South Atlantic Crossings at City Halls, Glasgow (The Herald)

Written by Michael Tumelty
Published on Monday 14 March 2016



If there is such a species as the concert with everything, then this project, designed by Morton, was as close in aspiration as can be imagined; moreover, the playing by this indivisible group of 12 collaborators, joined for the afternoon by the extraordinarily open-hearted pianist Gabriela Montero, left this listener stilled into a hush of immense satisfaction.

In the repertoire, it was wall-to-wall miracles of creativity, from the intensity of Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue to the calm certainty of Bach’s six-part Ricercar, brilliantly introduced by Morton, and where I could sense my neighbours listening enthralled as six individual streams of contrapuntal ingenuity flowed and melded seamlessly.

But there was also heat, passion and a steamy sensuality throbbing through the ensemble’s playing of music by Piazzolla and Golijov, offset by the beauty of Villa-Lobos’s Aria and the classicism of Mozart’s K449 Piano Concerto, played by Montero with red-blooded engagement in a bracing string-accompanied version not suitable for vegans.

And then Montero called on the audience for a tune to be sung out, on which she could improvise. She got a partial version of Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So, which she took for a ten-minute stylistic tour through Bach, Chopin and an amalgam of stride piano and ragtime. I have seldom been quite so gobsmacked and left with stars in my eyes.


Read the review on The Herald website

Quintets at The Merchant’s House, Glasgow (The Herald)

Written by Keith Bruce
Published on Friday 26 February 2016


Quote-Marks-1THERE was a queue down the stairs for seats at Wednesday lunchtime’s recital by a quintet from Jonathan Morton’s Scottish Ensemble, and little wonder. For all that the group is dedicated to “reinventing the string orchestra”, here just five of the players were on a short journey through what might be seen as core repertoire, but in fact an opportunity to hear some unfamiliar melodies by Mozart and Brahms. Yet the only obstacle to their performance is the addition of a second viola (Andrew Berridge) to a string quartet (Morton, Cheryl Crockett, Catherine Marwood and Alison Lawrance).

If Mozart’s G Minor quintet is an elegy for his father Leopold, in failing health during its composition, it is far from miserable. Marwood often took the lead voice from Morton, with all the chord colour combinations of a quintet explored in the first movement and a crucial difference in tone between her viola and that of Berridge, whose sound was darker and nearer that of the cello. In a work where rests are often as crucial as the notes, the central movements boast lovely tunes and the finale is Mozart at his most playful and lively.

There are fragments of Brahms’ unwritten fifth symphony in the big bold opening of his Opus 111 in G Major, composed a century later and which he intended as his swansong, although in fact he composed loads of keyboard music, some songs and his masterpieces for clarinet afterwards. More complex in its interweaving lines,, the leader had to wait until the Minuet for his big tune, which sits between a gorgeous Adagio and a last movement that ends on a very jolly dancing note.


Read the article on The Herald website

Three Pärts Bach at St. John’s Kirk, Perth (Bachtrack)

Written by David Smythe
Published on Monday 14 December

picture by fraser band 07984 163 256  Scottish Ensemble at St Johns Kirk for ‘Concerts by Candlelight.’
Image: Fraser Band

Quote-Marks-1In their red Santa costumes brightening a cold grey December cityscape, the Perth streets had been full of hundreds of eager festive runners earlier in the day, signalling that the great Christmas celebration will be here before we know it. Christian values aside, the day throws down a universal marker for us all: joyous for many, but tinged with a wistfulness as thinning Christmas card lists prompt memories of those no longer with us. With the days still shortening, it is a reflective time of year when many seek solace in a deeper spiritual experience, perhaps explaining the popularity of the Scottish Ensemble’s candlelit concerts, moved out of concert halls into lovely historic buildings and timed perfectly to match the thoughtful mood of Advent: St John’s Kirk, where once John Knox thundered from the pulpit, was packed.

Matthew Truscott from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, paying a rare and welcome visit to Scotland, was guest director or ‘interloper’ as he more playfully put it. We are very used to the crystal clear bright sound from the Scottish Ensemble players under their usual director Jonathan Morton yet Truscott’s approach produced a completely different palette of mellow playing oozing with golden warmth from the same musicians.

