Sax Serenade with Amy Dickson, City Halls, Glasgow (The Herald)

Written by Michael Tumelty
Published on Thursday 26 February 2015

*****

A few weeks ago, while listening to the Scottish Ensemble’s electrifying new recording of Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade For Strings, there was a wee man in my head telling me that this was how they were going to do the pieces in concert on the 24th: that the “as-live” experience of the CD, where the group seems to be in the room with you, was going to translate into a palpable reality in the concert hall. And, dear readers, that is exactly what occurred on Tuesday night in the City Hall.

Where some ensembles go big on the stasis of the Shostakovich, Jonathan Morton’s musicians had the latent intensity of the music pulsing away from the very first bar, so the explosions of savage reality, when they occurred, seemed as logical as they were inevitable.

And I tell you this: as I left the concert, I knew I would be haunted all night by Alison Lawrance’s poignant solo in the finale.

What a supreme cellist she is. But she will have to nudge along in the “haunting” space to accommodate Amy Dickson, whose alto and soprano sax playing in, respectively, Glazunov’s Concerto and Kancheli’s Night Prayers, was so warm, so sublimely mellifluous and expressive, it would have melted stone. I have never heard saxophone playing so seductive and alluring. The Australian lass is a magician, whose playing elevated the music in her hands to a stature where one could only be beguiled.

The wonderfully fibrous, low-calorie, fat-free playing of Morton’s rather amazing string band in Tchaikovsky’s Serenade rounded off a near-perfect night of live music at its most virile and vital.

RECORDING: Tchaikovsky/Shostakovich on Linn Records (Gramophone)

Written by John Worrack
Published on Tuesday 30 January 2015

Coupling Tchaikovsky’s Serenade with Shostakovich’s Second Quartet seems eccentric even for an ensemble that, so the record blurb tells us, ‘habitually blends music from different ages, offering new perspectives and making unexpected connections’. Actually, it works well and is cleverly done. The performance of the Serenade is exceptionally lively and fresh, with an opening Andante exuberant rather than stately, and a bright, brisk Allegro whose speed, like that of the finale, sounds at times only just within reach. But all is well, and the Waltz has a freshness and sense of enjoyment matching the general spirit of a performance in which even the Elegy does not sound as if we should grieve too seriously.

But what has all this to do with Shostakovich’s Second String Quartet, a considerably longer work written in the depths of 1944 and for a different medium? Jonathan Morton, the Ensemble’s leader and director, has taken some risks. The relationship between the solo violin’s cantor-like intoning – another instance of Shostakovich’s deep sympathy with Jewish life and culture – loses something, or at any rate sounds substantially different, when pitted [against] an ensemble rather than three other players. On the other hand, Shostakovich was testing the capacity of the string quartet to an extreme towards the end of the work (even if this of itself has a point), and here the extra richness and depth do suit the music. Morton does not attempt to lighten Shostakovich’s Waltz, which the composer himself compared to that in the Third Suite of Tchaikovsky (who designated it ‘Valse mélancolique’). There is, though, a major difference between the two finales, though they both deal in variation technique, Tchaikovsky with plenty of folkish merriment, Shostakovich in a more developmental and reflective manner. The two works, in fact, are not only extremely well and intelligently played but give the listener much food for thought about Russia in their juxtaposition.

Buy Online Now

Recording: Tchaikovsky/Shostakovich on Linn Records (The Times)

Written by Richard Morrison
Published on Saturday 14 February 2015

The main interest here is Jonathan Morton’s new string-orchestra arrangement of Shostakovich’s Second String Quartet, with Morton himself leading the excellent Scottish Ensemble and playing the haunting, Jewish-inflected violin solo in the slow movement. This wartime music (1944) has an epic, tragic and at times terrifying quality anyway, which this clever expansion underlines, and the performance is properly tense and volatile. Plus a wiry performance of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings – sinuous rather than lush, but superbly virtuosic.

Buy Online Now

Recording: Tchaikovsky/Shostakovich on Linn Records (The Observer)

Written by Fiona Maddocks
Published on Sunday 22 February 2015

Built around a dozen string players, the Scottish Ensemble is a byword for vigorous music-making, combining the prowess of solo playing with the discipline of small-scale ensemble. Here they find connections and departure points in one Russian and one Soviet work. Their performance of Tchaikovsky’s smiling Serenade for Strings Op 48 zips along with grace and fluency except, appropriately, in the pensive Larghetto elegiaco third movement. The group’s director, Jonathan Morton, has arranged Shostakovich’s expansive, folk-inspired Second String Quartet (1944) for string orchestra. The Overture takes on a full-blooded rustic energy while the Waltz nods back at Tchaikovsky, but now in dark, macabre mode. The Scottish Ensemble’s crystal-clear playing is a joy.

Buy Online Now

RECORDING: Tchaikovsky/Shostakovich on Linn Records (The Herald)

Written by Michael Tumelty
Published on Sunday 15 February 2015

HERE’S an imperative for CD collectors and fans of the Scottish Ensemble.

