BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

Ryan Wigglesworth’s opening programme as new chief conductor of the BBC SSO told us much about what to expect from him as he nurtures his relationship with his new orchestra. It was anything but run-of-the-mill, offsetting the sparkling French textures of Ravel and Messiaen with brand new music by the interesting young Yorkshire-born composer Jonathan Woolgar. The musical journey, which also featured the pitch-perfect BBC Singers, was endlessly adventurous and repeatedly exhilarating. Wigglesworth has set his own bar unquestionably high.

As a composer himself, he has as eye – and an ear – for latent talent. In Woolgar’s new BBC commission, Symphonic Message in memory of L.R. (referring to the drama teacher Lynda Ross whom, the composer writes, inspired so many at his former school), Wigglesworth focused on the frenetic impatience of Woolgar’s musical characterisation, a fast-moving exchange of sharp-textured contradictions that paradoxically spelt completeness. 

Wigglesworth could have pressed a little more to punch out the detail, even where Woolgar’s motivic invention itself lacked a natural spark, but this was a performance that lived by its adrenalin and sense of constant surprise. As such, it served well as a springboard to the French feast that lay ahead.

On their own, Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi – a musical gift to his wife Claire Delbos, pet name “Mi”, rather in the manner of Wagner’s Siegried Idyll – are a 1937 set of orchestral songs fulfilling enough in themselves. But with the BBC Singers to hand, why not offer a scene-setter in the form of the contemporaneous Messiaen a cappella motet, O sacrum convivium? 

It was a magical moment, Wigglesworth’s contained gestures eliciting a mystical perfection from the 36-strong chorus, in both the thrilling unanimity and sustained stillness and slowness of the performance. 

Without a break, Canadian soprano Jane Archibald (replacing Wigglesworth’s indisposed wife, Sarah Bevan, as soloist) unleashed a glowing interpretation of the nine Poèmes pour Mi, probing every expressive possibility, from internalised intensity to outward rapture. It wasn’t always possible to hear every word she sang above the glittering orchestration, but as a whole, and with the SSO extolling the full virtues of Messiaen’s orchestral sweetness and translucence, this was an utterly sublime and moving performance. 

Much of that was down to Wigglesworth’s highly prescriptive conducting. He appears to be something of a perfectionist, each gesture carefully pre-considered and ultra-clear in its intentions. 

That was certainly a prime factor in ensuring that the concluding work in this concert, Ravel’s full 1912 score for the ballet Daphnis and Chloe, shone to its fullest and finest potential. Infinite colours abounded in a performance that variously sparkled and sighed, revelled and acquiesced. Acute textural detail informed mostly every moment, the wordless chorus spreading a comforting glow, like a red evening sky, over the shifting orchestral iridescence. It triggered off instant cheers and applause, and bodes well for Wigglesworth’s future relationship with his new orchestra.

Ken Walton 

RSNO / Berman

RSNO Centre, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The air waves have been awash with funeral marches over the past few days, so the prospect of an RSNO programme leaning very much to the dark side could easily have summoned emotional overload. Yet despite the morbid tolling drums that open Elgar’s fulsomely orchestrated Bach Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, the lugubrious symbolism of Vaughan Williams’ incidental music to Maeterlinck’s play The Death of Tintagiles, and the requiem-like Fourth Symphony of Franz Schmidt, this Wednesday matinee concert cast aside potential despair with performances that coupled deep, in some cases brutal, intensity with sparkling brio.

It was clearly music that struck a sympathetic chord with conductor Jonathan Berman, a message he imparted through spoken words, but then turned these thoughts into rich, meaningful music.

Elgar’s Bach orchestration has often been criticised for being a bloated over-egging of the original, but in this instance, a performance that effectively allowed Bach’s contrapuntal genius to comfortably inhabit the thick-set 1920s sound world of Elgar, the outcome was a triumph of anachronistic synthesis. Crisp clean entries preserved the structural clarity, Berman embraced the music’s natural momentum, so that Elgar’s wilful eccentricities – sudden explosive textural infills – bore the (possibly tongue-in-cheek) joy he no doubt intended.

Vaughan Williams’ shadowy score, composed for a one-off London performance in 1913 of Maeterlinck’s play, took us to a more sombre place, its opening gently lapping like Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead. Here and there, flickers of light burst through, just enough to reveal fresher glimpses of that famously rustling pastoralism – a modal viola melody taking flight, parallel harmonies lightening the air. Berman’s easeful reading, however, also emphasised the fundamentally cinematic function of this score – pre-echoes, perhaps, of Vaughan Williams’ later soundtrack to Scott of the Antarctic – and a sense in such a concert performance of a necessary missing parameter, the play itself.

Schmidt’s Symphony No 4 – written by the Austro-Hungarian composer in 1934 essentially as a requiem to his only daughter who died at birth – was anything but incomplete. In four continuous movements, and loaded with the naturally gnawing pathos that comes from a style rooted in Mahler and Richard Strauss but peppered with Second Viennese School influences, its wholeness is both emotional and literal. 

Opening with a soulful, unaccompanied trumpet solo – as hauntingly poignant as Aaron Copland’s in Quiet City – the mood in this thoughtful performance, and as the fuller orchestra gradually announced its presence, was captivating. Even the throbbing funereal underlay of the Adagio seemed less than grave with the cello solo rising above it. A frisky Scherzo, cut short in its prime, lifted the spirits higher yet before the Finale’s ultimate return to the quietude of the opening, that keening trumpet drawing magically to a final solitary note. 

If you’ve never heard a Schmidt symphony – Berman has been recording all four of them with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales – this final one is a powerful introduction. Even with its mournful message.

Ken Walton

Dunedin Consort / Butt

Perth Concert Hall 

It is still sometimes suggested that Mozart intended his Requiem for himself, but if he had foreseen his own death, surely classical music’s definitive whizz kid would have been careful to finish it. 

What the Requiem has had to cement its place in the repertoire is Sussmayr’s contemporary completion, an advantage not enjoyed by the composer’s earlier Mass in C Minor. In 2017, however, Amsterdam University’s Clemens Kemme published new edition of the work which presented an authoritative solution to the problems of the score. The first recording of his revisions, in Berlin, has not been judged a complete success, so Dunedin Consort, with its track record of benchmark-setting discs of early choral music, and specifically a Grammy nomination for the Linn-released Requiem, has an important job to do for Mozart, a mere 240 years on from the work’s likely first and only performance in his lifetime. 

What Kemme has done, and what came across magnificently in this performance under conductor John Butt, is to look at the composers Mozart was drawing from for his own mass – Bach and Handel – as well as to the music he was writing himself around the same time. 

The two male soloists, Joshua Ellicott and Robert Davies, are really in supporting roles, with Davies stepping out from the chorus – a choir of six women and four men. The vocal ensemble presented themselves both by voice (two each of soprano 1 and 2, mezzo, tenor and bass) and as a double choir of one-voice-to-a-part, as the music required – music that not only owes a debt to the earlier composers but sometimes echoes specific works. If Mozart had a copy of Bach’s Mass in B Minor to hand, it would be no surprise at all. 

The significant arias, and more operatic music, were in the more than capable hands of Lucy Crowe and Anna Dennis, voices chosen with great care for the notes they had to sing and for the way they combined wonderfully together. Their duetting on Laudamus te was the first shiver-inducing moment of the performance, although the blend of the six women’s voices in the Gloria that preceded it had laid out that path with clarity. 

Davies had his moment, in partnership with three trombones, in Jesu Christe – Cum Sancto Spiritu, before the ensemble sequence – broken only by a demanding and demonstrative solo Et incarnatus est from Crowe – that ends the work. The Sanctus and Benedictus both end with choral Osannas that are part of Kemme’s crucial contribution, alongside the orchestration, based on what sketches Mozart left. 

