Review: Scottish Ensemble

First published in the Guardian on 12 December, 2013

Scottish Ensemble
Wellington Church, Glasgow

Scottish Ensemble concerts are never straight-up concerts these days: there’s always some perky twist. For this Nordic-themed programme there were Christmas jumpers and sleigh bells. Management played along in the encore (a peppy string arrangement of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride) and dished out party hats to the audience, a handful of whom gamely stuck them on.

The real novelty was the Ensemble’s approach to Grieg’s Holberg Suite, whose five movements they spliced with music by Rautavaara and a new work written for the project by Danish composer Christian Winther Christensen. The architecture was thoughtfully put together. The three scores were bound together by their shared folk roots yet set each other in striking relief with clashing textures and harmonic languages. Rautavaara’s early suite The Fiddlers is gutsy, free-spirited and gleefully dissonant; Christensen’s Pre-Air explores the percussive noises made by fingers on strings and bows scraping out harmonics. It’s whispered, poised and playful, reminiscent of wintry evocations by Vivaldi and Purcell with a nod to Grieg in its bright rhythms.

The Holberg Suite itself was masterfully played by the Ensemble, from the rustic weight of the Sarabande to the skittish virtuosity of the Rigaudon. Moments in the Praeludium and Gavotte were too tightly sprung and lost some of their generous warmth; the Air, though, was a lesson in simple lyricism.

The concert opened with Sibelius’s Andante festivo, led by the violins with plaintive, silvery purity. It closed with Grieg’s First String Quartet in a new arrangement by the Ensemble’s artistic director Jonathan Morton. Of all Morton’s arrangements to date this is among the least fiddly and most successful. The throng of the Ensemble sound really suited the dark energy of the original, and their full-throttle drive was refreshing when Grieg’s music is too often mistaken as quaint.