Eastern Europe Express at Hunterian Museum, Glasgow (The Scotsman review)

Published on Saturday 10 June 2017
Written by Ken Walton

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The Scottish Ensemble’s Eastern Europe Express programme in the Hunterian Museum included, appropriately, a couple of museum pieces – rare examples from Poland’s 20th century musical awakening.

This explorative concert, directed by Polish violinist Bartosz Woroch, centred almost completely on Polish music (including some familiar Chopin and Górecki), though the final stop was in Czech territory, an excitable burst of Dvorak.

The rarities were works by Grażyna Bacewicz (acclaimed as Poland’s first female composer) and Henryk Czyż, both of which oozed simple, immediate charm. Bacewicz’s Concerto for string orchestra, a kind of East European utilitarian 
Dumbarton Oaks, rang out in this sharply defined performance, a wholesome vibrancy emanating from the transparent constructivism of the opening, through the sadder hues of the Andante, to the chuckling busyness of the final Vivo.

Czyż’s Canzona di Barocco for string orchestra was a more passive, but no less attractive, offering, its loving themes caked in pastiche, its ambient beauty filling the truly resonant performance space.

Surrounding these works, the Ensemble’s opening performance of Górecki’s Three Pieces In Old Style seemed to pre-echo the static language of his well-known third symphony, yet possessed a genuine sparkle in the Holst-like romp of the second movement, and a mystical atmospheric tolling in the opening one.

David Matthews’ arrangement of two Chopin Nocturnes added, almost to the point of enforcement, fresh dimensions to the original piano works. Dvorak’s String Quintet in G gained magnitude in its 
scoring for string orchestra, but similarly lost some of its crystalline delights in the process.

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Eastern Europe Express at Caird Hall, Dundee (Bachtrack review)

Published on Friday 2 June 2017
Written by David Smythe

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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.

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Eastern Europe Express at Caird Hall, Dundee (Dundee Courier review)

Published on Friday 2 June 2017
Written by Garry Fraser


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Sometimes music written in a so-called neo-Classical or neo-Baroque style flatters to deceive. Sometimes a composer’s work re-written for a totally different medium falls totally flat. And sometimes a composer’s re-shaping of a composition loses much value in translation. However, that word didn’t come into play with regard to the Scottish Ensemble’s performance in the Caird Hall on Wednesday night. The composers on show were true to their word, either abiding by their decision to style their music music a la Baroque, turning a work into another form that might even accentuate its beauty or revising a piece that made it even more of a pleasure.

Even Henryk Gorecki came up trumps, not something I’ve often had to say about this man. However, his Three Pieces in the Old Style ticked every box with me, particularly the middle dance-like movement. So too did Bacewicz’s Concerto for Strings. It was the form of this rather than its content that allied itself to the Baroque era and the composer manages to combine rich harmonies with contemporary atonalism to marvellous effect. The last of the works acknowledging this era was Henryk Czyz, whose beautiful Canzona was too short for my liking.

These are works you don’t normally come across, but the Ensemble’s insatiable desire to tread new grounds remains undiminished.

In the second category of “sometimes” was David Mathews’ 2014 commission by the Ensemble, an arrangement for strings of two Chopin nocturnes, originally written for piano. One might wonder why on earth, but the result was two pieces totally honest to the originals and totally captivating. Thirdly, Dvorak’s arrangement of his G major string quintet was another thing of beauty, the decision to include a short, sensational Intermezzo adding cream to a scrumptious musical treat. Scored for only five players, it was both intimate and mesmerising.

Where does the Ensemble fit into all of this? Well “sometimes” isn’t in their vocabulary because they continually provide nothing less than a world class performance. With guest leader Bartosz Woroch, they were the familiar epitome of excellence. They have the uncanny knack of making a poor work sound great but on this occasion they made five excellent works sound totally outstanding.

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Baroque Dance Party with Johannes Fischer at Oran Mor, Glasgow (The Herald)

Published on Thursday 23 March 2017
Written by Keith Bruce

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Scottish Ensemble and Johannes Fischer rehearsing on stage at Glasgow’s Oran Mor

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THE title was a bit of a jape, but this collaboration between Jonathan Morton’s Scottish Ensemble and percussionist Johannes Fischer did have its funky moments – and while the man from Hamburg was the catalyst, they often began with the group’s long-serving double bassist Diane Clark. Before the interval she seemed to find a close cousin of the riff from Peggy Lee’s Fever in a Suite from Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, and for Fischer’s Tafelmusik Recomposed, which was the whole of the second half, she added slap bass to Georg Philipp Telemann.