In a clever piece of programming, Butt began the concert with Haydn’s Symphony No 80, from the same era and known to Mozart. It was an opportunity to tune the ears to the fabulous playing of the instrumentalists, an 18-piece Baroque band (yet to be augmented by brass, timpani and organ) producing a sound of wonderful clarity and spaciousness. The Adagio second movement was quite as lovely as the best of the singing that followed – and after the interval the Mozart singers sounded all the better for the quality of the playing behind them. 

Keith Bruce 

Portrait of Lucy Crowe by Victoria Cadisch

Toi, Toi, Tay!

A new opera festival launches this weekend in Dundee. KEN WALTON reveals the plot

Is there really room for another classical music festival in Scotland? The people of Dundee certainly think so. From Thursday to Sunday this weekend (22-25 Sept) the first ever Opera Festival Scotland gets underway in the feisty Tayside city with performances of Verdi’s Aida and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, a visit by Scottish Opera’s Highlights Tour, and a supporting programme of lectures, masterclasses and singing competitions.  

Nobody is keener for it to work than locally-born events guru and festival organiser Michael Jamieson, whose brainchild it is, and who has fought against the odds to make this inaugural event happen. “It’s not been without its challenges,” he freely admits. “Firstly we had to be taken seriously, decide on exactly what would happen, then Covid came and we had to move the Festival back a year.”

Even now, he and his organising colleagues have had to deal with the hiatus around national mourning for the late Queen, and the general nervousness of the paying public at a time of economic hardship. “The cost of living crisis is probably our biggest immediate challenge. People are not confident in parting with their money right now,” he says. Nonetheless, optimism is not in short supply.

That’s as much to do with the inclusive nature of a programme designed to involve local opera enthusiasts as it is with the organisers’ prudence and realism in engaging affordable artists, focusing limited funds on where they will make the most impact, and in establishing creative collaborations with key professional bodies. “Those collaborations came remarkably easily,” says Jamieson, who has secured support from Scottish Opera, English National Opera, Perth Festival and the RSNO. 

The centrepiece, Friday’s concert performance of Aida at the Caird Hall, is all about involvement. Yes, the Festival has imported experienced singers to fill the key roles, but to make this the extravaganza Jamieson wants it to be, the hordes of soldiers, priests, prisoners and slaves will be eager and enthusiastic Dundonians. 

“We wanted to involve as many amateur singers as possible from local communities,” Jamieson explains. “Dundee and the surrounding areas are full of small groups who want to do big operas but just don’t have the resources. Different events are forever competing with each other, so we though, let’s do it differently, do something big where they can all join in on neutral ground.” Friday’s performance will be directed by local music teacher and conductor Ralph Jamieson. “Yes, we’re related,” admits Michael.

As for the fully-professional performance activity, Scottish Opera has chosen to open its latest country-wide Opera Highlights Tour in the city’s Marryat Hall. The same venue hosts Opera Bohemia in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro on Saturday. 

Another highlight has to be the presence of internationally-renowned, Glasgow-born soprano Janis Kelly, once a regular star with Scottish Opera, now chair of vocal performance at the Royal College of Music. 

A number of the Opera Festival Scotland events revolve around her presence. On Sunday morning she conducts a masterclass at Dundee High School, sharing her musical knowledge and experience to two upcoming sopranos, Scots-born Rosha Fitzhowle and London-based Jila Mariko. 

Kelly will also chair the judging panel that afternoon in another key Festival event at the Caird Hall, the Young Artists Singing Competition. She’ll be joined by fellow judges Julia Lagahuzere (founder and general director of Opera for Peace), veteran mezzo-soprano Linda Ormiston, and the heads of casting for Scottish Opera and ENO. “We had over 100 applications from around the UK,” says Jamieson. The winner, chosen from four finalists who will perform with the RSNO, will receive the Opera Festival Scotland Trophy, £1500 career grant, a lunchtime recital promoted by ENO, and a masterclass with Bollywood playback singer Kamal Khan, courtesy of Opera for Peace.

Other Festival events include a Non-professional Singing Competition, and two keynote lectures: one on the History of Opera Performance in Scotland by Fife-based Iain Fraser, co-creator of the website Opera Scotland; and Julia Lagahuzere, focusing on the artist as a world ambassador and their place in society. One further event at Dundee’s V&A, presented by experts Megan Baker and Raymond Uphill-Wood, offers a workshop on Costume and Make-Up Design. The Festival has also been active in local schools in the run up to the inaugural event, introducing opera to children at both primary and secondary level. Pupils have also been offered free admission to Festival events.

Jamieson’s future ambition for Opera Festival Scotland is that it should operate on a two-year cycle. “That depends on what happens this weekend,” he says guardedly. “If it’s something Dundee wants we’ll do everything we can to make it a regular fixture in the Scottish cultural calendar. The first indication it is will be the audience figures and feedback from this event. We’ll see how it goes.”

Opera Festival Scotland runs 22-25 September in Dundee. Full details at www.operafestivalscotland.co.uk

Lammermuir: SCO / Poska

St Mary’s Church, Haddington

Like the Formula 1 calendar and the soccer season, the itinerary of the Scottish orchestral musician now lacks much in the way of clear holiday breaks.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra visited Lammermuir on the last lap of its extensive summer touring schedule, with concerts of music by contemporary women composers aimed at school students in Musselburgh, Ayr and Dumfries to come next week before Nicola Benedetti launches the new season, premiering James MacMillan’s Second Violin Concerto at the turn of the month.

The woman in charge on Wednesday evening was the Estonian chief conductor of the Flanders Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Latvian Symphony, Kristiina Poska. Her programme majored on Beethoven, opening with the Overture “Coriolan” and closing with Symphony No 2, with Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony and a contemporary work from Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tuur in between.

Compact enough in duration, it was a rich, if often rather bleak, mix in a Lammermuir Festival that has found room for all three of Scotland’s orchestras – although perhaps not an enormous amount of room for the BBC SSO in Dunbar Parish Church this Friday.

On both the overture and Beethoven symphony, the SCO sounded like a larger outfit in this space with its reverberating acoustic. Nonetheless Poska, a very precise and clear conductor, had the playing edgy and keen, and the dynamics of the string sections particularly precisely graded. The Coriolan was powerful and the Second increasingly colourful as it went on, the SCO winds as dependable as ever, and guest first flute Daniel Pailthorpe (from the BBC Symphony Orchestra) a star turn. Poska really ratcheted up the performance as she built towards an explosive finale.

The works in the middle were more exercises in focused intensity, almost frighteningly so in the case of the Shostakovich, on which leader Michael Gurevich shone from the start, and principal cello Christian Elliot later. The composer’s amplification of his Eighth String Quartet for string orchestra is all about specifics of tone on the instruments, and the range of brooding notes they can produce. The balance Poska achieved was ideal.

Tuur’s Flamma also demands prodigious technique from a smaller string ensemble, particularly in the bowing, although there was some lightning fingering to appreciate as well. Commissioned by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the composer’s programme note references the indigenous people’s relationship with fire as a purifying as well as a destructive force, and the emphasis sounded to be on the former. As much as the Shostakovich, it is a work specifically tailored to the forces it demands, constantly switching between ensemble and solo voices, which sometimes echoed one another in minimalist fashion. The overall effect, however, was much more expressive and pictorial.

Keith Bruce

Programme repeated this evening in Blair Atholl and on Saturday (September 17) in Greenock.

Picture of Kristiina Poska by Kaupo Kikkas

Lammermuir: Hammond & Uttley

Dunbar Parish Church

Tenacity has proved a crucial virtue in the precarious world of music promotion in recent years, and the appearance of pianists Clare Hammond and Richard Uttley at this year’s Lammermuir was another fine example of that.