Pairing up J.S. Bach with Arvo Pärt was an intriguing choice of programming, yet there was much more to this than was first apparent. Pärt’s atmospheric Fratreswas a primer to J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, starting quietly out of nothing as the violins played simple sequences of notes against a drone from the lower strings, patterns of increasing density unfolding in slow crescendo set against the occasional startle of bass drum and wood block.   Fading out to the limit of audibility, the players used the furthest tips of their bows as the drone drifted into silence, and deepest darkness. Billed as candlelit, this concert was performed under a huge white helium balloon five feet across from Do Architecture which pulsed with white light according to mood: harsh and bright in harmony with the percussion and warmer otherwise. Although it added some atmosphere to this piece, it contributed little to anything else, and became an increasing distraction as the evening wore on. Continuing with no break, Truscott headed up a lively Concerto in A minor, the Ensemble feeding on the brisk counterpoint, Truscott sounding particularly beautiful in the slower tread of the Andante before showing off some lightning fast decoration in the wilder final movement, making it all appear effortless.

Bach was said to have written his Chorale Prelude Vor deinen Thron Tret ich hiermit on his deathbed, and the Ensemble played a string quartet version with overlapping harmonies and tune. The circumstances inspired Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina to write her own Meditiation über der Bach Choral: “Vor deinen Thron Tret ich hiermit” scored for five strings and amplified harpsichord. Using unusual methods like the back of the bow col legno in the bass, and bouncing bows off strings in a stuttering unison from the top strings, it was a rather dark disruptive piece, scraping tremulos underpinned with thick dissonant bass chords from the harpsichord, eventually resolving into a B-A-C-H sequence.

Lightening the mood after the break, Truscott was joined by Borders-born Colin Scobie, a rising star and fresh recruit to the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, in a brilliant warm interpretation of Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, the two soloists blending well, especially in the slow movement, taken at a good steady pace. It was fun to watch phrases being passed between the soloists and the ensemble.

Two Arvo Pärt works, Toccata from Collage über B-A-C-H and Summa sandwiched Bach’s Contrapunctus XIX from The Art of Fugue. Pärt’s Toccata played on the B-A-C-H theme was a lively and urgent piece with repeated notes and short stabbing upbows. Bach’s Contrapunctus XIX, a devilish triple fugue was a fine performance of a complicated study in counterpoint, finishing abruptly as the composed died. Pärt’s Summa, a setting of the Credo explored tintinnabulation beguinning with thin expressions developing to a richer multi-layered sound before tailing off.

Finally, the well-known Bach’s Brandenberg Concerto no. 3 in G major was given a twist in the central two chord movement: Stravinsky, in his final days had found solace in arranging Bach’s music for strings, so his version of the B minor Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier preceded the final movement, taken at a breath-taking whirl. An encore from the symphonic cantata from the Christmas Oratorio, two violins and a viola taking the shepherds’ oboe part, sent us out with a seasonal cheer after a thoughtful spiritual journey.


Read the review on the Bachtrack website

Three Pärts Bach at Wellington Church, Glasgow (The Scotsman)

Written by Ken Walton
Published on Thursday 10 December

Quote-Marks-1The Scottish Ensemble have always stamped their own personality on the way they present their concerts – standing to perform, exuding a friendly camaraderie, and rarely resorting to gimmickry.

That distinctiveness is even more marked in their current Advent touring programme – a warm-hearted pre-Christmas cocktail that is part-Bach, part-Pärt, with a solitary drop of the lesser known Russian composer Gubaidulina – which found a perfect setting on Wednesday in Glasgow’s neo-classical Wellington Church.

Billed as a concert by candlelight, there were additional sources of illumination: a huge, white, up-lit, helium-filled balloon, hovering over the players like an enigmatic question mark; the soft glow from the electronic tablets replacing the traditional printed music; and the radiance of the music itself, a sequence of stylistic juxtapositions presented as musical “sets”.

So the hypnotic tolling of Pärt’s Fratres was a solemn preparation for the exuberant energy of Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor; Bach’s Chorale Prelude “Vor deinen Thron”, and Sofia Gubaidulina’s elusive Meditation on the same chorale, were a sublime coupling; Bach’s Contrapunctus XIX was a meaty sandwich filler between Pärt’s catchy Collage über Bach and the ethereal Summa.

