Every December, the Scottish Ensemble takes a candlelit concert around Scotland. The music is not usually Christmassy, yet often suits the more contemplative season of Advent and comes as a complementary alternative to the many festive musical performances on offer and a relief from carols on loop in the shops.
This was a concert of two works with variations: Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge followed by J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. But first, another postcard from Glasgow composer Martin Suckling, who was so moved by the thrilling start to the Scottish Ensemble’s concert in Dundee in October, where local string players processed from all parts of the hall to the stage playing Pachelbel’s Canon, that he wanted to write a piece where the lead violin played a ground and the other players followed. To begin, Jonathan Morton demonstrated what a ground was by playing Pachelbel’s famous one, normally heard in the bass, and inviting a sing-along. Suckling’s short piece Mr Jonathan Morton, His Ground (Postcard no. 2) took a violin ground and turned it on its head weaving it against dissonance and harmony using changing combinations of players.
How would you feel if a thirteen-year-old boy pestered you for lessons in composition? Frank Bridge, a composer but also violin and viola teacher, was canny enough to spot the precocious abilities of the young Benjamin Britten who had been writing music since he was seven. Bridge nurtured Britten’s talents through the delicate teenage years and beyond, introducing him to Schoenberg, Berg and Debussy amongst others, but also acquainting him with pacifism, which would have a lasting impact on Britten’s life and work. It was a happy relationship, and Britten repaid his teacher with a dazzling composition, written when he was only 24 for a virtuoso string orchestra at the Salzburg Festival in 1937. Britten took a theme from Bridge’s Three Idylls for string quartet and produced a set of variations, each reflecting an aspect of his teacher’s personality.
The Scottish Ensemble played Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge when they were last in St John’s Kirk in 2007, and this concert marked a welcome return to this atmospheric venue. After a crisp and percussive introduction, the haunting theme gave way to a darker Adagio, brightened with the following March, journeying through Italian arias, a Viennese waltz and a blistering Fugue and Finale. Performances of familiar pieces can suddenly ambush you unawares. Towards the end, sandwiched between bright, energetic music, led by strong tolling chords on divisi cellos and bass, the mood turned sombre for the Funeral March, written to represent Bridge’s sympathy, and a sudden chilling pause for reflection in a piece premièred in a tense pre-war Austria. It was as if a dark cloud had passed across the sun. In many ways, this piece is quintessential Scottish Ensemble territory, and in this performance which was positively bursting with new energy and life, there was truly thrilling playing in the performance of the night.
For many, J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations has become linked, desert-island style, with Glenn Gould’s iconic recording, so it was refreshing to hear Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s 1992 arrangement of the piece for string orchestra. On stage, the ensemble swapped over the positions of second violins with cellos and bass to bring an antiphonal aspect to the 30 variations, as the music often bounced to and fro between the violin sections and leaders. In a well-paced performance, with often only three of four players taking a part each, this was a successful adaptation of the keyboard piece, with virtuoso continuo cello from Alison Lawrance. It was fun to spot the canon in every third variation as the momentum gained in energy to the final Quodlibet, before the well-known theme returned.
St John’s Kirk has had a recent makeover, with welcome comfortable seating, better lighting and general audience facilities. On a bitterly cold night, however, the new heating system was turned up to full blast pre-performance, and although turned down somewhat during the playing, it remained very intrusive. Chords in the Britten which should have otherwise have drifted off into silence in the great stone building were soon lost in background fan noise, which was particularly disappointing. Perhaps this really is a summer-only venue, as the balance between warmth and silence seemed nigh impossible to achieve.