Scottish Ensemble: Breathe

Engine Works, Glasgow

The way in which the presentation of music – and specifically “classical” chamber music – has evolved to present practice (now taught in many a conservatoire) might make an interesting research topic, but the main takeaway is that it works. This 75-minute serving of contemporary music, with a side-order of Beethoven and a little garnish of La Monte Young, attempts to do something different and, regardless of the high quality of the performance of some excellent music, is less successful.

The inspiration for the recital, we are told, is the work that the Scottish Ensemble has been doing with patients in Maggie’s cancer care support centres, but we learn little of what that involves, or the relationship between those visits and the music that Ensemble and BBC SSO viola player Andrew Berridge has chosen for the Breathe programme. Music is a multi-faceted experience, and if there is surely a crossover between its therapeutic value and a concert performance, this evening doesn’t really get to the nub of it.

More seriously, the Glasgow date’s audience seemed a little discombobulated by Breathe, and unsure what was expected of them. Not only was there no applause when the musicians appeared, everyone sat on their hands until, inevitably, after the Finale of the last of Beethoven’s Razumovsky Quartets, the antepenultimate piece. Along the way Berridge offered gentle guidance on how we should be listening to the music he has selected, but when asked to describe their reaction to the pieces, individuals reached for comfortable, ambient, relaxing words rather than expressing engagement or concentration on the compositions. Put an audience on the spot, unrehearsed, and this is what you should probably expect.

For most, I suspect, these opportunities for interaction were a distracting interruption to the music, which began with the folk-influenced Solbonn by Norwegian Gjermund Larsen and ended in a similar vein with a trio playing Taladh (Lullaby) by Donald Grant of the Elias String Quartet, which Berridge has recorded with another ensemble, Perpetuo.

Apart from the Beethoven, the meat of the sequence came from three composers around 40 years old who are hip names to drop: Daniel Kidane, Nico Muhly and Caroline Shaw. Kidane, the only Brit, provides the title piece, which borrows heavily from early music in its longer central section, and leans on the 20th century examples of Vaughan Williams and Maxwell Davies in that.

Muhly and Shaw are both in the business of interrogating the form of the string quartet in his Diacritical Marks and her Ritornello 2.sq2.j.a. As with the Beethoven, the most impressive ingredient of the evening was how these were arranged and performed by the larger ensemble. The unity of the performance of the conclusion of the Razumovsky produced wide smiles in performers and listeners alike, while the eight short movements in the Muhly – some richly melodic – were batted back and forth by two quartets, opposite each other but not at all oppositional.

At a little over a quarter of an hour in duration, Shaw’s Ritornello was the biggest work, and the showstopper. Expanding it for the dozen musicians only underlines the technical challenges in its pass-the-parcel pizzicato passages, overlapping bowings, delicious glissandos and a mid-way peak of an accelerating seven-note rising figure. The ensemble richness of the performance was every bit as exciting as the more familiar Beethoven.

In the end it is the fascinating way the composers and performers deal with the possibilities of music written for the string quartet that makes Breathe worth the ticket, rather than the more vague, and highly personal, question of how the audience listens to it.

Keith Bruce

Repeated at Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms tonight, Thursday, October 27, and Steeple Church Dundee on Friday, October 28.

Picture: composer Caroline Shaw