Scottish Ensemble

SWG3, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

five stars

PROGRESSING through its 50th anniversary season, Scottish Ensemble has, in this “Elemental” programme, produced one of the most thoughtful and coherent programmes of contemporary chamber music in recent history.

At its heart is, naturally, a stimulating partnership, in this case with fiddler Aidan O’Rourke and the harmonium and piano of Kit Downes, whose 365 duo project, responding to the short stories of Scots writer James Robertson, featured twice in the evening, O’Rourke’s interlinking melodies enriched by Downes’s jazz-inflected harmonisation. The keyboard player’s solo composition, Last Leviathan, teamed the accordion-like suitcase organ with a string quartet in a short work that found the common terrain between traditional music and Shostakovich.

The string group was guest-led on these dates by violinist Simon Blendis, but with other players, notably cellist Alison Lawrance, also keeping the beat, and from the opening performance of Ligeti’s shape-shifting Ramifications to the briefer evolution of the Andante for Strings by Ruth Crawford Seeger (mother of Peggy), this was music that spoke of time in everything from a musical to a geological sense. David Fennessy’s atmospheric and profound Hirta Rounds added ideas of community in its use of the 16 strings in groups rather than sections, with O’Rourke joining the classical players, while the complex pulse of The beginning of the world by Tansy Davies perfectly preceded the programme’s new commission, O’Rourke and Downes’s There is no beginning, which takes its title from the first line of Edwin Morgans’ Scottish Sonnet, Slate. Exploiting the virtuosity of these players in its rhythmic shifts, its 13 minutes were an encapsulation of much that had preceded it, as the focus shifted between the duo and the ensemble in what was also perhaps the fullest manifestation of the influence of Kit Downes’s jazz background all evening.

Coming in the same week that umbrella organisation Chamber Music Scotland re-launched itself under that more transparent name, rarely has this land’s musical community spoken as eloquently of an outward and forward looking approach to its roots and heritage. If ever a Scottish Ensemble project demanded an early reprise, this is it.