BBC SSO / Volkov

City Halls, Glasgow

The moment the BBC SSO struck up its first notes in Thursday’s all-French concert, there was an energy and richness in attack that made this listener sit up and take notice. They were playing under principal guest conductor (and one-time chief conductor) Ilan Volkov and it was as if someone had inserted fresh batteries. Long lasting ones at that.

The programme itself was hot-wired, a journey through the gauche eccentricities of Germaine Tailleferre and Francis Poulenc towards a second half dedicated to the more familiar territory of Camille Saint Saëns’ Organ Symphony.

The last of these may be well-known – not least via Hollywood’s theft of the big maestoso theme for a film about a Yorkshire pig – but here was a performance that took care to identify the subtleties and genius of Saint-Saëns’ orchestral vision. Every bar seemed to have been re-considered by Volkov, moments where he hushed the string to reveal jewel-like counterpoints in the woodwind, more marked articulations that took any stodginess out of the finale, replacing it with freshness, light and directional intent.

Organist Michael Bawtree, for all that he was handicapped to an extent by a digital organ incapable of fully capturing the visceral sparkle of the closing moments, bought into Volkov’s detailed approach, establishing especially a transfixing, timeless calm in the slow movement.

The symphony was also an affirmative response to a first half full of high jinks, firstly in Tailleferre’s playful Le marchand d’oiseaux, a virtuosic 1923 ballet score driven equally with fickleness and sensuous melody, and then in Poulenc’s rarely-heard Concerto for two pianos, featuring the pianists Naïri Badal and Adélaïde Panaget, known collectively as Duo Jatekok.

If the Tailleferre seemed capricious, the Poulenc was superbly madcap, Badal and Panaget playing to its brilliant absurdities, ranging from cartoonesque catch-me-if-you-can moments to those of utterly prepossessing sensuality. Volkov’s control of the orchestra was again perceptive and vital, with just the odd momentary lapse in synchronisation between widely spaced players.

The fun continued in the first of two encores, an elaborate and luscious arrangement for two pianos of Bizet’s Habanera from Carmen, before ending with Kurtag’s sublime piano duet arrangement of Bach’s Sonatina from the Cantata Actus Tragicus.  

A postscript to a delightful concert. Thomas Dausgaard’s inconsistent six-year tenure as chief conductor of the SSO ends this summer. There are no obvious successors surfacing with the ability and compatibility to turn the orchestra’s fortunes around. Volkov has done it before, and maintains – as this concert proves – a fresh and dynamic chemistry with the players. Would he consider doing it again?

Ken Walton

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at a later date

Hansel und Gretel

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Those fortunate enough to be in the few distanced audience seats for one of the four performances of Stephen Lawless’s captivating production of Humperdinck’s dark Yuletide confection can count themselves very lucky indeed.

The first live show for a present audience from the Conservatoire’s opera department in nearly two years ropes in many students and younger people from elsewhere in the institution to deliver a version of the story that is full of resonant contemporary detail and slapstick panto fun. It is also superbly sung by everyone involved, and played (in Derek Clark’s reduced orchestration) by a pit band under Adam Hickox – every bit the showcase for young talent across all disciplines that it should be.

The promise of what is to come is encapsulated in designer Adrian Linford’s front-cloth: a German Christmas card of a canal-side scene that includes elements of the Glasgow skyline and a pastiche of Banksy’s graffiti art, sweeping a dead robin out of sight. The whole show is bracketed by the shuffle of a paper-cup carrying pan-handler across the stage – his return at the end, as the reunited family prepare to tuck into a meal of roast Witch, is the sting in the tale.

The Mother here, sung by Lindsay Grace Johnson on opening night, is a harassed NHS worker, struggling to feed her children in a damp-walled flat. “Lord God, send us money, I’ve nothing to live on,” as the surtitles have it, seems pertinently apt. The Witch – tenor Cameron Mitchell, in pink-wigged buxom drag, is TV chef Rosina Leckermaul, promoting her new book, Kochen mit Kindren (Cooking with Children).

The Sandman – a lovely clear-toned Karla Grant – presides over a tableau vivant Nativity that could be the one that can be seen in the city’s George Square but is rather more beautiful, while the Dew Fairy (Marie Cayeux) guzzles shots in a spangly gold mini-dress, having lost a shoe, dragging a traffic cone.

While far from lavish, the staging is full of meaningful detail in every scene, from home with its coin electricity meter and school portraits, through the woods and the gingerbread house, to the Witch’s lair – half TV studio kitchen, half butchering operating theatre. There were a couple of accidental prop mishaps and some sticky and noisy scene-changing on the first night, but all were professionally coped with.

German mezzo Ascelina Klee has a huge voice which sometimes disturbed the balance on stage, but she and Spanish soprano Elena Garrido Madrona are a winning partnership as Hansel and Gretel in performances full of compatible physicality. The role of Father is also double-cast and Jonathan Forbes Kennedy brought a nice bonhomie to counterpoint the grim reality elsewhere.

With an onstage Salvation Army band opening the score, some fine solo playing as well as ensemble from the orchestra, and the women’s chorus singing from the circle in Act 3, the production is full of musical riches as well. If the pandemic rule changes have made it possible for the RCS to release more seats for sale for the second half of its short run, this is a show not to miss.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Robert McFadzean

BBC SSO / Paterson

City Halls, Glasgow

Whether or not it was directly applicable in this case, the BBC SSO made a wise link with the conducting course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in the era of Sir Donald Runnicles. A knowledge of young talent able to jump in for a last minute absentee chief conductor is clearly an advantage in these uncertain times.

An alumnus of the RCS in the days when it was still “The Academy”, Geoffrey Paterson last appeared with the SSO for a Hear and Now concert of contemporary music in 2018. It seemed likely, therefore, that he had been chosen because of the world premiere of Erika Fox’s piano concerto, David spielt vor Saul, performed by its dedicatee, Julian Jacobson.

That was only the half of it, however. It transpired that Paterson had the main work of the evening, the Third Symphony of Carl Nielsen – and the first of a projected cycle of Nielsen symphonies planned by Thomas Dausgaard – off by heart. Conducting the piece without a score, Paterson was in precise control of the dynamics of the work as surely as if his hand was on a volume dial as well as clearly having a picture of the entire work, in all its colourful variety, in his head from start to finish.

It was a superb performance of the symphony – and gives Dausgaard, should he return to Scotland in March to conduct the Sixth Symphony as the orchestra management still expects, a tough act to follow. The orchestra was on stellar form for Paterson, from the crisp, sharp strings of the opening through to the anthemic finale with its complex, interweaving rhythms and high profile roles for timpanist, trombones and tuba, and five horns.