It is the 250th anniversary of the German composer’s death, and Fischer’s approach to Telemann’s “table-music” – think an 18th century version of supper-club jazz for fine dining establishments – is to mike up an actual table festooned with percussion and random kitchen utensils and feed the resulting noises through a mixer atop a toy piano, adding his contributions to the sextet of two fiddles, viola, cello, bass and harpsichord, with some added samples of recorded dinner-table conversation. The soundscape through which Telemann’s music still flowed was a little akin to conjunctions to be found on Robert Fripp’s early non-King Crimson work on the Exposure album.

If it was the work of Jordi Savall that was recalled by the approach to Purcell’s dance music, the spirit of Fripp’s Edinburgh-born associate Jamie Muir could be detected in Fischer’s inspired virtuosic solo, Air (for snare drum and accessories), which had followed hard on the evening’s opening with a “straight” run through of Bach’s Air on the G String. For those who can recall the Hamlet TV ad that tune soundtracked, serving the cigars before dinner was an apt inversion of the usual order of things.

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Baroque Dance Party with Johannes Fischer at Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh (The Scotsman)

Published on Saturday 18 March 2017
Written by Susan Nickalls

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Scottish Ensemble and Johannes Fischer rehearsing on stage at Glasgow’s Oran Mor

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The title “Baroque Dance Party” doesn’t quite do justice to the Scottish Ensemble’s enthralling collaboration with percussionist and composer Johannes Fischer.

Following a laid-back stroll through Bach’s Air on the G String by the ensemble – string quartet plus harpsichord and double bass – Fischer delivered his astonishing, ear-bending offering, Air, for snare drum and accessories. Literally blowing air across the skin of the drum to begin with, he continued to coax unusual timbres from the instrument like a musical chef. For instance, using the snare like a resonating chamber, Fischer manoeuvered a triangle across the drum’s surface to produce ringing tones, then thumped, brushed and swatted it before finally running an electric shaver across its surface.

Fischer served up a rarified musical feast in Tafelmusik Recomposed (A dining experience with Telemann: Music for electrified table and strings) by manipulating numerous everyday objects on an amplified table, from paint scrapers to washing up scrubbers, nails and bottles filled with alcohol. Gliding between past and present, the ensemble (led by Jonathan Morton) and Fischer reconfigured Telemann’s sophisticated rhythms through the prism of electronica with a dash of childlike charm via a tinkling toy piano.

Fischer’s inventive soundscapes blur the lines between early and contemporary music. His percussive contributions to Purcell’s Suite from The Fairy Queen on bodhrans, dried African nuts and Korean temple blocks, emphasised the fiery dance rhythms. The musicians were in superb form, bringing a fresh improvised jazz-like quality to this 325-year-old masterpiece.

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Baroque Dance Party with Johannes Fischer at Caird Hall, Dundee (Bachtrack)

Published on Saturday 18 March 2017
Written by David Smythe
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Scottish Ensemble and Johannes Fischer rehearsing on stage at Glasgow’s Oran Mor

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The hard thwack of Baroque timpani is what we associate with Baroque percussion, yet the addition of other period percussion instruments is rarely heard on the concert platform. Classical Baroque, particularly if played on softer sounding period instruments, needs space to stand alone, whether stately, dreamy or fizzing with excitement, so added percussion needs to be sparing and tastefully added to avoid swamping the music or simply becoming tedious. Scottish Ensemble director Jonathan Morton has been itching to explore Baroque percussion and invited international percussionist Johannes Fischer to collaborate in an innovative programme of traditional and new approaches to this music.

In an intimate setting on the Caird Hall stage, the audience was arranged in a semicircle surrounding the string quartet, bass and small harpsichord, Fischer and his eclectic collection of instruments in the centre. Pure Bach set the traditional benchmark as Diane Clark’s bass plucked the slow tread of Movement II from the Orchestral Suite no. 3 in D major, or “Air on a G String”. We hear it everywhere these days, but less often performed live, the Ensemble emphasising its simplicity with the two violins intertwining the tune beautifully against the ground bass.