Festival co-director Hugh Macdonald proposed this re-visiting of the repertoire of the husband and wife duo Ethel Bartlett and Scots son-of-the-manse John Rae Robertson pre-pandemic, and it proved an idea well worth clinging on to. Bartlett and Robertson met as students at the Royal Academy of Music and married in 1921, after his service in World War 1, going on to huge success on both sides of the Atlantic in the inter-war years and beyond, until his death in 1956.

Not only did Bartlett & Robertson create a repertoire of transcriptions for two pianos in addition to playing the established classics, they also commissioned and premiered new music by Martinu, Bax and Britten. Hammond and Uttley steered an expert path between honouring their legacy and doing their own thing with a programme that began with one of the couple’s “greatest hits”, Bach’s soprano cantata, Sheep may safely graze, and concluded with the party-piece lollipop of De Falla’s Spanish Dance from La Vida Breve.

Those are akin to the sort of repertoire of classical chamber pops from last century that have been rediscovered by Elena Urioste and Tom Poster, and it is revealing that young players are doing that – some might say that the chances of the “crossover” populist recordings, and stadium-filling “classical” artists, of our own age are rather less likely to be worthy of the attention of future generations.

The meat of this programme was substantial indeed, and covered composition specifically for two pianos by Mozart, Debussy, Rachmaninov, and Arnold Bax – all with its own story attached, and introduced by the artists as well as in Macdonald’s programme note.

The Bax, from 1928, proved colourful, picturesque and impressionistic, while the Debussy of a decade earlier is the composer at his darkest, its slow central movement clearly coloured by composition in Normandy during WW1. It was bracketed by Mozart’s 1781 D Major Sonata, a perfect introduction to the interplay and exchange of ideas between two stylistically-different performers, and Rachmaninov’s 1901 Suite No.2, perhaps just as worthy of dedication to his therapist as the Second Piano Concerto that followed it. Its second movement Waltz and third movement Romance are the composer at his unbeatable melodic best, and would have justified the considerable expense of bringing the two top-quality Steinways to the Dunbar platform on their own.

Keith Bruce

Portait of Clare Hammond by Philip Gatward

Lammermuir: NYCoS Chamber Choir

Loretto School Chapel

Featuring a full complement of the Scottish orchestras, the presence of Scottish Opera, quality string quartets and more top drawer pianists than is quite decent, one of the few things the 2022 Lammermuir Festival is not about is debuts. Or perhaps it is.

With The Marian Consort, Sansara, The Orlando Consort and Dunedin Consort still to come in the chamber choir line-up, that strand began with the first public concert by the newest ensemble under the capacious umbrella of the National Youth Choir of Scotland.

Long in the planning, or at least in the aspirations of NYCoS founder and artistic director Christopher Bell, the NYCoS Chamber Choir takes his example of the pursuit of excellence with the young musicians of Scotland to another level. If the full forces of the senior choir have already impressed some of the world’s top conductors in performances in Edinburgh, London, Europe and the United States, this elite unit of between 20 and 30 young voices is a refinement of that success.

What Bell has done with the formation of the Chamber Choir is select the finest voices within the current cohort – and possibly recent graduates who are beyond the stipulated age-range in future incarnations – and created a group that can tackle specific repertoire. Who knows what that might be in the future, but this first concert set bold, contemporary parameters – putting, perhaps quite deliberately, clear distance between the NYCoS Chamber Choir and the other vocal groups at this year’s Lammermuir.

With Michael Bawtree at the organ for Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, which opened the recital, and the piano for Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year, which concluded it, the other two works were a cappella – James MacMillan’s Culham Motets and Caroline Shaw’s And the swallow.

Only the Dove, which dates from 2000, could be described as a secular work, although some of the poetry he sets – Blake, Dickinson and Tennyson among the texts – is faith-inspired. It was an especially appropriate work, not just for an unintended allusion to the death of the Queen, but also because the setting of Dickinson’s Answer July seemed to be a mature version of the sort of songs NYCoS has commissioned as part of its invaluable training of young musicians over its 25 years.

That coming to maturity of the organisation is perfectly celebrated in the birth of this choir. If Britten’s fascinating 1943 work – commissioned by the same clergyman responsible for Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and setting texts by troubled 18th century poet Christopher Smart – is not heard very often, it is because it is far from easy. Here too, though, step-outs from soprano Emily Kemp and alto Olivia Mackenzie Smith take the listener into a child-like world of cat and mouse, while tenor Alexander Roland and bass Christopher Brighty each made powerful solo contributions.

Kemp then supported fellow soprano Lorna Murray in the exquisite close harmony passages of the MacMillan, while all the female voices provided an ethereal underscore to solo tenor Lewis Gilchrist. With alto Morven McIntyre and tenor Jack Mowbray the solo voices in the Dove, this was a chance for individuals to shine, but mainly about the meticulous performance of the ensemble of young men and women whose musical abilities far transcend any “youth choir” or “non-professional” categorisation.

The group also gives Bell access to a whole realm of repertoire, including the newest piece in this programme, the setting of verses from Psalm 84 by America’s composer-of-the-moment, Caroline Shaw. And the swallow is a gorgeous piece which seems to take the sound-world of Whitacre or Lauridsen into a more sophisticated sphere, not least in the imaginative and specific vocal techniques it demands.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Stuart Armitt

Lammermuir: Jeremy Denk

Dunbar Parish Church

It is, as the Lammermuir Festival’s James Waters pointed out, unusual to see a musician selling their books rather than their recordings at performances. As a hardback is less concealable than a CD, it was also obvious how many were bought, but then Jeremy Denk’s Every Good Boy Does Fine is well worth the read – and “a love story in music lessons” that is tailor-made for his faithful following at the Lammermuir Festival.

By dint of being the star visitor of the event’s return to live operations last year, Denk has swiftly become Lammermuir’s golden boy, and this was the first of five appearances (including a non-playing book-plugging one) in the 2022 programme, two as an orchestral soloist (Brahms on Saturday with the RSNO, Beethoven a week on Monday with the Royal Northern Sinfonia) and one with violinist Maria Wloszczowska, playing Bach.

For the book-buying fans, his opening solo recital was the most personal and idiosyncratic. As he probably says everywhere, his promise to write programme notes had again come to naught (although Lammermuir programme editor David Lee provided another view of the works) so he chose to deliver his thoughts verbally, which is part of the attraction of his appearances. These are a mixture of historical context and musical illumination, and always worth hearing, but his personable delivery and wit are as important – Denk makes his listeners want to open their ears before he plays a note.

He’s some player though, which is the important thing. Opening with Mozart’s A Minor Sonata, K310, here was a reading of the rollercoaster of the composer’s emotions, the register of mood and pitch in constant flux. Perhaps there are pianists with more delicate Mozart, but few with Denk’s passion and commitment – or speed at some points.

The technically-challenging is meat and drink to him, as the full-on pianism of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, which followed, demonstrated. It’s a huge piece, but not short on humour when the gloomy tolling of Le Gibet is followed by the mischief of the gremlin Scarbo. Denk has a habit of turning to the audience at such moments, the expression of the music written on his face, and sometimes almost with an open-eyed look of surprise that the audience is still there.

The pianist spoke less after the interval, but his choice of programme said more. Concluding with Beethoven’s big Opus 109 Sonata, which references the Baroque keyboard style of Bach in the last movement, it began with a Toccata by the earlier composer, played on the Steinway in an expressive style that Bach could surely never have imagined. Between those two sat the recent American Pianist’s Association competition piece Heartbreaker, by Breaking the Waves composer Missy Mazzoli, and the fiendish Ligeti Etude, The Devil’s Staircase, both demonstrations of the capabilities of a modern grand – in the right hands.

It was show-off stuff, but delivered with something approaching no-sweat New York nonchalance. The bulk of the music was played from memory, but Waters found himself called upon to turn the electronic pages of Denk’s tablet computer for the dense modern works. Plaudits to him for being just as relaxed.

