Review: Prophecy with Karen Cargill (Bachtrack)

Published on Saturday 24 February 2018
Written by David Smythe

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Ancient classical tales have inspired composers for generations with their high drama, exquisite poetry and wondrous stories that grip like a vice and won’t let go. A quick check of current television and film schedules demonstrates that we are as keen as ever on the old legends, so the Scottish Ensemble’s programme of a selection of music inspired by Ancient Greece was apt and topical. An eclectic mix of music was lined up, from Purcell to Stravinsky, with one of Scotland’s international opera singers, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill making her first appearance with the Ensemble and early music expert Matthew Truscott guest-leading.

Bookending the concert was Stravinsky’s neo-classical ballet Apollo, written for a string orchestra of over 30 players, but here performed with both muscular verve and an amazing litheness with less than half those forces. Truscott’s leadership and arrangement of the players standing in a wider spacing, with violins arranged left and right changed the whole sound, emphasising Daniel Pioro’s counterbalancing leadership of the second violins in particular. Stravinsky’s ballet in ten short movements tells the story of the god Apollo visited by three muses, Calliope (poetry), Polyhymnia (mime) and Terpsichore (dance and song). Truscott coaxed a gloriously mellow sound from the players, the divisi parts adding richness to the classical rhythms of 17th-century France juxtaposed with bittersweet 20th-century harmonies. The dynamic range was exciting, from Truscott’s sensitive solo violin to big beefy down bowed chords with robust underpinning from the bass and cellos.

The abandonment of Ariadne on Naxos by Theseus on his voyage home after slaying the Minotaur has inspired music from Monteverdi to modern indie rock bands. There are various versions of the story, Haydn’s cantata Arianna a Naxoshas the grief-stricken Princess moving through a whole spectrum of moods before meeting a tragic end. A pair of recitatives and arias began with the strings in full slow magisterial mode, Karen Cargill’s glorious voice full of mournful longing as Arianna seeks her love, her doubts growing restlessly. As the piece moves on, desperation and anger set in, Cargill’s huge voice opened out dramatically supported by the Ensemble’s full-bodied sound with rushing rising scales as Arianna furiously discovers her betrayal. Cargill’s rich timbre was perfect for the final moving and passionate aria as Arianna sees death as her only option left.

Dido’s fate is most famously explored by Berlioz in Les Troyens and by Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, here pieces from both works interleaved in a seemingly unlikely sequence which worked surprisingly well. The Ensemble’s long sighing phrases in the overture to Dido and Aeneas contrasted with its sprightly lively pasages, setting up Dido’s monologue “Ah je vous mourir” and the aria “Adieu, Fière cite” from the final act of Les Troyens. The Ensemble gave an impassioned performance, full of anguish while Cargill’s Dido darkly stormed, her golden voice sounding splendid in the dynamic acoustic of the Queen’s Hall, becoming gossamer-like as she became resigned to her fate in the aria.

An interlude of Purcell’s Fantasia no. 7 with its series of exquisitely unresolved cadences, originally written for viols ended with a held cello note, an instant segue into the descending ground bass of Dido’s Lament from Dido and Aeneas. It was interesting to see what Cargill, an opera singer more used to the big romantic repertoire in the largest opera houses, would make of one of early music’s most famous arias in. Tender and sorrowful, Cargill gave a gentle performance, her large voice conveying a once imperious Queen, but reined in, completely devastated by Aeneas’ call of duty over passion. The Ensemble played out the final solemn rose petal chorus as Cargill walked to the back of the stage.

A final three movements of the opening Apollo ballet, bright and angular brought us forward to the 20th century with a rather sinister softly murmuring Apotheosis. An encore of a curtain tune from Purcell’s Timon of Athens, full of movement over a dancing cello ground rounded off the programme nicely.

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Review: Prophecy with Karen Cargill (The Herald)

Published on Thursday 22 February 2018
Written by Keith Bruce

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WHEN illness forced mezzo-soprano Christine Rice to pull out of the Scottish Ensemble’s run of “Prophecy” concerts that thematically linked the music of three centuries in the inspiration of tales from Ancient Greece, the group can hardly have hoped to secure a replacement as appropriate – and bankable – as local hero Karen Cargill. Both singers have, for example, acclaimed Judiths in Duke Bluebeard’s Castle on their CVs, and both have the range of repertoire that this programme also displayed. But for her Scottish fans, the opportunity to hear Cargill in the intimate company of a dozen strings singing Purcell’s Dido’s Lament after Haydn’s Arianna a Naxos and an aria from the final act of Berlioz’s epic Trojans was a rare and unmissable treat.