With vocal soloists Benjamin Appl and Elizabeth Watts side stage and barely visible from my prime seat, their slow movement contributions were a nicely understated contribution to the overall acoustic balance in an account that was every bit as “expansive” as the work’s title promises.

That description could also be applied to Fox’s concerto however, in which the orchestra has just as large a role as the soloist. Some 30 years in the writing, and taking its title from a Rilke poem, it is a big, bold, modernist piece demanding a huge variety of stylistic variation from the pianist. With brass and winds split across the stage and a particular layout of the string sections, it also keeps two percussionists busy, moving to tuned instruments in the second, softer-edged, more querulous section.

Although it ends without the piano, there was a deserved ovation for Jacobson, whose patience has been well rewarded, as well as for the composer, who modestly took her bow from her seat in the hall.

Paterson used Fox’s prescribed string layout for the opening work, Bartok’s Divertimento, as well. With the musicians once again each having their own music stand, there was no loss of ensemble and real muscle in this performance from the off, the 50 players including a few top “extras” from outside the SSO payroll. The shifts in focus between the front desk quartet and the full string orchestra were expertly handled by Paterson, with leader Laura Samuel contributing fine folk fiddle to the finale.

Currently the only show in town for orchestral music fans, and with that overdue commission as part of a high colourful programme, there was an element of “fulfilling obligations” running as a thread through a concert that was altogether more exciting than that makes it sound. The current chief conductor of the BBC Scottish should, nonetheless, take note.

Keith Bruce

Dausgaard Cancels Glasgow and Seattle

Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard has announced he is to resign with immediate effect from the Seattle Symphony Orchestra midway through his third season as music director. 

The news emerged last Friday, the same day that the BBC SSO, where he is also principal conductor, released a statement saying Dausgaard would not be travelling to Scotland this week to conduct the first in a planned series of concerts featuring Nielsen’s six symphonies.

Dausgaard has not been seen with the BBC SSO since the start of the pandemic, the first major casualty of which was his highly-anticipated Beethoven Festival in May/June 2020. He recently returned to Seattle briefly after a 20-month absence, only to issue his shock decision to quit there.

Dausgaard, whose Seattle contract began in 2019 and was due to run until the 2022-23 season, cited the pandemic as the underlying reason for his premature departure. “My decision to step back at this time when we have achieved such collective artistic success is the result of these pandemic times, where the question for all of us is central: how do we value our lives,” he said.

The same fears were expressed in the statement issued by the BBC SSO. “Unfortunately it is clear the world in 2022 is not yet as stable as we might have hoped, and with the continuing health risks and responsibilities we must all face, travelling at this moment in the pandemic is sadly not an option for me,” he explained. “It is therefore with enormous regret that I have decided that I cannot join you in Scotland at this time.”

An article on the Seattle Symphony Orchestra website also points to undisclosed “personal turmoil” playing a part in Dausgaard’s extended self-confinement in Denmark during the pandemic.

The announcement will come as a blow to the BBC SSO for whom Dausgaard’s Nielsen series was effectively his swan song before leaving his Glasgow-based post this summer. The English conductor Geoffrey Paterson will step in to conduct this Thursday’s programme, which remains unchanged with the world premiere of Erica Fox’s new BBC commission David Spielt vor Saul (with pianist Julian Jacobson), Bartok’s Divertimento and Nielsen’s Third Symphony. 

Due to the new Covid restrictions over Christmas, the BBC SSO had suspended ticket sales for Thursday’s concert at Glasgow City Halls. It has now confirmed that the concert will go ahead and ticket holders will be notified.

Meanwhile, the SSO’s search for a successor to Dausgaard is under way.

Glasgow Barons / Whistlebinkies

Film City, Govan Town Hall

It’s often said that the test of a new piece is not so much its premiere as its revival as a second performance. It’s taken 30 years for someone to resurrect Eddie McGuire’s Riverside, in its day a novel and, according to the Glasgow Barons Orchestra’s founder and conductor Paul MacAlindin, the first ever example of a major work combining folk group and orchestra. So well done to him for rescuing it from obscurity and performing it at the very heart of Govan, the Clydeside community that inspired it.

Commissioned originally by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and first performed by the SCO and McGuire’s own Whistlebinkies folk group as part of Glasgow’s 1991 Mayfest, it’s a fresh and accessible expression of the River Clyde’s importance in shaping the existence of a community once dominated by the workaday reliability of its former shipbuilding industry. 

A near-uninterrupted thread of folk melodies echo that sense of social confinement, briefly offset by the Chinese-flavoured middle section inspired by a cruise ship tour by the Whistlebinkies down the Yangtze River and through which McGuire captures the universality expressed in the complementary presence of pentatonic melodies.

MacAlindin conducts this filmed performance, recorded in Govan Town Hall and available online, which is visually enhanced by periodic black and white film footage of Govan at its industrial height. 

That’s a useful counterpoint to McGuire’s music, which has a ghostly lugubriousness about it. Rising from rumbling, amorphous beginnings, the folk melodies enter surreptitiously before establishing themselves as the driving force of a tempered conversation between orchestra and folk group. There is nothing particularly euphoric about Riverside, more a questioning reflection on the mundanity of industrial life, where the warmth of human spirit is contained, but not extinguished, by the strictures of routine survival.

It is also, I think, a work that might be best experienced in the flesh, both from the player and audience perspectives, where the subtleties of nuance defining the respective classical and folk idioms can be lived rather than observed. 

But this is yet another impressive initiative from MacAlindin – nominated in last year’s RPS Awards for his wider groundbreaking work with refugee musicians in Govan – and his enterprising Barons, more of which will be rolled out over the coming months. There is genuine belief and affection throughout this performance, and a visible interaction among the musicians that translates into spirited musical response. Above all, it brings a forgotten work back to the community that first gave it life.

Ken Walton

Available to watch at https://vimeo.com/661006336 

Dunedin Consort / Butt

Perth Concert Hall

Given its headline-grabbing Dunkirk spirit at the start of the health emergency, it might be fitting, although no less regrettable, if the Dunedin Consort’s annual performances of Handel’s Messiah prove to be the last live concerts the sector feels able to undertake in Scotland for a while once again.

As it happened, the chamber group’s artistic director John Butt was simultaneously audible on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday evening, conducting the same work with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Chorus, in a performance recorded a week previously. It seems unlikely that he tore through Part 1 of the oratorio with those forces quite as briskly as Perth heard it.

