Published on Sunday 19 February 2017
Written by David Smythe
Kelvingrove Art Gallery bustles with visitors every day, but at night becomes a theatrically lit Glasgow City landmark. There is something magical about a museum at night, for as the lighting dimmed, the main hall overlooked by its famous organ became a dramatic setting for this concert exploring the political, spiritual and emotional power of music.
IT was an odd coincidence that saw two performances of the 14-year-old Mendelssohn’s 10th String Symphony on successive days in Glasgow, the BBC SSO’s Thursday concert under Alpesh Chauhan opening with the piece, and Jonathan Morton choosing it and the 6th to begin each half of this memorable programme. The earlier work, written when young Felix was just 12, perhaps has less evidence of his own distinct signature as you would expect, and here it served another formative purpose as both players and capacity audience attuned to the reverberant acoustic of the space – to my ears a task achieved by the brisk finale.
Mendelssohn’s childhood home in Berlin was a magnet for artistic intellectuals, the family putting on private performances to entertain the distinguished visitors. Mendelssohn wrote 12 string symphonies for these occasions by the time he was 15, incredibly never performed in public until their discovery in the State Library of East Berlin in 1950. The String Symphony no. 6 in E flat major written by the 12-year-old composer showed an extraordinary grasp of musical form with its dancing opening with lots of dramatic unison passages. A beautiful central movement with elegant playing from cellos and bass with strong hymn-like powerful chords was followed by a Prestissimo scurry to the finish. Starting the second half, String Symphony no. 10 in B minor begins to display some trademark styles, from a mournful Adagio to an energetic Allegro. The players, urged on by leader and director Jonathan Morton, conveyed all the youthful energy and vigour in a joyous performance. Soirees at the Mendelssohn household must have been fun indeed.
Arvo Pärt’s Silouan’s Song is an intense expression of deep spiritual faith, the music a series of phrases, each of several bars followed by pauses demanding absolute concentration from the players. We have to wait for the bass to come in, but when it does, it adds ethereal depth and beauty, crowned by a moving violin solo at the central climax, the building’s bathroom-like four second reverberation adding to the atmosphere.
Continuing the spiritual theme, Latvian Pēteris Vasks Viatore, dedicated to Arvo Pärt, imagined a traveller journeying under a starry and endless universe. A shimmering motif wove through the upper strings representing eternity alternating with a rich travelling musical theme beginning in the lower strings and gradually taken up by all. Morton’s players put a slight crescendo on the last note of phrases, almost like a question mark, drawing us further into the piece and deepening its intensity up to the last glissando as the music vanishes into thin air.
The Ensemble was joined by violinist Alina Ibragimova for Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s sombre Concerto funebre, written in 1939 during the terrifying annexation of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis. Hartmann survived the war through self-imposed musical silence, revising this piece in 1959, but the music is understandably dark and brooding offering only little glimmers of hope. Ibragimova gave a mesmerising performance, her elegiac lament giving the impression of bravely going against the grain, leading the Ensemble into new and challenging ideas. A fast urgent unison heralded a central angular section with a passionate and angry workout for the soloist, thrilling for us to watch as Ibragimova played as if possessed. The work ended on hopeful beauty with a tender violin solo, the Ensemble kindling warmth, yet it was easy to see why this work was considered too dangerous for public consumption in a world turned on its dark side.
Ibragimova is famed for her individual interpretation of Bach, and to round this concert off it was a special treat to hear her performance of Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major. The Ensemble was energetic and tight, earthy in the first movement, delicate in the second and vibrantly dancing at the end. Ibragimova performed without a score, eschewing vibrato for a cleaner more resonant sound filling her dynamic performance with ornament and energy. She engaged every section of the Ensemble in turn during her performance, moving towards the players, infectious in her enjoyment and our delight. The excitement of Bach heard afresh certainly caught the imagination of the sold out crowd.
The Kelvingrove acoustic took a bit of getting used to with the long reverberation tending to blur the details in the Mendelssohn and Bach, but the Ensemble tackled the challenge like an artist smudging the edges of a graphite drawing, bringing out different characteristics in the music. Wandering round the galleries in the interval and afterwards was an unexpected additional bonus.