Released tomorrow is the orchestra’s first recording on Linn Records in a decade. It is a stonker, with a characteristically big-boned, confident and (under the consummately authoritative leadership of Jonathan Morton) compelling performance of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade For Strings, the greatest of all classics for string orchestra. It’s a piece where ensembles often engage in some wallowing, which can be lovely. That’s not what you get here, where Morton’s basic tempo is swift and forward-moving, bringing a tremendous drive to the piece. There is a fabulous lilt to the Waltz, great intensity and beauty in the Elegy, an exhilaration in the whirlwind Finale, and a splendid mix of detail and sweep in the natural resonance of the recording venue, the Caird Hall. There is also a powerhouse performance of Morton’s ‘bigged-up’ version of Shostakovich’s Second String Quartet, which deserves a wee essay elsewhere. Good timing for their City Hall concert on February 24.

Buy Online Now 

SE Songbook at The Old Fruitmarket (The Herald)

Written by Michael Tumelty
Published on Sunday 17 May 2015
Read on The Herald website

****

THE loveliest night of the year, perhaps? You know, generally I would avoid like the plague being seen to presume what other people might think or like. Dangerous territory, when all of our responses to music are so individual and so different. But just this once, at the risk of abrading sensitive musical palates, dare I suggest that Jonathan Morton’s creative choice to make the theme of the closing concert for his Scottish Ensemble season An American Songbook, with classics from the great popular repertoire of the last century, from Gershwin to Mancini, was absolutely on the pulse of what his audience wanted on Saturday night. He hit the nail right on the head, and the crowd loved it.

It seemed to me that, as the Old Fruitmarket, dressed in its cabaret/cafe livery and flooded with a darkly-lit ambience, while its floor became steadily-packed with dancing couples, strictly old-style, and the strings of the Scottish Ensemble filled the place with the sound of all this fabulous, ageless music, I have not seen so many smiling faces in a long time, nor felt such warmth emanating from a crowd: powerful, affecting stuff, music. The atmosphere was intoxicating, and electric when a couple of tango dancers took the floor. All the music was lovely; and so was the night.

With just the ensemble strings, James Gorman on kit, Anna-Jane Casey a richly-authentic voice (Blossom Dearie being among her favourites) and, underpinning, and indeed characterising, the whole programme, Jamie Manson’s glorious and consistently stylish arrangements (he played bass throughout) all you could do was smile, laugh, cry; or dance: cheek to cheek.

SE Songbook at The Old Fruitmarket (TV Bomb)

Written by Alice Elms
Published on Saturday 16 May 2015
Read on the TV Bomb website

It’s an absolute deluge of treats that the Scottish Ensemble has prepared for its Songbook concert in Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket, one that celebrates a distinctive ten years of the group’s work with Jonathan Morton at its artistic helm. In an elaboration of prior ‘tea dance’ concerts, the ensemble unfurls this ballroom theme in Glasgow to offer a full evening’s worth of American Songbook and Music Hall classics arranged for strings, with sleek dancers from Dance Glasgow flitting through the audience, and West End star Anna-Jane Casey dazzling centre stage for the vocal numbers.

There is aplomb in every detail of the night’s event, from the ‘Musical Menu’ atop every cabaret table to sartorial touches including tails, and of course, those stunningly delivered arrangements: it’s easy to see why this ensemble have garnered a reputation for pushing things to the hilt. The Old Fruitmarket, its balconies festooned with dimly glowing red bulbs, provides the perfect backdrop with an understated glamour vying with a touch of louche. If not every musical nuance reaches those seated towards the back, then there is an easy remedy; take heed of Morton’s many entreaties to dance, and dive into that often bustling space at the foot of the band. This is not the type of event for quibbling over acoustic intricacies.

But, it is an event to revel in dancing opportunities, and it really is unusual to hear such accomplished musicians playing at this level to an audience that feels free to move. Morton, in fact, repeatedly and enthusiastically encourages it, exclaiming (with ever gallant cheek) “it’s amazing what an interval bar can do”, once that opportunity has wheedled the shier dancers from their seats. This liveliness doesn’t dampen the audience’s capacity for hush when required though, as descends with the deliciously subdued warmth of Irving Berlin’sWhat’ll I Doin which alternating string soloists intone as much sweet nostalgia and regret as any human voice could muster.

Each time Anna-Jane Casey – the night’s actual star vocalist – glides onstage, the ensemble mutes their sound with nimble ease. Her voice has a pearly roundness that, though not wildly loud or idiosyncratic, has a reserved and understated power. That’s Amore (Harry Warren) gets the most spirited delivery of Casey’s numbers, prompting a few outbursts of jubilant audience sing-along, while the string players finally let-rip (shedding their carefully accompaniment-tempered sound) for a rapturous I Only Have Eyes For You (Harry Warren).