In his usual style, standing at the harpsichord, the conductor brought the first section to the interval in under an hour, leaving time to perform some of the music that is often cut from Parts 2 and 3. (I should add that this equation is my own, and may not be how the University of Glasgow’s Gardiner Professor of Music sees it.)

With the soloists stepping out from a choir of 12 and the same number of players joining Butt on the platform – with trumpets and timpani added later – the compact forces are nimble but never feeble. It is easy to identify individual voices in the choruses but at the same time the blending is mostly spot on. There were a couple of lumpy moments in Part 2, and a technical problem with Nicholas Wearne’s chamber organ also necessitated a brief hiatus, but that sequence of the work also provided one of this performance’s revelations.

Although the words of the New Testament version are rarely used, Charles Jennens’ libretto and Handel’s music demonstrate the switch of allegiance in the crowd in Jerusalem in the Easter story in the singing of the choruses – and that piece of structural cleverness was superbly clear here and part of a fine choral acting performance that was at the heart of the concert.

Of the four soloists, tenor Nicholas Mulroy and soprano Mhairi Lawson led the way in their storytelling style, the latter drawing a fine distinction between that job in Part 1 and the personal introspective arias later on. They also added the most individual ornamentation when appropriate, while bass Robert Davies played things with more of a straight bat, stentorian of tone. Alto Owen Willetts also has a powerful voice, fading a little at the bottom of his range, and his diction was perhaps not as sharp as that of the others, although the clarity overall was exceptional.

As their first performance of the work in a while, this Dunedin Messiah was perhaps not entirely “run-in” when measured against the group’s own high standards, but if it turns out to the last live music anyone in the hall hears for a while, they will surely consider themselves blessed.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Mhairi Lawson by Lloyd Smith

SCO / Benedetti

Perth Concert Hall

There are some programmes that can appear a somewhat surprising fit, and here was one of those. A pre-Vienna Mozart, exploring the possibilities of the violin concerto with the experience of his early catalogue of grander works, sitting comfortably amongst music from the Austrian city in a state of flux over a century later by Johann Strauss II and Arnold Schoenberg – the latter as revised in the mid-20th century.

The coherence of all this was entirely a virtue of the ensemble performance. Violinist Nicola Benedetti may be the name that sells the tickets – alongside that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – but there was nothing of the star vehicle about this concert. Even for the Mozart, when she stood in front of the band, Benedetti was always immersed in the ensemble sound, right down to the cadenzas in each movement, which she was at pains to integrate into the flow of the music.

Benedetti now plays in a style much closer to that of Baroque specialists than earlier in her career, although still with a little more theatre than some of the historically-informed performance brigade. Her first movement cadenza was a case in point – more about the music, less the violin-playing.

In the hands of the players of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, of course, the work could hardly be safer, and the balance of the strings and the four winds was exemplary.

The concerto was surrounded by examples of exquisite musical story-telling, and Benedetti was even more the ensemble player in Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht, leading the strings from the front-desk alongside the concert’s co-director Benjamin Marquise Gilmore. This orchestrated chamber work was sumptuous stuff, beautifully performed in an acoustic that suited it perfectly. With SCO first cello Philip Higham and other front-desk players joining Benedetti in the soloing duties, and a beautiful sectional balance throughout its half-hour, it was a superb account of a sensational work.

Gilmore took charge of the Strauss, which gave the concert the liveliest of starts as well as a party finish. Here were opportunities for the SCO’s wind soloists to grab a slice of the action, with flautist Andre Cebrian stealing the honours in the closing Tales from the Vienna Woods. His solo is only a few bars before the tune everyone knows eventually bursts forth and with brass and percussion bolstering the sound, the melody is given every opportunity to worm its way into the brain.

There are also plenty of hooks in Strauss’s Overture to The Gypsy Baron, which opened the concert. While it is concerned with a very specific, if fantastical, story, the musical tale the whole concert told was no less compelling.

Keith Bruce

The Puccini Collection

Caird Hall, Dundee

It is likely that this one-off in what is arguably Scotland’s grandest and most under-used concert hall had its singular shape dictated by its financial foundations, but it did seem a bit of a missed opportunity that only Sunday’s ticket-holders were able to enjoy it. Scottish Opera has blazed a trail for filmed performances of high standard during the pandemic, and this brisk trot through the catalogue of Giacomo Puccini would have been an excellent addition to that list, not to mention being very well timed if things are about to take a turn for the worse once again.

For all its excellent content – and it was often very good indeed – the event did fall between stools in other ways too. As conductor Stuart Stratford conceded right at the start, it featured not a note from Madam Butterfly, which could only be a deficiency – any Puccini Collection without Butterfly is surely incomplete.

For most Tayside ticketholders the focus was surely chiefly on the soloists – sopranos Sinead Campbell-Wallace and Catriona Hewitson, tenors David Junghoon Kim and Fraser Simpson, and baritone Roland Wood – but really the concert belonged in the sequence of Sunday events in Glasgow and Edinburgh where Stratford has showcased the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, and his introductions to the music reflected that. It seems likely there was little rehearsal time in the performance venue, however, and initially the big voices of both Campbell-Wallace and Wood were swamped by the orchestra in the extracts from Manon Lescaut and Tosca, although a better balance was achieved after the interval.

That was never the case for Kim, however, whose Scottish Opera debut this was, and whose glorious voice encouraged hopes of a full role with the company soon. The fact that the programme ended with his solo Nessun Dorma – the only music from Turandot – suggests that Stratford is well aware of his quality, and also effectively ended any idea the audience might have had of requesting an encore.

In the second half the big offering was Act III of La Boheme, featuring everyone bar Simpson, whose sole contribution had been a cameo as Spoletta in a segment of Act II of Tosca. With instrumental offerings from Manon and La Villi featuring the orchestra – including an early spotlight on front desk string soloists – there was also a solo spot for Emerging Artist Catriona Hewitson, whose top notes as Magda in La rondine were a joy.

Something for everyone then, but also a somewhat jumbled bill of fare as a programme, built around the experience of Campbell-Wallace and Wood in Scottish Opera’s 2019 Tosca and having another high spot in their duet as Minnie and Jack Rance from La fanciulla del West. Taken as a grander version of the company’s popular Opera Highlights tours, it was a show that sent its customers home well-satisfied.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Fraser Band

RSNO / Curnyn

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Even without the vicissitudes of the pandemic, the RSNO’s annual Messiah has been very much a moveable feast in recent seasons, and this one came to rest in an unaccustomed pre-Christmas slot that is currently more often associated with chamber choir concerts of the work by The Sixteen and Dunedin Consort (who perform it in Perth, Edinburgh and London next week).