Guest leader/director Matthew Truscott’s cool charisma and super-clean playing elicited extraordinary warmth from the ensemble, shining like a lustrous beacon as soloist in Bach’s A minor concerto and in the Concerto for Two Violins, also featuring violinist Colin Scobie. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3 brought a convivial evening to a wholesome end.

Well, almost. The Ensemble rarely leave without giving us an encore. More Bach.


Read the article on The Scotsman website


Three Pärts Bach at Wellington Church, Glasgow (The Herald)

Written by Michael Tumelty
Published on Thursday 10 December


Quote-Marks-1It probably wouldn’t be of interest to everybody, but one of the striking aspects of the Scottish Ensemble’s annual “candle-lit” concert, touring this week and landing at Wellington Church, neighbouring Glasgow University, on Wednesday night, was the fact that the group had a guest leader and director, with Matthew Truscott taking over from Jonathan Morton for the week.

Everything changed in the sound, projection and character of the music. Not “better”, I must stress, just wholly different. Morton is an extremely-concentrated, intensely-focused player. Truscott is light on his (musical) feet, perhaps a bit more relaxed, maybe more gregarious. These qualities teemed through the Bach elements in his programme with superb, hugely-enjoyable performances of the A minor Violin Concerto, a breathtakingly-fleet account of the Double Violin Concerto, with Colin Scobie on the second violin (and watch out for Scobie’s name: he’s a stunner) culminating in a whizzing group performance of Brandenburg Three, which was so fleet, so fast and so aerated that it almost took flight – I had to suppress a “Wheeeee!” that wanted to break loose during the finale. And at another extreme, the ensemble’s flowing, gently-logical accumulation during their playing of the composer’s Contrapunctus 19, with the music just evaporating into the ether at the moment Bach is said to have died, mid-sentence, as it were, stopped my heart, as it always does.

As for the rest, Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, with its thudding heartbeat, worked its usual time-stopping magic, while Sofia Gubaidulina’s Bach meditation would have made an effective film score. But not everything gelled. Too much Pärt: there’s always, ultimately, a “less would be more” issue with minimalism, the “holy” brand or otherwise.


Read the article on The Herald website


Goldberg Variations – ternary patterns for insomnia at Music Hall, Aberdeen (Bachtrack)

Written by David Smythe
Published on Saturday 21 November 2015


It might be every musician’s nightmare, but when classical players are called upon to be characters as part of the action, results can be surprising. An extraordinary performance of The Soldier’s Tale seen a few years ago is still etched in the memory as the barefooted musicians hotfooted it off the stage in silhouette, a case in point. Placing a chamber orchestra onstage for an opera can add frisson to the work, but most musician crossovers into characters are limited simply by the need for the players to perform the music without too much distraction. The Scottish Ensemble took Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and pushed way past conventional boundaries as five lively dancers from the Swedish Andersson Dance joined the Ensemble in a performance where players interwove with dancers, spinning the well-known variations into an exciting blend of movement and music.

Entering the hall, the “Aria” was being played offstage in the wings as the dancers did warm-up stretches and arranged props against a white backdrop, including stylish tablet music stands (push the button for the next page) and a large spotlight on what looked like a porter’s trolley. For players normally in smart modern orchestral black, it was a big change to see them emerge dressed in casual loose-fitting clothes in a grey and white palette, and mingle with the dancers in brighter casual wear, playing the first variation spread out randomly through the dancers, right across the platform with even the cellists standing (they got to sit later). The Scottish Ensemble is a group that positively thrives on playing in a tight semicircle allowing cues to be given and taken, their interaction providing extra enjoyment in live performance, so this was a brave venture indeed as player communication must have been as big a challenge as having to be choreographed and dance themselves.

Bach’s music, with its surprisingly jazzy harmonies, is wonderfully danceable, from lively gigues to stately gavottes and sarabands, and the Andersson team gave us a modern take, sometimes in a disco frenzy, infecting the players to move, or in unison set pieces and more abstract moments. Sometimes the dancers were defeated: “The Sixth variation is a canon: I can’t dance to it!” declared a dancer as the Ensemble was allowed a brief moment to shine on its own. The most successful piece by far was a hauntingly beautiful, slow-moving human ball of the five dancers in the solemn Variation 15, a dynamic mesmerising intertwining of bodies being passed over and under each other, heightened by the subtle but dramatic light changes by SUTODA with the Ensemble spread right across the back of the stage, taking the music back to its bare bones.

