Two years after it was derailed by the pandemic, the Bridge festival, a pan-European celebration of music for strings, has come to Glasgow this weekend. This opening concert was a collaboration of the four participating ensembles: Ensemble Resonanz (Hamburg), PLMF Music Trust (Estonia), Trondheim Soloists (Norway) and the Scottish Ensemble, under the direction of conductor Catherine Larsen-Maguire. Described as a conversation, a survey of the landscape of European music and a discussion between its heritage and contemporary composition, the concert spanned 900 years of repertoire and included two world premieres.
Though the concept was bold, it felt like something of a lost opportunity; the potential of having 50 virtuoso string players together only realised in the second half of the programme. Neither Giovanni Gabrieli’s adventurous 14-part Sonata 18, nor Hildegard von Bingen’s ecstatic hymn O Ecclesia was heard to best advantage in the resolutely dry acoustics of the Barrowland Ballroom – or on string instruments – despite the haunting sound of Scottish Ensemble artistic director Jonathan Morton’s solo violin in the latter. The Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, the fulcrum between past and present, seemed rather out of place sandwiched between the two new works, for all it provided an opportunity to admire the rich sonority of the combined string forces.
As for the new works, there was a certain sense of sameness. Mica Levi’s Flag was an exercise in white noise effects without much sense of structure. Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Deep Dark Shine had more impetus and energy but inhabited a similar sonic space. In their use of extended techniques (lots of playing on the bridge, tapping the belly of the instruments and sliding up and down the fingerboard) both pieces clearly owed a debt to Penderecki’s Polymorphia for 48 string instruments, a pioneering work of 1960s avant garde, and the opening piece in the second half of the programme. The work is bold and original, but its experimentation seems more of an end in itself than a path to be followed. Jonny Greenwood’s thoroughly postmodern 48 Responses to Polymorphia closed the concert. For all his use of extended technique, Greenwood interrogates his hero Penderecki’s work through his own musical language, including that most valuable commodity: humour.