Keith Bruce

Lammermuir: Therese

St Mary’s, Haddington

There will, inevitably, be those who think otherwise, but the decision to press ahead with Scottish Opera’s Lammermuir Festival performance of lost Massenet opera Therese an hour after the news was announced of the death of the Queen was the correct one. The audience stood for a minute’s silence and listened to a (rather good) playing of the National Anthem by the orchestra before the show, but it was the work itself that turned out to prompt thoughtfulness about the monarch’s legacy.

Of course, as Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is alleged to have said of the French Revolution: “It is too soon to tell”. Massenet and his librettist Jules Claretie, biographer of Moliere and director of the Theatre Francais, were making a similar point in the first decade of the 20th century about the events of the last decade of the 18th in France.

If “Marianne” is the female symbol of the revolution, Therese is a more realistic depiction of French womanhood, caught between loyalty to her Girondist partner Andre Thorel, offspring of a lower-middle-class working man, and memories of her previous lover, Royalist nobleman Armand de Clerval.

Those three are the story, and Scottish Opera’s recent deft form in casting is continued here with Lithuanian mezzo Justine Gringyte ideally suited to the demanding range of the vocal line of the titular heroine, baritone Dingle Yandell looking as well as sounding the part as Andre (were he to consider slumming it in Les Mis, he’d be Jean Valjean), and former Scottish Opera Emerging Artist Shengzhi Ren having a welcome opportunity to show off his powerful but relaxed tenor voice.

Credit should go to the work of the language coach on the production, Florence Daguerre de Hureaux, for what is very fine diction of the text by all three – outstanding in Yandell’s case – as well as from everyone on stage, including the smaller roles and compact men’s chorus.

There are also surtitles, and that clarity (as the well-named librettist would surely concur) is important, because the background debate of ideas is as crucial as the love triangle onstage.

Yandell’s early aria, and duet with Gringyte, declares that “we must love to live” – condemning revolutionary hate, despite his loyalty to the cause – while Gringyte’s Act 2 opener of longing for the open meadows of rural France is a recognition of the values of the ancien regime in the face of the Terror outside the Paris apartment in which she – and, secretly, Ren’s Armand – are holed up.

Idealists in their own way, Massenet and Claritie are arguing, during La Belle Epoque, for pragmatism instead of extremism – an accommodation of the strengths of France’s Royalist past within the egalitarianism of the Third Republic.

The composer – a tunesmith and orchestrator of proven skill, whose work we hear too little of and whose vast catalogue is scarcely covered in most opera guides – provides a sumptuous score to this debate. That early baritone aria comes with lovely pealing winds and the most captivating orchestral scoring accompanies the romantic memories of both male characters in Act 1.

The music does the work again in the move to Paris from the chateau near Versailles at the opening of Act 2, but staff director Roxana Haines contributes with eloquent simplicity in the staging, replacing the often-sung-about stone bench in the chateau garden with a covetable chaise (courte, rather than longue). The costuming is similarly stylish and pithily expressive, Gringytye elegant in black, blue and mauve, the chorus of revolutionaries in caps, Andre sporting the inevitable neckerchief, and Armand, amusingly, an aristocratic Barbour coat.

The sightlines may not be ideal in St Mary’s but the acoustic is wonderful, and guest conductor Alexandra Cravero, who is immersed in this repertoire and had the orchestra playing superbly, produced a balance that was ideal, every detail of the music emerging with clarity and the singers always perfectly audible.

Keith Bruce

Repeated at Perth Concert Hall tomorrow, Saturday September 10, at 7.30pm

Pictures by Sally Jubb

Simply the Best

Choir supremo Christopher Bell tells KEN WALTON about the exciting new NYCOS initiative he’s launching at the Lammermuir Festival 

No sooner has the buzz of the Edinburgh International Festival dissipated than the Lammermuir Festival bursts into action with a programme of equal calibre. From 8-19 September all the big Classical Music action is in East Lothian, opening on Thursday with the compelling pianism of Jeremy Denk in Dunbar, and an operatic rarity – Massenet’s Thérèse – courtesy of Scottish Opera in St Mary’s Church, Haddington.

Elsewhere over the next 12 days regular morning coffee concerts include a series of song recitals by various star vocalists partnered with pianist Malcom Martineau; the chamber music programme ranges from string quartets Quatuor Mosaïques and Quatuor Agate to such invigorating couplings as cellist Laura van der Heijden and pianist Tom Poster; larger scale events extend from Bach cantata performances by the Marian Consort and Spiritato to orchestra programmes by the RSNO, SCO, Royal Northern Sinfonia, and the BBC SSO.

Among this cornucopia of delights, however, there’s one event that deserves special mention. It’s at Loretto School Chapel this Sunday (11 Sep), and it might take a second glance at the billing to appreciate that this isn’t just by any old National Youth Choir of Scotland (NYCOS) ensemble, but a brand new initiative that its artistic director Christopher Bell expects will personify excellence. Bell makes no apology for the selectivity of its 24 members. “They have to be at the top of their game to be chosen,” he says.

This is NYCOS’ “First XV”, singers taken from the current flagship National Youth Choir who are deemed the star players. Bell recognises that such a strategy goes against the inclusive brigade who’s view is you shouldn’t be leaving people out. “I’m quite surprised that 25 years on from founding NYCOS I’m still making the argument that to get the vey best results you have to have the very best singers,” he says. 

His methods are tried and tested. The current lead ensembles – which also include the National Girls and National Boys Choirs – have performed at the highest level, from the BBC Proms and Edinburgh Festival to highly-acclaimed appearances in the USA. They have even been the choir of choice for Sir John Eliot Gardner and his Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique. 

To get them to that level, Bell’s preferred model is pyramidal. At its base are the 14 regional choirs that eventually feed the national ones. But there are also parallel strands that address inclusivity. “Everybody at school should experience singing, which is why we run a programme of general access educational work where we’ll do singing days and teach teachers through workshops. Alongside that there’s the progressively-structured choir activity. 

“But it’s like when a school wants a winning football team. Yes, everyone’s done PE, but you want the players that will get the ball in the net. When it comes to choosing a choir, particularly when it’s outside school, you want the best singers.”

One of the express aims of the new Chamber Choir is to tackle some of the most testing and varied repertoire. Sunday’s recital will include Britten’s slightly mad cantata Rejoice in the Lamb, James MacMillan’s Culham Motets and Jonathan Dove’s Passing of the Year. “Jonathan’s piece is really brilliant, very thoughtful, but joyful too,” he explains. “It’s about the arc of the year expressing the arc of life in symbolic terms. The funeral march near the end will break your heart.”

For this, Bell has been very specific in the voices he has recruited. They have to suit the repertoire of a given programme. “But it will be horses for courses,” he adds. “”It won’t necessarily be the same 24 people all the time. If we decide to do a more operatic programme, we choose the right voices. For a more churchy programme, a kind of Tenebrae meets Tallis Scholars, again we choose the best voices for the job. I even reserve the right, if there isn’t the right level within the group, to bring some NYCOS alumni back to ensure it’s of a decent level.”

“There’s capacity for the new choir to do really hard music, for us to make recordings of very different repertoire. This concert is the official launch of that idea: an idea we put to the Leverhulme Trust who came up with a very nice amount of money, which means that for the next three years we will be able to do it.”

The Chamber Choir sneaked in a soft launch recently in St Andrews and will do the same in Helensburgh this Saturday. But Sunday is the big moment when Bell introduces his newest choral initiative to a discriminating Lammermuir Festival audience. Thereafter it has a Scottish tour planned and recordings that include one for the BBC. “What we are not looking to do is crash in on already existing ensembles,” Bell stresses. “We’re looking to find maybe a niche, one that gives the really experienced NYCOS singers a chance to do yet more detailed and high level work, and not to stand on anyone’s toes!”. 