At the same time, the gap between the performance styles of a big orchestra-and-chorus Messiah and the historical recreation of its Dublin premiere has also narrowed. With early music man Christian Curnyn on the podium, a compact version of the RSNO – still mostly of regulars – was joined by Mark Hindley at the harpsichord and Chris Nickol on chamber organ for a brisk version of the oratorio using what is probably the briefest permissible version of the score.

Led by Sharon Roffman, the strings and few reeds played their period part in crisp style thoughout, joined at the zenith of Parts 2 and 3 by the trumpets of Chris Hart and Marcus Pope and timpanist Paul Philbert.

The unique selling point of an RSNO Messiah is, of course, its Chorus and this live appearance by the amateur singers of the choir followed many a long month of inactivity thanks to coronavirus. So it was perhaps to be expected that there was something a little tentative about their first chorus And the glory of the Lord and some slightly ragged entries early on. It was not long, however, before they settled into their stride, and by the sequence of choruses in Part 2, culminating in a sparkling All we like sheep, all was well. More than that, here was often some exemplary ensemble singing, with a warmth of tone and balance across the sections – and a sense of unforced effortlessness at any pace or pitch.

All of which provided the ideal context for a very fine quartet of soloists indeed. Soprano Jeni Bern, countertenor Tim Mead, tenor Benjamin Hulett and bass-baritone Matthew Brook were superbly well-matched. All four have fascinatingly varied CVs and shared an expressiveness in their arias that served the narrative drive of the work, and Curnyn’s approach to the music. Mead and Hulett are both pure-toned with power across their ranges – especially impressive in the music for the alto – while Brook and Bern brought a more dramatic edge to their contributions. Brook’s Why do the nations? sounded especially pertinent, while Bern’s I know that my Redeemer liveth was fresh and tastefully ornamented.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Tim Mead by Andy Staples

BBC SSO / brabbins

City Halls, Glasgow

Vasily Kallinikov’s symphonies are not entirely unknown in Scotland. Neeme Järvi recorded them with the RSNO in the late 1990s. Even so, last week’s performance of the First Symphony by the BBC SSO under Martyn Brabbins will have been a discovery moment for most of Thursday’s audience.

Kallinikov lived a life as short as Mozart’s, dying in 1901 aged 35. He was admired by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, hardly surprising when his expressive language is textbook Russian Romanticism, laced with personal fingerprints that define its originality. The most remarkable example, highlighted in this hot-blooded performance, proved to be the opening and close of the second movement, a bold unswerving tick-tock ostinato from the harp, coloured by impressionistic drones that descend progressively through the orchestra.

Brabbins played it straight with the entire symphony, embracing the rich thematic tapestry of the opening Allegro, the lyrical expansiveness of the Andante (featuring a gorgeously prominent cor anglais solo), the ebullience of the Scherzo, and the recapitulative resolve of the finale, within a wholesomely cohesive whole. 

It followed a more familiar Russian warhorse, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1. But this Tchaikovsky was far from routine, pianist Pavel Kolesnikov applying fresh interpretational brushstrokes in liberal doses. His opening gambit was an early indication, the usually crashing chords delivered instead with disarming delicacy and shapeliness, an approach in tune apparently with Tchaikovsky’s own equivocations on the manner of their delivery.

From hereon in, it was Kolesnikov’s freely-expressive gestures that defined the sensuous unpredictability of the performance. Brabbins and the SSO were up for it, too, reacting assiduously to the playful flexibility of his opening movement, the elegiac suppleness of the slow movement and the resolute inevitably of the finale.

Kolesnikov satisfied unending applause with the delicate simplicity of a Chopin encore. It was truly exquisite.

Ken Walton

Pictured: Pavel Kolesnikov

RSNO / Ollikainen

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The resilience and application of the international music community in the face of the continuing challenges of the pandemic are remarkable. Protocols prevented the Finnish artistic director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Eva Ollikainen, from making her debut with the RSNO a week previously, when the versatile Jonathan Stockhammer stepped in to take charge of her concert, including its Finnish and Icelandic music.

A week later it was the RSNO’s Principal Guest Conductor who was missing, and Ollikainen present on the podium to take on Elim Chan’s programme of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker preceded by the music of Maurice Ravel. Seat-of-the-pants stuff? You’d never have known it was anything but planned from the beautifully measured performances of everyone on stage, and that also included Spanish pianist Javier Perianes, who had stepped in at short notice to replace Bertrand Chamayou for Ravel’s Concerto in G, and the orchestral players, whose full-on schedule included a couple of Childrens Classic Concerts as well as their evening shows.

If Impressionism means anything in orchestral music, Ravel’s arrangement of his Une barque sur l’ocean, from his Miroirs set of piano pieces, is surely it. Requiring a vast ensemble, almost everyone playing throughout, it is filled with swells, ebbing and flowing, ripples and lappings. A gorgeous work and the perfect aperitif for the concerto that followed.

Whatever difficulties its composition presented, Ravel’s Concerto in G is a hugely atmospheric triumph that speaks to us now in the voice of a century ago, when jazz was the lingua franca of many a musical hipster. The arresting orchestration of the opening bars sets up the entrance of the soloist, speaking immediately of the era. Brass and wind interjections, redolent of big band music, are crucial to that atmosphere, but the soulful pianism of Perianes was at the heart of everything – a relaxed and masterful performance of a challenging work. Later on the warm-toned cor anglais of Henry Clay was the key second voice, and the entrance of the violas and cellos in the Adagio was particularly beautifully realised, before a finale that was brimming with energy. That ebullience was led by the soloist, who returned to the platform with a generous helping of De Falla by way of an encore.

There were also many elements to admire and enjoy in Ollikainen’s treatment of all the best-known bits in Tchaikovsky’s music for The Nutcracker ballet, but the sweet frosted topping on this selection box was the presence of the RSNO Junior Chorus, filling the choir stalls in a socially-distanced fashion.

The pairing with Ravel of this earlier master of orchestration made fine musical sense, and the conductor resisted any temptation towards lush Romantic excess. There can be a vast distance between concert performances of this score and the work of a pit band for a Christmas production at the Theatre Royal next door, but Ollikainen’s Nutcracker was one that recognised the discipline of working with dancers, and those young singers added their wordless contribution with the same precision.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow

Perhaps more than any other outfit, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra has contrived to combine elements of the season that fell victim to the pandemic with the work it did online during the hiatus in its programming since audiences were again permitted into concert halls.