As the last note faded, before any applause, Fischer sprang to his feet and blew hard across the skin of his snare drum, the beginning of his solo piece Air (for snare drum and accessories), a mesmerising performance full of variety. With the snare muted, he explored the different gentle sounds made using a series of brushes (scrubbing, washing up, table and traditional jazz), altering the pitch of the drum by finger presses. Suddenly, what looked like two wooden knitting needles came out, Fischer striking the edge of the drum with different lengths producing varied notes, like a schoolboy twanging a ruler on a desk, followed by a tattoo blizzard, a raging blur of sticks. A triangle was played conventionally, but then placed on the drum and attacked with big sticks striking an urgent rhythm. Fischer placed electric hair clippers on the drum skin, making the sound beat using finger pressure, and humming harmonic intervals with the electric buzz. Finally, the snare was released, the triangle back on the drum in a build up to a thrilling finish with turbo whistle, a ping from a table top summoning bell ending this compelling and inventive performance.

Henry Purcell’s Suite from The Fairy Queen, a restoration spectacular of 15 short pieces of hornpipes, jigs, airs and various dances for fairies, green men, monkeys and haymakers, gave us the chance to hear traditional Baroque with period percussion. The Ensemble conjured up stately and majestic Baroque themes delicately balanced and full of inner glow, then raising the energy levels, plunging headlong into the lively dances. Fischer’s percussion, employed only in some of the movements, took a ‘less is more’ approach, using mostly tabor and tambourine to add much enjoyment, his delicate fingertip precision flicks on the wooden blocks a highlight.

Pushing the boundaries yet further, Fischer’s Tafelmusik Recomposed (A dining experience with Telemann: Music for electrified table and strings) took Telemann’s music and mixed it with percussion and light electronics, sometimes blending into the traditional, at others contrasting starkly. Fischer sat at a busy soundboard populated with tuned bottles of liquid, a kitchen pallet knife, egg whisk, nails in a block and an array of other unlikely objects including a sponge, shot glass and metal bowl. A digital toy piano and a few electronics with a percussion app completed the range. Moving objects across the table sounded like distant passing traffic, and the Ensemble entered with slow ponderous Telemann. Fischer, taking a Baroque bow to the palette knife and whisk produced edgy harsh notes, echoed by the Ensemble playing next to the bridge. A more traditional dance with slapped bass was met by Fischer using sticks on everything raising energy levels before a South American rhythm was set up, the viola making dry percussive noises. Things became more surreal when electronic voices were introduced, and with the strings playing loops for a moment I thought we had jumped tracks to Reich’s Different Trains. Telemann’s music kept coming back though, the Ensemble even more energised and ending in a bouncy dance. Fischer looked relaxed and in his element, clearly relishing the mix of written and improvised music.

Much of the enjoyment at this party for the audience was watching Fischer being playful and creative, but with everyone on one level, the sightlines were poor for most, which was a pity, and I missed the heft of the larger ensemble. While traditionalists may hold that the percussive crunch of horsehair on gut string stands alone, the livelier parts of Baroque music almost imply percussion, so it was interesting to see how well this worked on several levels in this performance.

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Music Is Power with Alina Ibragimova at Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow (Bachtrack)

Published on Sunday 19 February 2017
Written by David Smythe
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Kelvingrove Art Gallery bustles with visitors every day, but at night becomes a theatrically lit Glasgow City landmark. There is something magical about a museum at night, for as the lighting dimmed, the main hall overlooked by its famous organ became a dramatic setting for this concert exploring the political, spiritual and emotional power of music.

IT was an odd coincidence that saw two performances of the 14-year-old Mendelssohn’s 10th String Symphony on successive days in Glasgow, the BBC SSO’s Thursday concert under Alpesh Chauhan opening with the piece, and Jonathan Morton choosing it and the 6th to begin each half of this memorable programme. The earlier work, written when young Felix was just 12, perhaps has less evidence of his own distinct signature as you would expect, and here it served another formative purpose as both players and capacity audience attuned to the reverberant acoustic of the space – to my ears a task achieved by the brisk finale.

Mendelssohn’s childhood home in Berlin was a magnet for artistic intellectuals, the family putting on private performances to entertain the distinguished visitors. Mendelssohn wrote 12 string symphonies for these occasions by the time he was 15, incredibly never performed in public until their discovery in the State Library of East Berlin in 1950. The String Symphony no. 6 in E flat major written by the 12-year-old composer showed an extraordinary grasp of musical form with its dancing opening with lots of dramatic unison passages. A beautiful central movement with elegant playing from cellos and bass with strong hymn-like powerful chords was followed by a Prestissimo scurry to the finish. Starting the second half, String Symphony no. 10 in B minor begins to display some trademark styles, from a mournful Adagio to an energetic Allegro. The players, urged on by leader and director Jonathan Morton, conveyed all the youthful energy and vigour in a joyous performance. Soirees at the Mendelssohn household must have been fun indeed.

