THE Scottish Ensemble’s final concert of the 2012-13 season was titled Q2: Quartets Squared, because the programme’s two substantial works were string quartets arranged for string orchestra.
Add to that the fact that this string orchestra played outside of itself on this occasion and the title becomes less a quirky pun than a serious warning: time to hear Shostakovich and Britten’s second quartets anew.
Expanding the Shostakovich to accommodate a band of over three times as many musicians was a struggle at times. There wasn’t much space in the opening movement for the additional bulk, and the high melody in the first violins was almost overbearing at its climax. But then the Waltz worked so well, with the sinister buzz of massed muted strings combining to a delicious mechanised frenzy. Overall, Britten’s Quartet was more amenable to augmentation and David Matthews’s arrangement should have been enough to convert even the purest of quartet purists. Unlike the Shostakovich, the power of the orchestra’s combined sound was readily subsumed into this lyrically expansive work.
Both works chosen for arrangement included a theme and variations, affording scope to experiment with combinations of players. The reworking of Britten’s Chacony was as memorable for the force of its opening statement as for the stand-out solos for violin, viola and cello. If anything, it was these movements which sealed the case for “squaring” these quartets.