Edinburgh International Festival, Hebrides Ensemble, The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 9th August

by Jennifer Bryce

This was my very first taste of the 2014 Edinburgh Festival. The Queen’s Hall is a former church, dating back to 1823. It was converted to a concert hall in the early 1930s. It is ‘Grade A’, which means it cannot be drastically altered. I sat there imagining congregational church services; people shouting ‘alleluia’ from the firm wooden pews set amphitheatre-style facing what is now the stage. The pews are painted a sky blue – I doubt that this would have been the case in 1823. There was no evidence of heating (which didn’t matter on this summer’s day) – air-conditioning is not permitted in ‘Grade A’ buildings.

The Hebrides Ensemble is described as ‘a collective of musicians’ who play a wide variety of chamber music. The group has commissioned works from composers such as Peter Maxwell Davies.

First we heard Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht in a transcription for piano trio from the 1930s by Eduard Steuermannn (a pupil of Busoni). The program notes told us that in the early 1900s the Vienna Tonkunstlerverein refused to promote a public performance because the score contained a chord not included in harmony textbooks. I expected to miss the texture of an orchestra – but in fact there was only once, when the bass of the piano part played tremolo, when I missed the depth of orchestral sound.

Verklarte Nacht was inspired by a poem where two lovers are walking together on cold moonlight night and the woman confesses she is pregnant to another man – she did this intentionally to bring meaning to her life. The man assures the woman that their love, heightened by the beauty of the night, will unite them and make the child their own. The interplay of violin and ‘cello did convey with great sensitivity the idea of the transformation, or transfiguration, of the lovers, maybe more poignantly than the use of a full orchestra.

Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale is played by violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, piano, percussion and there is a narrator.

A soldier home on leave unwisely sells his violin (and thus his soul) to an old man (the devil) in exchange for a book of stock exchange prices. The story is a kind of morality play – you can’t have everything – you have to choose between different possibilities of happiness. Throughout the ‘play’ the devil keeps appearing in various guises and at the end the soldier discovers that he can’t have a beautiful princess and also the contentment of living in his own country.

With this production I was aware of the fact that there is not a close blending of plot and narration. There are themes – such as the soldier marching, but it seemed to me there were times when remnants of these themes might have been used as reminders – for example of what the soldier has lost. Although there are reprises – such as the theme for the soldier marching – each piece of music is discrete.

The narrator was a Scot, Graham F. Valentine. He had ‘adapted’ the script somewhat, which made it very entertaining. We start off hearing that the soldier has found a ‘bonny’ spot to rest. Whereas the soldier has a Scottish accent, the devil is English – presumably alluding to the current referendum for Scottish independence.