The vocal music was bracketed by Stravinsky’s Apollo, which I am sure I will not have been alone in last hearing played live when the resurgent Scottish Ballet, directed by Ashley Page, danced an all-Balanchine programme in the Playhouse at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in the pit. Played by fewer than half the strings it is scored for, the detail of the music was wonderfully clear with guest leader Matthew Truscott cast as Apollo, in the dialogue with the Three Muses, and the cellos of Alison Lawrance and Naomi Pavri much to the fore in the variations that followed. The closing trio of instrumental pieces – and especially the middle jazzy Coda with its lively rhythms – really brought the best from the players.

If I had a misgiving about the adventurous programme it was only that the Ensemble had not been even bolder and played it without breaks. When this happened in the second half – an addition of the overture to Dido leading directly into the Berlioz – the years separating the composers seemed completely irrelevant.

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Review: Prophecy with Karen Cargill (The Scotsman)

Published on Saturday 24 February 2018
Written by David Kettle

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As stand-in replacements go, revered Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill must be right up there. Covering for an indisposed Christine Rice, Cargill was making her debut with the Scottish Ensemble in an eclectic, Greek myth-inspired concert – and her mesmerising, microscopically inflected singing made a fitting counterpoint to the string group’s own fresh, detailed, impeccably articulated playing under guest leader Matthew Truscott.

Cargill became appropriately deranged in a passionate, volatile account of Haydn’s solo cantata Arianna a Naxos, but she dared to be considered and restrained in its more thoughtful opening. She was just as supple and responsive in an exquisite account of Dido’s aria from Berlioz’s The Trojans, although in its counterpoint from two centuries earlier, Dido’s famous lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the sheer richness and power of her voice made a slightly uncomfortable contrast with the sleek austerity of the string playing under Baroque expert Truscott.

Indeed, there was a nicely hard-edged elegance to the Ensemble’s playing that continued throughout their bracingly cool account of Stravinsky’s neo-classical Apollo, slightly bewilderingly sliced down the middle to both begin and end the evening. And despite a persistently troublesome iPad forcing a couple of hasty relocations for the second violins, it was a wonderfully shapely performance that both made the most of Stravinsky’s colourful scoring. The concert’s highlights, however, were also its briefest offerings: a Fantasia full of labyrinthine, restless harmonies by Purcell, and an encore of his similarly ear-surprising Curtain tune from Timon of Athens, both exquisitely turned and gloriously entertaining.

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Scottish Ensemble & Vanishing Point: Tabula Rasa (Bachtrack review)

Published on Saturday 11 November 2017
Written by David Smythe

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The innovative Scottish Ensemble, just off the plane from Shanghai after performing their Goldberg Variations with Andersson Dance, continues to push boundaries. Almost a year ago to the day we were mesmerised by Anno, an extraordinary collaboration with Anna Meredith. Glasgow based theatre company Vanishing Point is also renowned for inventive productions, most recently on its work with Scottish Opera’s double bill of The 8th Door and Bluebeard’s Castle. With both pioneering organisations based in the same city, it was surely only matter of time before artistic minds collided, the Ensemble revisiting Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa after a number of years, and Vanishing Point’s Artistic Director Matthew Lenton exploring why Pärt’s beautiful and strange ‘angel music’ has been sought after as a comfort by the dying.

A story of a woman, arriving home after a holiday, still in her flip-flops, to discover her friend Peter has died of a tumour and that his funeral is that afternoon made a dramatic starting point. Interspersed by Pärt’s music, the compelling monologue, co-written by Lennon and performer Pauline Goldsmith, took us on a journey through an embarrassingly bungled funeral, but then back in time to when Peter was ill in hospital, uncharacteristically and increasingly cantankerous and now deaf, perhaps the cruellest end for a music lover.

Pärt’s music to accompany the story used his trademark tintinnabulation approach, simple sounding but with a mysterious depth. Pianist Sophia Rahman performed the ghostly and sparse Fűr Alina on an upright instrument later joined by violinist Daniel Pioro pacing the stage in a dramatic and beautiful Fratres played while Peter’s coffin loomed out of the darkness, his hat perched atop the lid, the rest of the Ensemble appearing as shadowy mourners. As the scene behind shifted to a hospital bed with a brightly lit white mannequin head and a figure in attendance, Goldsmith’s wry monologue spoke of awkward conversations with the terminally ill who also have no control over who will be the last person to be with them when the time comes. Jonathan Morton joined Rahman in a restrained, almost gossamer performance of the well-known Spiegel Im Spiegel, Rahman playing the continuous slow broken triads in the right hand, her left finding chords below and above, a study in tintinnabulation. In the background, the Ensemble in assorted hospital uniforms walked towards us (on the spot) through the mist, eerily and beautifully lit by Kai Fischer in a wash of blues and oranges.

