Scottish Ensemble – Baroque Two

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Scottish concert goers over a certain age may remember Ledlanet Nights, a boutique country house festival near Milnathort founded by John Calder.  

Intimate performances (only 155 seats) of opera, concerts, drama and folk ran for ten years from 1963, an absolutely pivotal time in Scottish arts with Scottish Opera beginnings and Calder starting The Traverse Theatre with Richard Demarco. 

Calder and violinist Leonard Friedman founded the Scottish Baroque Ensemble in 1969 whose first performance was Handel’s opera Alcina at Ledlanet. I was not old enough to go to Ledlanet, but as a schoolboy, I vividly remember a Scottish Baroque Ensemble concert in Perth City Hall with Friedman in charge.

Today’s Scottish Ensemble performs an extraordinary range of music from ancient to modern, always pushing at the boundaries of performance.  As part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, the Ensemble went back to its baroque roots with music from the early 17th and 18th centuries. 

Morton’s embellishments on the tunes were vibrant as the final dance began to gallop and my feet itched to tap. 

To add authenticity, they decided to perform (mainly) on instruments with gut strings and across two different venues, inviting baroque expert Jonathan Cohen to direct from the harpsichord.  True baroque performances are tuned at a lower pitch, removing brittle harshness and allowing a warm mellow tone to develop – a historically aural window.

In the Station Hotel, there was an informal feel with the audience sitting at cabaret tables, the players slowly wandering in enjoying conversations and jokes as they might have done at a soiree for invited guests 300 years ago.  Cellos aside, the Ensemble stand up to perform which gives them freedom to physically lean into the music, that extra energy picked up instantly by us in the audience conveying infectious enjoyment.

The initial Concerto Grosso in G Minor by Vivaldi set the scene with firm detached notes from all, the leaders of the violin sections elegantly duetting solos, mellow in the slow section before the exuberant dance movement, leader Jonathan Morton setting the pace as Jonathan Cohen gave sensitive support from his two-manual harpsichord.  

Morton was the soloist in Corelli’s Violin Sonata in F Major, with Alison Lawrance providing cello continuo, Cohen's harpsichord blending in well, particularly using the muffled stop in the slow movement.   I enjoyed Morton’s embellishments on the tunes as they came around again, vibrant as the final dance began to gallop and feet itched to tap. 


The whole ensemble returned to round off the first half with Locatelli’s Concerto Grosso in Eb major telling the story of Ariadne, abandoned on the island of Naxos after helping Theseus slay the minotaur on Crete.  A slow barcarole suggesting lapping waves set the scene, the players’ carefully placed accents creating movement. 

Locatelli took us on a journey with frantically fierce high energy passages attacked with gusto by the players suddenly contrasting with slow melancholy, rich mellowness suggesting Ariadne’s tears, the music solemn with exquisite resolving dissonances and grave pauses.   

The audience moved to St John’s Kirk for the second half, the musicians somehow more formal and the acoustic wonderfully generous.  Corelli’s Concerto Grosso on Bb major was a chance for us to compare and contrast the venues, the reverberation in the Kirk slightly smudging the fast runs, but letting the string sound soar upwards.  The pauses between chords as the sound dies away suddenly take on their own personality, and I enjoyed watching the players weaving a dense tapestry of sound, Cohen’s direction maintaining  a lightness of touch.

I enjoyed the two back first violins egging each other on for their big flourishes near the end.

Morton and Cohen gave a moving and very personal account of Biber’s Rosary Sonata No 6 ‘The Agony in the Garden’, Morton playing a specially tuned instrument.   Cohen’s dense harpsichord and Morton’s beautifully mournful double stops described the biblical scene, the violin’s rising passion dissolving into small disjointed phrases.  Finally, Locatelli’s Concerto Grosso in G provided room for the whole ensemble to shine, principal players jointly soloing against the group.  I enjoyed the two back first violins egging each other on for their big flourishes near the end.

It was fun being up close and personal in the Hotel with its informal atmosphere, but for me the acoustic in the Kirk was more important.  The Biber in particular could have sounded flat if programmed in the first half, but in the Kirk, it was the soulful heart of the evening.   My seat neighbours visiting from Shetland were completely bowled over by the energy of the Ensemble whom they had not heard before. 

The Scottish Ensemble are back in St John’s Kirk for a Candlelit Concert ‘For a Winter’s Night’ on 7th December, a date I am sure most who were at Baroque take Two will have ringed in their diary.

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