Cottiers Theatre, Glasgow
Scottish Ensemble artistic director Jonathan Morton is both an original and inspired creator of programmes and a great collaborator, and his group chooses its performance venues with great care. All of those attributes are in evidence in its first streamed film event for the Coronavirus era, and the Ensemble’s first performance since March.
Songs for Life sees the string group partner with mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill in a sequence of music that is as eclectic as anything it has done, filmed in Cottiers, the former church turned arts venue, bar and restaurant in Glasgow’s West End. Part of the charm of Cottiers is that it still, after many years, seems a work in progress – both Tramway and the Arches in the city were arguably diminished as much as they were enhanced by the spending of vast sums of National Lottery money – but its aesthetic proves rather too much of a temptation to the film-makers here. With many shots from the gallery above the musicians, much skilled and confident hand-held camera-work and even drone footage from high above the kirk spire, there is an awful lot going on, and the mobility of the images is often an attention-seeking distraction. Recording engineer Jonathan Green captures the sound in the theatre well – there is a real appreciation of the reverberant acoustic and individual players are quite distinct – but the spoken introductions recorded in the bar fare less well, particularly when Cargill is speaking. This is a particular shame as she tells a story that her many fans will recognise as illustrative of why she is such a captivating performer.
Thankfully there is also ample evidence for that in the recital, and, when she sings, Miranda Stern and Julyan Sinclair often have the sense to keep the focus on her expressive performance. Aside from the single glory of Purcell’s Dido’s Lament – every bit as heart-breaking as you might desire – and leading a closing choral Auld Lang Syne – the mezzo’s contributions come in pairs: two from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, two from Britten’s Charm of Lullabies, and two of Dvorak’s Love Songs. Those last four, in particular, are lovely original choices, matched by the varied instrumental pieces Morton places around them. They begin with a movement from Walton’s Sonata for Strings and end with the mesmerising Entr’acte by Caroline Shaw, the New Yorker who is very much flavour of the moment. With Janacek, Kurtag, Beethoven and more Britten along the way, lighter moments come in one of Chick Corea’s Children’s Songs and George Walker’s Lyric for Strings, sounding a close cousin of Barber’s Adagio.
Those moments are welcome because the darkness in some of the other material is often matched by the images on screen. But then we live in bleak times, even if playing and singing of the matchless standard evident throughout this hour and a quarter presents the promise of light in that darkness.
Scottish Ensemble’s Songs for Life with Karen Cargill is available to view until 12 February, 2021; single ticket £10, household ticket £20. scottishensemble.co.uk