A very striking wild-eyed hirsute man has been staring out at us across Scotland on posters for this concert tour, showing that the Scottish Ensemble has adapted well to the modern world of promotion, using titles, straplines and imagination. On the face of things, the choice of eight seemingly very disconnected pieces in the programme, from 1700 to the present day, was disconcerting. Jonathan Morton explained to the audience that the link was “lots of repeated things over a long time” – notes, chord sequences or tunes. The search was on for earworms – or “Music to Drive You Wild”, the subtitle to the concert.

Scottish Ensemble © Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Scottish Ensemble
© Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

The heart of the evening was two pieces from Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, now well known for his Third Symphony. In his early career, he was very much of the Polish avant-garde, writing dense serialist music, so the première of his 1963 Three Pieces in the Old Style shocked the Warsaw audience by its accessibility and use of more folky tunes. The opening Aria was a slow repeated tune against dissonant accompaniment, followed by a sprightlier Menuetto. The final Menuetto II, based on a stately wedding song, rose to a rich wall of sound as the strings played long long notes often only a note apart, all the players using every inch of their bows and ending on a dramatic upbow flourish.

The Ensemble was joined by harpsichordist Jan Waterfield for Górecki’s 1980 Harpsichord Concerto. This consisted of much unison string playing while the amplified harpsichord played constant motion toccata-like repetitive phrases, sometimes together with the group, and sometimes with them answering one another. The thrill came when the strings suddenly burst into lush harmony, or set up a mesmeric pulse, sounding almost train-like in the second movement.

To open, we heard Francesco Germiniani’s Concerto Grosso in D minor, which was an enthralling theme and 24 variations on the ancient tune La Follia, by turns measured and dignified, and then very lively. Interplay between two solo violins and some virtuoso cello playing were highlights, but it was fun watching the players passing round phrases to each other, like catching practice in cricket.

Martin Suckling has been writing postcards for each of the Ensemble’s concerts this season, so his third, Chimes at Midnight, made an appearance here. Some super-fast glissandi and snatched notes from each part in turn against turbulent background made this a study in concentration as notes came on and off the beat, sometimes apparently at random, marking time as the year turned. Having a composer follow the Ensemble’s progress through the year has been interesting, and Suckling is returning with the Ensemble for its residency in Perth in June.

We returned to easier listening with Concerto for violin and string orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The piece looks back to Bach, but soloist Jonathan Morton was soon relishing the lively, folky, unmistakable Vaughan Williams idiom, taking things down to almost sub-pianissimo at times before rallying back. The Adagio was a showcase for wistful violin, but also cello solo, both singing their hearts out with luminous harmonies from the rest. The final Presto was a sprightly jig, but the work finished in an astonishing change of pace, with barely audible playing as the final notes drifted off into space.

In their Dundee concert last autumn, the Ensemble played the final movement of Holst’s St Paul’s Suite with local players from across the city, so it was rewarding to hear the whole suite at this performance. The girls of St Paul’s must have been good players to take this on, as it demands of fast accurate playing and working as an ensemble. The earworm of the evening was the final Dargason, starting pianissimo and at breakneck speed building to a climax as Greensleeves weaved its way into the music.

Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in B minor was a real showcase for the group, requiring four violins and a cello soloist. Rather than have the four out front, everyone played from where they stood, and the piece was more effective for this, particularly as there would have been only three non-solo violins left. The dynamic opening theme was passed to and fro between soloists before the music settled down. An Adagio showcasing arpeggios was followed by final Allegro dance. This concert was at the end of the Scottish tour and ahead of a final Wigmore Hall date, so the pieces would have been very familiar; yet the players were watching each other intently as they clearly discovered more about the music at each performance. It was obvious that each night of the tour has been different, which is what makes the Scottish Ensemble so exciting to watch.

Finally, in this Year of Britten, we had a blistering account of the Simple Symphony, which was written when Britten was 21, using themes from childhood composition. One of the many joys of the Scottish Ensemble is that they will take a familiar piece and play it as if reinvented. The “Playful Pizzicato”, featured in a famous TV ad, was a case in point, with surprising changes in dynamic, accent and tempo to keep things lively. It was of course pinpoint accurate.

Jonathan Morton, more often than not on the balls of his feet, led an exceptionally sparkling evening, well delivered and presented. The Ensemble’s strapline is “Redefining the String Orchestra”, and this concert certainly lived up to the billing.

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