On paper, a chamber concert of 20th century music from the Baltic on a Monday night might have looked a bit of a tough sell, yet that is without reckoning on the multi-generational following of devoted enthusiasts the quirky McFall’s Chamber has nurtured over the past 20 years. Part of the appeal is Robert McFall’s relaxed approach to concert behaviour and his light humour as he briefs the audience with just the right amount of background, but the thoughtful programming of little-performed gems promising delightful surprises draws us back to these unusual classical concerts.

McFall's Chamber © Douglas Robertson
McFall's Chamber
© Douglas Robertson

The Baltic countries of Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia occupy the cultural and political fault-line between powerful nations, yet have striven for independence. McFall’s choice of 20th century music from the Baltic highlighted the similarities of dark brooding emotional landscapes, yet woven into a rich tapestry of the more colourful and positive. Who knew that when most countries were snapping up Beatles hits, the Finns were hooked on tango which at the time outsold Lennon and McCartney?

Starting with the Finns, Aulis Sallinen’s Introduction and Tango Overture began gently, with simple harmonies in the string quartet played with a near the bridge rasp as Bulgarian pianist Maria Martinova did hand over hand flourishes before she subverted the music with a sudden leap into a swinging tango, leading the other players into the dance before shuddering to an unexpected halt with an unresolved chord. Kalevi Aho composed his Lamento (for two Violas) as a funeral piece, yet McFall and Brian Schiele wove an ethereal beauty into the sometimes dissonant close harmonies with intertwining runs, the mellow violas ending in single gentle note of deepest sadness. Finnish pianist, Olli Mustonen’s Toccata livened things up in a piece referencing Bach’s Brandenberg Concertos, a slow theme began quietly in the strings underpinned with superb pedal point bass lines from Rick Standley evolving passionately, until stabbing piano lines heralded a pell-mell fierce Bach-like central section, played with verve and considerable stamina. A beautifully plaintive cello solo from Su-a Lee shone through before the piece rather ground to a halt, all energy spent.  

Sibelius’ Einsames Lied (Solitude) originally “The Jewish Girl’s Song” included in his Belshazzar’s Feast was a haunting piece with a gently rocking rhythm and lovely cello and viola solos. We will return to Sibelius later. McFall's arrangements of Finnish composers Tovio Kärki’s Täysikku (Full Moon) and Unto Mononen’s Satumaa (The Fairy-tale land) were lively examples of Finnish Tango, full of energy with McFall sometimes holding his violin like a guitar and beating out the rhythm against the infectious syncopations and general boisterousness.  And yet, while the music is lively, tango is in a minor key, and throughout there was a more sombre undercurrent going on.

Avo Pärt composed Für Alina for piano in his tintinnabulation phase, a quiet introspective piece with Maria Martinova’s hands balletic to watch as she used resonance in one part set against the melody in the other. Fellow Estonian Erkii-Sven Tüür’s Dedication for fellow composer Kuldar Sink was a mesmeric duet for cello and piano as Lee and Martinova, began with a great rasping sound, Martinova leaning into the piano scraping a bass string as Lee produced a torrent of scratchy notes almost in a lamentation. Lyrical playing emerged, occasionally drifting into ethereal silence, extended by a held sustaining pedal, before starting again.

Maria Martinova was joined by French violinist Cyril Garac for Latvian Pēteris Vasks A Little Summer Music, a suite of summery vignettes by turn folk song and dances, Garacs’ bow bouncing off the strings. It was music completely capturing the long long days of a lovely Baltic summer. I was longing for it to resolve into the major, but it never quite made it, and the sun went behind a very dark cloud for a while. For the simple reason of having two international tango experts in the room, an additional piece in the programme let Garac and Matrinova briefly out of the northern gloom to play Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango, written for piano and cello (for Rostropovich) and arranged by Garac for violin and piano. Played from memory, this was a virtuosic tour de force with a slow build to red-hot rhythms, Martinova verging on boogie-woogie as Garac ‘s violin exploded into life.

Indeed, Piazzolla might have been the show-stealer had it not been for Su-a Lee taking to her second instrument in an arrangement of the hymn tune from Finlandia – played on the saw.  A perfect final McFall surprise as he introduced his players individually by name as a jazz or rock group might, true to the roots of a group that started off taking the very late night slot in a smoky nightclub in Edinburgh’s Cowgate.

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