This journey back in time from John Adams via Mozart to Bach’s Brandenburg No 5 was a case in point, as well as being another illustration of the sparkling relationship that now exists between the SCO and its principal conductor Maxim Emelyanychev.

The young Russian seemed especially hyper on Friday night, even as he introduced and then absented himself from the stage for Mozart’s Gran Partita. That was perhaps not entirely to the benefit of Adams’s Shaker Loops. The composer’s breakthrough work was much better in its more delicate moments than in the opening Shaking and Trembling, which was less precision-tooled and sharp-edged than the music requires. The many discrete string sections were not as distinct as they needed to be, and of the three violin groups, it was Marcus Barcham Stevens’s thirds that seemed the crispest.

The higher the volume, it seemed, the less the ensemble cohered and it is tempting to conclude that the excitable Emelyanychev’s expansive gestures at such moments were part of the problem.

Lovers of symmetry and mathematical precision in music were in hog heaven with this programme, and as much in the Mozart as the two composers either side. With string bass Ciro Vigilante flanked by pairs of horns and quartets of single and double reeds facing one another, principal clarinet Maximiliano Martin was in the leader’s chair for a truly expert and pretty much flawless account of the work. The third movement variations were delightfully individual and the balance of the 13 players in the City Hall acoustic about perfect, which was arguably especially impressive from the four natural horns.

The Brandenburg, from half a century before, could almost seem free-form by comparison, a showcase for soloists first violin Stephanie Gonley, flautist Andre Cebrian and Emelyanychev at the harpsichord, with a four-man string continuo led by cellist Philip Higham, who had added a fine solo to the Adams.

Cebrian looked to be running away with the show in the first movement but his lovely fluid playing drew a virtuoso response from Emelyanychev at the keyboard before the trio settled into a beautifully-measured account of the Affettuoso slow movement. The Allegro finale was a masterful example of warm, bubbling, ensemble playing, and the icing on the cake was an encore of a short Martinu Promenade.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Chauhan

City Halls, Glasgow 

Does the BBC SSO have its eye on Alpesh Chauhan as a possible successor to Thomas Dausgaard as principal conductor, whose contract ends next year? He’s certainly an interesting prospect – young, determined and confident – though Thursday’s appearance with the SSO revealed once again that, while he ignites a spark in certain areas of repertoire, his mastery of such core Romantic repertory as Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6, the “Pathétique”, is still work in progress.

Chauhan opened this live broadcast programme with Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No 2, a work completed by the composer three decades after leaving it unfinished, which consequently bears the post-Romantic excess of his pre-dodecaphonic music but with the ultra-clean textural discipline of his maturer style. A reduced SSO ensemble made the most of the challenge, producing a gritty, precise and virtuosic performance.

But it was the calculated insistence on Chauhan’s part that characterised it. The initial journey from soft teasing woodwind phrases to the seething tumult of the first big climax was as much a result of pumped adrenalin as clear thinking. And where the first movement wrestled with its dense emotional heat, the second – initially an assertive, jaunty Con fuoco – pinned its outgoing exhilaration on a combination of Schoenberg’s stabilising old-style rhythmic regularity and the elusiveness of its post-Romantic language.

This was the big hit of the evening, with mezzo soprano Karen Cargill’s pre-interval encore of Richard Strauss’s idyllic Morgen well up there with it. The latter followed Cargill’s official contribution to the programme, Erich Korngold’s achingly beautiful Absecheidslieder (Songs of Farewell), which suited the characteristically molten, earthy quality of her lower voice. 

In the opening song the mood was one of reflective seduction; the powerful Wagnerian in Cargill coloured the ensuing Dies eine kann mein Sehen with a thrilling euphoric glow; the more mystical Mond, so gest du wieder auf, with its otherworldliness and ethereal religiosity, gave way to the deeply personal Gefasster Abschied, sumptuously Straussian in mood and manner.

It was hard at times to catch all of Cargill’s performance above the wholesome orchestration, and the higher reaches of her voice seemed a little less comfortable than usual, but there was no escaping the emotive connection she has with this music, and with the exquisite Morgen that followed, featuring also the poised, poignantly understated solo violin of SSO associate leader Kanako Ita. It was just a shame that no-one saw fit to give her the curtain call she so thoroughly deserved.

Chauhan’s Tchaikovsky was a curious combination of fluid efficiency and heavy-duty indulgence. The latter turned the opening movement into a journey plagued by too many wrong turnings – agonising extremes of tempi, especially the slow ones, that jarred with the overall flow and which effected audible signs of insecurity at key attack points. When he let the music express itself in the central movements, however, things made much more sense. From that, the finale emerged with convincing gravitas, albeit susceptible – as in several previous instances – to a brass section given too free a rein at the expense of the modest string forces. 

Ken Walton

Available to stream or download for 30 days.

RSNO / Stockhammer

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

We’re getting very used to last minute changes of guest artists, thanks to Covid. It happened again last week with the RSNO, where the advertised conductor Finnish Eva Olikainen, unable to travel, had to be replaced by the German-based American maestro Jonathan Stockhammer.

The call went out to him on Monday, and by Friday he had the originally advertised programme – a slightly chilled cocktail of German, Finnish and Icelandic repertoire – ready for Edinburgh, repeated on Saturday in Glasgow. 

He’s a versatile operator, equally at home composing for, and performing with, the Pet Shop Boys as he is engaging in cutting edge classical music with the likes of Ensemble Modern. So this relatively straightforward programme presented him with few problems. 

Everything seemed to run smoothly and confidently: a mood-setting Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Lohengrin that segued dramatically into the mystical turbulence of Anna Þorvaldsdóttir’s Metacosmos, in turn setting the scene for Sibelius’ thick-set Tapiola; and a second half exclusively dedicated to Brahms’ muscular Piano Concerto No 1 with soloist Sunwook Kim.

What pervaded most of this, however, was a sense that the partnership had not quite had sufficient time to fully embed. How else could you explain the palpable nervousness of the upper-strings in the opening (and closing) bars of the Lohengrin, which short-changed this transcendent music of its inner warmth and subliminal lustre? 