With all the stage business going on, including when the players laid down their instruments and embarked on their own individual dance routines, some rolling about with claps and thumps based on musical patterns, the music was understandably not always quite as refined as a formal concert setting. But that would have been to miss the point of this exercise taking musicians (and dancers) well out of their comfort zones and exposing their vulnerability.

While the alchemy mostly worked, there were moments of longeur in Örjan Andersson’s choreography, and some baffling though ultimately playful uses of props like cereal bowls and a drainpipe. There was a sinister duet as two dancers donned threatening black face masks, and a frenzied thrilling solo from Danielle de Vries in Variation 25, reflecting the different moods of Bach’s music. The work finished, not with the aria restated, but with the final variation, leaving Diane Clark alone on stage, plucking her double bass.

The Scottish Ensemble is a very lively physical group of musicians, and the addition of dance interpretation and edgy challenge raised the energy levels to give a performance of the Goldberg Variations that was very different, interesting and surprisingly enjoyable. While I was convinced all the artists genuinely relished the process and challenges of working on this piece, some of the players looked rather vulnerable, so I really can’t make my mind up if the actual performances were as enjoyable as the creation, which is probably the whole point. Earlier this year, the Ensemble played in a derelict concrete Glasgow shopping centre to a hip crowd, and after this cross-arts collaboration, in a welcome dynamic and exciting approach, we are promised further innovations in the future.


Read the review on the Bachtrack website

Goldberg Variations – ternary patterns for insomnia at Dance City, Newcastle (The Guardian)

Written by Alfred Hickling
Published on Monday 23 November 2015
Goldberg Variations - Press Shot 1


The composition of Bach’s Goldberg Variations will always be mysterious. Were they really a musical sheep-counting exercise for the benefit of an insomniac ambassador? A harmonic exegesis of the Ptolemaic universe? A private joke at the expense of an unkind critic? Or maybe, as this remarkable collaboration between the Scottish Ensemble and Andersson Dance suggests, the roots of acid house?

A fidgety flurry of semi-quavers in the first variation causes one of the dancers to develop a twitch. It becomes infectious, until the whole ensemble – dancers and musicians alike – have broken out their most euphoric club moves. By the end of the sequence, the double bassist is literally running rings round her instrument. It would be pointless if the playing were in any way compromised by such hyperactivity. But the string arrangement, based on Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s trio version of 1985, has a sonority and texture to which the choreography provides astute, visual commentary. Unison lines draw the dancers into strict synchronisation; the canons send a ripple of repeated gestures through the company like a series of electric shocks.

The narrative seemingly develops into the raid of a janitor’s cupboard as mop buckets, trolleys and industrial heaters are wheeled in. A curious instance of wardrobe malfunction finds one of the dancers attempting to pull a pair of gold lamé trousers over her head. But it isn’t all skittish surrealism: the melancholic dip into the minor key at the 15th variation – a line that would not seem out of place in the St Matthew Passion – produces a human pyramid that is reminiscent of painterly representations of the descent from the cross.

For the final quodlibet the double-bass is left abandoned to make an unadorned statement of the spiralling line that contains the DNA of the entire piece. Yet by this point, your head is so full of celestial harmonies that you can practically fill in the gaps for yourself.


Read the review on The Guardian website

Goldberg Variations – ternary patterns for insomnia (Fjord Review)

Written by Lorna Irvine
Published on Tuesday 17 November 2015
Read the review on the Fjord Review website

Goldberg Variations - Press Shot 3


How to reinvent J.S. Bach’s famous, sublime Goldberg Variations?

This collaboration between Stockholm-based choreographer Örjan Andersson and Scottish Ensemble’s Jonathan Morton seeks to do just that, with a series of choreographic movements integrated with the musicians themselves, blurring roles and responding to the fragmentary nature of the music. It is an ambitious project, and one which mostly works through sheer audacity and imagination.

