Published on Monday 23 February
Written by David Smythe
The Scottish Ensemble has a track record of picking really interesting artists to work with and certainly the unusual combination of classical saxophone with the Ensemble promised much more than curiosity value. Amy Dickson is a London based Australian saxophonist, twice Grammy-nominated, and a breakthrough artist Classical Brit winner. In an evening of contrasting works she made a compelling case for classical repertoire on an instrument normally associated with the more raucous Blues, jazz and rock genres.
The results of Europe at war threaded the first half together. Alexander Glazunov had emigrated to Paris in 1928 and the Saxophone Concerto in E flat major, his last work, was inspired by the instruments of the Republican Guard band. In a continuous piece, a strong unison statement from the strings gave way to denser music. Dickson’s alto saxophone breathed dreamy notes at first, but then sprang into action as the piece suddenly livened up and notes tumbled out in a series of intense sequences. A short but brilliant cadenza followed the development before the saxophone led the strings in a fugue like dance and back to the main theme. Dickson’s playing was fascinating to watch as she was able to start notes seemingly from thin air, yet she demonstrated plenty of bite where required. It was a playful piece, and one the Ensemble clearly enjoyed performing.
Shostakovich was one of Glazunov’s famous pupils, and his Chamber Symphony in C minor found him is a very dark place. Originally his grim Eighth String Quartet, written at the height of the Cold War, this work was orchestrated by Rudolph Barshai. In five movements but played with no breaks, the music is a deeply personal statement of the composer’s unhappiness and anguish. The work is peppered with Shostakovich quotations, but above all its serious intensity simply forces this emotional wringer of a piece to be heard. The contrasts of quiet and more urgent heightened the drama: in the opening, over a quiet drone of strings, Jonathan Morton’s hushed ‘barely there’ solo was mesmerising so that the frantic passages when they came were like huge jolts of energy. There was some lovely lyrical solo work in between the darker times, Alison Lawrance’s plaintive cello soaring through the strings. The hushed ending, with all players drifting off into nothing, left us emotionally exhausted.
Night Prayers by Georgian composer Giya Kancheli was a piece introduced to the Ensemble by Dickson. Kancheli wrote a meditation on spiritual need, A Life Without Christmas, and this piece is the final part. Originally for string quartet and tape, the composer wrote this version for saxophonist Jan Garbarek, adding more string players and keeping the tape. As Morton explained, the piece is really of the night as it hovers between silence and sound, so the lights were dimmed and Dickson, playing soprano saxophone, pulled whisper-quiet notes out of the ether. The music was hardly there at times, on the edge of audibility, and although the soundscape was carefully created, it was tiresomely disjointed at times and any momentum gained was lost. A welcome outburst from the saxophone breaking free from the gloom heralded the final section, with a treble voice on tape singing “O Lord hear my Prayer” with the music finally and quietly resolving into the major. Like the attraction of religious icons, prayerful music is particularly intriguing, yet coming after the shattering Shostakovich, it was a challenge to be drawn in meaningfully.
To finish, it was as if the sun had finally come out for a showcase piece for the Ensemble: Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C major. A tribute to Mozart and stuffed with tunes playing on the C major scale, the Ensemble were in their element. It is a piece not to be taken for granted though, and Morton’s direction brought variety, sparkle and a lean energy from the bold stately opening theme and throughout. Morton’s use of dynamics, taking the sound down to pianissimo, was like coiling a spring, making the crescendos in the first movement particularly exciting, as was the change from the solemn start of last movement to the vibrant Finale, delivered with trademark Scottish Ensemble bite.
On the face of it, the “Sax Serenade” title promised a gentle evening’s music, but in fact delivered a varied and challenging Russian programme, and through Amy Dickson’s playing, opened up new and attractive soundscapes.