The title of the Scottish Ensemble’s concert at Greyfriars Kirk this morning—The Power of Five—is a tribute to the impact of the string quintet, a fairly rare chamber music format comprising two violins, two violas, and a cello. The highly talented musicians do not disappoint with their wonderful interpretation of Mozart and Brahms quintets. However, the literary presentations that have become a feature of the Scottish Ensemble performances are less successful.
Presenting readings from Mozart and Brahms provides context, and gives an insight into the emotions of the composers as they wrote their amazing music. As the programme notes, this allows the audience to be “up close and personal with Mozart and Brahms”. The readings are directed by stage and opera director Stasi Schaeffer, and read by the musicians.
There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, the acoustics of Greyfriars are notoriously difficult, and the readings begin with a disembodied voice at the back of the Kirk, reading a text that is unintelligible at the front. It is in fact the viola player Jane Atkins, reading from Mozart’s letters. Sadly, it is difficult to hear her because of the amplification and acoustics in Greyfriars, and she doesn’t really become intelligible until she reaches the stage.
The same problem happens with the other musicians’ readings of the Mozart letters. Interestingly, the reading of Brahms’ letters in between the movements of his quintet, which are all read from the stage, are more easily understood. However, this raises the second problem: the musicians are not actors, and the quality of their readings varies. Also, while the letters are interesting and throw a light on the composers’ feelings, interrupting the movements of the Brahms quintet with readings does not enhance the music.
The music itself is wonderful, and it is a delight to hear these rarely performed masterpieces. They are played by a superb group of musicians led by Tristan Gurney, well known to Scottish audiences as former leader of the Edinburgh Quartet, and Atkins, Principal Viola with the SCO.
The Mozart Quintet No. 3 is played through without a break, and its wonderful, lyrical melodic music reminds us of the genius of Mozart, never mind what his letters suggest! Mozart was the first composer to use the quintet format with two violas instead of two cellos, writing six quintets in all, and his No. 3 displays his full melodic powers.
The Brahms String Quintet No. 1 was, according to Brahms himself in a letter to Clara Schumann, “the most beautiful work from me”. It is hard to disagree with Brahms listening to this wonderful music, but unfortunately interrupting the movements with readings from his letters does not help the flow of the music.
Overall, this is a five star musical performance, but it is flawed by the literary performance, and so only a four star experience overall.