Arvo Pärt’s Silouan’s Song is an intense expression of deep spiritual faith, the music a series of phrases, each of several bars followed by pauses demanding absolute concentration from the players. We have to wait for the bass to come in, but when it does, it adds ethereal depth and beauty, crowned by a moving violin solo at the central climax, the building’s bathroom-like four second reverberation adding to the atmosphere.

Continuing the spiritual theme, Latvian Pēteris Vasks Viatore, dedicated to Arvo Pärt, imagined a traveller journeying under a starry and endless universe. A shimmering motif wove through the upper strings representing eternity alternating with a rich travelling musical theme beginning in the lower strings and gradually taken up by all. Morton’s players put a slight crescendo on the last note of phrases, almost like a question mark, drawing us further into the piece and deepening its intensity up to the last glissando as the music vanishes into thin air.

The Ensemble was joined by violinist Alina Ibragimova for Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s sombre Concerto funebre, written in 1939 during the terrifying annexation of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis. Hartmann survived the war through self-imposed musical silence, revising this piece in 1959, but the music is understandably dark and brooding offering only little glimmers of hope. Ibragimova gave a mesmerising performance, her elegiac lament giving the impression of bravely going against the grain, leading the Ensemble into new and challenging ideas. A fast urgent unison heralded a central angular section with a passionate and angry workout for the soloist, thrilling for us to watch as Ibragimova played as if possessed. The work ended on hopeful beauty with a tender violin solo, the Ensemble kindling warmth, yet it was easy to see why this work was considered too dangerous for public consumption in a world turned on its dark side.

Ibragimova is famed for her individual interpretation of Bach, and to round this concert off it was a special treat to hear her performance of Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major. The Ensemble was energetic and tight, earthy in the first movement, delicate in the second and vibrantly dancing at the end. Ibragimova performed without a score, eschewing vibrato for a cleaner more resonant sound filling her dynamic performance with ornament and energy. She engaged every section of the Ensemble in turn during her performance, moving towards the players, infectious in her enjoyment and our delight. The excitement of Bach heard afresh certainly caught the imagination of the sold out crowd.

The Kelvingrove acoustic took a bit of getting used to with the long reverberation tending to blur the details in the Mendelssohn and Bach, but the Ensemble tackled the challenge like an artist smudging the edges of a graphite drawing, bringing out different characteristics in the music. Wandering round the galleries in the interval and afterwards was an unexpected additional bonus.

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Music Is Power with Alina Ibragimova at Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow (The Herald)

Published on Sunday 19 February 2017
Written by Keith Bruce
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IT was an odd coincidence that saw two performances of the 14-year-old Mendelssohn’s 10th String Symphony on successive days in Glasgow, the BBC SSO’s Thursday concert under Alpesh Chauhan opening with the piece, and Jonathan Morton choosing it and the 6th to begin each half of this memorable programme. The earlier work, written when young Felix was just 12, perhaps has less evidence of his own distinct signature as you would expect, and here it served another formative purpose as both players and capacity audience attuned to the reverberant acoustic of the space – to my ears a task achieved by the brisk finale.

Nonetheless there were other elements of the concert better suited to the environment, particularly the spare material and long pauses of Arvo Part’s Silouan’s Song, whose tonal and dynamic cohesion was heart-stopping in Morton’s direction of the 14-piece string group. I was less taken by Peteris Vasks’s Viatore, which occupied the same place in the running order after the interval, although his twin influences of both Part and Bach (whose music followed) made his inclusion most apt. The exchanges between fast repeating figures and glissandi on the high strings and slow phrases on the lower ones were certainly cinematic, but seemed a little superficial by comparison with the music around it.

The climax of both halves of the evening, however, was the arrival of violin soloist Alina Ibragimova to the stage. Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Concerto Funebre is a virtuosic 20 minutes, at once exquisite and terrifying. Her bowing arm mesmerisingly balletic in its fluidity, every tiny harmonic Ibragimova played was absolutely clear and distinct in the interplay between ensemble and soloist. With Morton cheerfully ceding directorial control of proceedings (even if his players were still looking to him), this became Ibragimova’s show, especially when Tom Foster was added on harpsichord for Bach’s Violin Concerto in E.