The first of thirty variations announced by dancer Csongor Szabó bursts into life, juddering in funky R’n’B rump shaking. It appears to ‘infect’ the rest of the dancers as they all shimmy together, and initially feels somewhat jarring: such sexualized movements juxtaposed with the delicacy of violins and cello playing. Scottish Ensemble play beautifully throughout, building upon and then stripping back each piece, revealing the individual components—whether gentle, elegiac or euphoric—that make up the whole work. Even Scottish Ensemble’s viola player Jane Atkins can’t resist getting in on the dancing at one point, in a playful, playgound-inspired routine where she tumbles, claps her hands and falls to the ground. Other musicians join in later, in a surreal slow-motion movement where the lighting by SUTODA feels distinctly funereal. Such sharp contrasts are what make Bach’s music so bewitching.

At its very best, the piece is a head-spinning, disorientating navigation through tentative relationships, and the uneasy push and pull of hormonal interactions, where it is uncertain whether it will end in sex, violence, or both. It is troubling in the extreme, playing with the inherent ambiguity of human nature.This is particularly true of a scene where Danielle De Vries and Eve Ganneau, clad in sinister black face masks, square up to each other like bulls and have to grope blindly towards each other, in order to wrestle. The human jigsaw puzzle is also eerily effective, with first Paul Pui Wo Lee and then József Forró held aloft as the others link limbs and the soloists slide over their heads. It feels like a five people mosh pit.

“Variation 25”—also known as the “Black Pearl”—sizzles with tension, with an incredible, sinewy solo by De Vries. She is Ophelia-esque in her frenzied motion. It feels like an exorcism of something, as she claws the air and is seemingly pulled back and forth by an invisible force along the floor.

But there are flaws here at times; undeniable moments of languor in Andersson’s choreography, a little padded out through overuse of props, or with both ensemble and musicians running in circles. The playful humour can border on wacky at times, with dancers putting trousers or tissues on their heads, wearing bowls on their feet, or hiding in the black curtains for no apparent reason. It does rather invite a comparison with Pina Bausch, who at least created a strong narrative—her humour didn’t exist in a vacuum and came about as an extension of strong characterisation and storytelling.

Sometimes phrasing too can seems a little over-familiar, as with the ensemble work in “Variation 7’s” ‘character dance’ which clearly owes a lot to Michael Clark Company’s David Bowie/Iggy Pop period—the provocative high kicks and cheeky glam posturing emulating his “Come, Been and Gone” from 2009—right down to the silver and gold spangled leggings.

When it works though, there is a palpable tension in the room. Solo work is particularly breathtaking—Wo Lee’s puckish flights of fancy in a green skirt towards the end feel particularly inspired. And the repeated motifs in the footwork, such as military-style heel-clicking and crashing to the floor, work well to mirror the percussive shifts of Bach’s music. It is the sleek sensuality of Andersson’s choreography which is most effective, and the controlled anarchy seems almost surplus to requirement. Still, an undeniably engaging performance with many moments of genuine alchemy.



In Schubert’s Company with Maxim Rysanov at Caird Hall, Dundee (Dundee Courier)

Written by Garry Fraser
Published on Monday 19 October 2015

Quote-Marks-1If you are in the company of Franz Schubert, it’s an extremely nice place to be as his music never fails to satisfy. If you are joined by the wonderful Scottish Ensemble and a soloist of the calibre of Maxim Rysanov the ambiance increases as does the enjoyment. The first concert of the Scottish Ensemble season in the Caird Hall was called In Schubert’s Company, and at one point or another either directly or indirectly we were at one with the great man, ensuring that the Schubert theme ran deep throughout the evening.

Of the two works by Sergey Akhunov, one was a submission to the other a commission from Rysanov. The contrasts were evident. The opening work, from which the concert’s title came, was slightly tame in comparison to the fast and demonic form of Der Erlkonig, which was inspired by a relatively unknown Schubert song. However, Rysanov’s rich viola sound and the expert backing of the Ensemble ensured there was much to savour in both works in terms of texture, harmony and atmosphere.

Next it was the turn of Dobrinka Tabakova to provide her interpretation of a Schubert work and a self-penned tribute to the composer. His Arpeggione Sonata fits the cello perfectly but as the viola is close in terms of tone, her arrangement left nothing to be desired. In fact, with strings instead of piano, there was a richer sound and more substance. Rysanov was to sign off with her Fantasy Homage to Schubert. Beautiful harmony abounded and when the soloist entered with the main theme I was looking forward to many minutes of magic. However, his contribution was over almost before it started which was a great pity.