The new NYCOS Chamber Choir launches at the Lammermuir Festival on 11 Sep (3pm) in Loretto School Chapel, Musselburgh. The Festival runs in venues around East Lothian from 8-19 Sep. Full details on www.lammermuirfestival.co.uk

Sean Shibe: Lost & Found

Pentatone

Edinburgh guitarist Sean Shibe’s second album for Pentatone comes within a whisker of being too cool for school. The label describes it as “an ecstatic journey containing music by outsiders, mystics, visionaries, who often have more than one identity”.

Clocking in at 70 minutes, it would be pushing the envelope for a vinyl release, but is formatted that way, with a clear side one/side two split between Oliver Leith’s Pushing my thumb through a plate (originally written for harp) and Meredith Monk’s Nightfall (composed for voices).

The repertoire runs from Monk’s 12th century forebear Hildegard von Bingen to jazzmen Chick Corea and Bill Evans, by way of mavericks Moondog and Julius Eastman. It’s eclectic certainly, but all in the best possible current hipster taste, perfectly designed to appeal to the audience Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan astutely identified for the strand of “contemporary music” he introduced to the programme.

It’s also electric, Shibe playing two amplified solid-bodied guitars, through an array of effects, most extravagantly deployed on the earliest music. Recorded less than half a mile from the EIF’s Leith Theatre venue in Great Junction Street, it roams the globe and the repertoire, including a world premiere by Daniel Kidane (inspired by lockdown and sitting nicely amidst Corea’s Children’s Songs) and an arrangement of Shiva Feshareki’s 2018 VENUS/ZOHREH (originally for string quartet).

The latter’s graphic score, and the one for Eastman’s Buddha, are reproduced in the booklet of a package that has the guitarist indulging his cos-play enthusiasm. If you are looking for a precedent for the cover art style of Shibe’s recent output, look no further than Icelandic avant-pop pixie Bjork.

All of which suggest a bold level of ambition, and the undeniable fact is that Shibe pulls it off. His playing is immaculate, and the soundscapes he builds flawlessly constructed, never in any danger of straying into prog excess, and beautifully recorded. The disc is also sequenced with great care, so that the more melodious works arrive at exactly the correct time. Admirers of the guitarist’s acoustic classical work will find much to enjoy, as will those fans less likely to take a cottage in Earlsferry to hear Schubert chamber music at the East Neuk Festival each summer.

In record company marketing terms, Lost & Found is probably a “crossover” album, but one that is far too plugged into the zeitgeist and modern taste to deserve the label. It stands a very good chance of knocking some of the more obvious products bearing that label off their perches in the classical charts, but is well worth an attentive listen anyway.

Keith Bruce

EIF: Thank You, Edinburgh

Edinburgh Playhouse

At the end of an Edinburgh Festival during which political issues, from the personal to the international, have been particularly to the fore, an appearance by Californian soprano Angel Blue was most appropriate. In July the singer withdrew from La Traviata at Verona Arena because of the Italian venue’s use of blackface in a parallel summer staging of Aida. Although her public statement was eloquent and reasonable, the social media response explains her absence from those platforms now.

The 75th Festival was blessed to have her on the stage of its largest theatre as special guest of The Philadelphia Orchestra for a free concert that was also streamed live to an outdoor screen in Princes Street Gardens. Her quartet of songs – O Mio Babbino Caro and Vissa d’arte by Puccini, Gershwin’s Summertime and Harold Arlen’s Over the Rainbow – are likely  to be the part many of the audience remembers best.

The event was the last of many innovations from Festival Director Fergus Linehan during his tenure, and if it can happen again, it should – the closing fireworks concert enjoyed a good innings, and 70-odd reinventions of the wheel can be regarded as sufficient achievement. There are countless ways in which this free concert format could now be developed.

For this year, the title of the event worked especially well. As Linehan explained in his introduction, it was not just meant to thank the city for welcoming the Festival back after the Covid pandemic, it was specifically a thank-you to those working in the NHS and care-homes, teaching children and delivering food and other essential supplies during the health emergency. We can assume there was an element of personal appreciation from the director to the city as well, and that should be reciprocated – there has been much to celebrate about Linehan’s tenure, and the way the Festival responded to the restrictions of the previous two years was especially admirable.

This concert was an upbeat way to mark all that, and Angel Blue’s contributions were perfect for the occasion. For some obscure technical reason she switched to a hand-held microphone for the Wizard of Oz hit, which did her voice no favours at all inside the venue but possibly made sense in the Gardens, but, that apart, she was in glorious form, on the popular Puccini every bit as much as her Grammy-winning Porgy and Bess.

The ebullient Yannick Nezet-Seguin and his orchestra are also well-suited to a concert of classical pops, able to launch into everything with the appropriate level of energy. We heard the Dvorak Carnival Overture again, and a repeat of the Third Movement of Florence Price’s Symphony No 1, but also Rossini’s Overture to The Thieving Magpie and the Fourth Movement of Beethoven’s 7th, both vibrant masterpieces of orchestral writing, opening and closing the programme.

Just as successful in the context, however, were the two new pieces they played in a concert that was a whistle-stop tour of recent work by the orchestra and its music director. Carlos Simon’s Fate Now Conquers was from a slate of commissions to complement a planned cycle of Beethoven symphonies, and drew on the music of the symphony whose Finale followed, as well as from Beethoven’s journals for its title.

And Valerie Coleman’s Seven O’Clock Shout, which requires the players to cheer as well as play their instruments, could not have been more appropriate. It has become something of an anthem for the orchestra, after being written in 2020 as a sort of concert-hall equivalent of the UK’s clap for carers – a musical appreciation of the huge contribution of, and the sacrifices being made by, essential workers.

There was, of course, an encore after the Beethoven, and if a reappearance by Angel Blue would have suited the packed house perfectly, one of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances was just fine too.

Keith Bruce

EIF / Fringe: Philadelphia Orchestra | Baker | Cordes en Ciel

Usher Hall | Pianodrome | St John’s, Edinburgh

The second Usher Hall appearance by The Philadelphia Orchestra at this year’s Festival includes the First Symphony of rediscovered black American composer Florence Price. At the other side of the Old Town, mezzo-soprano Andrea Baker concluded the Fringe run of a show that celebrates Price’s contemporary Shirley Graham Du Bois, whose opera Tom Tom was premiered the same year (1932) and, although praised, similarly then sunk without trace.

Baker’s show, the latest in her Sing Sister Sing! project and entitled Tales of Transatlantic Freedom, does much more than that, however. Tracing her own lineage to an enslaved great-grandfather (who, like Du Bois, became a very successful student, she at Oberlin, he at Yale), Baker’s operatic training is apparent in her selection from Du Bois’ work, but elsewhere she ranges from gospel and blues to the songs of Robert Burns, her argument being that diversity has always existed in music, it has merely been lost in  the present age.

Directed by John Paul McGroarty, the show made best use of a unique Fringe venue, housed within the Old Royal High School, once ear-marked for the Scottish Parliament and now destined to be the new home of St Mary’s Music School. At first prowling around the perimeter of the amphitheatre (which is partly constructed of old pianos) singing field hollers, the mezzo made her case with powerful performances of Ca’ the Yowes and A Slave’s Lament as well as spiritual Steal Away and lascivious dance moves, and some challenging eye-contact with members of the in-the-round audience.

Her essential partner in all this was pianist and arranger Howard Moody, just as versatile as she on two working pianos – “prepared” and otherwise – melodica and assorted percussion (often also the piano). It’s a show sure to have another life.

Cordes en Ciel: Kristiina Watt and Heloise Bernard

A duo of younger female musicians brought a run of lunchtime recitals at the Just Festival in St John’s at the West End of Princes Street to a close earlier on Thursday. Under new manager Miranda Heggie, the music, art and discussion programme concludes with Messiaen’s Quartet for End of Time this evening.