Many listeners will have come to know the violinist through the broadcast of her late night solo Bach recitals from the BBC Proms last year, and her mastery of the composer was again on show here. There was no question who was in charge, or that the distinct acoustic of the space was going to be an incorporated part of the experience even at the blistering pace of the final movement.

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Music Is Power with Alina Ibragimova at The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh (The Guardian)

Published on Friday 17 February 2017
Written by Kate Molleson
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The Scottish Ensembles’s default setting is flux and dynamism: that’s the mission of this string orchestra, and it makes for nimble conversations within the group. So it was a thrill to hear what happened when they were joined by Alina Ibragimova – a violinist of uncompromising focus and intensity who made the sparring go deeper, quieter, fiercer. Ibragimova is a chamber musician as well as a soloist, acutely attentive to group texture and counterpoint, but there was no question who was in control. She didn’t so much invite as command their attention, and ours.

The programme was billed as “Music is Power”, a loose theme through works variously banned, self-censored, emphatically spiritual or plain joyous. A pair of early Mendelssohn string symphonies (the sixth and 10th) were delivered as pithy, boisterous dramas, full of light, shade and bravado. Arvo Pärt’s Silouan’s Song and Pēteris Vasks’s Viatore sounded flinty and serene: the holy minimalism thing can feel tokenistic when plonked into a concert as if to provide a quick hit of transcendence, but this performance didn’t overstoke the meaningfulness.

Ibragimova’s two concertos came as a release and a focal point. Hartmann’s Concerto Funèbre was before the interval — a second world war score she recorded a decade ago and which she plays as a ferocious elegy, every phrase urgent and personal. To close, she gave an exuberantly huge-boned account of Bach’s E major concerto. I’ve never heard it sound so fun and so fiery.

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Ascent: Concerts by Candlelight at Caird Hall, Dundee (The Dundee Courier review)

Published on Monday 12 December 2016
Written by Garry Fraser


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Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending has confounded many, myself included, by repeatedly notching the number one spot in Classic FM’s top of the pops. It’s nowhere near my top 1,000 classical favourites, but if any performance was to make me reconsider, it would with the Scottish Ensemble’s Jonathan Morton as soloist, performing Adam Johnson’s arrangement for strings. Morton’s superb solo performance in the Caird Hall on Friday night was personal, eloquent and intimate and dusted off the saccharine sweetness I normally attribute to this work. It certainly made me see the work in a new light and maybe, just maybe, catapulted it higher in the Fraser list of favourites.

Friday’s concert, with the Ensemble being joined by young players from NYOS and the Conservatoire in Glasgow, might have emphasised Vaughan Williams – with his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis ending the concert – but two other composers of lesser renown should not go unmentioned and who provided works slap bang in the Ensemble’s world. That is a world of precision, unilateral brilliance and superb interpretation.

Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa is a work of hypnotic excellence, with a beautifully-structured build-up interrupted by a frenetic dance. There was a sense of the perpetual mobile about it, and I lapped it up, eager to hear more of this man’s work.

The same can’t be said for the first of Dobrinka Tabakova’s two works. I found Such Different Paths lacking in substance and too long by far. However, the chalk to this cheese was her Concerto for Cello and Strings. If there’s a better slow movement in contemporary music for soloist and orchestra than Longing, I’d be surprised. It was the perfect example of soloist wrapped in beautiful harmonies, with soloist David Cohen’s lyrical qualities standing out in abundance.

His other qualities of flair and technical wizardry had been highlighted earlier in the opening movement, with multi-octave jumps in the blink of an eye and some amazing finger board gymnastics.

And as for the Tallis work, it is a composition of outstanding beauty and perfect for such a unit as the SE, whose warmth of texture and exposition of multi-layered harmonies is one of their many qualities. Many composers have been inspired with Renaissance music, but this work is up there at the very top.

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Ascent: Concerts by Candlelight at Wellington Church, Glasgow (The Herald review)

Published on Thursday 8 December 2016
Written by Keith Bruce

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UK-domiciled Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova will have been a new name to many in the churches on the Scottish Ensemble’s Candlelit Concerts tour, but it is one they will certainly have noted. Artistic director Jonathan Morton may well have acquired the idea of teaming her music with that of Ralph Vaughan Williams from the premiere of one of her most recent works, Immortal Shakespeare, by the Orchestra of the Swan at Stratford earlier this year, but the pairing of two pieces from 2008, recorded on 2013’s award-winning ECM disc String Paths, with The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was a plan well worth pursuing.

