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Strathearn Music Society Review – Baba Yaga (harp and saxophone)

27 October 2021

How nice to feel that familiar sense of relaxed enjoyment returning as the SMS Concerts in Crieff season continues to re-establish its important place in the musical life of our community. Audiences can always expect something varied and a little bit different from these monthly events and this one, featuring saxophonist Karen Dufour and harpist Gwen Sinclair led us down some fascinating and little-known musical byways as well as offering fresh perspectives on more familiar highways of the repertoire.

Whatever the ensemble, there are always composers (often players of the instruments themselves) who have written bespoke pieces for it, and here we were introduced to two such – Gustav Bumcke and Yusef Lateef – who might otherwise have remained off the radar of even the best-informed chamber music connoisseurs. The former’s charming Notturno is thought to be the very first composition for this particular combination of instruments and made an attractive introduction to the evening’s programme; the latter’s Romance, dating from 1991, spoke in an altogether different dialect, and showed the reflective side of an obviously individual musical polymath with roots in jazz, swing, world music, New Age and much more besides.

Arrangements are an inevitable and frequent feature in programmes such as this, and often cast a welcome new light on well-known pieces. Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei may seem inseparable from the sound of the cello but lost nothing here with the soulful strains of the alto sax in its place and the dignified presence of the harp in support; likewise two short Chinese-inspired pieces by the redoubtable Eddie McGuire sounded tailor-made for these two instruments.

After a brief interval Baba Yaga then took the idea to its logical extreme with a transcriptional tour-de-force. Moussorgsky’s celebrated Pictures at an Exhibition has inspired countless expanded versions over the years since the composer’s piano original first appeared in 1886. Many of his contemporaries were genuinely bewildered by its ambition and originality and, perhaps because of its obvious association with visual art, succeeding generations have found it difficult to resist the temptation of releasing it from the seeming constraints of the black-and-white piano keyboard into a liberating world of orchestral colour. In fact most modern concertgoers would now probably associate the piece more with the infinite symphonic palette of Maurice Ravel’s popular arrangement than with the pianistic challenges faced by solo keyboard virtuosi intent on interpreting Moussorgsky’s first intentions.

It was Ravel who introduced the sound of the saxophone into his own re-imagining of the Pictures and Baba Yaga have taken this as their starting point for their own arrangement of the whole piece. Perhaps not surprisingly, some movements in this new guise were more successful than others and their “Great Gate of Kiev” finale was never going to match the grandeur of the Berlin Philharmonic in full cry, but the overall concept certainly earns a worthy place as yet another respectful testament to an enduring work of art which will always be enjoyed in any form.

Debussy’s First Arabesque was a much appreciated encore, restoring a more comfortable sense of scale and perspective to complete a varied and stimulating concert.

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