Scottish Ensemble: Reflection

Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh

Its seasonal Concerts by Candlelight, like annual pantomimes in Scottish theatres, are the events at which the Scottish Ensemble could expect to play for its largest audience, touring to venues across the nation and attracting people less likely to buy tickets at other times of the year.

It is to be hoped that a good number of them make the leap to online concert-going for this year’s offering, simply titled Reflection and filmed and recorded in Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirk, because they will hear a beautifully-structured programme, immaculately played.

There is, truth to tell, very little about Yuletide, the Solstice and the Nativity in it, until the closing arrangement by violinist Daniel Pioro of the Ukranian Carol of the Bells, unless George Crumb’s God Music, from Black Angels, somehow qualifies.

As that inclusion may suggest, this is as far from a recital of festive favourites as you will hear this year, and perhaps rather more brave than artistic director and leader Jonathan Morton would have felt able to be if it was to have been performed live.

Two 14-minute pieces composed in the past decade are the most substantial works. Appropriately in the middle of the programme – the works on either side of it each reflections on one another rippling outwards – is Edmund Finnis’s The Centre is Everything. It had its premiere (played by the Manchester Collective) in July 2019, and is a compelling listen, with very quiet music from the full string ensemble building in intensity and richness before falling away to a gentle, rustling noise again.

There is also a pleasing arc to Anna Clyne’s Prince of Clouds, from seven years earlier, but it is rhythmically bolder, with contrasting forces at work. In that aspect it is paired, tellingly, with Steve Reich’s 1994 Duet, written from the same combination of two violin soloists and string orchestra, and dedicated to Yehudi Menuhin. Clyne’s is a much more complex piece, but the Reich also sits crucially next to the opening Ricercar from Bach’s Musical Offering in a juxtaposition that hints at the clever parallels and reflections to come.

Both in repertoire of the Kronos Quartet, Arvo Part’s Summa, a choral movement he re-scored for strings, parallels the Crumb, which features cellist Alison Lawrance accompanied by bowed wine glasses. She also partners Morton in the final fragment of Bach, from the Art of Fugue, and one of those inspired moments where director Richard Watson deploys split-screen technique to fine effect. Here the interweaving lines of the two players are rendered in a composite “graphic score” above them, an eloquent representation of the composer’s method.

Unlike the Ensemble’s recent Cottier concert film, Flux Video’s contribution here is entirely in the service of the music, the “Reflection” of the title never over-played visually, as it is so skilfully expanded in the music.

Keith Bruce