The segue to Metacosmos was inspired, taking us in the blink of an eye from Wagner’s floating heaven-bound strings to the deep, subterranean growls that open Þorvaldsdóttir’s restless soundscape. Stockhammer sourced the powerful underlying gravitas of the latter, but there was something characterless in the more detailed texturing that may actually have come from the writing itself, a disappointing naivety informing its more prominently exposed melodies. 

There’s nothing naive about Sibelius’ last completed orchestral work, the wild and dreamy tone poem Tapiola of 1926, the challenge being to elicit a sense of momentum from its gnawing deliberations. There were many powerful moments in this performance, like a humanly emotional response to the elemental grit of Þorvaldsdóttir’s Metacosmos, but it lacked visceral inevitability.

Sunwook Kim’s Brahms proved to be a much-needed spark. Again, it’s a heavy-going piece, and there was a suitably firm-handed, symphonic seriousness throughout its three movements, especially from the rock-solid Kim. Stockhammer, in turn, inspired a more instinctive response from the RSNO. It was meatily argued, grandiose in scale, but with enough spontaneous bursts to bring colour at last to an evening that had hitherto struggled to take full flight.

Ken Walton 

SCO / Swensen

City Halls, Glasgow

The light and melodic early Mahler that preceded it was not enough to attract anything but a small audience to the more difficult delights of Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto, dedicated to his teacher at the Second Viennese School, Arnold Schoenberg.

Still a radical work almost a century on from its composition, the Berg is open to all sorts of interpretation both in its meaning and in its performance (Pierre Boulez eschewed the long repeat in the last movement). That was clear even before the concert began, with the psychological interpretation favoured by the work’s conductor, Joseph Swensen, in a lengthy spoken preamble, very different from – if not entirely at odds with – the more personal gloss put on the work in the SCO’s online programme.

Swensen, whose long association with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is clearly very close to his heart, took a surprisingly laid back approach to the work at first, which meant it was rather less sharp-edged than is ideal, but his strategy made more sense as the work progressed and the roles for the unusual forces onstage unfolded.

The focus on the soloists, violinist Kolja Blacher and pianist Roman Rabinovich, is far from exclusive, and both – and indeed the conductor – have passages of idleness between bursts of challenging activity. Blacher’s plaintive solos were memorable, but so too were the contributions of every individual in the 13-strong ensemble of winds (and brass).

Trumpeter Peter Franks was the first in the spotlight earlier in the evening, for Mahler’s Blumine, the piece of incidental music he incorporated and then removed from his First Symphony. Far from as sickly as its earliest critics suggested, it also has a long sequence of solos for the wind players before the focus returns to the trumpet.

Continuing the floral theme, Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of What The Wild Flowers Tell Me from Mahler’s Symphony No 3 was the evening’s showcase for the strings. Guest-led by Sarah Kapustin and with a number of unfamiliar faces in their ranks, they were a wonderfully coherent unit just the same, and Kapustin’s brief solos sparkled.

With a full platform for the Mahler and spare instrumentation for the Berg, this was a curious but fascinating programme, and the performance history of the works made for a complex chronology as well. The quality of the playing, however, was consistently high from start to finish.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Ackham

City Halls, Glasgow

All things German seemed to align in this substantial BBC SSO programme, from the repertoire itself to the efficient presence of David Ackham on the podium and violinist Tobias Feldmann replacing the advertised soloist, Viktoria Eberle, who had to withdraw due to Covid-related issues.

As it happened, Feldmann’s appearance turned out to be the surprise of the show, a performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto that not only defied expectations though its adoption of Wolfgang Schneiderhan’s fascinating cadenzas, but by virtue of Feldmann’s soulful and effortless virtuosity. There was a sheen to his playing, bright and fulfilling, that presented this Beethoven warhorse as a vital living organism rather than a museum piece.

The cadenzas helped in refreshing our own thoughts. Beethoven never created any himself for this piece, other than through the piano concerto version he made, the so-called “Sixth Piano Concerto”. And it’s from that source that Schneiderhan – a celebrated Austrian violinist who died some 20 years ago – sculpted these 20th century ones. They are grittier than the more familiar ones, and more challenging in the harmonic directions they pursue, and in the way the timpanist accompanies the soloist in that of the first movement. Spot the motivic link here with the concerto’s opening bars.

Ackham established a cool-headed insistence from the SSO right at the start, out of which the effusive sweetness of Feldmann’s solo line emerged with character and vividness. The interplay was magical, one or two momentary lapses in focus aside, with Beethoven’s concerto freshened up in the process.

Beethoven featured again in the second half, though not directly. Unsuk Chin’s Subito con forza, written last year for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, is wonderfully crackpot. The South Korean – Chin lives in Germany – has based her music on stimuli from Beethoven’s Conversation Books, which the composer used to communicate his thoughts as his hearing declined. Her response is impulsive, music that is fitful, often aphoristic. This wasn’t the most incendiary performance, but its contrast to the ensuing Schumann symphony was effective.

Not so effective was Ackham’s gauging of tonal balance in Schumann’s Symphony No 3 “Rhenish”, the soaring strings theme of the opening bars, for instance, subsumed beneath an over-egged welter of brass. This was a frequent issue in the unfolding of the work, yet there was also much to admire in a performance that embraced the sombre mood of the writing, such as the throbbing chorus of trombones in the brief fourth movement, the watery Rhine-like ripples of the scherzo, and the anchored thrill of the finale.

Ken Walton

This performance is repeated in Edinburgh, Sun 27 Nov, and will be broadcasted on BBC Radio 3 on Fri 10 Dec, 7.30pm, Full details at www.bbc.co.uk/bbcsso

Movie Score Draw


RSNO Chief Executive Alistair Mackie tells KEITH BRUCE he is wooing Hollywood to soundtrack the orchestra’s future.

There are few conversations with the man in charge of Scotland’s national orchestra that do not reference his time as a working musician before he moved into management. He may not play his trumpet much these days, but his career as the leader of the trumpet sections of London’s Sinfonietta and Philharmonia orchestra informs every decision he makes.

So he talks of the importance of recording film music, as both a discipline and a well-paid element of his life in London, from first-hand experience. “For London musicians it’s a big part of their life. And it’s an interesting part of life: fast-paced, fast-moving work. I think it’s very creative work.”

As he tells it, when he first stepped into the auditorium of the RSNO’s new home on Glasgow’s Killermont Street, when he was in the city to be interviewed for the post he has held for the last three years, he was immediately struck by its resemblance to Abbey Road’s Studio No 1. Its proportions were very similar, as was its much-admired acoustic.

