The friendly relationship between Scotland and Poland is warm and longstanding, traced back to trade agreements between Aberdeen and Danzig (now Gdansk) in the 1400s. Alexander Chalmers was Mayor of Warsaw four times between 1671 and 1703. One of Edinburgh’s newest statues is of Wojtek the Bear, bought as a living and enlisted mascot by Polish Corps Soldiers and who ended up living in Edinburgh Zoo. Robert McFall’s programming was modern Polish music, but grounded in six tangos from the 1930s which provided a wistful central core. Threading through all the music was an uncomfortable restlessness reflecting the country’s difficult and turbulent history in the years following the carefree lively tango nights.

Wojtek the Bear © David Smythe
Wojtek the Bear
© David Smythe

Grażyna Bacewicz was leader of the Polish Radio Orchestra before the German occupation, continuing to perform and compose in clandestine concerts, seeking refuge in Lublin, but returning to the Warsaw rubble to continue composing. Her Piano Quintet no. 2, written towards the end of her life in 1965, is a personal and intimate work, a striking mixture of rough vigour, contemplative reflection and odd touched of humour. The quintet performed with deep concentration blending calm sighing passages of disquiet with dashing glissandi, astringent chromatics and loud piano thumps. The slow movement passed three delicate note fragments between the players peppered with soft col legno taps and harmonics. The final frantic Allegro had lively question and answer phrases as the viola and cello tried to assemble a tune. It was a joy to watch the players making sense of the avant-garde.

Krzsysztof Penderecki was a child in Dębica in the south of Poland in the war’s shadow, studying music in Kraków where as a student he wrote Three Miniatures for Clarinet and Piano. Maximiliano Martín’s clarinet was by turns lively interrogative and softly haunting, Simon Smith’s busy piano part underpinning all. With a final dancing flourish from Martín, they were suddenly over in no time.

McFall's Chamber © Douglas Robertson
McFall's Chamber
© Douglas Robertson

Penderecki wrote his dramatic two movement Piano Sextet in 2000. A sinister repeated left hand piano note and the rattle of Alec Frank-Gemmill’s muted horn was accompanied by leaping motifs passed between clarinet and Ben Marquise Gilmour’s violin. Su-a-Lee’s soft cello solo was interrupted by a spiky clarinet, but as the opening piano notes returned, she embellished these into a sinister marching bass line, a relentless seemingly unstoppable tread, brought to a final halt by the horn and some brilliant clarinet playing. The contrasting second movement was more serene, Brian Schiele’s viola quietly intense. Frank-Gemmill’s horn floated dreamy phrases from his new stance in the balcony behind us, becoming more agitated as the music thickened. There were hints of Klezmer from the clarinet, sounds Penderecki would have heard as a child. Although a soaring cello solo, intensely slow and heroic brought the work to a close, this was not a warm piece as the final phrase was on icy harmonic strings, a chilling and thought-provoking end to the evening.

As a contrast, before and after the interval, we revisited Warsaw’s tango scene with six pieces. Tango is almost in McFall’s DNA, so it was fun to watch the players, now joined by Rick Standley on double bass, all leaning into this enjoyable dance music. Jerzy Petersburski’s stately Tango Milonga was a hit at the time, recorded by Edith Piaf as Oh Donna Clara. Artur Gold’s Where is Your Heart? Zygmunt Wiehler’s Lip, Stanislaw Ferszko’s When You’re Gone, Wiktor Krupinski’s  Hug me, Squeeze me, Kiss me and finally Fanny Gordon’s (Skrwawione Serce) Bleeding Heart were a testament to the number of dance band composers, and the popularity of the tango. It is wonderful music, with an infectious beat, but has a melancholy running through it: many musicians and dance band players perished in death camps, some managing to flee the country. Seen through the prism of history, the passion the players put into the performance was indeed bittersweet.