Orchestras are approaching programmes in different ways. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra has been running a series of chamber concerts recorded in the wonderful acoustic Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall and streamed for all to watch, with donations encouraged. The latest in the series was a collection of works from Bernstein, Barber and Coleridge-Taylor all written when they were students, the compositions reflecting a time of life full of raw energy and ambition.

Maximiliano Martín plays Bernstein © Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Maximiliano Martín plays Bernstein
© Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Bernstein was still technically a student at Tanglewood summer school in Massachusetts when he wrote his Clarinet Sonata, a work so appealing that it sparked a tussle between rival publishers. Maximiliano Martín’s clarinet and Simon Smith’s piano beautifully conjured up the mercurial changes in the piece, all moody and intense, Martín leaning deliciously into the phrasing one minute, but suddenly spiky and rhythmic, Smith’s fast ripples and rhythms driving it along. It was fascinating to watch Martín’s dynamic technique of using a whole range of instrument positioning, the clarinet held tightly into his chest for introverted passages but blowing straight out in the more animated moments in the second movement especially as Smith set up rolling cross-rhythms, the pair conjuring atmosphere from smoky jazz club to concert hall.

Samuel Barber wrote his String Quartet in B minor, which includes his famous Adagio in the central movement, aged just 26. Stunned by his greatest hit, he withdrew the work after its premiere taking seven years to rewrite the final Allegro. Stephanie Gonley led the players into the stormy moods of the first movement with an intense density of sound, full of yearning and a lovely winding motif from Felix Tanner’s viola. We miss the great wash of a full string orchestra sound, but hearing the Adagio as it was written for a quartet heightened the individual parts, the players giving an exquisitely controlled performance, passionate and forceful. How does one follow a masterpiece? The final movement was a shocking change with the music and players suddenly full of gruff angularity.

The SCO plays Coleridge-Taylor's Nonet © Scottish Chamber Orchestra
The SCO plays Coleridge-Taylor's Nonet
© Scottish Chamber Orchestra

A composer and conductor of mixed race, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born to an English mother and a father from Sierra Leone. Studying at the Royal College of Music under Stanford, he was just 18 when he composed his Nonet in F minor. It is a light and uplifting work with a polite nod to Brahms on the way, which the players approached with verve. A feature throughout was violin, viola and cello playing in unison, often with playful woodwind and horn, Eric de Wit’s smooth cello tunes and Julian Roberts’ cheeky bassoon adding colour. A walking tune became jaunty with spirited playing from all, especially from Gonley. A dreamier Andante with pizzicato passages was followed by a lively Scherzo with expertly balanced ensemble playing. The richly scored finale with muscular chords from the piano was almost chorale-like in places bring the work to a rousing conclusion. Coleridge-Taylor would go on to write his cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast and he successfully toured the USA, but his life was tragically short as he died aged 37 of pneumonia.

One of the pleasures of chamber music is seeing how players interact, the nods and smiles, and who is watching whom. I am not sure the cameras had it just right as I was longing to see more of the bigger picture than we were given, especially in the quartet. Close-ups are exciting and flatten the player spacing, creating a feeling of intimacy, so it’s a delicate balance. Some shots were beautifully atmospheric, the camera angle catching Maximiliano Martín’s clarinet as if on a darkened street corner. The streamed sound was wonderful, instruments expertly balanced into a faithfully spatial stereo mix.


This performance was reviewed from the SCO's video stream

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