Scottish Ensemble’s annual Candlelit Concerts have become a favourite festive treat across Scotland, performing “Christmas with a Twist”: no tired Nutcracker or Swan Lake here! This year’s Czech celebration was no different, offering a little-played Nocturne in B major by Dvořák, Janáček’s Kreutzer Sonata and Dvořák’s famous Serenade for Strings, with a surprise addition of Czech violinist and composer Josef Suk’s frothy Wenceslas Meditation based on an old Czech hymn about the (Czech) saint.

Naomi Boole Masterson, credit Joanne Green
Naomi Boole Masterson, credit Joanne Green

Dvořák’s Nocturne served as a good introduction to this eastern European evening. Premiered in 1833, the piece began life eight years previously as part of a string quartet, transforming into both a string quintet and a work for violin and piano before the composer was finally satisfied with his arrangement for string orchestra. The Nocturne’s complex history is not evident in this brief, straightforward final version; dark harmonies create a night-time picture of simple beauty which the players of the Scottish Ensemble took evident pleasure in portraying.

If the first piece functioned as a gentle introduction to the sounds of Bohemia, the second led us into far darker territory. Janáček’s Kreutzer Sonata is a musical representation of Tolstoy’s short story of the same name in which a man on a train tells his fellow passengers of how jealousy drove him to murder his wife for an alleged infidelity. His suspicions are founded upon the depth of feeling between his wife and a violinist when the two play Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata together. This demonstration of the power of music appealed to Janáček and he was inspired enough to write it in only eight days. Operas and ballets are more frequently used to represent works of literature than instrumental music as they are more suited to communicating stories; however Janáček’s attempt to narrate wordlessly works remarkably well.

The tension in the piece is apparent from the very beginning, portrayed particularly by the second violins and violas in endlessly repeating rhythmic patterns. The second violins also represent the train on which the murderer tells his story as it rolls its way across the country following his acquittal. Originally a string quartet, the piece was arranged for the performance by director Jonathan Morton, adding a double bass and fleshing out the other parts. The subtle arrangement provided the piece with extra depth but it was in the poignant duet between the husband and wife, passionately played by violinist Morton and cellist Alison Lawrance, that the pathos of this tale of the power of music and jealousy really shone through.

Morton’s decision to follow the Kreutzer Sonata by Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings was wonderfully thought-provoking. We are used to hearing influences of earlier composers in works by their successors; however Morton’s programme allowed us to listen for Janáček’s characteristic sounds in the earlier Dvořák. The two were born only thirteen years apart, yet we are used to thinking of Janáček as a boundary-pushing twentieth century composer and of Dvořák as a late Romantic composer. Having previously heard the Sonata we were compelled to notice much darker undertones in the saccharine Serenade, particularly in the underlying rhythmic patterns which add so much tension to Janáček’s music.

In light of this discovery the syrupy Serenade suddenly took on more depth, particularly as the performers were not frightened to play up the ugly sounds that occasionally break through the big tunes and luscious harmony which make the piece so famous. Congratulations to Jonathan Morton and the Scottish Ensemble for finding a new angle from which to approach such a well known piece.