It’s a brave BBC SSO that puts on a programme unlikely to fill seats when the corporation is openly pleading poverty. Yet that’s what it did on Thursday. Besides a quick Beethoven overture, the menu before us was a Mark-Anthony Turnage concerto, an Unsuk Chin novelty piece and a Stravinsky ballet score notable for its steely restraint – an intriguing and challenging concoction, entirely palatable but highly dependant on the persuasiveness of its delivery.
Under chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, it was not without charm. Beethoven’s overture Leonore No 2, one of the composer’s multiple attempts to furnish his opera Fidelio with a suitable overture, is perhaps his most thrilling – a bombastic rhetoric within a sea of prophetic expansiveness, pregnant silences exaggerated for effect and a glimpse of the future through music anticipating the naturalism of the later Romantics and the obsessiveness of Berlioz or Bruckner.
The most liberating moment in this performance was the time-stopping offstage solo trumpet, casting a momentary magic spell before the skirmish of the home straight. To that point Wigglesworth’s reading mostly attuned to the music’s impetuosity, even if periodically unnerved by a kind of clipped, scurrying, theatricality.
In the phlegmatic neoclassicism of Stravinsky’s Orpheus, he sourced bewitchment in many of its fluid scenes: the melancholic nostalgia of Orpheus’ Bachian Air de Dance, the muted chorale-like eeriness of the final Apotheosis. The narrative dimension was moodily enticing, neatly tempered, but just short of finding that necessary sheen, the detailed intensity, to offset Stravinsky’s emotional containment
Turnage’s Your Rockaby for soprano saxophone and orchestra, is a Samuel Beckett-inspired concerto written in the early 1990s and shortly afterwards given its Scottish premiere in Glasgow’s Tramway by the SSO, It was performed here by its original soloist, Martin Robertson.
There was no escaping the unctuous queasiness of the jazz idiom that commonly defines Turnage’s music – a seediness lurking throughout, those angry harmonies, sneering glissandi and a busy background percussion combining to create a kaleidoscopic whirlwind. Sometimes gorgeously sleazy, sometimes with ecstatically pungency, Robertson played the protagonist with charismatic obstinacy.
Opening the second half, Unsuk Chin’s Subito con forza provided a flip side to the opening Beethoven. Written in 2020 for the latter’s 250th anniversary year, the source material is recognisable – sporadic snatches of Beethoven, each subjected to instant obliteration, as if Chin is firing incendiaries at the originals, releasing instant showers of musical shrapnel. The point was well made in a straightforward, resolute performance.
It’s a bold new RSNO season that kicks off with a Keats-inspired tone poem by a female composer born at the tail end of the Victorian era who most people today will not have heard of. Dorothy Howell lived from 1898 to 1980, impressed Sir Henry Wood, had her music premiered, aged 21, in his London Proms earning her the epithet of “English Strauss”, before concentrating more on teaching from her late 20s onwards.
Worth hearing? Absolutely! For in Lamia, Howell demonstrates a sweeping tidal wave of inspiration that transforms Keats’ narrative poem into a swirling musical fantasy, its influences ranging from Debussy and Richard Strauss to the prevailing Englishness of Elgar and inklings of Wagner, even with prophetic hints of modernist thought.
Yet, as this romantically-charged RSNO performance under music director Thomas Søndergård illustrated, Howell’s imaginative orchestral colourings and solid grasp of structuring were both authoritative and visionary, laced with evocative pictorial detail.
In a period where tokenism is in danger of throwing second rate music at us for its own sake, here was a truly deserving example of fruitful musical archeology. As with the rest of Saturday’s programme, Lamia will be heading to Salzburg next week where the RSNO is undertaking a 3-day concert residency.
Also on that trip will be feisty French pianist Lisa de la Salle, whose performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 on Saturday explored a more vigorous option to this familiar work. Steely dynamism informed the pianist’s opening gambit, her assertive touch commanding and demanding, yet never once losing sight of the music’s lyrical essence.
The slow movement, leisurely in the extreme, unfolded in long, languid phrases, though never without purpose, while the finale was a breathless and dazzling romp to the finish line. If the last few bars took Søndergård and the RSNO momentarily by surprise, they were otherwise magnificent in aligning with de la Salle’s vivid mindset.
A stirring concert ended with Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, a work this conductor and the RSNO have successfully recorded together, and which certainly sounded like a trusty old friend. A journey in which the composer centrally casts himself as the hero was, as it should be, gloriously indulgent without slipping into self-mockery. Søndergård struck the perfect balance, the hero’s proud emergence, his exhortations of love, his adversaries and battles, and ultimately his repose and fulfilment expressed in a flood of emotional conflict.
So this new season launched on a musical high; but why have the audience suddenly started bringing multiple food and drink into the auditorium? One group near me tucked into slices of cake. Behind, someone with ice in their plastic cup provided offstage percussion. Is it only a matter of time before the buckets of popcorn and fizzy drinks join in?
It’s hard to believe The Cumnock Tryst is approaching the significant landmark of its first decade. Nine years ago, local boy, now globally-celebrated composer, Sir James MacMillan founded the event, modelled on the likes of Orkney’s St Magnus Festival, in the hope it would play its part in accelerating the cultural and economic revival of the former mining-dependent Ayrshire town.
It has certainly proved sustainable. MacMillan’s contacts book may have been essential in enticing celebrity names from the classical world and beyond, but just as imperative has been the Festival’s catalysing effect on generating projects involving local people that impact so positively on their social and cultural well-being.
The 4-day 2023 Festival was no exception, witnessing on the one hand the magnetic persona of Australian-American opera star Danielle de Niese, the electrifying a cappella vocal ensemble Tenebrae and leading Scots folk singer Findlay Napier; while on the other, such big-hearted community events as BIG Saturday!, back-to-back concerts in the new Barony Hall of Robert Burns Academy, a central hub in the sprawling multi-school Barony Campus newly built on the edge of the town.
Both hour-long concerts – “In the Stars” and “Darkness into Darkness” – were the culmination of a three-year project celebrating the legacy of the local coalfields, in which schools and older community groups (including the now well-established Festival Chorus) engaged with composers and songwriters to create their own musical responses. These were performed by the participating groups with professional support from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under MacMillan’s direction.
I witnessed Saturday’s earlier event, “In the Stars”, notable for its slickness of presentation and stylistic variety the challenge produced: from Doon Academy, an attitudinal percussion number with narration by singer-songwriter Karine Polwart; from Netherthird Primary Choir the catchy Elder of the Woods; from Logan Primary the whimsical Crow from Crow Wood; and finally Robert Burns Academy’s vocal pop number, The Colour Room, its title borrowed from an actual Cumnock hairdressing salon.
Dalmellington Brass Academy had set the mood with brass band composer Andrew Duncan’s Knockshinnoch 1950, a robust tribute to an historic local mining accident. Further short orchestral links written by Duncan, Electra Perivolaris, Michael Murray, Gillan Walker and Jay Capperauld, and ranging in temperament from Murray’s brooding and mysterious Visions of the A-Frame to the minimalist lustre of Capperauld’s Zenith, secured a vital continuity, and a vehicle to offset the successive performers’ comings and goings. With MacMillan’s riotous football tribute, Eleven, a pugnacious BBC SSO blew the final whistle.
Friday evening offered a stimulating juxtaposition between the sacred and the secular. The former was delivered by Nigel Short’s excellent a cappella vocal ensemble Tenebrae in a programme entitled I Saw Eternity, referring to the Scottish premiere of MacMillan’s eponymous anthem, a work written specifically to partner Bach’s motets.
Which is precisely what Tenebrae did, coupling that and more by MacMillan’s choral settings with two of Bach’s loveliest cantatas, Komm, Jesu Komm and Jesu Meine Freude. The Bach interpretations were supreme, drawing an uplifting combination of homogenous perfection and nuanced elasticity from the singers. The choral partita format of Jesu Meine Freude, while immense, even symphonic in scope, maintained its intimacy throughout. Intonation was electrifyingly spot-on.
MacMillan’s music provided freer scope for Tenebrae’s expressive war chest. The three Tenebrae Responsories, reminiscent in many ways of Bruckner’s motets and driven by the same spiritual potency and molten ecstasy, gave rise to some of the programme’s most heightened thrills, some reaching a level of intensity so penetrating that this modest venue – St John’s Church – almost strained to contain it.
