The Scottish Chamber Orchestra offered a short program of music by three Bs, but not exactly the trio we’ve come to expect. Performing in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall, string players performed Bacewicz, Bach and Beethoven in chamber works of challenging intelligence, airy lightness, and inscrutable depth.

Benjamin Marquise Gilmore
© Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) is hardly a household name, but the Polish composer, a student of Nadia Boulanger, has a voluminous catalog of works in various media, with emphasis on the violin. Her fourth string quartet is scored for four violins, providing a lively neo-classical work that dances lightly, mostly above Middle C, in three absorbing movements. These four soprano instruments emote rainbows of color, inspired by Polish folk tunes, punctuated by cheerful pizzicato passages and some dreamy lyricism in the middle movement. Yet there is a commanding stream of intelligence and purposefulness running through this selection. It is levity you can sink your teeth into.

Beautifully videotaped at a short range that make the musicians seem physically closer than they actually are, the ensemble expanded to 13 string players for four movements from Bach’s The Art of Fugue concluding with a chorale as the satisfying finale. Benjamin Marquise Gilmore, lead violin, provided subtle but sustaining direction as the chamber players offered up the Contrapuncti 1 (principal subject), 3 (inversion), 9 (double fugue), and 8 (triple fugue), followed by Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit instead of the partially completed Contrapunctus 14.

This is an astonishing work, beloved of physicists and theoreticians for its fractal-like complexity but also by romantic idealists like myself who find in it an atlas of pathways meandering through the human spirit. The work is like some crazed flower that won’t stop blooming except to fall back on itself and start up again in another direction.

Scottish Chamber Orchestra
© Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Did Bach compose Die Kunst simply to save all he knew of counterpoint in a single work? We’ll never know, but I doubt it. There is so much real music – organized sound that touches the human heart – that a purely clinical interpretation is inadequate. The orchestra’s arrangement for strings is not Bach’s doing, and some scholars wonder whether the composer intended the work to be played at all. But I’m glad the SCO is of a different opinion and has given us a reading that moves along with absorbing energy and passion.

All the intensity of Bach’s fugal masterpiece led up to another musical heavyweight, Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, 16 minutes of either pure transcendence or utter confusion, depending on your point of view. When premiered in 1826, originally as the last movement of the String Quartet in B flat major, critics panned this lumbering bear of a movement with its harsh, almost ugly articulations and utter lack of melodic flair. And yet, despite those off-putting qualities, this is a work of supreme genius and marks the defining moment when the West discovered that art does not need to be pretty to be great. Even for a composer known as a revolutionary in his own time, the Grosse Fuge is more radical than anything he had previously imagined. This one short movement, republished as a stand-alone work, encapsulates in music all our thoughts of life and death and thrusts us out of darkness into light. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra conveyed this with magnificent timing, depth, and expressiveness from individual musicians and unified ensemble alike.

This performance was reviewed from the Scottish CO's video stream