Ancient classical tales have inspired composers for generations with their high drama, exquisite poetry and wondrous stories that grip like a vice and won’t let go. A quick check of current television and film schedules demonstrates that we are as keen as ever on the old legends, so the Scottish Ensemble’s programme of a selection of music inspired by Ancient Greece was apt and topical. An eclectic mix of music was lined up, from Purcell to Stravinsky, with one of Scotland’s international opera singers, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill making her first appearance with the Ensemble and early music expert Matthew Truscott guest-leading.

Karen Cargill © Ken Dundas
Karen Cargill
© Ken Dundas

Bookending the concert was Stravinsky’s neo-classical ballet Apollo, written for a string orchestra of over 30 players, but here performed with both muscular verve and an amazing litheness with less than half those forces. Truscott’s leadership and arrangement of the players standing in a wider spacing, with violins arranged left and right changed the whole sound, emphasising Daniel Pioro’s counterbalancing leadership of the second violins in particular. Stravinsky’s ballet in ten short movements tells the story of the god Apollo visited by three muses, Calliope (poetry), Polyhymnia (mime) and Terpsichore (dance and song). Truscott coaxed a gloriously mellow sound from the players, the divisi parts adding richness to the classical rhythms of 17th-century France juxtaposed with bittersweet 20th-century harmonies. The dynamic range was exciting, from Truscott’s sensitive solo violin to big beefy down bowed chords with robust underpinning from the bass and cellos.

The abandonment of Ariadne on Naxos by Theseus on his voyage home after slaying the Minotaur has inspired music from Monteverdi to modern indie rock bands. There are various versions of the story, Haydn’s cantata Arianna a Naxos has the grief-stricken Princess moving through a whole spectrum of moods before meeting a tragic end. A pair of recitatives and arias began with the strings in full slow magisterial mode, Karen Cargill’s glorious voice full of mournful longing as Arianna seeks her love, her doubts growing restlessly. As the piece moves on, desperation and anger set in, Cargill’s huge voice opened out dramatically supported by the Ensemble’s full-bodied sound with rushing rising scales as Arianna furiously discovers her betrayal. Cargill’s rich timbre was perfect for the final moving and passionate aria as Arianna sees death as her only option left.

Dido’s fate is most famously explored by Berlioz in Les Troyens and by Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, here pieces from both works interleaved in a seemingly unlikely sequence which worked surprisingly well. The Ensemble’s long sighing phrases in the overture to Dido and Aeneas contrasted with its sprightly lively pasages, setting up Dido’s monologue “Ah je vous mourir” and the aria “Adieu, Fière cite” from the final act of Les Troyens. The Ensemble gave an impassioned performance, full of anguish while Cargill’s Dido darkly stormed, her golden voice sounding splendid in the dynamic acoustic of the Queen’s Hall, becoming gossamer-like as she became resigned to her fate in the aria.

An interlude of Purcell’s Fantasia no. 7 with its series of exquisitely unresolved cadences, originally written for viols ended with a held cello note, an instant segue into the descending ground bass of Dido’s Lament from Dido and Aeneas. It was interesting to see what Cargill, an opera singer more used to the big romantic repertoire in the largest opera houses, would make of one of early music's most famous arias in. Tender and sorrowful, Cargill gave a gentle performance, her large voice conveying a once imperious Queen, but reined in, completely devastated by Aeneas’ call of duty over passion. The Ensemble played out the final solemn rose petal chorus as Cargill walked to the back of the stage.

A final three movements of the opening Apollo ballet, bright and angular brought us forward to the 20th century with a rather sinister softly murmuring Apotheosis. An encore of a curtain tune from Purcell’s Timon of Athens, full of movement over a dancing cello ground rounded off the programme nicely.

****1