After the liquid density and visionary warmth of I Saw Eternity, the programme ended with his Miserere, a pertinent endpoint, and a hugely transformative one as MacMillan’s famous “Tryst” melody – a recurrent feature in many of his works – appeared in its original completeness like an awakening sunburst. Something of a Götterdämmerung moment.
Along the road at the Dumfries Arms Hotel, Friday’s late-night slot was given over to folk musician Findlay Napier, his affable repartee and earthy lyricism like beer and crisps to the earlier sacred sustenance at St John’s. From Hamish Imlach’s Cod Liver Oil and Orange Juice to his own The Blue Lagoon (a sardonic response to the famous Glasgow chippy’s claim of having served Justin Bieber a haggis supper), Napier, through smiling charm and gentle ribbing, gradually reeled in an slow-burning audience. A more liberating cabaret-style setting might have loosened inhibitions quicker.
Danielle de Niese struck gold immediately with her audience in Thursday’s Festival opening recital in Old Cumnock Church, which featured two brand new songs written for her by MacMillan, their emotionally introspective core perfect as a preface to Poulenc’s highly-charged operatic one-acter, La Voix Humaine.
If the Poulenc – in which a fraught woman’s telephone call to her unseen lover confirms his wish to end their relationship – was the natural outlet for de Niese’s red-hot theatricals, so too MacMillan’s songs, setting words by Michael Symmons Roberts, played directly to this versatile soprano’s hot-blooded instincts.
The unfettered spirit defining both MacMillan songs – the questioningly enigmatic Soul Song and the sparkling abandon of The Vows – was charismatically captured by de Niese and pianist Matthew Fletcher, whose mutual response to the music’s crystalline sparkle never missed a trick. MacMillan and Symmons Roberts intend to add further songs to the collection.
The most intriguing aspect of the Poulenc was to witness it in this version for piano-only accompaniment. Again, Fletcher’s own dramatic instinct multiplied its effectiveness, attuned perfectly to the breathtaking, at times breathless, spontaneity of de Niese’s solo portrayal. It was a mesmerising performance, de Niese piercing the character’s rawest emotions, minimal props throwing the spotlight wholly on the feverish restlessness of a truly intoxicating score.
Sir Thomas Allen talks to Keith Bruce about the latest revival of the Scottish Opera production that launched his directorial career in the UK
The tactic failed to prevent a famously disastrous first night, but Rossini originally named The Barber of Seville after another of the characters created by Beaumarchais, Count Almaviva, to appease fans of an earlier opera version of the play.
Reflecting the role that has attracted most attention in Sir Thomas Allen’s staging, the Scottish Opera production that is revived for a second time this month might accurately be entitled Rossini’s Rosina.
Figaro the Barber had been one of the baritone’s signature roles when Allen made his directorial debut for a professional company in the UK with the production in 2007. His first Rosina was Karen Cargill, described as “sassy, spirited and stylish” by Opera magazine, proving the mezzo “as accomplished a Rossinian as she is a natural comedienne”.
When the show was revived in 2011, Claire Booth received the plaudits as the star of the cast in the same role, while praise was also heaped on Allen’s clever handling of the detail of the convoluted plot. When it opens at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal on Tuesday October 17, this year’s Rosina is Sir Tom’s own choice of Swiss-Canadian Simone McIntosh, making her company debut after representing Canada in BBC Cardiff Singer of the World.
“I saw her when I was adjudicating a big competition in Montreal, which she won,” the director told VoxCarnyx. “I made two phone calls immediately afterwards – one to my agent suggesting they sign her up, and the other to Alex Reedijk at Scottish Opera.”
Although ScotOp’s General Director secured the mezzo’s services for the revival, there was then some hesitation on her part when it was decided to use an English translation of the libretto this time round.
Allen admits that he initially shared some of her doubts about that, but he is pleased that his Rosina decided to stay on board.
“At the start of my own career, everything I did was in English,” he notes, “but singers have bigger opportunities earlier these days and are seen in a wider field. I think she thought that learning the part in English was a waste of energy, so I had to persuade her.”
It is not hard to imagine Sir Tom being effectively persuasive, as he peppers his conversation with charming anecdotes and pin-sharp impressions, although he describes his rehearsal room technique modestly.
“The beauty of it is that you take the cast that has been put together and they bring their individual skills. Then you thrash your way through it and mould it into a cohesive whole – you hope!”
The focus on detail that audiences have appreciated in Allen’s Scottish Opera productions suggests that his approach is perhaps a little more forensic than that.
When he talks about the switch to Amanda Holden’s libretto in English, for example, it is questions of comic timing and specific pauses in the delivery of the line that he mentions. “Translations are often funny because they have a rhyming scheme of their own,” he adds.
The acting side of a singer’s life is something about which Allen is now particularly well-qualified to speak. His next job, after the Rossini has opened for its Scottish tour, is an acting role with Opera Zuid in the Netherlands, playing Leo, the titular character in a new version of Mozart’s Der Shauspieldirektor by writer, director and singer Christopher Gillett.
It follows the acclaimed Grange Festival version of King Lear, directed by Keith Warner, that employed an entire company of opera stars, with Sir John Tomlinson as Lear, Allen as Gloucester, Susan Bullock as Goneril, Louise Alder as Cordelia and Kim Begley as the Fool. (More about that can be found in the Vox Carnyx interview with composer Nigel Osborne, who wrote the music for the production.)
“I think it worked because we were free to explore a lot of new ideas for ourselves,” Allen remembers of the Lear project. “What we as singers are not accustomed to is finding the musical line in a verse of Shakespeare, because we are usually provided with that by the composer.”
“There are always comparisons made between singing and an actor’s life, but singers wake up every day worrying about their voice. And you do that without realising the pressure for – speaking personally – 50 years, so it’s great when you stop and discover there is another way of living.”
Of course that is only partly true, because although Allen now has other strings to his bow, he is still performing on the opera stage himself, on the eve of his 80thbirthday.
“Yes, I am still singing, much to my surprise,” he says. “I had intended finishing completely at the end of 2019 but then Glyndebourne made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
That role is Baron Zeta in Lehar’s Merry Widow, which he sang alongside Renee Fleming at the Met in New York. Next summer in Sussex he reprises the Baron in a new Cal McCrystal staging, with John Wilson in the pit and Danielle de Niese in the title role.
“I’ve never gone out of my way to seek work, and when I started I wanted to sing lieder and oratorio rather than opera. I think it was the bank manager who pointed out the discrepancy in earning potential!”
The Barber of Seville opens in Glasgow on Tuesday October 17 and tours to Edinburgh, Inverness and Aberdeen until the end of November.
Picture of Sir Thomas Allen in rehearsals for The Barber of Seville by Julie Howden
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra could not have engineered it, but a remarkable coincidence of featured artists provided principal second violinist Marcus Barcham Stevens with priceless material for his spoken introduction to Tuesday’s programme in the Great Hall of Stirling Castle.
Playing Max Bruch’s rarely heard 1911 Concerto for Clarinet and Viola were the SCO’s Principal Clarinet Maximiliano Martin and Principal Viola Max Mandel. The orchestra was conducted by Maxim Emelyanychev and – just to max-out on Maxes – the work was originally written for the composer’s virtuoso clarinettist son, Max Felix Bruch.
The work itself begins in a mellow fashion. The range of the two solo instruments is so similar that violists play the late works Brahms initially wrote for clarinet, and in the second movement – a very moderate Allegro indeed – Mandell and Martin completed one another’s phrases like an old married couple. The music is, in fact, occasionally reminiscent of Brahms, as well as of Mahler, and the opening fanfare of the brisker finale was sufficiently like Mendelssohn it would have been small surprise to see a bride make her entrance from the back of the hall. Not a neglected masterpiece, then, but a welcome change from the little of the composer’s output we hear all too often.
The concert had begun with the world premiere that has launched the SCO’s 50thanniversary season, Associate Composer Jay Capperauld’s The Origin of Colour, so the second half performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No3 was the first well-known music of the evening. It would, however, have been a treat also to be hearing the Eroica for the first time, as Emelyanychev launched into a bold account of the first movement, achieving a terrific balance of the instruments and losing no detail of the score in what is not always the most forgiving of acoustics.
There was an airiness about the Marcia funebre initially as well, but by its end it had strayed on the wrong side of the line between stately and lying-in-state. Evidently exhilarating to play for, the SCO’s Principal Conductor usually finds the ideal combination of scale and pace in bringing the lessons of historically-informed performance to the podium, but his tempi did not seem quite so assured here. Although the Scherzo came out of the trap like a hare, he subsequently gave the horns rather more space than they wanted for their hunting calls. Happily conductor and players were on firmer ground in the rhapsodic variations of the Finale.
