One of the treats we look forward to each year as December darkens is a candlelit concert from the Scottish Ensemble, here dramatically set in the ancient St John’s Kirk in Perth. The programmes are deliberately reflective rather than festive, and with Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmisik as an opener, these Night and Day themed concerts have been selling out from Inverness to Edinburgh.

Scottish Ensemble and Jonathan Morton © Joanne Green
Scottish Ensemble and Jonathan Morton
© Joanne Green

A much loved and treasured recording does create a rather fixed imprint of how a work should sound. A trademark of the Scottish Ensemble is to take a piece we think we know backwards, and stamp it with a fresh interpretation shedding new light on the familiar. Eine kleine Nachtmisik is something of an enigma as there is no occasion for which Mozart might have written it, nor any record of a performance during his lifetime. As there is  no indication of how many players the composer intended to perform this work, Artistic Director Jonathan Morton perhaps had more of a blank canvas than is usual when deciding how to approach the notes. Standing in a semicircle to play, the Ensemble took this Mozart boldly at a fair lick throughout with unexpected phrasing, fresh dynamics and exquisite minute nuances.    Placing the first and second violins left and right brought some exciting antiphonal sounds in the development of the Romanze in particular. This most popular Mozart, found in shops, lifts and even down the phone, was played as if Morton had been handed a freshly discovered score. If you like your Mozart dreamy, then this was a bit rushed perhaps, but I found it exciting.

Staying with night time, the Ensemble commissioned composer David Matthews to arrange two of Chopin’s Nocturnes of his choice. While most nocturnes are for solo and accompaniment, Matthews felt that Op.37 no. 2 in G major and Op.55 no. 1 in F minor would provide most interest. Both pieces were meltingly beautiful in their own way, the first a happy barcarolle with two solo violins taking the tune, with some gloriously rich divisi cello playing bursting through the song. Op.55 was composed for Scottish pianist Jane Stirling who would become Chopin's pupil, secretary and business manager. The beautiful sad melody was shared between the two solo violins, dovetailing seamlessly across the church and eventually soaring off into the heights.

Steve Martland’s energetic Eternity’s Sunrise moved us suddenly from night to day. Commissioned by the Ensemble in 2007, this theatrical rhythmically driven piece requires precise playing from all, and as Morton explained, is a workout for the players. Starting with loud strident long open intervals, slightly phased between the groups of upper strings, these were contrasted with shorter quieter more meditative passages on the lower strings which interspersed the braying violins. An extended passage of breathtakingly fast rhythmic unison sequences followed, pulsing with irregular gaps of silence. It was the space between the notes which gave a huge energy to the music, because it was impossible to guess when these would appear. It was thrilling to watch twelve players stopping and restarting into the melee time and again without a misplaced note anywhere. The long phased notes returned, but by this time, the sun was truly blazing.

Borodin’s String Quartet no. 2 was written as a love letter to his wife Ekaterina Protopopova on their 25th wedding anniversary and is a work suffused with warmth and affection. Performed here in an arrangement by US double bassist Lucas Drew as Sinfonia for Strings, the Ensemble passed gentle tunes to and fro, occasionally switching back into quartet mode as four solo players allowed us glimpses of the original. Like any marriage, there were some more turbulent moments amongst the calm, particularly at the start of the Finale where the lower strings were positively menacing. The beauty of the Notturno with its soaring cello solos, shared between Alison Lawrance and Naomi Parvi was a particular highlight. The glorious richness added by Diane Clarke’s double bass certainly betrayed Drew’s origins.

A packed and appreciative audience in St John’s Kirk were rewarded by a beautiful encore of Elgar’s Chanson de Matin, leaving us in a reflective mood as we headed home and the first snowflakes of the winter drifted down from a dark winter night sky.

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