I sensed the final item of the programme would be something special and it was. The Ensemble excel
in arrangements of string quartets, and their performance of Mahler’s arrangement of the Death and The Maiden quartet was simply divine. If anyone needed evidence that the Ensemble is a class above the rest it was here in spades. It was first class in every aspect of performance.


The programme 

Sergey Akhunov                 6.36 in Schubert’s company
Sergey Akhunov                 Der Erlkönig
Schubert                               Arpeggione Sonata [arr. D. Tabakova]
Dobrinka Tabakova          Fantasy Homage to Schubert
Schubert                               String Quartet No. 14, “Death and The Maiden” [arr. Mahler]

Go to the Dundee Courier website

RCS Ensemble Week final concert (The Herald)

Written by Michael Tumelty
Published on Friday 9 October 2015
Read on The Herald website


RCS Ensemble Week rehearsals
RCS student and cellist Victor Nekludov

Quote-Marks-1BUCCANEERING Brio! That is not an epithet (though it would be a good one). It’s an attempt to describe the extraordinary vivacity and almost swashbuckling elan with which the bigged-up RCS String Ensemble and Jonathan Morton’s Scottish Ensemble, playing side by side on Friday, despatched the swaggering, swaying finale of George Enescu’s Octet for Strings, itself bigged-up into an orchestral version.

What a fabulously-effective version of the piece. It came over with enriched, thick-cream textures, very high-calorie content, and absolutely tons of cholesterol: yummy. Yet, where detail was paramount and character critical, as in the circus-act cartwheels of the second movement, with their push-me, pull-you, near-slapstick events, none of the wonderful thickness and near-viscosity of some of the textures clogged up characterisation. Do you know what it was like? An animated oil painting. And the sheer, luminous beauty of the slow movement, with the enriched string section bathing the music in the warmest afterglow following an impassioned climax, was ravishing: it was just the music, of course, but I could swear I heard a chorus of soft humming and sighing.

It was a great performance, blessed by the professionals, but stimulated by the energy, drive, and sheer hell-for-leather enthusiasm of the students: they always have a way of playing as
though their Quote-Marks-2lives depend on it. This partnership is not a new concept or practice. But it is certainly one that should be developed and matured. The only blot on the afternoon was the inclusion, without programme note or introductory comment, of Erkki-Sven Tuur’s scratchy, minimalist-y and superfluous Insula Deserta.

Scottish Ensemble win friends with spirited Bucharest debut (The Herald, 9/9/15)


Written by Kate Molleson
Published on Wednesday 9 September 2015
Read on The Herald website

Photo: Vlad Eftenie

Quote-Marks-1Bucharest’s main concert hall is the Sala Palatului: a vast 1960s period piece upholstered in multiple shades of yellow and once used as the conference centre for Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist regime. The auditorium holds a mighty crowd of 3,000 — in Ceausescu’s heyday it was 5,500 or more — and it was packed to the gunnels last week for Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. I found myself sitting crosslegged on a bank of mustard-yellow steps, listening to Sir Simon delve into the dark, stoical, sardonic and transcendent episodes of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. A mother and toddler were wedged by my feet; to my side was an elderly gentleman with his eyes closed, discreetly conducting along to every bar. Music about the terrors of communist authority played in a hall made epic by Ceausescu: the associations felt as loud as any note.

This was the first time the Berlin Phil had ever appeared at Bucharest’s Enescu Festival, a biennial event in the Romanian capital whose programme is eye-poppingly impressive. Visitors this year include the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Royal Concertgebouw and the Bayerische Staatsorchester; conductors Mehta, Rattle, Thielemann, Nelsons; soloists Murray Perahia, Elisabeth Leonskaja, Christian Tetzlaff, Andras Schiff, Piotr Anderszewski — I could go on and on. This year also saw the first-ever inclusion of a Scottish group at the Enescu Festival: the Scottish Ensemble, whose concert with Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopachinskaja was spirited, eloquent and original. More on that in a moment.

