At Wigmore Hall last night was a thrilling performance by the Scottish Ensemble, a string orchestra, together with Scottish pianist Alasdair Beatson. The program comprised works by Stravinsky and by Mendelssohn. Both the Stravinsky pieces were rhythmically complex, but hard to parse otherwise – melodic invention, as so often with this composer, was absent and large-scale musical form, if indeed any was present, was not discernible from a single hearing. I have remarked before that music instantiates or executes a thought process, and some music involves thinking processes that are alien to me. Most of Stravinsky’s late music is in this category, while that in his middle phase (in the so-called NeoClassical style), while not alien, is quite often banal. Yet his early music speaks to me profoundly. Last night’s two pieces were clearly challenging to perform well, with the subtle rhythmic interactions and off-piste counting, despite their unpleasant listening.
What I lost there, however, was more than compensated by the Mendelssohn. The first half saw the Ensemble play two of his Four Pieces for String Quartet, which really should be called “four pieces for String Quartet”, since the composer never grouped them together in this way. The fugue of the first piece, furiously intense, gives the lie to the claim one still sometimes hears that Mendelssohn’s music lacks profundity or intensity. The playing and cohesion here was superb, and as always with this fugue, spine-chilling. It would be nice to hear this group play some of Mendelssohn’s 12 string symphonies, particularly the fugal movements of the later symphonies.
The real excitement last night came with Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Piano, Violin and Strings, in which Alasdair Beatson played piano and Jonathan Morton, solo violin. Morton also joined in the ensemble parts when not soloing. I know this piece very well, although I can recall only once hearing it in performance. The placement of the performers was somewhat strange, with the high and middle strings behind the piano (and hence behind the upraised lid), dulling their sound.
In any case, the performance was thrilling in the extreme. Beatson captured the many, varied moods of the piano part – from church-like chorale harmonies, through rolling, lieder-style accompaniments for a cantabile violin, to a tempestuousness that made the instrument sound like an angry, rampaging animal. You can tell how good Mendelssohn was as a pianist himself just by listening to this part, and also how much he enjoyed playing. The first movement, particularly, has flourishes of pleasure and delight throughout. Strange, then, was the positioning on stage of the two soloists, with the violinist standing behind the pianist. The first movement has such witty interplay between the two performers – calls-and-responses, mimicry, quoting, and transforming, etc – that for each player not to be able to see the eyes of the other seems untenable. I cannot imagine young Felix on piano and Eduard Rietz, his friend and violin teacher, for whom this music was written, not facing each other and smiling with each returned flourish.
Like the Australia Chamber Orchestra, most members of the Scottish Ensemble stand while performing. As with the ACO, this strikes me as an insidious type of ageism, and is entirely unnecessary. Only young or very fit people can do this, and one wonders at what average age of ensemble members will the group regain their commonsense. Also, for the historical record, Beatson’s pages were turned by one of the hall staff: even the stage-hands at the Wigmore can read music, apparently.
Stravinsky: Concerto in D
Mendelssohn: Capriccio and Fugue from opus 81 (arranged Morton)
Stravinsky: Concertino (arranged Morton)
Mendelssohn: Concerto for Piano, Violin and Strings in D minor.