If the Beethoven was not a complete triumph, Capperauld’s new work assuredly is. In some respects it is quite conventional stuff from a young composer whose catalogue so far is impressive in its eclecticism. The opening of percussive effects across the orchestra giving way to a chorale of winds is a well-marked path, and the blend of melody and orchestration that follows is close kin to Aaron Copland, which is a high bar to reach.
Subsequently there are moments that call to mind Leonard Bernstein and John Adams, which is to say that this musical evocation of colour coming into the world is very colourful indeed for almost its entire duration. Few are the contemporary works that you’d put good money on hearing again on a regular basis, but The Origin of Colour sounds very like a racing certainty.
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra has opened its Golden Jubilee season with a bullish programme geared to speak proudly and confidently of this milestone achievement, but also, one might add, of a future that will surely be shaped with the completion, now in sight, of its new purpose-built Edinburgh home, the long-awaited Dunard Centre.
In the here and now, and in a packed Glasgow City Halls on Thursday, the celebratory atmosphere was palpable. Billed as “Maxim’s Eroica”, Beethoven’s (even now) mind-blowing Third Symphony was the destination point. But before that there was the promise of an epic Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto from the pile-driving Russian-American pianist Kirill Gerstein, and the latest new work from the SCO’s current associate composer, New Cumnock-born Jay Capperauld.
“Maxim”, of course, refers to the orchestra’s hot-rod principal conductor, Maxim Emelyanychev. Only the uninitiated might have expected an off-the-shelf Eroica from this tantalising and unpredictable Russian. This one was a customised flyer, an Eroica supercharged in a way that stripped away the corrosive layers of successive performance traditions to reveal the absolute purity of Beethoven, the sharpness of the drama, the visionary essence of the turbulent and fearless personality, all built around an unshakeable, faithfully preserved chassis.
The detail and insight were extraordinary, extracted with a natural empathy for the possibilities Beethoven presents: a naturally-crafted elasticity in the sculpting of phrases that never once rocked the music’s inevitable flow; a slow movement – the Marcia funebre – as impressive for its lyrical sweetness and chamber-like intimacy as its measured rigidity; a Scherzo touched more by spirited refinement than the typical race-to-the-finish; and an utterly self-assured Finale, free of bombast, rich in expressive substance and directional focus.
It was the perfect counterpoint to Capperauld’s concert opener, the glistening surreal sound world of The Origin of Colour, commissioned by the SCO for this programme, and based on Italo Calvino’s short story, Without Colours, from his speculative fiction series Cosmicomics. It imagines the concept of a grey-only world suddenly and frighteningly transformed by the creation of colour.
Colour is the driving factor in Capperauld’s dizzying score – a wild, effervescent tapestry of instrumental polyphony arising from primitive percussive and vocalised utterances, driven to its delirious, sometimes whimsical, heights by virile rhythmic ostinati. There’s a whiff of minimalism that heightens the mystique, and a starry opulence – gloriously captured in this performance – that suggests Capperauld could easily turn his hand to the ways of Hollywood soundtracks.
Where Tchaikovsky’s famous Piano Concert No 1 might have been anticipated as a sure-fire winner, this performance by Gerstein – using Tchaikovsky’s original version rather than the more familiar revised posthumous edition – was more unnerving than satisfying. The opening movement, despite the uncommon charm of the opening piano chords served up as arpeggios, never really settled, Gerstein lost in his own combative world, heavy handed and over-peddling, as if Storm Agnes was still with us.
If the ensuing movements offered more in the way of lyrical eloquence and a crisper meeting of minds, the underlying turbulence never quite receded. All of which was a pity, given the exceptional and sensitive playing from the SCO.
The second leg in this 50th Anniversary season opening tour travels to Stirling (Tuesday), Ayr (Wednesday) and Aberdeen (Saturday), in which the Tchaikovsky is replaced by Bruch’s rarely-heard Concerto for Clarinet and Viola. VoxCarnyx’s Keith Bruce will be there to review it.
It is no slight on the many fine performances at Scotland’s larger and better-known festivals this summer to say that two evenings spent at this year’s Glasgow Cathedral Festival will surely live in the memory as long as any of them.
Both were superb combinations of sound and vision and were crucially site-specific. This festival – the vision of a small team of enthusiastic musicians – is not appreciated enough for the way it animates one of the most important buildings in Glasgow and Scotland, and fills it with an audience, most of whom might be unlikely to show up for a Sunday service.
Those who are part of the regular congregation must be astonished to see and hear the building used in this way. Even the leader of that small team, organist and Director of Music at the Cathedral, Andrew Forbes, conceded on Friday that he had just heard the instrument he knows well produce sounds he had never previously heard.
The player at the console of the Willis organ that evening was Thierry Escaich, who succeeded Maurice Durufle as organist at Saint Etienne du Mont in Paris and whose career as a contemporary French composer and orchestral soloist sits alongside an improvising skill that he brings to the accompaniment of classic silent movies. They include Phantom of the Opera and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but on Friday evening the festival screened a sparkling restoration of FW Murnau’s Sunrise: a song of two humans, a nuanced melodrama that cinema fans acclaim as one of the finest movies in the history of the art form.
Made in Hollywood in 1927, the film had an orchestral soundtrack that borrowed from Gounod and Chopin on its release, but Escaich’s improvised accompaniment was a musical marvel that expressed the emotional lives of the characters as eloquently as it did the environment of the story, which plays the temptations and bustle of the city against the simpler charms – and natural dangers – of the country life.
It is a superb piece of film-making, full of ground-breaking cinematography, with some very fine acting from the main roles to the small character parts, and the vocabulary of sound Escaich found on the Cathedral organ was quite remarkable, ranging from tinkling delicacy to a mighty storm.
Saturday’s treat was a work that is universally known in the Netherlands in a way that it is almost inconceivable to imagine a contemporary composition being in the UK. Simeon ten Holt’s Canto Ostinato is heard there regularly, played by different combinations of musicians and of varying duration, its score permitting an infinite variety of ways its 106 musical “cells” can be performed, as long as it lasts for at least an hour.
The excellently-acronymed Piano Association of St Andrews (PAStA) was formed for a concert of the piece in May of last year and this performance featured a rolling cast of 13 students and recent graduates of the university to play and conduct the piece on four grand pianos for three hours. Once again, the musical students of St Andrews, all studying other subjects at an institution that does not offer a music degree, boldly ventured into territory unexplored by their professional peers.
Ten Holt’s work shares some characteristics and techniques with the American Minimalists, but is a great deal busier and plunders many other sources. A very florid section, at around one hour in on Saturday night, was “baroque” in the decorative rather than period sense, and used phrases that might have come directly from Chopin or Tchaikovsky. There was also a definite echo of prog-rock’s heyday, which fits with the work’s late-1970s composition, and especially, at one point around two-thirds of the way through, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.
The visuals were in the hands of Edinburgh’s TrenchOne Industries, projected on the fabric of the building. Starting on the Cathedral’s singular stone screen between choir and nave, Ross Blair and his colleagues created a spectacle that quickly spilled beyond that and mirrored the range of the sonic ingredients, with imagery indebted to everything from William Morris to Manga comics. The use of aerial cinematography on the vaulted space with Ten Holt’s music inevitably recalled the Philip Glass-soundtracked environmental films of Godfrey Reggio and Ron Frickle.
The music was not flawlessly played (a mis-fingered note is very audible in the familiar tonality of this composition) but the skill and stamina of these young players in the execution of complex music was as admirable as Escaich’s solo turn in its own very different way. Heard (and seen) on successive evenings the sum of the two was genius programming by Forbes and his colleagues.
There’s something about the “idée fixe” – a theme or motif composers weave and manipulate throughout a work to both unify and characterise their creations – that gets under your skin. It is a powerfully defining device that Berlioz, most of all, applied with obsessive emotional pungency to such Romantic epics as his Symphonie fantastique. But, just as in the psychological definition, it can be an irritating fixation. Whether or not it was her intention, and I suspect it was, Cassandra Miller plays that card to its extreme in her Duet for Cello and Orchestra.
