Our Scandinavian neighbours are increasingly peppering the news as we in Scotland benchmark ourselves with them ahead of the independence referendum in September next year. This “Nordic Nights” concert, candlelit for Christmas, was a well-timed showcase of new and established pieces from Finland, Norway and Denmark. The eye-catching Nordic jumper posters promoting this evening was a playful nod to a popular TV series.

Scottish Ensemble © Joanne Green
Scottish Ensemble
© Joanne Green

To set the scene, the Scottish Ensemble chose Finland’s much-loved Andante Festivo. Composed by Sibelius as a string quartet to celebrate nature, it was rescored for string orchestra by the composer and is played at graduations and solemn state occasions. While it is certainly melancholic in parts, there is humanity in the great, sweeping chords and major passages. A single-movement hymn to humanity, it was the obvious piece to pick for the composer’s own funeral. The ensemble tackled this with a passion that was a hallmark of this concert.

For the central part of the evening, the backbone was the well-loved five-movement Holberg Suite by Greig. The Ensemble do like to perform differently, so Greig’s movements were interspersed with three movements from The Fiddlers by Einojuhani Rautavaara, and a new composition, specially written for this occasion by Danish composer Christian Winther Christensen called Pre-Air. To begin, leader Jonathan Morton explained that Christensen uses sounds normally heard by string players alone, and demonstrated the percussive tap of fingers finding positions on fingerboards and fingers sliding to new positions, while cellist Alison Lawrance dragged a bow, one hand on each end, up the strings. Teasingly, it was then left up to the audience to work out what was being played.

Rautaavara’s Fiddlers is his first work, sourced from wild folk tunes he heard in the Ostrobothnia region of Finland. Strong, majestic but dissonant chords opened “The Narbo Villagers in Fine Fettle”, and a repeated, twelve-note phrase on the solo violin pervaded “Mr Jonas Kapsin”, soon taken up across the group against a menacing double bass. “Jumps” was a showcase of reckless fiddle tunes requiring precision playing from everyone, with super-fast runs in unison but going helter-skelter in every direction. Morton was literally dancing on his feet for this, and the whole group clearly enjoyed the energy.

Christensen’s new work, in several parts, was very distinctive in his use of strange noises. Players bowed lightly across bridges, making breathing sounds, or wiped the strings up and down, making whooshing noises. There were more percussive sounds too, from bows bounding off strings, sometimes col legno, and other times using the very edge of the bow hairs. Occasionally, notes escaped, and I think most were planned. At times there was enormous effort put into not very much sound. Even in this material, which pushed the boundaries considerably, there was some humour, but it made essentially a performance to watch rather than listen to.

In between the new, Grieg’s Holberg music was the constant reference material, tackled with energy, spirit and enormous passion by the ensemble, who once again took a familiar work and made it sound sparkling, as if new.

The second half was an arrangement of Greig’s String Quartet no. 1 in G minor by Morton. It is interesting to watch when Morton keeps to the quartet, and how he introduces the other instruments, including double bass. Here, Morton, Tristan Gurney, Catherine Marwood and Alison Lawrance were the mainstay of the performance, each getting plenty to do with expressive solos. The second-movement Romanze sounded like a dance orchestra gone wild in waltz time, before the music drifted into silence.

The wonderfully theatrical setting of St John’s Kirk, with dimmed lights, candles and a tall Christmas tree in the distance with twinkling white lights, seemed to bring a passion and energy in this concert which was particularly intense. Lively folk, these Scandinavians, but a touch unusual as well, which is what was particularly compelling about this programme. A lively encore of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride (complete with Jenny Clark from the Scottish Ensemble staff on bells) sent us out with a festive spring in our steps.