Cordes en Ciel was formed by two international students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Estonian lutenist Kristiina Watt and French/American soprano Heloise Bernard. Specialising in music heard at the courts of Louis XIV in France and Charles I & II in England, they are a charming partnership, and the period of their music nevertheless demanded considerable versatility. From Watt that was a range of accompanying techniques on theorbo and guitar as well as lute, and from Bernard singing in French and English and of emotional love songs as well as wry narrative. The music of Lully and Purcell were understandably to the fore, but we ended in the Franco-Iberian territory popularly explored by Jordi Savall.

The Philadelphia’s first Usher Hall concert, originally to have been Beethoven 9 with the Festival Chorus, began with an unbilled “present” to the Edinburgh audience – as conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin announced it – of Dvorak’s Carnival Overture. Although a problematic addition for the Festival, as the previous “resident” orchestra at this year’s event, the Czech Phil, had begun with the same work a few days previously, it helped shaped Thursday evening’s programme by getting things off with a fast and furious bang.

The first work in the agreed revised programme was Rachmaninov’s less-often-heard Isle of the Dead. Inspired by a black and white print of an already sombre painting, its is nonetheless far from colourless even if many of those colours are dark ones: eight basses, tuba, bass trombone, contrabassoon and bass clarinet. Mostly about huge ensemble sound, tempi and dynamics controlled with a tight rein by Nezet-Seguin, it nevertheless featured some fine solo playing from leader David Kim and first clarinet Ricardo Morales.

The orchestra’s star principal clarinet was also among the prominent voices in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but it was all about the conductor’s shaping of the old warhorse – without reference to any score. Out of the blocks like a whippet, this was a vigorous Five that shifted through the gears of pace and volume, showing The Philadelphia to be a highly responsive machine. Nezet-Seguin took long-ish pauses between the first and second and second and third movements, perhaps to prepare ears for the perfection of the segue from Scherzo to Finale – the make-or-break point of any performance.

Regardless of the bolt-on bonus at the front end of the evening, there was an encore, although we have, of course, heard the poignant Prayer for Ukraine from other orchestras too.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Yannick Nezet-Seguin by Hans van der Woerd

EIF: Saul

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

To describe Handel’s oratorio Saul as “an opera in all but name” is also to acknowledge the risk that it is neither one nor the other, and that was true of this concert performance at the Edinburgh Festival. Like the Philharmonia’s Fidelio in the opening week, it might have been enhanced by the involvement of an overseeing directorial eye, placing and moving the musicians.

It is a small thing, but particularly annoying was the seating of the natural trombones – instruments with which the composer was breaking new ground – almost invisibly behind the handsome, and very tall, chamber organ that had been brought on to the platform for the occasion (the hall’s own fine built-in instrument being anachronistically too powerful for the job).

The orchestra here was period band The English Concert, founded by Trevor Pinnock, currently directed by Harry Bicket and conducted here by Dunedin Consort’s John Butt, replacing Bernard Labadie. Scotland is indeed fortunate to have on hand someone not only able to jump in and direct three hours of rare Handel, but guaranteed to do so in a style that finds the natural propulsion of the score and is supremely sensitive to the needs of the singers.

And what a cast of principals we heard! Countertenor Iestyn Davies is as capable of filling the Usher Hall with swelling sustained notes and filigree ornamentation as he has been of holding a Queen’s Hall audience in the palm of his hand. His David was wonderfully matched at the start by Sophie Bevan’s Merab – the finest acting performance from among these singers and in glorious voice. Canadian tenor Andrew Haji and American soprano Liv Redpath were excellent, if slightly less animated, as Jonathan and Michal, and James Gilchrist the perfect choice to double in the ecclesiastical and pagan roles of the High Priest and the Witch of Endor.

The same casting wisdom applies to bass Neal Davies in the title role, who caught exactly the right tone for the vacillating King, allowing us to find a little sympathy for a difficult character.

In what was the only choreographed move of the night, the 26 singers of the English Concert stood up by section before the opening choruses (the “Hallelujah” is near the start of this one), which immediately made apparent how few of them were producing such a rich sound. The choir’s precision dispatch of the complex “Oh fatal consequence of rage” at the end of Act 2 was particularly memorable. Step-outs in the smaller roles were uniformly excellent, and bass William Thomas – credited only in the supertitles at the start – made a huge impression in his Act 3 cameo as the Apparition of Samuel.

As well as those trombones, the period instrument band was full of fascinating colours – this was a work on which Handel really indulged himself. Silas Wollston’s chamber organ had an early showpiece and Masumi Yamamoto supplied the bells of the carillon in Act 1 as well as her harpsichord continuo, while Oliver Wass followed a Iestyn Davies aria with a lovely harp solo played from memory. Among the combinations of instruments Handel deploys, the trio of cello, harp and archlute for Bevan’s “Author of peace” was especially lovely.

If the Act 3 Death March, once a mainstay of state funerals, is best known of the music, the scene that precedes it is Saul at its most operatic, as the King turns his back on his faith to consult the witch. We are in similar territory to Macbeth here – librettist Charles Jennens was a Shakespearean as well as a Bible scholar – and surely paving the way for the confrontation between Don Giovanni and the Commendatore. Those parallels appeared, and sounded, to be in the mind of Neal Davies’s impressive Saul.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Neal Davies by Gerard Collett

EIF: RSNO | Mahler 3

Usher Hall

Scotland’s own orchestras have been impressive throughout this 75th Edinburgh International Festival, and the trend continued on Tuesday with a thoroughly captivating Mahler’s Third Symphony courtesy of the RSNO, mezzo soprano Linda Watson, women members of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, the RSNO’s own Youth Chorus and the orchestra’s music director (soon also to become music director-elect of the Minnesota Orchestra) Thomas Søndergård.

If that proved an earth-shattering entity in itself, there was an added bonus, the world premiere of Sir James MacMillan’s For Zoe, a brief and eloquent tribute to the former RSNO principal cor anglais player, Zoe Kitson, who died earlier this year at the age of 44. In what must have been a extremely personal moment for the orchestra, MacMillan’s elegy, inevitably driven by a soulful and expansive cor anglais solo played enchantingly by current incumbent Henry Clay and enshrouded in a mist of ethereal whispering strings, served to honour its reflective intention.

It played a magical part, too, in programming our minds for the Mahler to come. In its gentle wake, and after a choreographed silence, Søndergård’s vision of the symphony emerged with persuasive patience and organic potency. 

The opening movement is, itself, a monumental challenge, any underlying structural logic offset by the nervy extremes of its restless content, a seemingly incongruous series of frenetic mood swings. Yet, with the extended RSNO in thrilling form, such contradictions were the powerhouse of a thundering, directional triumph. The all-important trombone solo, cutting through the texture like an Alpine horn blasting from the highest peak, was a compelling presence, immaculately played by guest principal Simon Johnson, more normally seen in his home patch with the BBC SSO.

But there wasn’t one weak link in this line-up, its breathtaking commitment and precision furnishing Søndergård with the freedom to input insightful and energising spontaneity, not least in the sparkling allusions to nature in Part Two (the final five movements). Luxuriant ease characterised the wistfulness of the Tempo di Menuetto, like wild flowers wafting in an unpredictable breeze. Then to the “animals” of the friskier Scherzo, its rawer rustic charm offset by momentary bouts of nostalgia.

“O Mensch! Gib Acht” (O man, be careful), warns the mezzo soprano in the shadowier Nietzsche setting in the slow movement. Watson delivered this with weighing restraint, deliciously understated but not without an enriching warmth. As such, the sudden clamour of (real) church bells, the thrilling innocence of the children’s voices and the more cautionary adult chorus that embody the penultimate movement was like a brilliant sun suddenly bursting through a clouded sky.

