Published on Friday 2 June 2017
Written by David Smythe
It is intriguing to hear the effect of a guest musical director on a close-knit group of musicians like the Scottish Ensemble. Leading chamber music virtuoso Bartosz Woroch stepped into Jonathan Morton’s shoes for a fascinating programme of music from Eastern Europe garnering a subtly different sound palette from the players, full of mellowness, yet turning round to bite unexpectedly.
Three Pieces in Old Style by Henryk Górecki, using traditional Polish folk tunes with a modern twist, began with two violins emerging out of nothing, evolving into simple gently rocking melody, yearning with a dense tapestry emerging underneath. A lively muscular dance looped through the players with infectious rhythms giving way to a haunting chorale set against two violins playing a soft continuous dissonance, a low pedal point deepening the intensity.
David Matthews, commissioned by the Scottish Ensemble to arrange two of Chopin’s Nocturnes, had a tricky task choosing which of the piano pieces would translate well to a string group. The rich harmonies of Nocturne Op.37 no. 2 produced delicate and tender playing, with a melting cello solo, and although I thought Morton might have taken it slightly faster, Woroch’s more measured approach was just as valid allowing a beauty to emerge. Nocturne Op.55 no. 1, dedicated to Jane Stirling, is a piece of exquisite melancholy. Woroch told sad stories with his solo, passing it seamlessly to and fro with Daniel Pioro leading the second violins, the players finding warmth as the piece moves from minor to major, drifting off into the ether.
Grażyna Bacewicz is credited with making Polish music recognised as part of the contemporary European scene. Her award-winning Concerto for String Orchestra written in 1948 takes a Baroque concerto grosso form as a loose base, but is a lively and invigorating jumble of styles across three movements. The Allegro, full of attack and steely verve, brought an angular blizzard of runs with fierce scattered pizzicatos. A densely harmonic febrile Andante with a cello solo against shimmering upper strings built up layers of intensity, the players dividing into multiple parts. The final Vivo was a thrilling vigorous workout for all, the Ensemble tossing fragments around almost with abandon, and after calmer moments over divisi cellos, electrifying tutti flourishes brought this astonishing piece to a close.
Henryk Czyż wrote his Canzona di barocco for string orchestra in 1983 giving Baroque conventions a modern pastiche in a slow, rather sombre, melodic development. The players brought rich sounds, passionate but ultimately muted until a final musical surprise broke the spell. The music, neither sad nor joyous, was a bit like sitting down and enjoying a serious conversation with an old friend.
The major work of the evening, Dvořák’s String Quintet in G major, gained much richness in the arrangement for string orchestra. Normally in four movements, to provide balance between the Allegro and Scherzo, Woroch reinstated the original second Intermezzo movement, withdrawn by Dvořák over concerns of lengthening the work. The players, urged on by Woroch, leaned into this gorgeous music playing with feeling. The Intermezzo, when it came, was a ghostly interlude for two solo violins and a viola over a pizzicato bass, a double beat emerging as a cello added a steady sustain. Energy and verve in the Scherzo contrasted a well-balanced trio, with solos allowed to emerge. A simple and flowing Andante was followed by a lively Allegro, packed with catchy tunes and octave leaps.
Woroch almost apologised to us for unfamiliar repertoire, but although the Dvořák was the main emphasis, and as lovely as the performance was, the complex and fascinating world of Górecki, Bacewicz and Czyż won the evening.