Goldsmith, striking in her simple bright red dress on the black box set, darkened the monologue with the unpleasantness of death, and a story of crass insensitivity followed by a moment of tender kindness by medical staff. Time then for Tabula Rasa for the full Ensemble, with Jonathan Morton and Clio Gould playing the two solo violins and Rahman switching to a prepared piano of chiming sounds. In two parts, Ludus was an ethereal walking theme interspersed with silences, the piano occasionally grumbling under the soaring violin solos, mesmeric and captivating and reaching a shattering dramatic climax, Gould and Morton facing each other off. Silentium was quieter and more reflective, pairs of instruments working almost mathematically against occasional chiming tumbling arpeggios from the piano each underpinned by the double bass. In an hypnotic performance, the Ensemble seemed entirely lost in the deep mysticism of the music. A brightly lit white backdrop appeared behind the players, rendering them in silhouette, almost spectral in the haze, the light diminishing as section by section they faded out, leaving the deep double bass to end followed by the unusual and unexpected comfort of extended and beautiful silence.

The ambitious combination of Vanishing Points’s challenging words and the Scottish Ensemble’s sensitive interpretation of the music was profound and moving with touches of black humour. Light and delicate amplification successfully overcame the studio theatre’s dry acoustic. Generally, the music enhanced the words although they went different ways at times, but combining with the visuals produced a thoughtful and poignant performance, greater than the sum of its parts.

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Scottish Ensemble & Vanishing Point: Tabula Rasa (The Herald review)

Published on Wednesday 15 November 2017
Written by Neil Cooper

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Mid-way through this stark meditation on loss, and the care that’s required in the lead up to that loss, actress Pauline Goldsmith stands in the swirl of strings conjured up by the twelve musicians who surround her. Up until then, her character has been a kind of hospital ward-bound raconteur, reeling off warts and all yarns concerning the funeral of a friend called Peter, and his descent into death that pre-ceded it. Dressed in scarlet in a world of black and white, Goldsmith’s deadpan and unflinching monologues at moments recall the taboo-busting elaborations of 1970s comedian Dave Allen.

In this cross-artform collaboration between Vanishing Point theatre company and the Scottish Ensemble, however, Goldsmith’s punchlines come through four pieces by Estonian composer Arvo Part. With the Scottish Ensemble playing them live, as Goldsmith stands among the twelve musicians, it looks like they might have been conjured from her own mind in order to offer some kind of solace. The image recalls The Singing Detective, the late Dennis Potter’s fantasia on sickness and health awash with lip-synched hallucinations of cheap 1930s pop songs.

Conceived by Vanishing Point’s director, Matthew Lenton, who has co-written his production with Goldsmith, Lenton’s production isn’t a play in any conventional sense. The loose-knit narrative that pivots around Peter is brought home by the presence of Sarah Short, who reads stories of snow to her unseen patient at the back of the stage. As Part’s music is played, the bulk of the Ensemble step in and out of the light clad in medical scrubs. There’s a mournful intensity to this, which, by dove-tailing between words and music, becomes a slow burning series of routines designed to purge everyday tragedies by offering pause for thought among the pain.

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Scottish Ensemble & Vanishing Point: Tabula Rasa (The Scotsman review)

Published on Friday 10 November 2017
Written by Joyce McMillan

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IT’S both strange and fitting that this new collaboration between Vanishing Point Theatre Company and the Scottish Ensemble should open on the weekend of Remembrance Day, the moment in the year when our society stages its huge annual effort to take some meaning from the deaths of those lost in war. For at the core of this show – directed, designed and co-written by Vanishing Point’s Matthew Lenton – there is a steely and courageous determination not to soften the fact of death by creating around it a narrative of meaning and resolution, where there may well be no such thing.

On a dark stage shared at first only with Scottish Ensemble pianist Sophie Rahman, the actor and co-writer of the show Pauline Goldsmith, in a brilliant red dress, takes on the character of a woman telling the story of her friend Peter – who died in hospital of a brain tumour – and of his strange funeral. At the end of the first part of the story, a single violinist enters, playing Arvo Part’s Fratres; and so, over 90 minutes, the show unfolds, episodes from the story of Peter alternating with increasingly intense musical performances of Fratres, Spiegel Im Spiegel and Tabula Rasa itself, until a climactic moment in the first movement of Tabula Rasa when, with the Scottish Ensemble playing brilliantly at full strength, Goldsmith rises from her chair and goes to stand among them, seeming to try to merge herself into the music.

In the end, the intensity, passion and artistry of the Ensemble’s musical performance dominates this show to such an extent that it’s difficult to see the dramatic and visual elements as much more than a framework that enables us to experience that intensity and quality of performance afresh, from an unusual angle. The sheer lack of glamour in Peter’s story, though – the ugly changes in his personality caused by the tumour, the fact that he loses his hearing and cannot in the end even take solace in music – forces us, like Goldsmith’s character, to make our own journey into the heart of the sound, and into its intense and beautiful conversation between human consciousness and the universe. And if the music of Arvo Part may not always be able to comfort the dying, there seems no doubt, here, that it can bring solace to the living, as they accompany their friends and loved ones to the brink of oblivion.

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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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