That possibly wasn’t the reason conductor Ilan Volkov pitted these works against each other in Thursday’s thought-provoking BBC SSO programme, but it was hard not to be minded retrospectively of Miller’s, to some extent, cynical extremism in the later unfolding of Berlioz’s musical angst.
This was a return visit by the SSO, Volkov and soloist Charles Curtis to Miller’s concerto, which they premiered at the 2015 Tectonics Glasgow festival. Miller describes it as a homage to Sicilian opera composer Vincenzo Bellini, and to be sure, its progressively intensified orchestral episodes emulate the syrupy, ecstatic ripeness of southern Italian folk music, in this case based on the actual Sardinian folk song, Trallallera.
These glitzy repetitive sunbursts, dominated by a bullish and brazen SSO trumpet section, seemed intent on goading the intransigence of Curtis’ belligerent cello performance – for the most part an unceasing repetition of two oscillating notes – into action. It took most of the 30-minute duration for that to have the desired effect, like a release from an inescapable hypnotic nightmare, the cellist responding with a brief and final catharsis of stratospheric harmonics before abruptly signing off with a throwaway glissando.
Volkov’s cool insistence, and the SSO’s charismatic response, captured the obstinacy of Millar’s quirky mindset. (For those taken by it, and with a propensity to travel, the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester is presenting a day-long focus on Miller’s chamber and orchestral music on 19 October.)
On its own, this concerto performance would have left us in a mild state of anxiety, but Berlioz’s effusive musical depiction, the Symphonie fantastique, of his infatuation for the actress Harriet Smithson – he subtitled it “Episode in the Life of an Artist” – provided a coruscating antidote.
Once again, it was the tangible chemistry Volkov enjoys with an orchestra he has been associated with for the past 20 years that guaranteed the rollercoaster thrill. Every vivid scene, every emotional deviation in the fantastical journey, was heightened by a natural, visceral synergy, which the conductor inspired with an empowering economy of gestures.
The entire band swayed physically as one, negotiating the hazy uncertainty of the opening Daydreams, the whirling delirium of the Ball scene, the pastorale sentimentality of the Adagio, and the combined bombast and finality of the March to the Scaffold and Witches’ Sabbath, with unfettered inevitability. This was a masterclass in disciplined passion, where less was very much more, where by keeping the eye on the ball – the centrifugal persistence of the idée fixe – this volcanic music ultimately took care of itself.
Repeated tonight (Fri 29 Sep) in Aberdeen Music Hall. Thursday’s live broadcast from Glasgow available on BBC Sounds for 30 days.
With the programme brochure boldly trumpeting the word “Mahler”, the intention was clear – the intended focal point and mighty peroration of this BBC SSO season opener was to be Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. That it emerged as the least exciting event in a long evening didn’t so much lead to overall disappointment – though as such it defied expectations – as throw the spotlight onto a side of SSO conductor Ryan Wigglesworth that is absolutely his forte.
This was the Scottish premiere of his own Piano Concerto, written originally for the 2019 BBC Proms, and played in this instance by the unshakeable Scots pianist Steven Osborne. It was the one moment in Thursday’s concert where the stars fully aligned. Osborne, it goes without saying, commanded the stage with a performance that magically fused the music’s glistening fragility with its expansive climactic peaks. The SSO, responding to Wigglesworth’s natural mastery of the score, offered its own multicoloured insight. In total, the experience was breathtaking.
The most touching aspect of this performance was its detailed sensitivity. The writing is beautifully concise, precise and tantalisingly understated. It was like that from the offset – elemental motifs pithily suggested by the orchestra, taken up by the pianist and jointly toyed with in an opening Arioso notable for its alluringly poetic journey.
Even in the Scherzo, where Wigglesworth explores a more austere, lightly modernist sound world, the assimilation of microcosm and macrocosm was deftly fulfilling. The Notturno, playing ghostly polytonal mischief with a Polish folk melody (think Lutoslawski), and running straight into the final Gigue, maintained its volatile intoxication, ultimately dissembling into a valedictory piano solo.
What came before was also something of a discovery, the Heroic Overture by Johanna Müller-Hermann. She lived and worked in Vienna at its fin-de-siècle height, clearly conscious of the prevailing winds of stylistic change. In this stormy overture, one eye is on the turbulent excesses of Richard Strauss, the other looking tentatively at the new revolutionary order of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Wigglesworth recognised that in a solid but sensuous performance, ripely and robustly delivered.
If all that ought to have been the perfect set-up for Mahler Four, the outcome was less impressive. Wigglesworth presided over an unsettled opening, his tempi changes unconvincing, in some cases awkward. What he did achieve from the SSO in the second movement was clarity of texture, but stodgier moments – in relation to orchestral tone – killed the magic.
Even in the slow movement, often exquisite with shafts of timeless beauty peeking through, there was still a sense the conductor was painting by numbers, and by the time we reached the finale and its sublime Das Himmlische Leben for solo soprano, any hope of achieving the truly sublime had dissipated. Soloist Sally Matthews did not seem entirely comfortable in this instance, her delivery unfocused, periodically insubstantial.
It made a long concert seem longer, which begged the question, why play an encore? The applause had all but died down, and many were already leaving the hall when Wigglesworth announced “more Mahler”. It was an error of judgement.
Scottish Opera’s four-singers-and-a-piano touring to small theatres and community halls is now the most dependable ingredient of its season as economies bite into the more expensive elements of the programme. Dependable, but not predictable, because although some of the shape of these shows is unchanging, other ingredients are always excitingly new.
Most obviously the cast is a constantly refreshing introduction to singers in the early years of their careers, occasionally with a more experienced voice in the mix. In February and March this new show will be a showcase for all four of the company’s new recruits to its Emerging Artists programme, and they will have a hard act to follow. Of the quartet on the road now, two are making their company debut and the other pair have just a single Scottish Opera gig in their performing history.
The soprano and mezzo are both home-grown, although they made their reputations elsewhere. As a Garsington Opera Young Artist, Katy Thomson stepped in for an indisposed Miah Persson as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier – and her singing here leaves no doubt that she has the chops for that role. Katherine Aitken has been a studio principal at the Opera de Lyon and was a terrific Tisbe in the Stefan Herheim production of La Cenerentola the French company brought to the 2018 Edinburgh Festival.
Baritone Jerome Knox is Glasgow-trained, at the Alexander Gibson Opera School of the Royal Conservatoire, and he and South African tenor Innocent Masuku have extensive CVs of work with UK companies.
Although all four make excellent solo contributions to this programme, displaying their individual versatility, it is more impressive how well they bond as a team, with some beautifully blended ensemble singing and a display of acting skills and physical expression that should shame some of their more illustrious seniors in the opera world.
The choice of material for them to sing remains, for this year at least, in the capable hands of recently-retired Head of Music at Scottish Opera, Derek Clark. There are possibly fewer of his maverick selections, and more music that is better known (at least to me), but the key to the show’s success is the way they are combined. With the simple device of placing her characters in the socially interactive hothouse of a wedding reception, both as guests and (with some quick changes) in the conveniently androgynous uniform of staff, director Laura Attridge provides a plausible context for duets by Tchaikovsky, Rossini, Offenbach and Puccini, arias by Handel, Donizetti, Gounod and Massenet, and a splendid trio from Donizetti’s La fille du regiment.
Such concepts in Highlights staging often come unstuck when the show reaches the recent inclusion of a new commission, but not in this instance. Following last year’s Told By An Idiot, composer Toby Hession, who is music director and accompanist on this tour, and librettist Emma Jenkins (director of Strauss’s Daphne at the start of the month) have supplied another world premiere with In Flagrante, conveniently also using a hotel function suite, but now at the end of a debauched political party conference.
As government ministers crawl from under the tables in states of undress and a suitcase full of used banknotes is discovered, it is all too recognisably of the moment, brilliantly exposed in sparkling text, set with great skill by the composer and performed with gusto by the cast. When spin doctor Rhona (Aitken) arrives to save the day in abrasive fashion, we are left in no doubt that she is uninterested in saving either the skins or the reputations of her supposed paymasters. As in so many opera plots.
Perhaps the conceit of Attridge’s staging runs out of steam a little in the (shorter) second half, but it was already a stretch for the Papagena Aria and Duet from The Magic Flute that closed the first. The music, and ensemble performance, remains top drawer, even as it becomes lighter fare in the way these shows always conclude. These four singers are adaptable enough to give everything its most appropriate delivery – and they will be doing that from Thurso to Dumfries and Aberdeen to Arisaig until the end of October.
