Mozart; Schwertsik: Now you hear me, now you don't; Stravinsky: Apollon Musagète.

Scottish Ensemble and Colin Currie

Wigmore Hall, 14 February 2009 4 stars

Scottish EnsembleThe Scottish Ensemble brought a solid and typically well-thought out programme of old and new works to a highly receptive (albeit only about 60% full) Wigmore Hall last night, with their artistic director Jonathan Morton directing the semicircle of string musicians from first violin with great poise.

The group displayed a fluency and command of the material that has clearly been fortified during their recent tour of Scottish venues, where they had a chance to refine their interpretations and grow comfortable with the contrasts of the programme, which includes an early Mozart Divertimento (K. 138), a bespoke Kurt Schwertsik concerto for marimba and strings (Now you hear me, now you don't, soloist Colin Currie), and the astonishingly subtle Stravinsky ballet for strings, Apollon Musagète.

Mozart wrote three pieces for his trip to Italy in 1772 at the age of sixteen clearly intended to impress upon his hosts his flourishing felicity for composition. These works have come to be know as Divertimenti, yet each-with only three movements apiece after all and in absolute forms, despite the dance-like characteristic verve that abounds-seem more like nascent symphonies, works more in line with those pieces being written building on the sinfonie of the baroque. K. 138 in F follows this tradition, with the bright opening allegro containing an unfussy sonata form full of melodic invention and harmonic subtlety, a slow, cavatina-like second movement of typical lyric sweetness, and a final presto that has all the verve and vivacity – and a deceptively candid discourse – one would expect. The ensemble brought all these effects off with a deal of invention, and with a keen sensitivity to the delicacy and force of effect made possible by Mozart's singular gift for weighting of material, and contrasting densities of scoring. They stayed largely in alliance, with occasional lapses of intonation amongst the violins in the slow movement not detracting significantly from the fluidity of the performance.

The Schwertsik work, jointly commissioned by the Wigmore Hall and the Scottish Ensemble for this tour (read our interview with Colin Currie about these dates here), has five tightly constructed movements, in which the composer's native idiom – enriched tonal language, versatile emotional patterning, and an abiding embrace of irony and humour – comes through quite convincingly, with moments of invention bubbling up regularly. The first movement has thrusting downbeats, with the marimba vociferous in its bearing. With simple use of additive rhythms, creative patterning of stresses, and Shostakovichian acerbities in the harmonies, Schwertsik creates an effective opening, here given with push and authority by the players. The second contains more subtleties in the scoring, with a melancholia enriched by heavy use of pedal points against a gently ululating soloist.

Colin CurrieDespite the writing feeling somewhat trite at times, the vaguely-minimalist strategies – such as the modally-informed harmony and block form motives repeated at different pitch levels with increasing levels of tension thereof – are effective nonetheless. The slow third movement has real depth, with the strings taking a yearning top line and the marimba offering perfumed passagework in support, and then a short cadenza, and the detail of the weight and colour in the scoring of this section really came to the fore in this performance. The fourth movement is a diversionary scherzo leading to a wonderful finale, where a William Tell gallop theme (in a more mordant harmonic guise) is put through a condensed but loose variation form – memorably begun with tongue-in-cheek canonic entries – that dances towards its sharp conclusion, after much vertiginous playing from the Currie, on a buoyant rhetorical leap in the line from all the participants. With the audience clearly enjoying their efforts, the ensemble and Currie welcomed Schwertsik up to take applause, and then repeated the second movement as an encore, there revealing more fully its textural nuance.

The second half contained a particularly strong performance of the aforementioned Stravinsky ballet, Apollon Musagète. Though on its surface this work seems, as evidenced by the frosty reception it continues to get in some circles, something of an arid neo-classical exercise in dry academic formalism, the reality of its sound world is so thrilling as to shame any who dismiss it as cold, or academic. Certainly lacking in colour, and indeed perhaps too in the dense rhythms and harmonic pungency of some of Stravinsky's earlier ballet scores, the invention and delicacy wrought into the evolving density of the scoring, and the freshness and effortless economy of the melodic writing (which largely evolves out of the dotted melody of the beginning), make for a compelling passage through thirty thrifty minutes.

The ensemble brought this score off much like they had the Mozart (with which it shares some significant aesthetic principles) – with verve, technical exactitude, and a subtle flexibility of articulation and colour. The violins gleamed metallically in their many isolated duets and trios, whilst the candid counterpoint that runs throughout was handled with real dialogic interaction by the whole ensemble. Morton gave a stunning solo in the lead into the second movement (the Variation d'Apollon) that set the tone for the expressive (his wobble was surprisingly wide!) yet exacting playing of the rest of the ensemble. The charismatic Pas de Deux was especially effective, the added-sixth cadence of the coda poignant, whilst the pizzicato cello bass in the Variation de Polymnie, transmuting into the sudden weight of a full ensemble buttressed by cavernous bass in the Variation Terpsichore, was an emblematic instance of both Stravinsky's genius for contrast and effect in scoring, and the ensemble's fluency in transmitting it. The group returned to the stage to give a charming performance of a small Tchaikovsky waltz in anticipation, Morton noted, of their next performance at the Wigmore Hall, scheduled for 31 March.

By Stephen Graham

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