Dundee is on the final shortlist for the UK City of Culture 2017, and the final bid was given a rousing send-off by a large crowd in Tay Square outside the Caird Hall on 30 September. It was very fitting that on the same day, the Scottish Ensemble arrived back in Dundee to take part in a second residency in the city where the players have been building on community relationships forged during the last extended visit a year ago.

Scottish Ensemble © Joanne Green
Scottish Ensemble
© Joanne Green

To showcase the valuable work done, the first piece of this concert was given by the ensemble together with players from the Dundee Schools Orchestra, Dundee Symphony Orchestra and Dundee High School. Around 80 string players filled the stage, spilling up into the organ gallery and led by Jonathan Morton from his violin, gave a spirited performance of Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile. Though full of tunes, it is not a straightforward piece, and Morton’s direction and attention to detail of both dynamics and phrasing made this an exciting listen and a credit to all the local string players involved.

Outside the hall, after what has been a wonderful summer, a stiff easterly was blowing haar and rain across the city and as the Ensemble continued on its own with Morton’s compelling arrangement of Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 2, it was as if someone had opened a door to let the weather in, as Tchaikovsky’s sunshine gave way to a glimpse of the world on its dark side. This quartet was written in the summer of 1944 in just nineteen days at Ivanovo, a house of rest and creativity for composers 300km north-east of Moscow. Shostakovich wanted to reflect the success of the Russian army over the Nazis, but was also troubled both by the growing anti-Semitism in Russia and the emerging discoveries of the extent and nature of the Nazi atrocities as the Russians moved south, so both Russian folk and Jewish music is used throughout.

The piece opened with a folky theme which was underpinned with a restless and dissonant feel. A particular highlight was the second movement and the two extended solos for violin set against long sustained chords. Morton played wonderfully, seemingly completely lost in this Russian Orthodox idiom, taking the music right down to whisper-quiet intensity. After a lighter but muted waltz, the final movement began with a folk theme on solo viola followed by a series of variations culminating in a succession of solemn chords as if the composer was unquestionably underlining the message of troubled times.

Arranging this piece for a small string orchestra is clearly not as simple as writing out the quartet parts for more players, as there is a bass to fit in and solo parts which must still be played by one player. But the additional players immediately heightened its impact, from the angular attack in the first movement, providing dense but pianissimo held chords supporting solo violin in the second, to building to an intense and shattering A minor climax at the end. It was a brilliant performance of a devastating piece.

Two early student works by Shostakovich followed: Prelude and Scherzo, written when he was only seventeen, with the ensemble reduced to a double string quartet. The music shows early experimentation with dissonance, yet is rooted in the neo-classical, and it was fun watching snatches of tunes being traded amongst the players, each with a separate part. The Scherzo was frenetic and spiky with glissandos, but also with a lyrical cello solo accompanied by plucked strings, and it ended with a flourish.

We were back to the full complement of players for the sunny Serenade for Strings in C major by Tchaikovsky and a completely different soundworld of romantic, rich harmony, strong playing and surging melodic lines. Written in homage to Mozart, like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik this is a large, four-movement work for string orchestra, but the music is very much Tchaikovsky’s own. The ensemble clearly enjoyed playing this, playfully holding back the tempo in the second movement waltz before diving back into the tune, and having fun with the descending C major theme which ended the piece.

The ensemble included Young Artist players: two violins and a viola clearly relishing the experience of being part of this exciting group. An additional and unexpected delight saw ensemble play the Bond theme From Russia With Love, which was fitting in a building that famously doubled for Moscow in the iconic 1983 television adaptation of Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad.

Dundee can be proud of its young string players, and the Scottish Ensemble seems to have really enjoyed their time here in a city which has its fingers firmly crossed: the chosen UK City of Culture 2017 will be announced in Londonderry on 15 November.