After 12 days of world class music making, a star-studded procession of international stars, everything from opera to symphonic, choral and chamber music, an impressive 82% box office of which 30% were new attendees, regular visitors from as far afield as Washington DC, and an Indian summer to boot, the Lammermuir Festival came to a thundering close with a potently optimistic programme by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra of Tippett and Beethoven.
Again, there wasn’t a seat to be had in the sizeable nave of St Mary’s Church. The palpable buzz was reflective of a communal warmth, friendship and exceptional quality of music-making that has embraced this 14th, and unarguably the best, Lammermuir Festival ever: an event Scotland, East Lothian, and the powers that govern this country ought to be immensely proud of.
Yet, as we reported last week in VoxCarnyx, this is a Festival that Creative Scotland unbelievably withdrew its funding from at the eleventh hour. As you’d expect from Lammermuir’s co-directors James Waters and Hugh Macdonald – two of the most skilled, experienced and globally respected classical music impresarios in the UK – the news was greeted with disbelief and puzzlement, but also a dogged determination to overcome the odds.
In a brief speech before the final concert, Waters acknowledged the goodwill and support that had been forthcoming, stating “a determination to run a campaign to maintain the festival, to find a way of securing the funding of a festival we have grown together.” He even announced proposed dates for 2024.
With that, Festival Patron Steven Osborne took his place at the piano to perform Tippett’s Piano Concerto, a work whose combination of subliminal magic and robust Beethovenian rhetoric perhaps reflected our prevailing thoughts – music’s ability to apply utopian diversions to the grounded reality of everyday life. A metaphor, perhaps, for the incalculable value of such threatened events.
Osborne was magnificent, his tried and tested mastery of Tippett’s elusive language – there’s no better testimony to this than his Hyperion recordings – colouring this performance with a vital luminescence and mind-blowing virtuosity. His interaction with the SSO was as instinctive as it was authoritative, those moments where the piano is encased within a toy box world of ethereal celeste and fluttering woodwind exquisitely enhanced by the spacious acoustics. The preternatural world of Tippett’s opera The Midsummer Marriage, written around the same time, is never far away.
Neither, though, is the inspiration the composer himself declared came from Beethoven. It was there, without doubt, in the tumultuous surges that inhabit and shape the outer movements, but also in the intertwining lyrical threads – every one of them surreally definable as Tippett – that inform the structural flow, especially in the central slow movement.
SSO principal conductor Ryan Wigglesworth supported Osborne’s mindset well, eliciting lustrous empathy from his players. If the slow movement fell short in achieving a genuine tranquillo – Wiggleworth’s direction favoured a more restive lamentation – the rest was a triumph of transcendent rapture.
The concert ended with Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, and a performance that didn’t hang about, giving it the necessary vigour and clarity to succeed in such a diffusive environment. There were superlative moments from the orchestra – the brooding basses in the Funeral March, the sky-bound horns in the Scherzo, golden woodwind solos, and the strings meaty and resplendent throughout.
As a whole, Wigglesworth engineered a purposeful and ultimately exhilarating reading. Not every tempo felt rigidly stable – he has a tendency to add spasmodic flicks to his beat that audibly impact on rhythmic discipline – but it was a version of a visionary, revolutionary symphony that celebrated its most profound and affirmative qualities. And, needless to say, Lammermuir’s.
Crichton Collegiate Church, by Pathhead/Dirleton Kirk
The multifaceted 2023 edition of the Lammermuir Festival – very possibly the most artistically successful in its history, making Creative Scotland’s absence as a supporter all the more absurd – revealed yet another face on its final Sunday. In two of its most architecturally beautiful and acoustically admired venues we heard very different sung music, composed centuries apart, that fitted their original purpose as places of worship.
Roddy Willliams closed his short but highly effective recital at Dirleton Kirk in the afternoon with the Five Mystical Songs of Ralph Vaughan Williams, setting lyrics by metaphysical poet George Herbert, in the composer’s own arrangement for piano (Christopher Glynn) and single strings (the Maxwell Quartet).
Herbert’s guidance to living the Christian life is still part of the liturgy of the church, and the unmistakable voice of the popular baritone sounded wonderful in the closing Antiphon: Let all the world in every corner sing, My God and King!
Less familiar were the settings of English Folk Songs by Vaughan Williams in the singer’s own arrangements for string quartet, which were as crisp as his own immaculate diction. Originally a lockdown project with soprano Mary Bevan and tenor Nicky Spence, Williams took on all the characters in these tales himself with changes of tone and timbre. In a varied selection from the composer’s vast archaeological project, Captain Grant was a geographically appropriate tale of an Edinburgh jail-break, while others dealt with lovers bereft, spurned and slightly soiled.
Preceding the songs and hymns, in the first half the Maxwells and Glynn combined forces for Elgar’s Piano Quintet, perhaps not obvious territory for this quartet but to which they brought their own folk-tinged style, to the music’s great profit. The work is full of changes of mood and tone, the haunted opening giving way to a dance tune that sounds almost Mediterranean, and a spooky carnival ride alternating with a stride across the South Downs in the finale. With a blended sound in the strings that only long acquaintance can bring, and assertive contributions from the pianist, this performance told its tale in what seemed a very swift 40 minutes.
Earlier in the day, at the well-off-the-beaten-track Crichton Collegiate Church (actually in Midlothian), the sequence of secular and sacred was reversed in soprano Nardus Williams’s recital with a Dunedin Consort quintet, led by John Butt from chamber organ and harpsichord.
Following on neatly from the Dunedin’s Out of Her Mouth production in June, featuring three of French composer Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre’s Biblical cantatas, this programme included her instrumental music alongside songs and solo cantatas by her female contemporaries and predecessors in Italy.
The convent composers featured in the first half may have had the Saviour and religious life as their subject, but they were clearly not cloistered from worldly desires and Williams brought real passion to her delivery, whether seated or standing. Singing from memory, she brought an expressiveness to these appeals for the bliss of Heaven or an encounter with the Christ-child that contrasted with the wry, more cynical tone of Barbara Strozzi in La vendetta, the song that gave the recital its title.
The lesson-telling of that and Costuma de grandi, the brilliant word-setting of Havete torto and the 12 minute mono-drama Hor che Apollo made the sequence after the interval a superb introduction to Strozzi, but the genius of the programme was the way it presented her work in context, with the Dunedin instrumentalists on top form.
The soprano – now happily a Dunedin stalwart – was the star however, in what was a beautifully nuanced, delightfully ornamented and utterly compelling performance.
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra set conductor Jonathon Heyward some acoustic challenges on the last dates of its summer tour schedule. As my colleague Ken Walton noted elsewhere, Troon Town Hall is a boomy barn of a building, while the stage at Cumbernauld presented the opposite problem, with black drapes from floor to flies absorbing a lot of sound.
To the credit of all involved, and Heyward in particular, that became easy to ignore as the evening progressed. Mendelssohn’s overture The Fair Melusine fared worst with the natural trumpets in particular having an odd muted sound and the winds rather less clear than we know to expect from these players.
Nonetheless, there was some lovely playing from the flutes and first clarinet Maximiliano Martin and principal bassoon Cerys Ambrose-Evans had shared the first notes of the piece before they stepped to the front of the stage as soloists in Richard Strauss’s Duet-Concertino.
Following hard on the heels of Scottish Opera’s Daphne, here was another rare opportunity to hear music from the end of the composer’s career. Sounding much better further forward in the space, it begins with just a string sextet accompanying the soloists, flowing clarinet lines answered by the bassoon in characterful exchanges. The conversation develops in deliciously inventive phrases, some of which resolve in predictable ways, others more edgy and abrasive, while the string orchestra alternately shimmers or adds deep chords as it comments on or echoes the soloists.
Only later do the two solo instruments begin to overlap and intertwine, and Martin and Ambrose-Evans told their story eloquently, as Strauss had great fun with the full ranges of their instruments.
They also had a short duet in the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No 4, which made up the second half of the concert. This was a beautifully measured reading of the work from Heyward, communicating with great clarity to all sections of the orchestra. His gestures and deportment are entirely different, but there is a similarity of technique with SCO principal conductor Maxim Emelyanychev in his batonless use of very expressive hands.
In that opening movement, and perhaps especially the Scherzo, the Fourth is full of details that could be the work of no other composer, and Heyward made certain that we heard Beethoven at his most playfully Beethovian in the shifts of rhythm and dynamics. And Ambrose-Evans was still on her best game for the bubbling figure she has in the work’s sparkling finale.
