With the streets full of sparkling Christmas bustle, the Scottish Ensemble’s candlelit concerts feed the soul every December providing a welcome chance to pause and reflect as the days shorten. Entering from the frost outside into warm candlelight, eyes are drawn upwards to the high wooden roof in anticipation of Vaughan WilliamsThe Lark Ascending, the popular piece at the core of this concert.

Scottish Ensemble © Joanne Green
Scottish Ensemble
© Joanne Green

Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa was a lively opener, a mountain sleigh-ride of a piece, not the Scottish Highlands, but the Tatras in Southern Poland. Kilar has composed many film scores, and you could almost touch the landscape as two violins looped in a scurrying infectious sequence spreading to all players in a deep density of harmonies. Short more reflective solos gave way to a driving rhythm, vigorous scrubbing bows over the fingerboards, missing beats as it gathered pace, like a fast sledge bouncing over lumps of snow, the players ending with an exuberant shout of joy.

The Ensemble introduced us to the music of Bulgarian born, London based Dobrinka Tabakova. Such Different Paths for string septet covered a huge emotional depth with lush harmonies, but dotted through with an individual quirkiness. Using building blocks of instruments individually and together, we were taken on a varied journey using urgent rhythmic motifs, a solid ground bass with bird chirrups and a gentle waltz, leader Jonathan Morton lightly swaying  in time with a soaring solo over deep glowing chords. Suddenly the path changed into the ethereal as the players used soft overplayed notes and distant harmonics, the Ensemble’s intense concentration drawing us in to hear the quiet final notes.

The Ensemble was joined by Belgian cellist David Cohen for Dobrinka’s rather splendid Cello Concerto with signature energetic semiquavers for all in the first movement marked "turbulent". Cohen was having a workout, travelling over the whole instrument at breakneck speed, before the music settled into deep harmonies, almost drone-like. A beautiful searching intense solo increased in complexity through transforming chord progressions in the reflective second movement was in contrast to the more angular final more jubilant ending. Nine senior string players from the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland (NYOS) added spectacularly to the overall sound, giving it extra warmth and depth, sounding wonderful in the Kirk. Morton was a study in leadership, gently conducting with his bow and with his entire instrument when playing.  

Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending inspired by Meredith’s poem regularly tops the classic charts, is one of the BBC’s Ten Pieces but hearing it performed live is a heart stopping experience. It is a piece we think we know, but Jonathan Morton’s lark was quite unlike any other I have heard. The initial muted strings painted the familiar rural landscape with perfect balance and warm tone, the NYOS strings adding profound depth. Morton’s lark fluttered gently, supported by two solo violins in this arrangement by Adam Johnson, and then as the music swelled it took to the skies. Written as a piece for piano and violin before with Great War, the composer arranged it for strings as the broken country recovered, reflecting this fragile, delicate lark flying so high we had to really strain to hear it, Morton drawing the audience right in to the last barely audible note drifting up to the roof. 

To finish, Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis saw the players split into groups with some at the end of the building, giving an exciting spatial dimension to the music, the far off players sounding like an organ at times. The Fantasia is a gentle lyrical traditional work with a particularly lovely viola solo towards the end. The NYOS players were mixed in, gaining some valuable experience playing right alongside the Ensemble members. Even with his players scattered, Morton’s attention to detail was meticulous with perfect phrasing and balance, recharging the spiritual batteries perfectly.