Scottish Ensemble - Tchaikovsky & Shostakovich - Fanfare

The Scottish Ensemble, based in Glasgow, bills itself as "the UK's only professional string ensemble," and despite the youthful faces seen in a group photo, it was founded in 1969. The core consists of 12 musicians, augmented as needed. They perform standing up, and if you check out their YouTube videos, the players are quite animated, dancing as they perform, sometimes in off-the-cuff pop-up concerts.

In the present pairing of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, we tread familiar ground, but the vivacious and highly musical performances are a standout. Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings is usually heard with a full complement of orchestral strings, which has an overwhelming effect when it's the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan at their most sumptuous (DG) or the more passionate Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (Sony). I wouldn't part with either, but there are times when such grandeur, applied to Tchaikovsky's sweet melodies, can feel like drowning in maple syrup. Using a complement of only 19 players, the Scottish Ensemble made me feel excited by the music again, and the transparency of a smaller group doesn't tell the whole story. Concertmaster and artistic director Jonathan Morton shapes a vital, penetrating interpretation that highlights every expressive gesture in the piece. It's a fantastic change of pace and now becomes my first choice.

Morton has devised an arrangement of Shostakovich's wartime Quartet No. 2 (1944), which is the second longest of his 15 string quartets, excepting only No. 15. Unusually, it is in the conventional four movements (Shostakovich wrote only three others in that layout), and the style comes from the same drawer as his chamber music masterpiece, the Piano Trio No. 2. Russia's anguished struggle in World War II is reflected in much of this haunted minor-key music, lifted up by a rich sonority. Morton's transcription ingeniously takes advantage of this richness, adding a deeper foundation with a single double bass, preserving the solo violin in the recitative that opens the second-movement Romance.

Morton plays the recitative eloquently before the orchestration expands. The Romance is really more like a tenderly poignant elegy, interrupted by a short, dissonant outcry and then the return of the recitative. The vocal shape of a cantor's lament is evident, echoing the Jewish music in the finale of the Piano Trio No. 2. The brief third-movement Waltz and the finale, a Russian folk song with 13 variations, extend the mood of spectral regret and sorrow. Morton's arrangement for string ensemble continues a long tradition. Rudolf Barshai similarly arranged quartets Nos. 1, 3, 4, 8, and 10.

Although my main purpose is to announce how good this disc is in every way, including Linn's clear, dynamic sound, there's a reminiscence of Shostakovich in the program notes that I can't help quoting , from a close associate of the composer at the time:

"I discovered him to be a very lively man who was always in motion. I wondered when he did the actual composing. The Quartet [No. 2] was written in under four weeks before my very eyes. But nobody saw him at the desk or at the piano. I was intrigued and began to observe him closely. He would play football and fool around with friends; then he would suddenly disappear. After forty minutes or so he would turn up again. ‘How are you doing? Let me kick the ball.' Then we would have dinner and drink some wine and take a walk, and he would be the life and soul of the party. Every now and then he would disappear for a while and then join us again. Towards the end of my stay he disappeared altogether. We didn't see him for a week. Then he turned up, unshaven and looking exhausted. He said: ‘Let's go to a cottage with a piano in it.' He played us the Second Quartet ... the score had that very day's date on it [20 September]."

We're told that Shostakovich sometimes worried about composing at lightning speed, but as he told his son Maxim, "I think long, I write fast."

01 August 2015