It is possibly a little gauche to mention it, but one person who has emerged well from the grim tale of the fall of Sir John Eliot Gardiner is the Principal Conductor of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, Dinis Sousa.
As Gardiner’s Associate Conductor of the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestras, he stepped up to the podium for the concert performances of Les Troyens after the rehearsal incident and the final show of the project’s European tour, at the Royal Albert Hall in the Proms season, was universally acclaimed. The RNS made an astute appointment of the Portuguese conductor two years ago and he is now a highly appreciated asset.
So too is the orchestra’s leader, Maria Wloszczowska, who partnered pianist Jeremy Denk in a Charles Ives sonata at Lammermuir two years ago and went on to play Bach with him in New York. She was the soloist in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto here before taking her place in the orchestra for Schumann’s last symphony.
There is a glorious fluidity to her playing and although she had the music in front of her, she rarely consulted it. In terms of performance, soloist and conductor were very much on the same page from the opening bars, which can sometimes seem purposely tentative but here took a hint from the timpanist’s march rhythm. Come the first movement’s closing cadenza, the timpani were crucial again, Wloszczowska and Sousa using the dialogue in the composer’s later piano version of the score.
While this was not always pacey Beethoven, it was neither leisurely nor sedate, and there was a compelling deliberateness about the slow movement, particularly in the relationship between soloist and orchestra, underlined in the way the music skipped into the finale. Sousa and Wlosczcowska were in lock-step in dynamics as well as tempo throughout.
The conductor’s account of Schumann’s Symphony No 3, the “Rhenish”, was very much as a showcase for his orchestra, the horns resonating in the fine acoustic of St Mary’s in the first movement, a beautiful clarity of sound in the wind soloists in the third, and the trombones at the back leading the chorale in the fourth.
There was an architectural grandeur here that is not always present in chamber orchestra accounts of the work, and the waltzing Scherzo sounded almost Viennese. Given the ultimately fatal fall-out of the composer’s recent Dusseldorf appointment, where the work premiered, this holiday jaunt down the Rhine with Clara has rarely sounded as sunny as it did here.
The rich and varied menu of 2023’s Lammermuir Festival had an especially tasty ingredient in the East Lothian residency of ten musicians of the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective. It does not appear especially inspired at first, but rarely has a group been so well-named – for its range, its speciality, and its ethos – in those three words.
Although the other demands of their individual careers must limit the rehearsal time together, the communication between these players when they assemble on the platform – in combinations from a trio to a nonet that never repeated itself once over three programmes and eleven fascinating works (excluding encores) – was a constant delight to watch as well as hear.
That repertoire ran from Mozart and Stamitz to a world premiere in Nicola LeFanu’s After Ferrera, which was written for horn player Ben Goldscheider, but often as much of a showcase for cellist Laura van der Heijden. Her role throughout was as key to the success of these performances as those of violinist Elena Urioste and pianist Tom Poster, who co-ordinate the group.
But everyone involved stepped up at some point. Savitri Grier completed the trio for the LeFanu in Dirleton, and was first violin for Schubert’s wonderful Octet in Musselburgh, a beautifully structured account of one the most substantial masterpieces of chamber music. Clarinettist Matthew Hunt was the lead voice in much of that piece, and also key to Dohnanyi’s Sextet in the ensemble’s opening programme, which culminated in the Nonet by Samuel Coleridge- Taylor that Kaleidoscope has played a huge part in popularising.
The Dohnanyi – which literally sent the audience singing into the afternoon sun at the interval – was the first example of a significant strand in the repertoire played. Alongside Britten’s oboe-led Phantasy Quartet No 2, Reynaldo Hahn’s wonderfully elegant Piano Quintet, Poulenc’s Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano, and Korngold’s magnificent 1930 Suite, commissioned by one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein, it dated from the years between the wars of the last century.
Much of this music was as new to the ears of the audience as LeFanu’s piece, but the pioneering Lammermuir ticket-buyers were rewarded with sensational playing of lost gems, and a genuine sense of a shared adventure with an engaging collection of talent. The string section was completed by bassist Ruohua Li and Rosalind Ventris – another core player – on viola, and the double reeds were oboist Armand Djikoloum and bassoonist Amy Harman. Her beautifully rounded tone from that opening Iain Farrington arrangement of Mozart’s Bassoon Quartet onwards made a very eloquent case for her instrument’s voice in chamber music.
The bassoonist was also part of an unlikely “brass section”, with oboe and French horn, that distinguished the last music we heard from Kaleidoscope at Lammermuir this year. It was a Poster arrangement of Mancini’s Moon River for the Dirleton septet, which followed Gershwin encores he had made for the different combinations of players at the Musselburgh recitals.
The versatile pianist had just completed a stunning performance of the left-hand-only part Korngold wrote for Wittgenstein, surely as eloquent a work for the World War 1-injured pianist as Ravel’s famous concerto. Those nods to the Great American Songbook were not simply crowd-pleasers, but matched the period of some of the important scores Kaleidoscope have unearthed, and perhaps suggested a reason they were buried in the first place.
Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, currently in residence at the threatened Lammermuir Festival, tells KEN WALTON why tradition is as much about looking forward as looking back
Earlier this week, a shocked Lammermuir Festival revealed that Creative Scotland, after two invited re-submissions, had turned down its funding application for the 2023 programme, currently in mid-flow, leaving the future of the East Lothian festival in doubt. The news has shocked its organisers, supporters, and not least the performers who rank among the world’s topmost stars.
One of these is Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, whose week-long presence as resident artist in this year’s Festival has given him an extended insight not only into what the event means in servicing Scotland’s and East Lothian’s cultural thirst, but the crucial role it plays in promoting new musical talent within a high stakes environment.
He had this to say in response to Creative Scotland’s latest act of evisceration: “At a place like Lammermuir, we are really talking about more than a series of concerts. We’re sharing as wide a range of music as can be imagined with different communities in a large region of Scotland that shows remarkable enthusiasm for it and which moreover trusts the performers.
“And we see tribute paid to established artists alongside the crucial work that needs to be done in giving opportunities and a platform to tomorrow’s stars. In this sense, Lammermuir Festival is the very model of a modern festival.”
Esfahani, himself, is the very model of a modern pioneer. More than most, he has taken an instrument more often associated with museum status – the early music movement’s predilection for archeological scrutiny of ancient repertoire, which is fundamentally valid in itself – and thrown open the doors to the harpsichord’s relevance in a modern world.
As such he has challenged the historical connoisseurs and is as equally comfortable performing Byrd, Scarlatti or Bach (he opened this week’s Lammermuir residency with an exhaustive performance of the Well Tempered Clavier Book II, and teams up on Sunday with the SCO in Bach’s concertos) as introducing curious audiences to contemporary harpsichord music by the likes of Andriessen, Takemitsu, Jockel and Ferrari involving electronics.
One critic described Esfahani deservedly as “a superstar whose musicianship, imagination, virtuosity, cultural breadth and charisma far transcend the ivory tower in which the harpsichord has traditionally been placed.”
He views that “ivory tower” with some scepticism, but dismisses the notion that just because he seeks new modes of expression for the instrument he is some kind of crazy maverick. “”From the time of the harpsichord’s revival at the beginning of the 20th century, contemporary music is nothing new, so I merely see myself as continuing the tradition of that instrument.
“Every instrument should concern itself with new music, otherwise its tradition dies. I say pointedly that what called itself the Early Music Movement actually interrupted those traditions. It’s a post-modern movement that has nothing to do with tradition.”
The bottom line for Esfahani is simply the quality of the music. “I look for a composer who demands everything from me as a performer,” he explains. “There is harpsichord music, equally from the 17th/18th centuries, which I find takes the easy way out expressively. That’s to say it doesn’t extend one’s demands of the capabilities of the instrument. Bach or Byrd, these are composers who ask you to imagine possibilities beyond the ordinary.
A year ago, Esfahani gave the UK premiere in Edinburgh and Glasgow of Poul Ruders’ Concerto for Harpsichord, a work exploding with inventive hues and textures, ethereally enhanced by electronic amplification. “I wanted a piece that was virtuosic, that sang, that understands that the harpsichord has an infinite range of colours,” he recalls. He got what he wanted.
His contemporary programme in St Mary’s Church Haddington earlier this week involved interaction with electronics, but what of the instrument itself? If tradition demands that the music itself must challenge the status quo, is it okay to meddle with the sacred design of the actual harpsichord?