There are very distinct echoes of The Lark in the leader’s obligato over the looping phrases on the low strings in her Such Different Paths, but the title is perhaps better explained by the way the very precise atonality of the opening and those minimalist repetitions come together with a unity of purpose by the end. In what was a superbly constructed programme, that minimalist influence had also been clear in the opening piece, Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa, which make very specific tonal demands of individual players before an ensemble accelerando and climactic vocal shout.

The other remarkable partnership was of the professional group with star soloist David Cohen on Tabakova’s cello and strings concerto, nine players from the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland and two of the Ensemble’s “Young Artists” in a superbly coherent larger group, even when split into two cohorts in the space for the second Vaughan Williams piece.

Every detail of the experience was worth the closest audience attention, but it was the delicacy of Morton’s own solo playing – bravely bold in its proximity to silence – that everyone present will surely have taken home.

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Scottish Ensemble & Anna Meredith: Anno at The Hub, Edinburgh (Bachtrack review)

Published on Monday 14 November 2016
Written by David Smythe

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The annual Hot 100 cultural contributors from Edinburgh’s magazine The List draws interest from right across the entertainment world in Scotland. Beating Donald Runnicles (80), John Butt (63) and even The Edinburgh Festival (8), emerging smoking hot in the lead this year is composer Anna Meredith. We felt bang on trend as we packed out the performance space at The Hub in Edinburgh sitting on tiny stools surrounded by eight huge screens in a circle for a performance of Anno, first seen at the Spitalfields Festival in the summer.

Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is everywhere, performed almost nightly in churches in tourist cities in Europe, in lifts, on the radio and even when on hold on the phone. The Scottish Ensemble has performed it many times, often interleaving it with The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires by Piazzolla in a dialogue between the old and the new. It is a subject fascinating director Jonathan Morton who approached composer Anna Meredith with the idea of developing a piece using acoustic and electronic music depicting a year. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is used as source material with projections from the composer’s sister and illustrator, Eleanor Meredith.

Anna Meredith has said that she keeps composition fresh by using acoustic instruments to write for electronic, and electronic instruments to write for acoustic. Running to 15 short movements, the Vivaldi used was left intact, the amplified strings and harpsichord giving it a new rough edge. A pulsing electronic click track blended into live music with a techno beat from the Ensemble, the players emerging from the darkness between the screens, arranged in a semicircle, sometimes picking up their high tech tablet music stands and shifting position round us. Meredith weaved her own rhythms, sometimes sinuously, at others forcefully jabbing with inventive loops dancing round the Baroque.

Eleanor Meredith’s visuals were playful, nebulous translucent shapes dividing amoeba-like and spreading slowly round us as the year began. Sometimes a line was taken for a walk, squiggling across the screens, a bedtime story bird struggling against a strong wind, and an amorphous jelly-blue figure striding out purposely. A rough line drawing crane lifted blocks of watery colour like the mixing tray of a child’s paint box, and dumped them into a growing pile. Stronger coloured washes of abstract images built layer on layer, before eventually all the shapes slowly folded in on themselves as the year, and the piece ended.

Apart from the start and finish, it was difficult to mark the passing of a year, although electronic birdsong suggested spring and we had the Vivaldi fragments as reference. It was actually easier to stop worrying about whether or not we had reached September and let the abstract immersion of the old and new music wash over us, rather like the moving artwork. With eight projectors, a full surround track on six speakers and all the players miked, was a lot of kit to look after. It was fascinating to see who was actually leading the performance, as the composer sat with her score in full view at a mixing desk, laptop open, controlling the electronic track and occasionally the Ensemble. The players watched each other very carefully, some with headphones giving clear leads to the rest. Everyone seemed to be really enjoying performing this hour-long piece, melding the old and new in a liberating format.

Music with visual accompaniment is certainly flavour of the moment. A new film to accompany Steve Reich’s Different Trains was unveiled in Liverpool, and more recently the Hebrides Ensemble used new footage for The Last Island by Peter Maxwell Davies. Innovative and new, this sort of project is meat and drink to the Scottish Ensemble looking for new ways of presenting music. While sometimes music needs to stand alone, visuals can add a new dimension. It would be interesting to explore this format of live music and projection in the round to produce something more moving, powerful and intense. Playful Anno was more fun-filled and the obvious enjoyment of the performers was infectious.

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Read the review on the Bachtrack website