One of today’s foremost violists, Lawrence Power joined a Scottish Ensemble augmented by two horns and two oboes for this typically boldly-programmed concert. The centrepiece was a new work by Luke Bedford, first composer-in-residence at the Wigmore Hall, written for the same musical forces as Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, which ended the evening.

Jonathan Morton, © Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Jonathan Morton,
© Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Millie and Christine McCoy were conjoined twins born into slavery in North Carolina in 1851. Kidnapped as infants and sold several times over to various showmen, they were toured round Canada and England as curiosities. Eventually they were rescued and taken back to America by a former owner (who also located their natural mother), and here the twins were tutored to speak five languages, play the piano, dance and sing. Millie’s contralto and Christine’s soprano in sweet harmony earned them their billing name: ‘The Wonderful Two-Headed Nightingale’, also the title of Bedford’s piece.

The Ensemble’s leader Jonathan Morton and Lawrence Power stood close together in front of the other players: in an uncanny echo not only of Christine’s physical dominance over Millie, but even mirroring the different voices, Power leant in even closer at times and looked towards Morton for a lead. It was a beguiling, curious and utterly mesmeric partnership to watch. Starting and finishing with the two soloists snatching staccato, open-fifth string chords seemingly out of the air, they were joined by the other players employing an odd soundscape of notes, using quarter tones, producing a rich but unsettling sound. As a centrepiece, the soloists stopped and the ensemble played a bizarre sequence of chords, perhaps describing the feelings of an onlooker trying to reconcile the grotesque sight of joined adults with the beauty of their singing.

As an opener, the Ensemble performed Haydn’s Symphony no. 44 in E minor, nicknamed ‘Trauer’ or ‘mourning’ – but there was nothing solemn here. Morton brought out nuances and exciting dynamics from his players which kept things very lively, which is always good for Haydn. One of the joys of watching this group perform is the communication between the players: in the glorious third movement (Haydn requested it be played at his funeral) there was a slow tune which became almost dangerously joyous at times, as evidenced by broad grins from the violins knowing a limit had been briefly but mischievously overstepped.

William Alwyn wrote his Pastoral Fantasia for viola and orchestra in 1939, first performed in 1941 and broadcast on the BBC Light Programme to raise morale in war-torn Britain. The music was typically ‘English rural’, with more than a nod to Vaughan Williams; like him, Alwyn borrowed phrases from folk tunes at times in this piece. Cellos in divisi played sweet harmonies, and Power’s solo viola soared in a virtuosic performance, but fittingly there were brief darker elements to the music reflecting unsettling times.

To finish, Power and Morton led in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante. Wonderfully crisp playing in the first movement gave way to tenderness in the second. A lively and short rondo ended the piece. Particular highlights were the two cadenzas in the first two movements, with the soloists playing as one, exchanging phrases and responding to each other absolutely seamlessly. The partnership between Morton and Power was particularly thrilling, both turning round at times to urge on the players, Morton the violins, and Power the violas and cellos: they all looked like they were really enjoying themselves, which is almost a trademark of Scottish Ensemble concerts, and why this band has to be seen live.