“You just have to look at the Russell and Rodger Mirrey Collection of old instruments in Edinburgh to realise how knowledgable the older builders were about acoustics, about sound,” Esfahani argues. “Yes, it’s important we take signals from them today, but at the same time these builders were practical. Take the example of the Ruders concerto, where I used a very large, very loud instrument of mine, and you said today to, say, Ruckers or one of the great 18th century instrument makers, ‘we have this thing called the Usher Hall and have to fill the sound in there – what do we do?’
“He’d say, ‘okay we could do this or that. We have this thing called plastic, this thing called carbon fibre, let’s work with that.’ We have screws, they didn’t. Do you think they’d have objected to using screws? Often times these arguments are used in a very truant way. People say, there’s the piano; Bach would have preferred it, but we don’t know that. It’s very possible he would have, but he would have written differently for it.
“At the end of day we can engineer, though we have to be careful. We don’t want to engineer the harpsichord out of existence.”
As for his Lammermuir residency, which continues on Friday with a recital of Bach’s English Suites before Sunday’s concerto programme as soloist/director with the SCO, it’s an experience Esfahani has found immersive and satisfying.
“Of course I love it, in a way I assume that when I play the next concert the listeners will have heard the previous one. They get to know what I’m on about, and that conversation with them changes. During Bach’s 48 last Friday, I sensed after an hour that they were in the zone, that I could manipulate them a little bit. You have to always communicate. What’s the point if you don’t?
“Last night I though at times I can push the envelope a little bit – let’s see what we can discover together in this piece. Otherwise it just becomes an exercise in virtue. In which case, why not just stay at home and look at the score?”
That’s something Creative Scotland might well mull over as it puts the stranglehold on yet another priceless cultural gem.
Mahan Esfahani’s Lammermuir Festival residency continues with a Coffee Concert of Bach’s English Suites on Fri 15 Sep at Holy Trinity Church in Haddington; and ends with the SCO in Bach’s Harpsichord Concertos, Sun 17 Sep at Dunbar Parish Church, Full Festival details at www.lammermuirfestival.com
Scotland’s arts funding body Creative Scotland is under fire after the Lammermuir Festival revealed that it has been refused an award from its Open Fund for this year’s Festival.
In a robust statement, the chair of the Lammermuir trustees, Sir Muir Russell, outlined the threat to the future of an event that began in 2010 and was awarded a Royal Philharmonic Society Award in 2017. Displaying a candour that is unusual in Creative Scotland supplicants, the festival has outlined the lengthy and time-consuming process involved in the grant application, the encouragement it received to continue with it, the stated reasons for its rejection at previous stages, and the evident disagreement within Creative Scotland itself about the festival’s attainment of certain criteria.
With a model balance of income between box office (currently running at 80% of target), support from sponsors, benefactors and charitable trusts, and government money (with just 23% of its budget requested from Creative Scotland), Lammermuir is able to demonstrate a high level of engagement from local people as audience and participants in its community programme, as well as substantial economic benefit to East Lothian.
“To deliver this year’s Festival as planned – with what is already being acclaimed as an outstanding artistic programme – we shall be obliged to use a significant proportion of our reserves which we have judiciously built up over many years,” the statement continued. “Without Creative Scotland support the Lammermuir Festival’s future is under threat.”
As well as messages from participants in this year’s community opera, Catriona and the Dragon, the statement came with a long list of supporting quotes from prominent musicians, including Lammermuir’s Patron Steven Osborne, his fellow pianists Jeremy Denk, Danny Driver and Malcolm Martineau, violinists Elena Urioste and Maria Wloszczowska, accordionist Ryan Corbett and Maxwell Quartet cellist Duncan Strachan.
The statement concluded: “We urge Creative Scotland to reconsider their decision and secure the future of Lammermuir Festival. In order to make plans and commitments for 2024 and beyond we need the financial stability which Creative Scotland has provided over the past 13 years. We are determined to save the Lammermuir Festival for the future.”
St Mary’s Church, Haddington / Gladsmuir Parish Church
The opening weekend of this year’s Lammermuir Festival toyed with history. We had a Richard Strauss opera, written in 1938 but rarely seen on the world’s stages, that was now breathing Scottish air for the very first time. Scottish Opera delivered that opportunity in a powerfully revealing concert staging. Why has it become a museum piece?
And while Mozart’s string quintets are performed often enough on modern instruments to modern ears, hearing them on period instruments, with all the fragile idiosyncrasies that entails, was a time-travelling ear-opening courtesy of the uniquely talented string ensemble, Spunicunifait.
As for the Marian Consort, one of many excellent UK a cappella vocal ensembles focussed on fine-tuning our understanding of early sacred music, they were instrumental, so to speak, in articulating the paradoxical highs and lows of the fortunes besetting Haddington’s medieval St Mary’s Church during the early half of the 16th century.
Strauss’ Daphne, the Festival’s opening evening spectacular in St Mary’s, was a revelation. It has its weaknesses, not least a rather tepid storyline by librettist Joseph Gregor – drawn loosely from Ovid’s Metamorphosis and Euripides’ The Bacchae – that somehow passed muster with the composer.
In this concert staging, director Emma Jenkins aimed to give it new life, thoughtfully transferring the original “bucolic tragedy” concept to a shadowy 1930s Weimar nightclub and the clandestine activities of the anti-Nazi White Rose movement. It was challenging, if strangely inoffensive, neither stealing the show nor threatening Strauss’ red hot score.
The focus was firmly on the latter, sung by a cast that knew its worth and driven to the most thrilling Straussian heights by a turbo-charged Scottish Opera Orchestra, its uninterrupted musical narrative the very nerve centre of the piece. Placed behind the singers, superbly nurtured by conductor Stuart Stratford within the expansive church acoustics, the impact was all-embracing, from the sweet-scented pastoralism of the opening to the surreal string effects that etherealise the closing transformation music.
Soprano Hye-Youn Lee stole the vocal show as Daphne, a performance as steely and rapturous as it was affectionate and vulnerable. Australian tenor Brad Cooper addressed the role of Apollo as a pugnacious SS official, his manic animation sharpening the contrast with fellow tenor Shengzhi Ren’s penetratingly naive Leukippos. Recast as nightclub owners, Daphne’s father and mother – Dingle Yandell and Claire Barnett-Jones respectively – appeared like Cabaret side-show equivalents of Le Mis’s Thénardiers.
Every performance, including a snappy supporting cast, served the performance well, and its worthy ambition to prove what an inspired piece of music this forgotten opera actually is.
The genius of Mozart’s six string quintets has never been in doubt, the consequence of the extra viola – which the composer himself would have played – opening up vistas for harmonic density, contrapuntal complexity and expanded musical conversation.
In the second of their programmes exploring all six, Spunicunifait’s exclusive interest – they formed purely to celebrate these quintets – was borne out in performances that not only crackled with instinctive interaction, but treated us to the more visceral sound world Mozart’s audiences would have experienced.
That had its issues. Gut strings hate the heat, and Saturday in Gladsmuir Church was exceedingly hot and humid. Tuning between movements extended the concert – recorded for BBC Radio 3 – by a good 20 minutes, not to mention a mid-performance string break that required a quick change by one violist and an impromptu lecture on the perils of period instrument performance by the other (the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s’s new principal viola, Max Mandel).
In many ways the vulnerability of these instruments, and the level of player concentration required to make them speak truly and expressively, added immeasurably to the excitement of the event. A whispered fragility cast an air of suspense around the opening bars of the Quintet No 2 (Mozart’s arrangement of his own C minor Wind Serenade), a performance further enriched by its raw dynamism. The other works were originals: the late String Quintet No 6 in E flat, full of harmonic surprises, boisterous interplay and a golden Andante; the earlier No 3 in C unmistakably operatic through the playful jostling of its instrumentally-conceived dramatis personae. A playing style that took time to acclimatise to was always a joy to ingest, something of a challenge for 20th century ears, but always invigorating.
As for the ensemble’s curious name, Spunicunifait is a made-up word, a conflation of a nonsense phrase penned by Mozart in one of his often racy letters to his cousin “Basle”.
Nothing was made up in the Marian Consort’s two Saturday events back in St Mary’s. These were based on facts surrounding a stormy few decades in which the Haddington church witnessed the burgeoning of musical excellence – it had its own song school – and the physically devastating impact of invading forces and the Reformation.
