Review: Hebrides Ensemble with Thomas Bloch

First published in The Herald on 27 August, 2013

Hebrides Ensemble/Thomas Bloch
Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

It looks like a glass doner kebab that’s been turned on its side and trussed up with gold ribbons. It sounds a bit like a miniature mechanical pipe organ or a very breathy celeste. Legend once told that it could induce premature births and send you bonkers – which is probably why Donizetti originally used it for the mad scene in Lucia di Lammermoor. The glass harmonica is an archaic oddity, but it has its modern-day champions including French ondes-Martenot/glass harmonic specialist Thomas Bloch, who joined the Hebrides for this intriguing, bizarrely enchanting programme.

Mozart wrote a handful of works for the glass harmonica and Bloch played a solo one here – the Adagio in C K356/617a – with surprising eloquence. The instrument isn’t exactly built for agility, but still he managed to finesse dynamics, phrasing and even the odd splash of ornamentation. In Mozart’s Adagio and Rondo K617 and F-minor Fantasia K594 (imaginatively arranged by Lyell Cresswell), the strange voice became textural among strings and winds – an otherworldly cushioning that made the other instruments sound touchingly earnest in contrast.

The concert opened with Mozart’s Oboe Quartet, beautifully led by Georgian oboist Giorgi Gvantseladze: with a sweet sound, easy grace and fresh, rhapsodic nuances, this is an oboist I would go out of my way to hear again. Also on the programme were two works by the American composer George Crumb, who deals in sonic atmosphere via often gorgeous instrumental trickery. His Four Nocturnes were whispered but slightly too literal, while Vox Balaenae – 1970s music inspired by whale-song – was more absorbingly done with house lights down, masked musicians and some striking ensemble playing.