If this performance began with a monumental philosophical statement, it ended with a truly cathartic one, Mahler’s ultimate, ecstatic expression of “the love of God”. Søndergård shaped this concluding movement with unstoppable conviction, from the soft-glowing, hymn-like sincerity of the opening to the bells-and-whistles euphoria of the final bars. Here, Mahler wallows in excess glitter and sentimentality so OTT you wonder just how much of a Hollywood hit he would have been had he lived later and felt the inclination to sell his soul to the movies. He certainly knew how to write a musical blockbuster.

Ken Walton 

Picture by Andrew Perry

EIF: SCO / Emeyanychev

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Max Bruch would surely be dismayed to know how much he is still identified with the first of his three violin concertos (which he sold to a publisher for a pittance), his later Scottish Fantasy its only real rival in the modern repertoire.

Nicola Benedetti plays both, of course, and few regular concertgoers in Scotland will never have heard her perform the concerto during her starry early career. It is a box office favourite, and best known for the Hungarian dance music of the Finale, written for the work’s virtuoso dedicatee Joseph Joachim, who had no small hand in the shaping of the piece.

If you were fortunate enough to be hearing it for the first time at the start of the final week of the 75th Edinburgh International Festival, however, you will have heard another side to the concerto – and one that might have gratified its long-dead composer.

Benedetti, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and its Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev put the focus firmly on the central Adagio movement, treating the faster music around it almost as supporting furniture. It was a glorious account of a beautifully structured part of the work that takes its themes through many changes of key, falling figures in the winds playing against climbing ones in the solo line, and lush interplay that owes much to Mendelssohn and to Schubert.

With little more pause before the Finale than there is between the first and second movements, Emelyanychev and Benedetti made a wonderful arc of the whole piece, the violinist allowing neither her cadenza at the end of the Vorspiel nor her first bar of the Allegro energico to disturb the flow.

Of course, the faster showier music was still there, and few play it with more panache than Benedetti, but it was far from the whole story here.

For an encore, Emelyanychev was at the piano for another familiar favourite recorded early on by Benedetti – the Meditation from Thais by Massenet.

After that, Tchaikovsky’s ballet music for The Sleeping Beauty could almost seem an exotic choice, but Emelyanychev chose to play a sequence of music that eloquently told the tale that everyone knows, even if some of the score is much more familiar than other parts.

Guest principal clarinet Yann Ghiro, first trumpet Shaun Harrold, principal cello Philip Higham and harpist Eleanor Hudson all made telling solo contributions, but it was the precision tempi of the ensemble – playing as if in a pit for a performance – that impressed most. The music at the end of Act I built to a sumptuous peak from which the marvel was being able to continue, although the Entr’acte Symphonique of Act 2 matched it.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Ryan Buchanan

EIF: Czech Phil | Mahler 7

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

For the second of its Edinburgh Festival appearances this year, the Czech Philharmonic, under its St Petersburg-born music director Semyon Bychkov, turned its attention to a single, monumental symphonic statement, the gnarled psychological discourse that is Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. 

This is the orchestra that once delivered the original premiere in 1908 under Gustav Mahler’s baton. He did so despite concern over its “less than first rate” capabilities. No such worries for Bychkov, whose tight-knit control over the modern Czech Phil on Sunday presented the 80-minute symphony in colourful, manic and ultimately propulsive light.

His eye was firmly set on the endpoint, a triumphant finale still bearing the savage twists that pervaded and unhinged (for the right reasons) the previous four movements, yet through which sufficient dazzling positivity emerged to shake off Mahler’s palpable doubts and demons. This was a cathartic moment, heroic Wagner-like grandiosity mixed with equal measures of Straussian opulence and intimacy, yet the sniper fire of acid modernism constantly threatening to sour that optimism. Here, the orchestra reached blazing heights, the final moments gloriously exuberant and exhaustive.

If the performance lacked anything to that point, it was the potential for greater derring-do. Any risk seemed to be all Mahler’s, orchestral colourings that verge on extreme surrealism, a harmonic battle field that pits minor and major as almost irreconcilable warring factors. Yet, while Bychkov chose to contain much of the wilder moments, his justification came in the controlled, explosive impact of the finale.

Nor did he underplay the most distinguishing features of this work: the dark, disturbing freneticism underpinning the opening movement, the spellbinding virtuosity of the first Nachtmusik (remember the 1980s’ Castrol GTX advert?), the sardonic eccentricity of the central Scherzo, that moment of limpid reverie, the second Nachtmusik, characterised by the mandolin and guitar. 

This was never a Mahler 7 that centred its intentions on simply raising the roof. Instead, it was a performance of real substance, relevance, potency and intelligence, offering one of many viewpoints this ambiguous symphony is capable of inspiring. 

Ken Walton 

Picture: J Shirte

EIF: Florian Boesch | Czech Phil

Queen’s Hall & Usher Hall, Edinburgh

If every Festival needs to reinvent the wheel to justify the event’s continuing existence – and the 75th one has had to embrace some distinctive post-pandemic thinking in particular – the inclusion of the comfortingly familiar is also an important ingredient of its success, especially at the box office.

Almost a decade ago, Austrian baritone Florian Boesch and pianist Malcolm Martineau had a Spring residency in Glasgow performing the three song cycles of Schubert, and in 2016 they performed Die schone Mullerin as part of the EIF’s Queen’s Hall series. Winterreise – the most harrowing of the three – has a performance history at the Festival dating back to 1952, when Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sang it with Gerald Moore in the Freemason’s Hall.

This year we have already heard three of the 24 songs as part of Anne Sofie von Otter’s recital, but Boesch and Martineau are the current gold standard for the cycle. The baritone seems to become the desolate protagonist in his anguished rendering of these songs, taking his listeners on what is – for once accurately deploying a very tired modern cliché – a captivating journey. Martineau is with him every step of the way, pausing or hurrying on as required, sensitive to the most subtle shifts of tone.

Less than half way though, with the last lines of Irrlicht (Will-o’-the wisp) – “Every river will reach the sea; Every sorrow, too, will reach its grave.” – Boesch almost appeared too exhausted to go on. The next song is, of course, Rest.

His voice is a huge instrument, but that power was only occasionally hinted at; instead it was the pianissimo enunciation of the most pained expressions of loss in Wilhelm Muller’s poetry that lingers longest in the mind.

The Czech Philharmonic also has a long and distinguished performance history at the Edinburgh International Festival, as has already been explored in an interview feature on VoxCarnyx. The music they brought this year, fulfilling a booking intended for the 2020 Festival, is also of a piece with concerts in previous years, and the first of them was entirely of Czech music.

Saturday’s began in appropriately celebratory style with Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, as fine a statement of the relationship between Chief Conductor Semyon Bychkov and the musicians as you might wish – huge forces making an immediate impact with precision playing.

The programme ended with Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass, featuring Aidan Oliver’s Edinburgh Festival Chorus, three Czechs and one Russian as soloists and some terrific organ-playing. The organist, Daniela Valtova Kosinova, soprano Evelina Dobraceva and tenor Ales Briscein understandably won the biggest cheers at the end, alongside the choir and the orchestra’s brass. Bychkov shaped a work that is often seen as eccentric with great care, and the impact of both the Credo and the Sanctus was huge.

The conductor’s wife Marielle Labeque and her sister Katia were the soloists on Martinu’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, and they are also no strangers to the Festival. There was vast energy in their playing in the outer movements, but also great tenderness in the Adagio in partnership with the orchestra’s winds. An encore of the fourth movement of Philip Glass’s Concerto for Two Pianos, which they premiered with the LA Phil and Dudamel, was a terrific bonus.

