The Scottish Ensemble playfully challenged the audience to decide game-show style, which country’s string music won the night: Germany or Britain? Indeed, the concert was a game of two halves with Britain being represented by William Walton and Martin Suckling in the first and Germany by Leopold Hurt and Brahms in the second. Programming balance was achieved by bookending the evening with the more traditional leaving the modern microtonal pieces either side of half-time.

© Scottish Ensemble
© Scottish Ensemble

Walton’s Sonata for Strings was an adaptation of his 1946 String Quartet in A minor for Neville Marriner’s Academy of St Martin’s in the Fields in 1971. The four very different movements demonstrated the quintessential British string sound with parts intertwining to weave a wonderfully rich tapestry. Catherine Marwood’s lovely solo viola was soon joined by the rest of a quartet, which appeared time and again through this work. An exciting scurrying Allegro complete with fugue was followed by a lively and angular Presto, but on muted strings. There was passionate playing at the heart of the Lento before a bold final movement was announced by unison staccato detached octave leaps, almost a signature of this band and indeed used in their publicity soundtrack. Even in the midst of the fun, there was a lyrical even wistful folk melody.

One of the delights of watching this group is seeing how much enjoyment they get from playing, and they clearly relished this. Apart from the cellos and bass, they all stand to play, so watching their shoes in the more animated passages is an entertainment in itself as leader Johnathan Morton urges the group on from the balls of his feet so that the players are positively dancing at times. A great 1-0 start for Britain.

Martin Suckling wrote his Musical Postcards for each of last year’s Scottish Ensemble season of concerts, now performed as a suite of Short Stories. A trimmed down group tackled four vignettes: Chimes at Midnight, Mr Jonathan Morton - His Ground, Touch and In Memoriam. The music was fairly intense, employing individual fast upward glissandi from players, and at one point the whole group slid downwards several tones in Touch. Other than this, fragments were passed between players with the use of soft and very high extended notes from Morton. At times, cellist Alison Lawrence took over conducting, beating out a slow 4/4 with her bow. Many times the music drifted into complete silence as if it was time to pick up another idea and give it a try out. Lyrical passages in the cellos ended the work set against birdsong fragments.

Dead reckoning is navigation from a known point using a best guess from information available until the next known position can be plotted. The longer between fixed positions, the greater the scope for cumulative errors. Those familiar with the radio panel game where a contestant has to sing along to an accompaniment which is then removed and brought back in again after the singer has had to keep it going alone will get the picture. Fun on the radio, but risky at sea, where we certainly were for Leopold Hurt’s Dead Reckoning. Diane Clark’s double bass was centre stage flanked by two cellos, then extending the semi-circle, violas and violins. Adding an extra dimension was an additional bow for the bass, wired up to a large megaphone pointing at us. Turbulent music, solos and cellos sounding left and right in close sequence like harsh foghorns gave a feeling of errors building up. At times, like Suckling, the music drifted to almost nothing except for soft but piercing violin notes as if we becalmed for a while. When the bass player caressed her strings with the amplified bow, it sounded like an animal breathing turning to ominous tonal rasp as notes kicked in. There were strange sounds from violent pizzicatos rattling off the fret boards to an ethereal passage for the right hand group of upper strings, employing microtones as if drifting about trying to find out where they were.

After the challenge of the modern, it was a relief to hear the sunshine in the music of Brahm’s String Quartet in G major, here successfully arranged by Morton for the whole sixteen strong Ensemble. For this concert, the Ensemble had four violas playing, and it was wonderful to hear them showcased in this piece, playing in two parts and adding a richness and depth to the German romantic sound. This was a wonderfully lyrical performance, so an immediate goal to Germany.

The Scottish Ensemble has an interesting programming strategy, usually mixing the familiar with the different, but with the modern conceptual element being central, the balance was perhaps a bit misjudged as there were a quite a few baffled faces in the crowd.

And so to the voting, which for me came down to a balance between the two modern pieces. There was more to like in the humour and darkness of Dead Reckoning, so by a whisker, the Germans had it. The audience waving either the British or German Flags on the card provided agreed – a narrow German victory.