Scottish Ensemble: First Light
The Engine Works, Glasgow
If you are, like me, a little tired of hearing about “light at the end of the tunnel”, it may caution your approach to the new online offering from the Scottish Ensemble, under the guest leadership of violinist Max Baillie.
However, not only had the string group and its composer/director conceived this programme before that phrase became quite such a tired cliché, but there is also a delicious ambivalence in the way they have chosen to see the idea of First Light. Yes, the prevalent tone is one of optimism, and a new dawn, but don’t rule out the possibility of an on-coming train.
Filmed in Glasgow’s newest post-industrial arts-space, The Engine Works in Maryhill, once again the ensemble and its partner, Flux Video, sets the standard for online presentation. With projections on the walls and a dazzling, but not distracting, range of camera shots, First Light is a beautifully edited piece of film-making. No-one else, in Scotland at least, has made such consistently compelling use of tight close-ups alongside the more familiar perspectives on chamber musicians. The sound, doubtless very much through the input of Baillie himself, is exemplary, and not without its own clever trickery.
The choice of works, and their sequencing, is in some aspects typical of a Scottish Ensemble programme: a balance of early music with contemporary composition, although with the input of new arrangements of the older scores. Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in G Minor, which opens the recital, is, however, played “straight” and its central Adagio – exquisitely clear and precise – is movingly timeless.
Jessie Montgomery’s brief Starburst, which follows, is the most vivacious, life-affirming work, the mix of pizzicato and bowed string sounds she employs finding echoes later on. There is as much exuberance in Haydn’s “Fifths” Quartet, here arranged for the larger ensemble by Baillie and Iain Farrington, but it is leavened with the darker tones of late Haydn as well as the playful rhythms.
A burst of Bach in Baillie’s minimalist, ethereal arrangement of the chorale O Lord let thine ear incline, precedes the violinist’s own Mirrors in Time, featuring himself on five-string electric violin and an ominous bass drum pulse. There is something ritualistic in his use of rhythms borrowed from African music as well as the Baroque and the dancefloor, and the sound and vision mixing is at its most sophisticated here. The richness of the ensemble strings disappears to leave Baillie alone in the space for his extended cadenza, before returning for what is a slightly querulous conclusion.
It is a big piece, but it is ultimately outshone by Steve Martland’s Eternity’s Sunrise. Like the late composer’s entire oeuvre, here is a work that is quite shockingly under-performed, demanding though it is. Taking its title from William Blake, here is a “First Light” as scary as it is to be welcomed. With sharp staccato playing as well as pizzicato pitched against legato lines, this is characteristically percussive, rhythmic Martland writing, propulsive and mesmeric in its subtly unfolding variations.
The band is rearranged physically for this, facing one another in a circle, doubtless for practical as much as presentational reasons, but that speaks visually of the connectedness required of all of us as we face the future. A lovely visual metaphor to accompany the superb playing of a brilliant composition.
Available on the Scottish Ensemble’s You Tube channel until August 7.