It was a glorious midsummer’s evening in Glasgow, the streets near the University busy with graduation parties heading off for evening refreshment and BBC Radio 3 coming to the end of broadcasting two hours of live music from the Students’ Union, showcasing the vibrancy of classical music in the city. Across the road from the University and in contrast to its gothic revival style, Wellington Church’s full colonnade of Corinthian columns is mightily impressive. The sunshine streamed through the windows for the entirety of this short concert of Bach and Pergolesi given by students or recent graduates from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, as part of Glasgow’s West End Festival.

Wellington Church in Glasgow © David Smythe
Wellington Church in Glasgow
© David Smythe

Bach’s Cello Suites seem to have been with us forever, but are a fairly recent addition to the modern repertoire thanks to Pablo Casals who was the first to record them all. They have been arranged for many solo instruments, with the viola perhaps the nearest string instrument to the cello retaining a nutty quality to the lower strings and something of its mellowness. Violist Lukas Bowen gave a thoughtful performance of the Suite no. 2 in D minor, top brightness shining through the Prelude and a slight swing to the Allemande with its tricky sequences and cadenzas. The little-annotated suites are famously open to individual interpretation, and although there were colourful flourishes in the Courante, I was hoping for a little more abandon in the fearsome runs. Bowen captured the moodiness of the Sarabande with its dark double stopping and found an elegance in the Minuets, finally entering Bach’s full dancing mode in the Gigue with its bright running sequences in a brave performance. While I confess to missing the cello’s rich chestnut timbre, the viola is less cumbersome to get around, brighter at the top end throwing new light on the work in this interpretation.

Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater was commissioned by a church congregation in Naples to replace an outdated version by Scarlatti. It was the composer’s final work, just completed before his death from tuberculosis at only 26 years old, but with its focus on the clarity of message and human emotion, the piece has always been popular. There have been several versions, but this performance used a string quartet, continuo organ, with soprano and mezzo soloists – the forces used in 1736. The strings, ably led by Fanny Guiffo who set the different moods for each section, provided the delicate balance of attack and lyricism, with organist Alan Kitchen’s tasteful chamber registration on the building’s large original instrument adding subtle musical weight. It was fun to watch the excellent communication between the players, Kitchen leaning out from his console up in the balcony to catch Guiffo’s direction at critical moments.

The text of Stabat Mater is heartbreaking and sorrowful, yet Palestrina’s treatment is in galant style eschewing the complexities of Baroque in favour of simplicity, but with a lightness of touch which must have seemed at odds with the solemn Good Friday liturgy. Soprano Héloïse Bernard and mezzo Lauren Young both added a glorious operatic feel, their diction crystal clear, blending well together in perfect balance with the musicians. The organ and Simone Seales’ cello continuo provided the well-known opening walking bass, both singers dovetailing the melody, Young’s rich mezzo opening out gloriously to fill the building. A more forceful Cuius animam from Bernard with brusque attack fairly raced along, contrasting with the warmly sung grief-stricken duet O quam tristis

There were many highlights: Bernard’s pure sweet soprano devastating in the serious and sparsely scored Vidit suum and Young’s mezzo dancing along with the quartet on brightest of form in the following Eia Mater. A final anticipation of a safe journey to the glory of paradise Quando corps morietur was slow and solemn with mournful resolutions, but followed by a celebratory Amen, a sunny upbeat end to this enjoyable midsummer performance.