Bohemia lies in the geographical centre of eastern European turmoil and has weathered more than its fair share of political instability. It is a region that has produced and nurtured several major composers whose work was performed here at this themed concert of music depicting Love and War in the region. It was mostly an evening focusing on light, but gave us a sobering reminder of a world on its dark side. It was also a chance to hear rising star Canadian born mezzo-soprano Sophie Harmsen joining the Ensemble, on a rare visit to the UK from Germany where she has most recently studied and is based.

Sophie Harmsen © Günther Komnick
Sophie Harmsen
© Günther Komnick

Leader Jonathan Morton confessed that he was struggling to link Handel with Bohemia, but even so, three arias made for an invigorating opening, showcasing Harmsen’s voice with the Ensemble, augmented with harpsichord, on sparkling form. Starting from recitative, the aria “Where shall I fly?” from Hercules was remarkable in the demands placed on the singer’s range and had plenty of challenging runs, tackled with absolute assurance by Harmsen, her bright topped voice with a rich middle perfectly suiting this repertoire. Morton directed the Ensemble in a tight and sensitive accompaniment, especially in the second aria “Scherza infida” from Ariodante, with an exquisite cello solo against muted strings. Finally, “Crude furie” from Serse was a fast paced furious outburst of an aria, thrillingly sung.

It is heart-breaking to revisit the music of the Terezin concentration camp where the voices of many composers were later silenced at Auschwitz. Pavel Haas was a favourite pupil of Janáček and wrote Study for Strings in the camp where it was performed, conducted by Karel Ančerl, who himself miraculously survived. The work has two outer cheerful sections, with urgent dashing rhythms and even a fugue, but the shorter inner core is understandably introspective, the players suddenly quietening the mood to deepen the darkness. The comparatively recent entry of Janáček to mainstream repertoire in the UK only emphasised the void left by his able pupil, murdered by the Nazis aged only 45. We are only left to imagine what he and his fellow interned composers might have gone on to write.

Sophie Harmsen rejoined the Ensemble to perform Dvořák’s eight Love Songs Op.83, arranged for string orchestra and voice by David Matthews in 2008. In songs full of rich romantic harmonies, there was plenty of lyrical solo work from the players who gave a wonderfully organic and fluid performance. Harmsen, singing in Czech, truly inhabited the role of lovesick storyteller with a heartfelt succession of bittersweet tales, her voice opening out to a thrilling full sound. I hope we can hear more from this singer in the future.

Bohemian born violinist and composer Heinrich Biber wrote Battalia, his diverting study of war in 1673, using such an intriguing mixture of techniques that it might have been mistaken for a later composition. The work has seven short movements, telling the story of soldiers gathering for battle, merry-making, then reflective, before eventually fighting. The last movement is a lament for the dead ones. The pared-down ensemble relished the mixture of the Baroque sound with the unusual: striking instruments with bows, stamping feet and the players launching into a drunken song apiece, each in a different key, staggering into a marvellous cacophony. The double bass produced a snare drum sound with a cardboard rectangle. It was both compelling and entertaining.

Joseph Suk's Serenade for Strings concluded the programme. His teacher, Dvořák, had instructed his rather serious protégé to forget minor keys and embrace the approaching Bohemian summer with something sunnier. This four movement work exuded lyrical warmth and allowed the Ensemble to shine. The light and airy Andante also saw Morton and the leader of the second violins, Tristan Gurney, watching the other closely as they seamlessly finished off the other’s delicate phrases. In a work using folk melody and hinting at melancholy, there were some over-lush harmonies at times, but then forgivable for an 18 year old who went on to marry Otilka, Dvořák’s eldest daughter. Love in Bohemia indeed.