We might imagine an all French programme featuring the music of Fauré, Debussy and Ravel would be as dreamy as the lovely warm spring afternoon in Glasgow, spilling into the austerely beautiful Mackintosh Church, an attractive new venue for the Scottish Ensemble. Bridging the romantic era and the 20th century, these composers are intertwined with the impressionism of the art world, yet the Ensemble’s treatment of the music made the case for some re-assessment, using the pastel paints sparingly and bringing out the tubes of stronger colours to present a surprisingly dynamic and vivid musical palette. Nothing in the programme was written for string orchestra, but the various arrangements gave individual pieces a greater heft allowing director Jonathan Morton a fuller dynamic range of interpretation.

Scottish Ensemble © Joanne Green
Scottish Ensemble
© Joanne Green

In a programme bookended by string quartets, Morton’s symphonic arrangement of Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor was the most successful. Opening with a harmonic strangeness with violins bowing right over the end of the fretboard, a series of themes appeared and were tackled with the Ensemble’s trademark bite reflecting the title of the movement Animé et três décidé, any lushness of harmonies being urgently moved along towards the spectacular unison coda. Exciting pizzicatos with expressive solos, particularly from the viola, introduced the second movement with shifting dynamics and combinations of players, Morton holding everything together to the split second as the plucked strings faded into the distance. We entered a dream world in the third movement with haunting themes on the cello and unison viola and violin, before a plaintive cello solo introduced a stormy helter-skelter finale with the players leaning into the music almost like a wild dance.

It was interesting to watch the subtle detail of Morton’s arrangement as individual players, not all from the front desks, would take different solo fragments, and in the final movement, Morton was not afraid to use the quartet by itself. The playing was exciting, but it was the shifting combinations of players which made this special and really sing like a symphony.

Like a musical tasting menu, we were offered four small pieces, all arranged by Jamie Manson. Alison Lawrence’s soaring cello solo in Fauré’s Aprês un rêve was flowing and strong, and Ravel’s Pièce en Forme de Habanera was by turns dreamy with a sinuous violin solo from Morton (eyes shut at times) with gentle syncopation and sliding chords. Fauré’s Berceuse had a beguiling swing with Morton’s colourful phrasing moving through the darker middle section, re-emerging into lightness. Finally, Debussy’s La Marche de la poupée de chiffon was a delightfully mocking cakewalk straight from the southern plantations. It is a fun piece but with a sinister edge showing itself, and the Ensemble took this to places a single piano could not go, with swoops, bouncing bows, off-beat accents and stealing audacious amounts of time from each other as they went, mischievously bending the beat.    

Pierre Louÿs racy collection of Sapphic Ancient Greek poetry, said to have been discovered on the walls of a tomb in Cyprus, astounded the academics and inspired his friend Debussy to compose Six Épigraphes antiques. Rather disappointingly, the verses were revealed as fake, but we have been left with the charming musical vignettes, Morton inviting us to simply let ourselves get lost in the six ‘soundscapes’. The music was carried by some tender solo work from a husky viola in particular, especially in the “Nameless Tomb” where a walking bass suggested moving on past the tremolos of death in the violins. A repeated note in the cellos game menace to “A Hymn to the Night”, and the Ensemble provided busy watery patter for “Morning Rain”.

To finish, the other quartet bookending the concert: Ravel Petit symphonie à cordes arranged by Rudolf Barshai in 2002 in a specially commissioned version for the Ensemble. A playful tune at the start gave way to a more mournful feel with changing phrases like shifting sunbeams. A pizzicato second movement was so lively we saw Morton hopping on one foot in his excitement, but the slow movement introduced by a mellow viola perhaps got to the heart of the work with rich beefy cellos, menacing with shifting patterns of dark and light. The finale was a riot of sound, with accents placed to surprise, the cellos daring each other to greater exuberance in a rocking bowing movement across their strings.

While the players gave an excellent performance, the unsung heroes were the arrangers who through the fuller sound of a small string orchestra helped us reassess the music of these turn of the century French composers, the works written around the time that Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed his lovely church.