When publisher and polymath John Calder needed a Baroque house band for his “Ledlanet Nights” festival in 1969, he approached Leonard Friedman, and the Scottish Baroque Ensemble was born, its first performance of Handel’s Alcina squeezed into the small hall of Ledlanet House. Fifty years on, the Scottish Ensemble tackles everything from Baroque to specially commissioned modern repertoire, but as importantly, has a reputation for pushing boundaries of performance into unexpected and exciting territory.

Scottish Ensemble at St John's Kirk (2015) © Fraser Band
Scottish Ensemble at St John's Kirk (2015)
© Fraser Band

As part of the 50-year celebrations, Leader and Artistic Director Jonathan Morton took some of the Ensemble’s musical milestones and threaded old and new together into a mosaic of two sequences of music, a thoughtful meditation suitable for a winter’s night. Stepping away from the seasonal bustle into the calm of the ancient St John’s Kirk in Perth, the Ensemble’s selection was nourishment for the soul, candlelight heightening the experience. Morton explained that we could follow the pieces in the programme, or sit back and just let the stream music work its magic.

A single thin high violin note set the scene for one of Górecki’s Three Pieces in the Old Style, slow solemn music emerging, the Ensemble sounding gorgeously ethereal and intensely dark. The mood deepened with Martin Suckling’s Postcard In Memoriam, notes more disjointed with ghostly tones from on-the-bridge playing, and as the cellos lamented, it seemed that the whole Ensemble was on eerily shifting sands.

Daniel Pioro wandered down the kirk softly playing an Indian Raga Kiravani, the Ensemble mostly in drone mode, two violins strumming providing percussive movement which moved seamlessly into Bartók’s arrangement of Pê-loc, a similarly sinuous piece. Momentum picked up with Holst’s Ostinato from his St Paul’s Suite, the Ensemble’s warm sound adding depth, before Anna Meredith’s Tullochgorm shattered the peace with its rhythmic energetic thumps, the music bending unnervingly before Jane Atkins’ viola suddenly broke away into a frenzied dance.

Grieg’s joyful Rigaudon from the Holberg Suite calmed the excitement somewhat, as Piers Hellawell’s Sound Carvings from the Water’s Edge took us to a section exploring nature, the players creating a series of powerful sound images. Vivaldi’s “Winter” from the Four Seasons is well known, but Jonathan Morton’s thin understated solo as he wandered the building depicted bare trees and a truly bleak landscape. To end the first half, Tavener’s Tears of the Angels was a revelation, the Ensemble’s soft playing drawing us in, the simple themes beautifully intertwining before disappearing off into a soft open fifth.

Morton insisted the lights were turned down even further for the second sequence, leaving the players in candlelight and us in the dark, the Kirk’s Christmas tree sparkling in the distance. A more romantic interlude headed up with the waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for String Orchestra, the players now visibly relaxing and enjoying the soupy harmonies of Walter Gross' Tenderly, Morton taking a dreamy solo.

Excerpts from Sibelius Rakastava, Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings kept the mood mellow. Alastair Savage stepped out amongst us for a traditional Shetland Reel Day Dawn, beginning quietly and given the slightly sliding accompaniment – a suggestion of a dawn seen by an up-all-night fiddler, blinking in amazement at the beauty of sunshine breaking over the water. 

A reflective Goldberg Variation and a lovely arrangement of Holst’s version of In the Bleak Midwinter with Alison Lawrance’s soulful cello might have rounded things off, but the Ensemble left us with an astonishing wintery northern soundscape in Estonian Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Insula Deserta. The music was simultaneously complicated and simple, ethereal in the upper strings like shards of ice hinting at the magic of the Northern Lights before moving into a more turbulent percussive phase. The final chords sounded simple initially, but there was something of another world about them, this music leaving us with a deep the sense of wonder, so powerful at this reflective time of year.

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