Classical review: Scottish Ensemble, Glasgow

The Scottish Ensemble were in uplifting form at Glasgow's City Halls. Picture: Contributed
The Scottish Ensemble were in uplifting form at Glasgow's City Halls. Picture: Contributed
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THE Scottish Ensemble’s Love and War in Bohemia programme, which earlier this week toured Scotland and London’s Wigmore Hall, opened rather incongruously with a German cuckoo in the nest.

Scottish Ensemble: Love and War in Bohemia - City Halls, Glasgow

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Why start with Handel, who had nothing whatsoever to do with Bohemia? Well, it was his birthday last Sunday evening, and it featured the wonderfully expressive mezzo soprano voice of Sophie Harmsen, pictured, so who was complaining?

Harmsen’s presence was electrifying from the word go. She sang three Handel arias – the furiously fretful Where Shall I Fly from Hercules, the achingly sad Scherza infida from Ariodante, and the further fury of Crude furie from Serse. And in every one of these, she brought the music vividly to life, both physically and musically.

There was animated versatility, too, in the way she turned from firm-handed Baroque affectation to the delicious musical trinkets that are Dvorak’s Love Songs, Op 83, all charmingly characterised, rich in nuance, genuinely Bohemian, and given the added glow of David Matthews’ iridescent scoring for string orchestra, which only occasionally threatened to overpower the singer. Harmsen, virtuosic and charismatic, is a performer to look out for.

The remainder of the music was purely instrumental, and featured the all-string Scottish Ensemble in uplifting form. Maybe not so much in Pavel Haas’ Study for Strings, given it was written while the Moravian-born composer was interred in the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt (he didn’t survive), and reflective of that in the astringent Hindemith-like austerity of its harmonic language.

The second half mixed the rough with the smooth, firstly in the madcap soundtrack-before-its-time that is Biber’s Battalia, complete with military drum effects on the double bass, a fearsome cannon-filled representation of the conflict, and the simultaneous collision of sparring themes.

After this manic musical battle, a voice of calm instantly emerged in the silken form and content of Josef Suk’s four-movement Serenade for Strings. This is music that is right up the Ensemble’s street. Suk handled the extended structure deftly, and the lyrical intensity of the work’s mainly sunny countenance, its moments of elevated grace, its wistful sighs, its folk borrowings and its sunburst ending were all warmly embraced in this all too rare performance.

A warm-hearted evening in the company of a warm-hearted ensemble.

Seen on 23.02.14