentary on the universal emotions embedded in Schubert’s music that will remain seared into the memory.

Rysanov conducted the opening of Dobrinka Tabakova’s arrangement for string ensemble of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, before turning round to face the music that has been appropriated by almost every instrument imaginable, since the six-stringed and fretted Arpeggione became extinct. His earnest and at times deliberate performance did not always successfully capture the affectionate essence of the sonata. After all, Schubert conceived the sonata for a piece of musical apparatus with arguably gentler acoustic capabilities than the turbo-charged tools of the stringed instrument family that we have since become accustomed to.

Next on the programme was Dobrinka Tabakova’s Fantasy Homage to Schubert, composed in 2013, and inspired by the opening melody of Schubert’s C major Fantasy for violin and piano. Rysanov conducted what was in essence a short, but beautifully descriptive tone poem for strings, with brief interjections from the solo viola. Tabakova’s attractive tone poem was exceedingly well served by Jonathan Morton and the Scottish Ensemble, and the solo viola interjections were as tender as they were brief. Dobrinka Tabakova was in the audience and gracefully took her bow at the end of the performance.

I would have loved to see more of Maxim Rysanov, who unfortunately remained obscured by two huge music stands for the duration of his presence on the platform, with only the top of his head, midriff and legs visible to the audience.

The Scottish Ensemble’s performance of Mahler’s arrangement for string orchestra of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden String Quartet was the indisputable highlight of the programme for me. Successful string ensemble playing presents a unique challenge, and demands a high level of individual instrumental virtuosity, as well as an instinctive and consummately refined aptitude for meaningful co-operation. The thirteen musicians on the platform passed this test with flying colours and demonstrated a fiercely unambiguous unity of musical purpose throughout.

They played with fire, precision, scrupulous attention to detail, and produced an uncommonly commanding performance of an intellectually, emotionally and technically demanding work reputed to be Schubert’s testament to death. The ensemble delighted in Mahler’s arrangement, which amplified Schubert’s music way beyond the four voices for which it was originally conceived, and realised his ambition of “unravelling the expansion that is dormant in the voices and giving the sound wings.” 

Here is a bunch of musicians who trust each other absolutely, are dedicated to a common goal, and truly believe in what they do. It is a pity therefore that the regular Wigmore audience chose to stay away in such great numbers, with the hall unusually only about half full.  They missed a real treat. 

Leon Bosch

Leave a Comment