Bridge Festival / Nachtsmusik

Barrowland Ballroom, Glasgow

The inaugural Bridge Festival (21-24 April) opened with a musical statement of its defining purpose, to bring together like-minded ensembles from around Europe, share ideals, and generate a spirit of discovery and surprise among potential new audiences. The venue for Thursday’s launch concert was Glasgow’s iconic Barrowland Ballroom. Who’d have thought this temple to populist Glasgow, its fraying decorative tat, its Buckfast glamour, its aura of nostalgic decay, would have served the purposes of Classical music? Strangely, and excitingly, it did. 

Hemmed in by the low barrel roof – more commonly the soundboard for stacks of Marshall amps – the acoustics encountered by the joint forces of the hosting Scottish Ensemble, Norway’s Trondheim Soloists, Germany’s Ensemble Resonanz and the Estonian youngsters of the PLMF Music Trust were remarkably friendly. It was astonishing, indeed revelatory, to hear the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony etched out so viscerally, screaming at times with gut-wrenching hyper-intensity.

That was just one highlight in Nachtmusik, a gritty time-travelling journey under the baton of Manchester-born Catherine Larsen-Maguire that spanned ten centuries of music, from the exotic medievalism of 12th-century mystic Hildegard von Bingen (an enchantingly modernised adaption of her sensuous chant, O Ecclesia!) and the wrap-around polychoral luxuriance of Gabrieli’s Sonata XVIII, to the edgy experimentalism of world premieres by former rock musicians Mica Levi and Estonian Erkki-Sven Tüür. 

Things got off to a nervous start. Larsen-Maguire fought bravely to galvanise the dispersed elements of the Gabrieli, but at times it seemed held together only by the thinnest of threads. Yet it was a momentary issue. Once everyone was together on stage, a natural dynamic took hold. Scottish Ensemble leader Jonathan Morton spun a mystical violin solo in the Bingen, instantly obliterated by the abrasive counter-assault of Levi’s new commission, Flag, its nerve-jangling ferocity – a vicious and incessant cacophony of blood-curdling tremolandi – cutting through the air like an Arctic hurricane. Harsh, uncompromising, yet fuelled by a powerful, slow-moving metamorphoses, it made its point.

So did Tüür’s Deep, Dark Shine, though in a darker, more gnomic way. It had the feeling of a “de profundis” about it, shadowy depths through which shafts of light venture to shine. If at times Tüür is given to clichéd modernism, this was a performance with enough purpose, gravitas and belief to bring it off.

The second half was constructed as an intriguing call and response, Penderecki’s 1962 sonic experiment, Polymorphia for 48 strings, answered immediately by 48 Responses to Polymorphia by the Radiohead guitarist and keyboardist Jonny Greenwood. The former, performed with captivating deference to its linear sound world, nuclear clusters, percussive effects, elliptical humour, and that glorious sunburst of a closing C major chord, set a high bar for Greenwood’s response.

It rarely disappointed. Framed over nine sections, and introduced by a Bach-like chorale that soon dissolves into the ether, this pan-European band entered fully into Greenwood’s spirit of deference and curiosity, capturing the outrageous wit that defines its final moments.  Larsen-Maguire nurtured both its subtleties and its provocations, but could have made more of those moments where the sound sweeps around the orchestra like a mutating swarm of bees. It made linear sense, but lacked a vertical dimension.

Nachtmusik attracted a sizeable audience, which bodes well for the remainder of an enterprising festival that is spread around some unusual Glasgow venues. 

Full details of The Bridge Festival events are at 

Ken Walton