In Scotland, where the word 'Baltic' functions as a colloquial substitute for 'extremely cold', it's odd to come across a programme on this theme in August. Fans of the ensemble Mr. McFall's Chamber delight in such idiosyncrasies and would not be thrown to find an embrace of tangos at the programme's heart. That there were Finnish tangos might be a surprise. The eponymous Robert McFall had been introduced to Finnish tango by the late musicologist, writer and broadcaster Jan Fairley, to whose memory the concert was dedicated.

Mr. McFall's Chamber
Mr. McFall's Chamber

Toivo Kärki's Täysikuu and Unto Mononen's Satumaa glided with the discreet charm of the European tango, as opposed to the drive of its Argentinian counterpart. These elegant pieces featured the clear, inevitable sounding harmonies which aid dancers. The part-writing was nicely brought out and the balance perfect. More substantial, and original, was Aulis Sallinen's Introduction and Tango Overture, Op. 74a. While firmly in tonality's camp, the adventurous harmonies contrasted nicely with the preceding items. The ensemble skilfully navigated the quixotic change between pulsing, dance-like passages and more searching ones.

The evening's most dynamic tango item featured only two musicians, pianist Maria Martinova and violinist Cyril Garac, both of whom play in the much sought-after quartet Tanguarda. Juan Carlos Cobián's Los Mareados is a gem of Argentinian tango's 'epoca dorada' (golden age). This duo version was beautifully arranged by Tanguarda's bassist, Eduardo Teruggi. Describing intoxication's failed attempt to numb the pain of doomed romance, the giddy music sways from the impassioned to the desolate. This was very expressively played by two musicians with a great rapport, and wonderful feeling for the genre. Although, in some of the more dynamic moments, the violin struggled to emerge clearly above the piano, the dynamics of the performance had tremendous life, especially the sudden quiet moments.

Martinova also provided Lithuania's virtuosic contribution to the Baltic evening with Zita Bružaitė's Bangos (Waves). Comparisons with Einaudi's Le Onde are unavoidable. The harmony, however, is less euphoric than Einaudi's and the ending much more violent. Different kind of sea?

The Estonian part of our tour was represented by Pärt and Tüür. Erkki-Sven Tüür's Dedication is a celebration of overtones for cello and piano. In addition to conventionally played notes, the pianist repeatedly reaches inside the piano, scraping the fingernail along low strings before plucking. The result is a lasting, ethereal mix of edgy harmonics underpinned by a harsh bass note. The cello part, magnificently played by Su-a Lee, mixes artificial harmonics and bold, soaring melodies. In this theatrically start-and-stop piece, there is a delicious overhang of notes from a frenziedly repeated piano arpeggio accompaniment. The balance here was excellent and the sound reverberated in the Queen's Hall's wonderful acoustic. Pärt's Fratres, in its string quartet version, was a finely executed study in the quietude of monastic office. Given Pärt's religious background and the fraternal title, I imagine the paired pizzicato cello notes, which punctuate the various sections, to represent a liturgical bell. It is in the sectional nature of the piece that I felt this performance excelled. Often, the dynamics' gentle gradient emerges more like a series of all too deliberate steps. Both the ascent and descent in this performance were perfect.

Virtuoso pianist Olli Mustonen's neoclassical Toccata borrows unashamedly from Bach and Mustonen's compatriot Sibelius. On first hearing, it seemed like the thrillingly played, contrapuntal outer sections were not matched by the more repetitive, low-geared central section. Perhaps that's what contrast is all about, but I was glad when the piece regained momentum. This piece, which closed the concert, was an effective counterbalance to Kalevi Aho's opening Lamento, in its version for two violas. Robert McFall joined the ensemble's regular violist Brian Schiele in this piece. Written for two essentially melodic instruments, harmony was surprisingly prominent. Clusters contrasted nicely with more conventional and modal sounds. There was a metrical freedom in this performance which enhanced the elegiac nature.

Sibelius featured in the encore: a rendering of the anthemic section of Finlandia featuring Su-a Lee on musical saw. Despite this perhaps surprising change in instrumentation, the moving solemnity of this hymn-like melody shone, such that anyone with a finely tuned sense of protocol might have been tempted to stand.

The highlight of my evening was a piano sextet version of Sibelius' Einsames Lied ('Song of Solitude'). Originally incidental music for the play Belshazzar's Feast, this lovely instrumental version featured viola and cello in parallel melody over a gentle ostinato rhythm. Haunted by the piece since hearing it, I was struck at the time by two musical paradoxes. Despite the ostinato, the music seemed to float, thanks to the sensitivity of those playing. Moreover, solitude was being beautifully conveyed by six very connected musicians – a connection wrought of many solitary hours honing individual art.

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