Outside St Ninian’s Cathedral in Perth it was minus 8 deg C, and pavements round about were extremely difficult to use due to thick uneven layers of ice. Nevertheless, a decent crowd turned out for the welcome annual Candlelit Concert treat from The Scottish Ensemble at Christmastime: the Perth concert was the last of a tour of Scotland, and in a week of difficult weather and cancelled events, the Ensemble had somehow dodged the snow and played every concert.
As Jonathan Morton explained, these concerts at Christmas time are not always Christmassy, and in the centrepiece of a fine Czech programme, Janacek’s Quartet No 1 – the Kreutzer Sonata, arranged for the Ensemble by Morton, was the certainly not festive. Based on Tolstoy’s story of a jealous husband who murdered his wife because he thought, mistakenly, that she was having an affair with the violinist whom she accompanied playing Beethoven’s Kreutzer’s Sonata. The tale is told by a narrator on a train, as we hear the rhythmic clack of the wheels in the music from time to time. Janacek visited turbulent themes in his operas, and was so taken by this story that he wrote the piece in only eight days. In stark contrast to the evening’s bookended Dvorak pieces, this was splendidly spiky dissonant high energy music and just the musical territory the Ensemble likes to really get its teeth into playing. The story was well told, with a special highlight being a duet between Jonathan Morton and Alison Lawrance on ‘cello in the third movement.
The piece was arranged by Morton from a string quartet, and I wonder whether the original would have had as much impact as this performance without the added double bass and other instruments.
Dvorak’s Nocturne in B Major for String orchestra started the evening. One of the best things about a Scottish Ensemble concert is watching the interactions between the players, no more so than during a beguiling piece like this as the players were clearly enjoying themselves.
Because it was Christmastime, we were treated to a small extra: Josef Suk’s Meditation on an Old Czech Hymn, which was delightful bonus.
The second half was just one work: Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings in E. As if to help us forget the elements outside, this brought sunny playing in the five movements. It was interesting to contrast these two composers, only born thirteen years apart, and so very different. The programming encouraged us to search for premonitions of Janacek in the Dvorak music, revealing perhaps the less obvious darker undercurrents.
St Ninian’s cathedral with its was a nice warm acoustic looked very festive by candlelight with a large Christmas tree. However, there were serious shortcomings with this venue as the heating battled against the frost and draughts blew down from the stained glass. Few in the audience shed their warm outer clothing, a luxury not extended to the players who were clearly challenged by the conditions. In this venue, the sight lines are very poor, and even from the 4th row back, most of the players are difficult to see as they are not set up high enough. In the past, these concerts were in St John’s Kirk, which shared some of the problems at St Ninians, but was a better venue. We moved into the new purpose-built Perth Concert Hall, which has great acoustic, excellent sight lines and proper audience facilities, and where audiences built up from the St John’s Kirk days. It is a shame that these past two concerts have not taken place in the Concert Hall, which was surely built for occasions like these.
Jonathan Morton thanked us for turning out, and we should thank him in return for pressing ahead with this wonderful concert in very much less than ideal conditions.