That is no accident, because the building was designed by Arup with recording as well as rehearsal and performance in mind. Shoehorned into a tiny site between Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and the John Lewis department store, the RSNO Centre’s new space is a concrete box within a concrete box entirely isolated from the noisy world around.

As well as having audience seating that can be deployed and stowed in minutes, the room has adjustable walls, sonic baffles and curtains to tailor that acoustic to suit everything from a full symphony orchestra to an intimate chamber ensemble.

What it has lacked until now, or has had to bring in for projects like pianist Benjamin Grosvenor’s award-winning Chopin concerto album with the orchestra and conductor Elim Chan, is a state-of-the-art mixing desk to capture the music.

“The two things we couldn’t change were fantastic,” is how Mackie puts it. “The room, it’s fantastic – we’ve had a number of really top engineers from round the world coming to this room and raving about it. And the musicians are really good.”

Mackie’s ambitions for the RSNO’s studio went far beyond making classical albums, and beyond the needs of the orchestra itself. 
Encouraged by the Scottish Government and Screen Scotland, there has been a boom in film and television programme making in Scotland, with the countryside suiting many story-lines and the cities seemingly able to masquerade as others around the globe and in the imagination of writers as well as being themselves.

Mackie recognised a big gap in the attractions the country offered however. “The one thing about Scotland is that you can shoot it, you can do post-production, you can do just about everything, but what you couldn’t do was have a symphony orchestra record the soundtrack. There simply hasn’t been a facility that has the space, the technology, the control room to do that.”

Until now. With the help of a legacy from RSNO patrons Iain and Pamela Sinclair, the orchestra has now kitted out a control room with a 72-track Solid State Logic analogue desk, partnered with all the surround-sound speakers and monitoring, with over 160 top quality microphones to pick up the performance in the room.

The man in charge of all this is the RSNO’s in-house sound engineer, now Digital Manager of the organisation, Hedd Morfett-Jones, who has an audio engineering intern, Sam McErlean, working alongside him. A graduate of the specialist course at the University of Surrey, it is a passing curiosity that his qualification was a side of music education that held no interest for Mackie when he went to the same institution from music school in Scotland.

“We’re trying to gather teams around us,” says Mackie now. “We’ve done it with our camera work. I want the same on the sound side. I don’t want to keep paying London engineers to come up here.”

Mackie’s business plan looks sound. The Glasgow Studio is on the same scale as Air or Abbey Road in London, both of which are booked up years ahead, and can charge top dollar as a result. Because the RSNO owns its facility it can offer a competitive rate to filmmakers who have to pay both the orchestral musicians and for studio time in London.

Of course there is further competition, especially from Eastern Europe, but Mackie is adamant that the musicianship on offer in Scotland gives the RSNO a qualitative advantage.

“British musicians are renowned for the quality of what they do. Our musicians will get paid the same as a London musician. The Union has rates. We will not pay less and we will not charge less than what musicians get in London, but we will be competitive because we own the studio. That’s our pitch to the market.

”There has been some training of the RSNO players in the skills required for film work as well,” he adds. “The other big thing with film is playing to click-track. So we’ve done multiple test sessions here. Our first horn, Chris Gough, did a film course in Valencia, and his final exam was six clips he had to make, to write to picture. He not only had to write the scores, but do the Pro-tools files for the technical side, and we used his final exam as a test session to test the RSNO players with complex clicks, complex sound-to-picture synchronisation.”

At the same time as Gough was studying at Boston’s Berklee College campus in Spain, principal percussionist Simon Lowden was adding a post-graduate qualification in music for film to his CV at Glasgow School of Art, and he now works with the RSNO’s digital team alongside his playing in the orchestra.

All this skills-building and spending on hardware – the SSL desk cost £230,000 and Mackie’s budget for the whole studio project was around half a million pounds – is expected to produce a return, and the chief executive sees that not as a bonus but an essential.

“All the time we’re struggling with standstill funding. I don’t see ticket income growing in Scotland, and I can’t see Government grants growing in Scotland. We simply need a new income stream if we’re going to keep going as an organisation.

“So part of what we’re doing is trying align with the initiatives of the Scottish Government , and part of what we’re doing is something that keeps musicians invigorated. But part of what we’re doing is purely economics, trying to go into a more commercial market – and I am quite taken with the idea of Hollywood subsidising concerts at the Royal Concert Hall.”

The RSNO is not entirely breaking new ground. In recent years it has worked with film composer Danny Elfman on his violin concerto Eleven Eleven under conductor John Mauceri, and on a new recording of Dmitri Tiomkin’s score for Dail M for Murder with William Stromberg. Its back catalogue with Varese Sarabande includes film scores with Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith.

The first results of the new studio set-up will be seen and heard on Sky TV in December, with the broadcast of a remake of the 1972 children’s fantasy adventure The Amazing Mr Blunden. The original was scored by Bernstein, and the music for this one has been written by LA-based Scot Blair Mowat.

The composer is the most enthusiastic advocate the orchestra could have wished for. “This whole project has been an utter delight. When I got the gig, I immediately called the RSNO to see if they could record the score for this exciting new remake. Happily, the stars aligned and it was a dream come true to be composing and conducting for an orchestra that meant so much to me growing up in Scotland.

“We were delighted by both the experience we had recording with them and also the sound we achieved on the final recording. It was an honour to be the first film score to record here, of which I’m sure there will be countless more. There are exciting times ahead, and we can’t wait to come back!”

Sky TV will broadcast The Amazing Mr Blunden, featuring Blair Mowat’s new score recorded by the RSNO, at Christmas. www.rsno.org.uk

MacMillan in St Petersburg

This weekend (27 Nov), St Petersburg’s famous Philharmonia, which is celebrating its centenary, will stage the first of three major concerts this season by the music society’s Academic Symphony Orchestra featuring the music of Sir James MacMillan. The Scots composer has been appointed the Philharmonia’s composer-in-residence for the 2021-/22 season. All five works included in the series will be receiving their Russian premieres.

Saturday’s opening concert is conducted by Alexander Titov, formerly a regular guest conductor with the BBC SSO. It features MacMillan’s orchestral fantasy Britannia – what will Russian audiences make of its explosion of quotes from Celtic reels and Elgar to Knees up Mother Brown? – and Larghetto, his 2017 orchestration of an earlier Miserere for a cappella double choir.

Vassily Sinaisky conducts the second concert on 18 Dec which includes the 2019 orchestration of Ein Lämplein verlosch, written originally for string quartet, which takes its title from the first song in Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. MacMillan conducted this highly personal response to the early death of his own granddaughter in an online concert earlier this year by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (see VoxCarnyx reviews).

