The Hebrides Ensemble favours the road less travelled, whether it be imaginative commissions or unusual arrangements of familiar works. Aligned with the EIF's 2014 theme of culture and conflict, the first half's only work was Schoenberg's 1899 depiction of personal conflict resolution, Verklärte Nacht; not the original string sextet version nor in the composer's 1916 or 1943 string orchestra versions. This 1932 piano trio arrangement (published only in 1993) was by Schoenberg's composition pupil Eduard Steuermann (1892-1964).

The Hebrides Ensemble © Sussie Ahlburg
The Hebrides Ensemble
© Sussie Ahlburg

Mirroring the form of Richard Dehmel's poem of the same name, the seamless five-part structure portrays a couple's moonlit walk where the woman reveals her pregnancy by a previous lover. The man replies that his love will overcome all obstacles. The sections surrounding and separating these disclosures portray the walk and the titular transfigured night. Violin and cello pitch might lead one to interpret their roles as representing the woman and man respectively. What is clear is that the transfer of the remaining four parts to piano awards the string parts clarity via contrast: themes emerged lucidly; restatements and variations were therefore more easily spotted.

This arrangement requires of the pianist what the Scots would call, “a power o' work”. Philip Moore's opening octaves may well have been the easiest bars: his projection of melodic material over accompanying lines was instantly clear; tremolandos and trills never distracted from accompanying notes; dynamic levels were sensitively adjusted to match the strings. The ensemble playing in general was very fine – a feat which always impresses in a rhapsodic work where the 'front-line' players pretty much have their back to the pianist.

The string players brought out some of the arrangement's winning touches such as Stephanie Gonley's fine passage of very low melodic work, or the contrasting texture of William Conway's pizzicato cello against bowed violin.

Where this arrangement really worked best for me was the translucent quality it brought to the closing section. The alteration in sound was so striking that it ruled out any need for the suspension of disbelief which portraying the lightness of Moon and mood might require at 11:30 on a summer morning.

The programme bore the sad news of the passing of Calum MacDonald, who had written the excellent notes about Verklärte Nacht earlier this year. His scholarly, articulate insights have enhanced many of my festival experiences.

The minimal forces of Stravinsky's 1918 L'Histoire du Soldat both reflect post-war austerity and portray conflict between Joseph, the eponymous soldier, and the Devil (in a variety of disguises). Scored for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion, violin and double bass, it relies on a narrator to relate the morality fable of the soldier's downfall. Graham F. Valentine (Prince of Wales in Gérard Corbiau's Farinelli) fulfilled this role in addition to adapting Jeremy Sam's translation from the original French. The severity of the Scots dialect was tempered so that non-native speakers of English wouldn't struggle. For example 'any more' rendered as 'ony mair' or 'soldier' as 'sodjer'. Narrator doesn't really cover it, though, as Valentine acted the parts with well defined voices to match. The well-spoken Devil occupied the high register of aristocratic eccentrics, swooping to a low baritone for gravitas. The soldier's timbre was generally low and gruff, his vocabulary more replete with dialect than scholarly Satan. A reedy soprano register was reserved for the rag wife (door-to-door pedlar of trinkets). The voice suggested age, the supplicating gestures innate skill in fleecing the naive. Valentine received an uproar of applause for his contribution to this thoroughly engaging performance.

But what of the music? His cello backstage Conway conducted the tight band. Those familiar with Stravinsky's rhythmic trickery would not be surprised to see Conway also including Valentine in the cueing. Being a soldier's tale, march like, duple meter music abounds. A great deal of it is sardonic and much of it virtuosic. The soldier's violin central to the tale, there were extended moments featuring Gonley's fiery playing, particularly in the three dances which follow Joseph's temporary tricking of his tormentor. Mark O'Keeffe's trumpet also produced some nifty arpeggios in the opening Marche de Soldat. Ursula Levaux's fine bassoon articulation supplied excellent mediation between instruments at opposite ends of pitch and dynamic spectra.

Perhaps the oddest music occurs during the moralising dénouement when (I read in Stephen Walsh's fine programme note) a parody of the chorale Ein Feste Burg (A Safe Stronghold) unfolds. This is irony in the extreme as the moral being spelt out is that one should hold fast to one happiness, as attempting to add another to it simply cancels out both.

All present seemed delighted with the singular happiness brought about by this wonderfully conceived and delivered performance.