All Festival-goers will be hoping that the next EIF director, Nicola Benedetti, renews the invitations to the Czech Phil, Bychkov and Florian Boesch and Martineau. Is it wrong to hope that the orchestra might be invited to play Prokofiev and the baritone asked to sing Gershwin and Kurt Weill?

Keith Bruce

EIF: Golda Schulz | Jordi Savall

Queen’s Hall & Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Storytelling in music can make the most fascinating of concerts, even beyond operas and orchestral works with a compositional narrative. Wednesday provided two very different, bold and rewarding ways to go about that.

South African soprano Golda Schulz and her regular pianist, American Jonathan Ware, commissioned her New York-domiciled countrywoman Kathleen Tagg and poet and librettist Lila Palmer to write This Be Her Verse, a three-song cycle about contemporary female experience. That’s the title they have also used for an Alpha Classics album and a recital programme that culminates in the new work but begins in the 19th century with the songs of Clara Schumann and the rediscovered Emilie Mayer.

The story it tells is not merely of women composers, celebrated and forgotten, but of female experience, even if all but one of the older songs set words written by men. When that includes a lovely melodic devotional quartet of French songs by Nadia Boulanger as well W B Yeats’ Down by the Salley Gardens, and Blake’s The Tiger alongside his Cradle Song, all in Rebecca Clarke’s settings, there is some interesting thinking going on – and it is no coincidence that those last three were some of Schulz’s most theatrical performances.

She has a very rich-toned voice, relaxed and comfortable across a wide range – and a very flexible range of expression to suit the tone of each song. The construction of the recital was masterly, returning to Schumann and Mayer after John Masefield’s The Seal Man to create a trilogy of fairytale fantasy across language and culture that mirrored the trilogy of reflections on modern reality that closed the programme. They are very good indeed, Tagg finding a multitude of ways of responding to Palmer’s witty and personal words. Schulz guided her (embarrassingly small) audience through it with great charm, Ware was more than equal to the span of approaches required as her foil, and an Amy Beach encore was appropriately joyous.

Jordi Savall with Hesperion XXI in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall (Ryan Buchanan)

A fortnight or so beyond his 81st birthday, Catalan early music specialist Jordi Savall is still finding ways to push the envelope in a field that is a great deal more crowded that it was when he began his international musical journey in the 1970s.

Perhaps not since the Eurovision Song Contest in 1972 has the Usher Hall hosted such a global musical trek in a single evening. Ibn Battuta: The Traveller of Time was the story of the eponymous 14th century Arab writer, who explored the known world from his home in Morocco across Africa, Europe and the Middle East as far as India and China before returning home and writing up his adventures, and his impressions of the cultures he encountered from a Muslim perspective.

Using excerpts from his writings alongside a narrative of his life (written by Manuel Forcano), Savall and the current edition of his group Hesperion XXI was augmented by specialist singers and players to perform the music he may have encountered in the places he visited at that time.

Of course it was diverse, but is was also notable how much linked the music of one place with the next, and the sound of 700 years ago with our own time. Savall included his own barrio in some 13th century Spanish music, but often had little to do. There was a virtuosic raga by Prabhu Edouard on tablas and Daud Sadozai on sarod, some particularly fine singing from Syria’s Waed Bouhassoun, and Morocco’s Driss El Maloumi and Madagascar’s Rajery combined to lay down an irresistible groove on oud and valiha (the island’s national instrument, a tube zither). When the whole ensemble performed together the effect was as exotic as you may imagine.

The narrator was Assaad Bouab, who last played the Festival in 2011 as part of Tim Supple’s One Thousand and One Nights, will be familiar to many as Hicham Janowski in the French TV comedy Call My Agent! and has more recently been seen in something called Peaky Blinders on British television. He could, to be frank, have been a little more dynamic in his delivery of the exciting adventures of Ibn Battuta.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Golda Schulz by Ryan Buchanan

EIF: Les Siècles | Dunedin

Usher Hall & Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

If you haven’t heard the revelatory recordings of Stravinsky’s trio of famous Ballet Russes scores issued some years ago by the exceptional Le Siécles orchestra, performed on the same type of early 20th century French instruments these groundbreaking Parisian creations were first heard on, they are readily available. If you missed the real thing – a simply sensational Festival performance on Tuesday of The Rite of Spring under the orchestra’s founder and conductor François-Xavier Roth –  you missed an absolute treat.

It was, without exaggeration, a knock-out. Where successive exponents have found virtue enough in The Rite’s unnerving, sidestepping rhythmic propulsion, the mystical primitivism of its Russian folksong derivations, or the cataclysmic violence of its harmonic friction, Roth not only brought these together in an electrifying display of utter completeness, but did so with intense, penetrating forensic insight. 

The unrefined pungency of the period instruments, and the matching expertise of the players, added a further blood-curdling distinctiveness to the eviscerating frenzy of the performance, strengthened by Roth’s insistence on pinpoint precision and clarity of line. Every parameter had unquestioning purpose, the earth-shattering extremes of dynamic, even the prolonged dramatic silences during which the entire Usher Hall seemed to draw a collective breath. The final sign-off, like a killer blow, sent this audience into instant delirium.

It was an inspired piece of programming to precede this particular Stravinsky with Lili Boulanger’s Faust et Hélène, written the same year as the infamous succès de scandale of The Rite of Spring. It was also a reminder that the early death of Lili (younger sister of the influential Nadia, also a composer) in 1918 robbed French 20th century music of a hugely promising voice. 

For Boulanger’s cantata, written at only 20 as a successful bid to become the first female winner of the much-coveted Prix de Rome, is a cauldron of rich and fertile musical ideas thrown around with seething impatience but ultimate theatrical assurance. It features three characters – Faust (the resplendent and impassioned tenor Julien Behr), Hélène (the softer, mellow-voiced Véronique Gens), and Mephistopheles (baritone Jean-Sébastien Bou) – and a musical language in the process of freeing itself from dominant influences, not least Wagner and Debussy. 

Roth acknowledged its impetuousness in a busy, fiery, directional performance. But inevitably this occasion will long be remembered for A Rite of Spring that completely blew us away.

The Dunedin Consort at the Queen’s Hall

I wonder what the BBC Radio 3 audience made of the opening of the Dunedin Consort’s Queen’s Hall concert on Tuesday? The loose-limbed Toccata in D minor by Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger may not have immediately registered with listeners only, but for those of us there, actually watching Elizabeth Kenny spin the arpeggiations from her theorbo, the overall experience was one of eloquence and restful appreciation.

Which sums up the overriding essence of this Dunedin Consort programme, devised by the starring tenor Nicholas Mulroy. It centred on that pivotal 17th century period in European music when the Renaissance gave way to the early Baroque, offering a sequence of representational songs punctuated by instrumental respite.

Even with relatively supercharged moments from Monteverdi – the invigorating ritornelli that elicited the sweet virtuoso duelling between voice and violins in Più Lieto Il Guardo – or in the exuberant instrumental Trio Sonata in C by Buxtehude, there was a stylish refinement that tempered the spirit of the delivery. It was late morning; no need to get too excited.

And it was all about good taste. Mulroy, who is now Dunedin’s associate director, explored shifting emotions with tempered insight. Where Monteverdi’s Salve Regina and Schütz’s O Misericordissime Jesu were filled with deep and thoughtful reverence, the former’s Et E Pur Dunque Vero was a radiant contrast to the gorgeous exoticism of his Nigra Sum. 

The group’s actual director, John Butt, kept a generous low profile on continuo, butting in, as it were, with a frisky solo harpsichord Capriccio by Frescobaldi. But the most dramatised music was left till last, Barbara Strozzi’s Lagrime Mie constituting a miniaturised cantata whose narrative course and deep sentiments found Mulroy in his fullest flow. It ended like a bookend to Kenny’s opening solo: soft, ruminative, sublime. Was I the only one tempted to tip-toe out?

Ken Walton

Photos: Ryan Buchanan

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