For the final St Petersburg programme on 5 Feb, the composer is travelling to Russia himself to conduct The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, the orchestral work that catapulted him to international fame at the 1990 BBC Proms, as well as the short Saxophone Concerto, written in 2017 for Australian virtuoso Amy Dickson and the SCO. It will be played this time by a Russian soloist. 

MacMillan, who was in St Petersburg last year giving lectures courtesy of the British Council, said he was delighted to be associated with “a historical musical organisation with links to so many great Russian composers of the past, such as Shostakovich, and to be brought under the umbrella of what is such an important year for the venue and its famous orchestras.” 

It is unclear at this point if the performances will be available online. “I understand that is the intention,” said MacMillan.

Further information at https://www.philharmonia.spb.ru/en/

Scotland’s Studio

It is almost a decade since the Scottish Government set up a “delivery group” to cut through speculation about the desirability of a dedicated film studio in Scotland and create what most agreed would be a valuable cultural asset. Since 2013, various sites from Cumbernauld to Govan and the foothills of the Pentlands to Leith have been proposed, with the latter and Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall now seeming likely to reach fruition.

In just two short years – and years dominated by the strictures of a global pandemic at that – the RSNO has moved to create a sound studio that could prove just as significant in attracting film production to the country blessed with locations for shooting movies by making it possible to record a symphony orchestra playing the soundtrack in Glasgow.

The orchestra this week unveiled the first project to be created within that facility – music composed by Edinburgh-born composer Blair Mowat for a remake of the 1972 film The Amazing Mr Blunden which will be screened by Sky in the run-up to Christmas – as part of its launch of Scotland’s Studio before an invited audience.

With Scottish Culture Secretary Angus Robertson and Mowat adding contributions via video, RSNO chief executive Alistair Mackie joined the orchestra in its home next door to Glasgow Royal Concert Hall to hail the creation of a studio that matches those in London – Air and Abbey Road – for which there are long waiting times.

He said: “We’ve created a state-of-the-art facility that will give the RSNO another string to its bow in the post-pandemic landscape as the only orchestra in the UK with its own recording studio, while also giving Scotland’s developing film industry a new facility to support its offer nationally and internationally.”

Mr Robertson added: “The new studio will contribute to growing a sustainable economy for the creative industries. The RSNO plays a major role in the performing arts and the new studio will give the orchestra the opportunity to build on their already highly-acclaimed international reputation for recording and expand on its educational activities.”

Mr Mowat, who conducted the recording for his new version of the Antonia Barber children’s fantasy novel, remembered seeing Elmer Bernstein, who scored the original 1972 soundtrack, work with the RSNO on a school trip to hear the orchestra in 1997.

“Scotland’s Studio is a world-class facility and it’s a game-changer, not only for Scotland, but for anyone looking to record in the UK,” he said. “We’re in desperate need of more recording studios this size to meet the pent-up demand, and the players in the RSNO rival the best in the world.

The auditorium was already known to be well designed and flexible enough to meet the stringent acoustic standards for recording. With the help of a legacy from orchestra patrons Iain and Pamela Sinclair, it is now linked to a 72-channel analogue recording desk in a control room which has been named in their memory.

The RSNO has recruited Digital Manager Hedd Morfett-Jones and Audio Engineering Intern Sam McErlean to operate its new equipment, while two current players – principal percussionist Simon Lowden and first horn Christopher Gough – have recently taken post-graduate qualifications to acquire skills that will also bring additional benefit to the orchestra’s film recording ambitions.

Picture: Composer Blair Mowat conducting the RSNO’s recording of his soundtrack for the Sky film The Amazing Mr Blunden

RSNO / Søndergård

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

About eight years ago, when Thomas Søndergård was appointed principal guest conductor of the RSNO, the late Herald music critic Michael Tumelty rightly suggested that the RSNO badly needed a Sibelius Cycle and in Søndergård they clearly “had the man for the job”.

We may not yet have had that full cycle per se, but Søndergård – who is now, of course, elevated to the main music director’s role – has been slowly chipping away at the symphonies. Last weekend he ended a glorious concert with Sibelius’s Second Symphony, based on which Tumelty’s assessment remains sound as a bell. 

It’s one of the Finnish composer’s better-known symphonies, yet like many of them there is something in its Sibelian DNA that can be as enigmatic for the interpreter as it is for the listener. It takes a very tuned-in mind to negotiate what can often seem like emotional short-circuiting and chilling understatement, and give it visceral meaning. 

There wasn’t one moment in Søndergård’s performance on Saturday that failed to connect with the music’s logic and emotional momentum. There was his supreme attention to detail – those moments where Sibelius suddenly dims the lights to reveal only a feverish swarm of buzzing woodwind, or where sheer economy of texture gives starlit intensity to lightly-scored climaxes.

Yet it was anything but clinical. In the opening Allegretto, Søndergård moulded poetic sense out of its thematic miscellany; the Andante played out its strange life and death tussle with breathtaking extremes; and the restive Vivacissimo held plenty back to make its uninterrupted launch into the Finale the moment of release it aspires to be. Well worth catching this again on the RSNO’s digital platform.

The same goes for Catriona Morison’s captivating interpretation of Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été, which preceded the Sibelius in the first half. The Edinburgh-born mezzo, famous for her winning performance in the 2017 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, is fast developing a maturity in her musical thoughts and delivery that give her performances – think no further than her characterful appearance in Strauss’ Ariadne with the RSNO at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival – a very special appeal. 

This Berlioz was beautifully reined-in, Morison using the darkened lustre of her voice to breathe intense passion into the music. There was nothing trivial or posturing, even – as in the final song – where there is scope for a coquettish wink. Morison played the sophisticated card, but always with enlivening charm and warmth. 

Before all this, Søndergård opened the programme with fellow Dane Bent Sørensen’s Evening Land, an evocative meditation on two experiences of the same vivid, momentary childhood vision, one from the composer’s childhood home looking out to a quiet country landscape, the other revisiting that scene in his mind fifty years later from a noisy New York balcony.

Such contrast shapes the music’s format, a simple, hushed opening, a folk-like fiddle solo and silken nostalgia that gradually bends to the whims of growing dissonant harmonies and the relative harshness that soon feeds the New York music. A gorgeous oboe solo rekindles the opening atmosphere. As with the Sibelius that was eventually to follow, Søndergård sought soulful perfection from his orchestra.

Ken Walton 

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