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Published on Monday 11 December 2017
Written by David Smythe

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The candlelit concerts each December from the Scottish Ensemble are now treasured fixtures in the Advent calendar with their trademark intelligent programming providing food for thought as well as anticipating the festivities to come. This year, the Ensemble has teamed up with I Fagiolini, a tiny chamber choir of just seven singers led by countertenor Robert Hollingworth. The result of joining two innovative and conducter-less ensembles was eagerly awaited, with the busy ancient and modern programme of short pieces combining voices and strings in the wonderful acoustic of the ancient and atmospheric St John’s Kirk.

The full Ensemble started off with the introduction to Tempro la cetra by Monteverdi, the simple slow chords drawing us in like an unsung introit as the singers entered bursting into an exciting Beatus Vir with beautifully layered flowing lines and blended voices against the continuo and sparking violin duet, Hollingworth directing from the harpsichord.

Four lively dances were inspired by English folk-song: Anthony Holborne’s Alman a stately confident galliard with glittering ornamentation, while his Fairy Round was an infectious lively dance delivered with Ensemble flourish, both pieces enhanced by tambourine accompaniment. In between, two pieces from Pater Warlock’s Capriol Suite, the well-known Pavane and lively Tordion with energetic interplay between instruments, the players having much fun toying with the contrasting dynamics.

I Fagiolini returned in sombre mode, unaccompanied, for Byrd’s Miserere mihi, Domine with chanting voices entering in canon producing a gorgeous blend and tone. Joined by the full Ensemble for a tender rendering of Bach’s chorale Wie sol ich dich emphangen from his Christmas Oratorio, the singers had to work hard to reach over the players, but the building’s acoustic allowed top lines to soar thrillingly.

La tarantella from Cristoforo Caresana was a wonderfully zany and entertaining 17th-century Christmas cantata with reluctant shepherds, insistent angels, and a big part for the Devil. Sung in almost continuous recitative against two violins and continuo, and introducing racy Neopolitan sixths, the singers variously donned halos, hats and devil’s horns to illustrate who was taking each part. The fun was immense, from the dirty look the Devil gave to two novice recorder players to the lively tarantella danced by the two violins which accompanied the shepherds on their Christmas journey.

Musical sequences are in fashion just now, the cumulative effect and the silences in between pieces building into an experience. The second half took us from ancient times to the present, starting with a continuous sequence of music for the soul: Kyrie and Credo from Pärt’s Berliner Mass bookending Vasks’ Plainscapes II and James MacMillan’s astonishing piece For Sonny, slipped in almost by sleight of hand. The Mass, starting with dense slow string chords and hushed reverent voices, grew into full choral celebration, Pärt building his trademark sound world. The Vasks, with its ethereal wordless voices against a violin solo and rich cello, was mesmerising but the Ensemble’s interpretation of For Sonny, so tender and angry by turns was the most affecting of all, with its simple repeated 5-note rise and 4-note fall, the players emphasising the silences in the music, deepening this lament for a lost infant. Verbo Domine by Edmund Finnis was an exquisite plangent prayer in close dense harmony with a rising soprano solo.

A final piece for the Ensemble, Ulysses Awakes (after Monteverdi) by John Woolrich, was a showcase for dynamic viola player Jane Atkins who delivered a passionate solo, full of rich melancholy, physically leaning into the music.

Adrian Williams wrote A Winter Chorale for I Fagiolini, a setting of Laurie Lee’s wintry poem A Christmas Landscape with the Kyrie from the Mass, a piece joining sacred and secular. As the strings went into a circular rising sequence in the Kyrie, the singers prayerful with several haunting solos describing the bitter night with no moon, the double bass a running stream of water under the ice. The beautiful choral harmonies, blended singing and sensitive playing rose to a climax “in the last cry of anguish, a child’s first breath is born” as quotations from the Bach chorale we heard in the first half linked the old and new perfectly.

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