Morton leads the band throughout with the charismatic dance-like movements that characterise his playing, and demonstrates his versatility with solos that range from the aptly tender playing of Tenderly (Walter Gross) – a slow waltz in gorgeously restrained arrangement – to snippets of virtuosic string-crossing that are approached with folksy, carefree abandon (Sous Le Ciel, Hubert Giraud). Equally, he knows when to let other players take precedence. Double bass player James Manson, who is responsible for the majority of the evening’s arrangements, often seems to propel things along from the back of the ensemble with his bubbling and elastic loquaciousness (most noticeably in Tea For Two by Vincent Youmans), demonstrating his ease in this style.

A programme that spans these ballroom and American jazz classics should give the audience free reign to drift with the ebb and flow of their danced, tapped, or still responses to each song. Scottish Ensemble must be applauded for creating an event with the freedom, space and attitude to foster this, and expertly delivering each musical number. A delightful evening, awash with glamour, elegance, and the joy of dancing to live music.

SE Inversion reviews

Our audiences loved travelling through time with us during our SE Inversion concerts in Perth, Inverness, Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow in April. You can read them all on our reviews page
Some of our audience got in touch via Twitter too to tell us what they thought:
@lynneperkins: A big #FF to @ScotEnsemble. Brilliant concert in Perth on Monday. You must hear it – Edinburgh tonight, Glasgow tomorrow
@sandymatheson: You can always count on @ScotEnsemble to bring some new and thrilling music, with string break recovery thrown in. Tremendous! @edenCourt
@nicola_pagepark: I enjoy discovering new composers through the inventive programming of @ScotEnsemble – the Ligeti piece from SE Inversion was sublime!
If you’ve been to a Scottish Ensemble concert, and want to let us know what you thought, you can tweet us @scotensemble or leave a comment on our Facebook page

Latest Reviews – December 2011

You can browse some of the latest reviews from our Baltic Renaissance tour here.
The atmospheric venues and haunting, powerful music made for an unusual festive experience.  The Baltic countries are home to some of today’s most exceptional composers and these concerts offered a flavour of each state, as well as the drama and poise of the music of the English Renaissance.  We were delighted to hear many positive comments from our audiences, particularly regarding the main work of the evening – Peteris Vasks’ Distant Light, which seemed to entrance both those familiar with the composer, and those for whom this concert was a first insight into his work.
If you would like to discover more about the composers featured in the Baltic Renaissance tour, then why not check out one of our Spotify playlists here, which features other works by some of these great musicians.
 

Latest Reviews – October 2011

Scottish Ensemble with Alasdair Beatson
Having recently completed a successful tour with Alasdair Beatson, we are delighted to have received some enthusiastic reviews for several of our performances across Scotland.
These articles are now available to read through the Reviews page of our website.
The innovative programme, which combined works by Mendelssohn and Stravinsky, caught the imagination of our audiences and inspired interesting new ways of considering these composers.  This unusual pairing, along with Alasdair Beatson and Jonathan Morton’s exuberant solo performances, made for an engaging and dynamic concert experience.
 

Latest Reviews – September 2011

September 2011 – with Alison Balsom
Having reached the end of the 2011 Summer Season, we are delighted to have received some great reviews for our concerts in the Lammermuir Festival and in Perth Concert Hall.
You can read these now by clicking on the Reviews page of the website.
The performances included a number of baroque concerti, as well as the Scottish premiere of Seraph, a work written for Alison and the Ensemble by Scottish composer, James MacMillan.  A co-commission by the Scottish Ensemble and Perth Concert Hall, Seraph was first performed in Wigmore Hall earlier this year.  Two short Fantasias by Purcell completed the programme.

The Guardian – July 2011

Andrew Clements
Published – Friday 1 July 2011
Kings Place, London, Thursday 30 June 2011
****
The latest of Kings Place’s mini-series centres on composer John Woolrich. He has curated three concerts featuring groups with whom he has a particularly close relationship – the Scottish Ensemble, Britten Sinfonia and the London Sinfonietta – all performing Woolrich’s own music alongside that of composers who are particularly important to him.
The Scottish Ensemble’s programme was all about homages. It began and ended with string-orchestra arrangements – Mozart’s tribute to Bach, his C minor Adagio and Fugue K546, and a superb account of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet D810 in Mahler’s version, which the 12 players managed to make nimble and tightly sprung, as well as sonorously rich.
Within that frame of arrangements for strings were three of Woolrich’s own pieces, two of those recompositions of earlier music. Ulysses Awakes is a paraphrase of Monteverdi, in which a solo viola (Catherine Marwood here) sings the hero’s first great aria from The Return of Ulysses, and 10 more strings surround it with echoes of that early baroque world. It’s a powerfully effective piece, which manages to be utterly faithful to the spirit of Monteverdi and yet entirely part of Woolrich’s musical world, too.

If seven of Wolf’s songs from the Italian Songbook were more straightforward arrangements, then the Capriccio, written by the Scottish Ensemble and its leader Jonathan Morton in 2009, is pure Woolrich. A miniature violin concerto in one movement, it careers along from one abrasive musical idea to the next, before gathering itself into a fierce motoric climax and finally collapsing from exhaustion. It’s a brilliant display piece, which Morton and his group played with tremendous enthusiasm and their usual pinpoint precision.