Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Dvorák: Quintet in G; Brahms: Sextet in B flat

Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, 21 October 2007 4 stars

Scottish Chamber Orchestra

The principal players from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra united forces for a rare chamber music concert at the Queen's Hall, Edinburgh. Their performance of Dvorák's Quintet in G and Brahms' Sextet in B flat showed off the very best of SCO talent and confirmed their reputation as both capable chamber musicians and high-class orchestral players.

With a bright dress code also came colourful playing as the concert opened with a lively and spirited performance of Dvorák's Quintet. The work has unusual instrumentation comprising of the standard string quartet and double bass (the idea probably derived from Schubert's 'Trout' Quintet) giving the cello (Su-a Lee) greater melodic interest and a chance to hear the full capabilities of the double bass (Nicholas Bayley) in a more intimate setting.

Lee and Bayley were exceptionally well matched in tone, timbre and intonation. The continuous doubling of their parts (one octave apart) in the first movement did not lead them to falter in intonation as their sound merged smoothly together. A considered use of senza vibrato in the more sensitive passages created an intimate and reflective timbre allowing the lyrical melody of the first violin (Christopher George) to shine through with clarity.

As Dvorák's harmonies interweaved into the second movement, Scherzo: Allegro vivace- Trio, the musical joke shared between the cello and double bass was teasingly timed to make the most of Dvorák's little trick. But for me, the highlight of the performance was the third movement, Poco Andante. The quintet's interpretation of this soaring piece was beautifully measured allowing time for exquisite melodic indulgences between the cello and first violin. This, coupled with George's modest approach, brought the movement to a close with a perfectly centred chord.

Performed alongside Dvorák's Quintet was Brahms' Sextet in B flat. Increasingly popular with both audiences and musicians, the piece is beginning to emerge as one of the heavyweights in the musical canon. However, the recent increase of recordings and performances of this work perhaps makes it more difficult for new interpretations to be heard amidst the glut of performances available.

Brahms' Sextet has similarities with Dvorák's Quintet in that the additional instruments added to the standard quartet were placed in the lower strings. An extra viola and cello gave Brahms the potential for a more a sophisticated texture and provided melodic interest as well as retaining a traditional harmonic role.

The opening of the first movement was a shaky start for the musicians. Slips in intonation and weak ensemble were the main culprits as the players grasped the soloistic demands of the piece. However, recovering quickly, the ensemble basked in Brahms' rich texture creating a fresh and vibrant interpretation which certainly had guts.

What impressed most was the second movement, Andante ma moderato. It is a stormy set of variations showing off virtuosic technique in the viola and cello lines. Indeed, the opening notes of the first viola (Catherine Marwood) set the tone for the movement: it was gritty, authoritative and perfectly accented.

Brahms' full dissonant writing came into focus with the final two movements of the concert. The Scherzo was performed at a fast, healthy tempo with clean harmonic changes and excellent bow control. But the final movement was a tour de force. Rich in sonorities, dark tone colours and thick in texture the dynamic of the ensemble bounded together for an electric performance which did not fail to impress.

Such successful chamber music concerts are a boost to the already renowned Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Although these chamber music concerts are limited (and I believe there should be more), members of the SCO can be heard performing regularly in their usual capacity as a first class orchestra.

By Mary Robb

Visit the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's website here.