First, the matter of how Europe’s second poorest country can host a concert series to rival the super-suave summer festivals of Austria or Switzerland. Of the Enescu’s budget, 70 per cent — roughly 6 million euros — is financed by the Romanian government, the rest from ticket sales and sponsors. There’s vested interest here. The Enescu Festival was founded in 1951 “for political reasons, of course” says the current director Mihai Constantinescu. He’s a straight-talking man who has worked for the festival since 1991 and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of every past programme. We’re talking in his tiny, cramped office in the north of the city; if there’s money behind the Enescu Festival, it appears to be spent on visiting artists, not administration.

“The festival started in an era when the communist bloc was fighting against capitalism,” he explains matter-of-factly. “Romania wanted to prove how strong our culture was here.” Ceausescu would later seize the event as a chance for nationalist myth making, introducing a strand called Singing for Romania and ordering that only eastern-bloc artists should be invited. The festival survived the country’s 1989 revolution and subsequently opened its doors as wide as it could.

Today’s Romanian government funds the Enescu Festival partly to bolster the country’s international image, with around 20,000 foreign visitors attending each year. But to me the experience felt overwhelmingly rooted at home. The concerts I attended were full of local music students and members of Romanian orchestras, who are given tickets for free, as well as Bucharest’s well-heeled elite. “It’s important for Romania, it’s important for culture, it’s important for our sense of who we are,” says Constantinescu. “People here don’t have the money to buy tickets to hear this level of artist so the government subsidises.”

The name, incidentally, is more than emblematic. Cold War point scoring was one incentive, but the festival was also founded by the Romanian composers union in honour of George Enescu, Romania’s great violinist and composer and the figure whose face hangs on huge posters around the city. Every visiting orchestra and recitalist is asked to include a piece by Enescu in their programme — a neat idea, as it means Romanians get to hear their own composer played in the different accents of international musicians. I wonder what the equivalent would be: if every author who came to the Edinburgh International Book Festival recited a piece of Burns?

When the Scottish Ensemble played Enescu — his Intermezzi for strings Opus 12 — it was with suppleness and careful attention to detail. The following day, Constantinescu told me he was impressed. “In my opinion the best understanding of Enescu comes from the British orchestras. Because they are strict! They understand how to follow instructions precisely!” And that’s a crucial discipline for a composer whose scores, though deeply rooted in Romanian folk music and laced with the sensuous French impressionism of his adopted country, are fastidiously detailed in technical instructions.

The Scottish Ensemble were performing up the road from Sala Palatului at The Romanian Athenaeum, an ornate 19th century circular hall bedecked with banks of white roses across the front of the stage. They closed their programme with Rudolph Bar?ai’s string ensemble arrangement of Ravel’s String Quartet, full of alert, shimmering colours. Patricia Kopachinskaja joined them for Mansurian’s Four Serious Songs and three of Brahms’s Choral Preludes Opus 122. She appeared from the back of the stage while the ensemble was still tuning, barefoot (she always performs barefoot) and improvising a low arabesque around the ensemble’s tuning note. The Brahms involved singing the chorales as well as playing them, with Kopachinskaja and the ensemble members weaving simple, quiet voices among the dark string textures. In such intimate and noble music, composed shortly after the death of Clara Schumann at the very end of Brahms’s life, it was a moving touch.

Playing at a festival like the Enescu means a lot for the Scottish Ensemble. “The international recognition strengthens our reputation at home,” says Fraser Anderson, the group’s general manager. “We create connections with tremendous artists like Patricia. It’s crucial for the professional development of our players to experience different audiences, different halls, different cultural contexts.”

Then there is the Brand Scotland thing. This is a festival of traditional prestige: big names, old-world glamour, fairly conservative programming. It did not go unnoticed that the first group from Scotland to ever play here was a self-directed string ensemble singing chorales while playing with a feisty barefoot soloist. Responses to the concert — I spoke to a Romanian conductor, a Romanian politics student living in the States and home for the holidays, a visiting German journalist — all noted the group’s freshness, flexibility and ultra-engaged playing. Kopatchinskaja herself seemed excited: “did you hearQuote-Marks-2 those colours in the Ravel?” she demanded when I met her the following day. “And the open-heartedness way they sang?” She couldn’t promise when exactly, but she was adamant the collaboration would happen again. Watch this space.

Enescu-Festival-6-(Photo-Vlad-Eftenie)Photo: Vlad Eftenie

Sax Serenade with Amy Dickson, The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh (Bachtrack)

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.