Celtic Connections has an excellent track record of conjuring up inspired and intriguing double bills and this one, at Glasgow City Halls on 25th January, was no exception. It featured two of Scottish music’s most distinctive artists in Rachel Sermanni, the captivating ‘folk noir’ singer-songwriter from Carrbridge in the Scottish Highlands (currently based in Edinburgh), and Jarlath Henderson, the charismatic multi-instrumentalist and innovative interpreter of traditional songs from County Armagh in Northern Ireland (currently based in Glasgow, where he is also a hospital doctor).

The massed ranks of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO) assembled on stage first and the sounds of the various instruments as the musicians tuned and warmed up added an extra frisson and sense of anticipation in this splendid hall. Rachel Sermanni, serene as ever despite her obvious excitement at this opportunity to perform with the SCO, was also accompanied by her long-time friend and collaborator, Jen Austin, on piano. Fittingly for Burns Night, Rachel Sermanni opened her set with a beautiful interpretation of one of the Bard’s finest love songs, Sweet Afton. Switching from guitar to mandolin, Sermanni held the audience spellbound as the tantalising tale in Ferryman unfolded. The dark edge to the lyrics contrasted cleverly with her elegant and hypnotic vocals in Sleep. Staying with the theme of sleep, the nightmarish and deliciously edgy I’ve Got A Girl saw Sermanni rise up gracefully on tiptoes at key points in the song, with the SCO’s sweeping orchestration adding to the dramatic effect, even throwing in a playful snatch of the Bond theme for good measure…

In Don’t Fade, the contrast between the measured verses and the yearning choruses produced a very moving effect. Rachel Sermanni’s majestic vocals were complemented by more soaring orchestration in the anthemic Eggshells. The lower register of Sermanni’s vocal range was put to good effect in projecting the striking imagery in The Fog, its rhythmic choruses driven along by crunching guitar chords and punchy orchestration. This stunning set was brought to a close with the breathtaking poignancy of Old Lady’s Lament, which, as ever, brought a tear to the eye of this reviewer. To hear Rachel Sermanni’s transcendent songs re-imagined with this wonderful orchestration was a joy to behold.

Following the interval, Jarlath Henderson took to the stage, along with his talented band, comprising Hamish Napier (keyboards), Innes Watson (guitar and fiddles), Andrea Gobbi (synths, samples and percussion) and Duncan Lyall (double bass and synths). This was the core line-up which had played on Henderson’s critically-acclaimed 2015 album, Hearts Broken, Heads Turned. Most of the set was drawn from that fine album, starting with the driving rhythms of Courting Is A Pleasure, notable for an impassioned vocal and stirring flourishes of flute from Jarlath Henderson. The gentler end of Henderson’s lilting Northern Irish brogue was used to good effect in Fare Thee Well Lovely Nancy, which was graced by some elegant piano and buoyed along by sampled percussion and sweeping orchestration. Over gently-picked guitar, Henderson’s heartfelt vocals increased gradually in intensity as the tragic murder ballad The Two Brothers unfolded, punctuated by Henderson’s piercing bursts of low whistle and his scorching uillean pipes solo to finish.

Jarlath Henderson’s graceful vocals did full justice to the traditional classic Ye Rambling Boys Of Pleasure, the moving nature of this beautiful tale of love and longing underlined by some exquisite playing from the SCO. The pastoral beauty of Sweet Lemany, which dealt with the advent of Spring and the courting season, was heightened by more delicately beautiful orchestration. The epic, dark and lengthy murder ballad, Young Edmund In The Lowlands Low, featured some haunting uillean pipes, atmospheric samples and specially-commissioned choreography, performed by a small troupe of young ballet dancers at the back of the stage (although, in truth, the full effect of this would only have been enjoyed by those sitting upstairs in the auditorium). Jarlath Henderson and his band showed off their musical chops in two stirring tune-sets, one midway through the set and the other towards the end. These afforded the SCO a couple of well-deserved breaks and the sheer musical virtuosity of Henderson, in particular, drew admiring glances and smiles from the orchestra members.

To close his set, Jarlath Henderson invited Rachel Sermanni back on stage to provide delicate harmonies on The Mountain Streams Where The Moorcocks Grow, an evocative tale of unrequited love and longing, which also featured sweeping orchestration and electronic soundscapes. This closing tour de force earned a standing ovation. In response, Jarlath Henderson and Rachel Sermanni brought a wonderful night of music to a perfect conclusion, returning to the Burns songbook for an achingly beautiful a capella duet on Ae Fond Kiss.

For more on the Celtic Connections 2019 click here.