The first Marian appearance was effectively a supporting role, providing music that gave context to a lecture-tour of the church – A Glory of the Middle Ages – by Edinburgh University’s Dr Lizzie Swarbrick, a foremost authority on medieval art and architecture. While much of what she told us about the likely richness of fabric, decoration and spiritual icons existing then within St Mary’s had to be imagined, the music examples by Rory McCleery’s first-rate ensemble was an immediate and exhilarating presence. Motets by Christopher Tye and Adrian Willaert combined with ritualistic chants, performed in a progression of strategic positions within the building.
It also acted as an intoxicating taster to the more formal concert that evening, a sequence of 15th century music sourced from the Dunkeld part books housed in Edinburgh University, some of it anonymous, some of penned by key continental figures, reflective of 16th century Scotland’s independent openness to the sophisticated fashions of mainland Europe, something the SNP would no doubt approve of.
The anonymous Missa Felix namque echoed such inspirational circumspection, acting as the programme’s spinal cord and exemplified in a performance that sourced spiritual depth from its outward naivety. That said, the high points were undoubtedly the surrounding set pieces: a melancholic Pater Noster by Pierre Certon, the florid intensity of Josquin’s Benedicta es caelorum Regina, and the gloriously rich harmonies of an anonymous O Maria stans sub cruce.
The supreme purity of the singing, its immediate contextual relevance, and periodic commentary from Swarbrick, struck a resounding consonance against a historically dissonant background.
The pianist at the heart of Lammermuir-resident ensemble, Kaleidoscope, tells KEITH BRUCE about the music festival audiences can look forward to
Tom Poster sounded remarkably relaxed when we spoke less than a fortnight ahead of the Lammermuir residency of Kaleidoscope, the chamber collective he leads with his violinist wife Elena Urioste. The couple’s summer schedule, I suggest, does look to have been non-stop.
“That’s true,” the pianist concedes. “Elena and I just got back from a month in the States. We were in Santa Barbara and Seattle, and then in Maryland where Elena has a small festival. Then we made our Proms debut with Kaleidoscope in Truro, and now we are about to go off to France for a week with the Elias String Quartet before preparing for Lammermuir.”
A glance at his website confirms the suspicion that playing chamber music with a constantly-evolving list of different ensembles and collaborative partners means learning a huge amount of different music. Poster says that, in fact, he has eased up a bit.
“One of the changes I’ve made since becoming a parent two years ago is that I am slightly more thoughtful about not overloading myself with repertoire. There’s so much music I love that I used to try to say ‘yes’ to as much as I could, but with a two-year-old it is hard to learn quite as many notes.
“But Festivals, for pianists especially, do tend to involve a large number of notes!”
Besides playing, of course, there is also the business of keeping Kaleidoscope on the road, with 10 players making up the team staying in East Lothian.
“We have a lovely administrator who works with us on a freelance basis, otherwise I think I’d go completely mad,” says Poster, “but Elena and I do end up doing an enormous amount ourselves, partly because the repertoire and the musicians involved are so intertwined.
“We have a flexible line-up, with a slightly different group of musicians for each concert, depending on repertoire or who is around and available. We are both very passionate about the art of programming, as well as the selfish pleasure of gathering together some of our favourite musicians to play in new and different combinations.
“The Lammermuir group has a lot of our regular players: Elena and myself, Rosie Ventris (viola), Laura van der Heijden (cello), Savitri Grier (violin) – all the string team for Lammermuir are very much core players. But every one we’re bringing is an integral part of the team.”
Lammermuir audiences can also look forward to core Kaleidoscope in the music that team is playing.
“We are very lucky that James Waters and Hugh Macdonald are such wonderful and generous festival directors. They gave us free rein and that enabled us to put together what I think is a trademark Kaleidoscope programme.
“There are some justly celebrated works, like the Schubert Octet, alongside a number of pieces that we really just feel deserve to be heard far more and which we are really confident that audiences will love when they hear them, even if they haven’t heard them before.”
Monday’s opening recital includes a work that Kaleidoscope can take credit for helping down that road to familiarity.
“The Coleridge-Taylor nonet is a student piece that he wrote when he was 18 at the Royal College of Music. I came across it because we are always looking for pieces that involve as many of us as possible.
“After the pandemic, when concert halls were just beginning to re-open, John Gilhooley asked us to programme a concert at Wigmore Hall. There’s not all that much for strings, winds and piano – and selfishly I wanted to be part of the recital.
“We all fell in love with it, and recorded it for Chandos on a whole Coleridge-Taylor disc last year. It has become a real signature piece. It is such an inventive work, where he is flexing his musical muscles. It has a young man’s exuberance, trying to find as many combinations of the nine instruments as possible. It has immediate appeal and always seems to go down well with audiences.”
Other works that Kaleidoscope are bringing to East Lothian are being championed by Poster’s group in the same way.
“I can’t understand why the Reynaldo Hahn Piano Quintet is a piece that is not played all over the place. Anyone who loves the chamber music of Faure will adore it – it is one of the most sumptuous pieces of chamber music I know. Singers know his songs, but his chamber music is just as wonderful.
“And the Korngold Suite is a piece that does get played occasionally but the unusual combination of instruments means it doesn’t get heard enough. It’s a piano quartet with two violins and cello, but the pianist is only using left hand because it was written for Paul Wittgenstein.
“Elena has loved the piece for years and persuaded me to practise my left hand skills! It has so many influences, from Bach to Viennese waltz, with this sort of golden shimmer. There’s this amazing slow movement that is just so touching.
“Another thing we are really excited about is the world premiere of Nicola LeFanu’s new piece which Ben Goldscheider has commissioned – a trio for horn, violin and cello. I haven’t heard that yet so I can’t talk in detail about the music, but it’s always a special thing to be bringing new music. I have seen a bit of the score and it looks immediately appealing with wonderful textures from the three instruments.”
New music is something that Poster sees as integral to the development of Kaleidoscope in the future.
“I do a lot of arranging for the group, which is a side passion of mine. Clarinettist Mark Simpson regularly plays with us and is also a wonderful composer. He is going to write something for us and we have various other plans in the pipeline.”
The group’s fourth disc for Chandos is coming out this month. Entitled Transfigured, it has Schoenberg as its centrepiece alongside three other works from the Viennese early 20th century period, that Poster says deserve to be heard far more: Zemlinsky for soprano and string sextet, Alma Mahler songs which he has arranged for soprano and string sextet, and a Webern Piano Quintet, an early Romantic work by the composer.
Another side of Urioste and Poster’s musical life will also have an outing as a Coffee Concert on Wednesday morning in Haddington. The couple’s Juke Box videos-from-home, with Poster’s duo arrangements of light classical, pop and rock tunes became a phenomenon during the Covid pandemic.
“The success of the lockdown Juke Box project has been the biggest surprise of our musical lives so far,” says Poster. “When we originally dreamed it up it was just to keep ourselves amused, and we thought maybe our mums might watch it. But it happened to fill a need for what people were looking for at the time. Obviously we didn’t expect lockdown to go on so long, but then it has had an afterlife as a recording that has won awards, and as a live programme it is a lot of fun.
“We try to incorporate the element of public choice that was the original impetus behind it, by giving the audience a chance to vote for what they want to hear.”
It is another facet of this pianist’s enormous range of activity, often, but not always, in partnership with Urioste.
“I do still play concertos – I’m at the Royal Albert Hall for Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the Philharmonia at the end of the month, and I’ve Grieg and Rachmaninov coming up later in the season. But concertos are really just large-scale chamber music. The collaborative aspect of music-making is where I find most joy and fulfilment. I still play some solo recitals – a few each season – but chamber music is the thing I’ve found keeps me inspired with its musical companionship bringing people together.”
Kaleidoscope plays the Lammermuir Festival on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Elena Urioste and Tom Poster programme their Juke Box on Wednesday.
Sir John Clerk of Penicuik’s robust cantata for soprano, violins and basso continuo, Leo Scotiae Irritatus (The Lion of Scotland Enraged), was either left uncompleted or its conclusion has not come down to us. Doubtless that sense of unfinished business would chime with the view of supporters of Scottish independence who gathered at Holyrood in the afternoon before new early music group Laudonia took the stage at St Cecilia’s Hall on Saturday.
They might also have appreciated the clear implication in the Latin words the 2nd Baronet of Penicuik set in 1699 that there were those who wished failure on the Panama-colonising Darien Scheme, the collapse of which led in part to the union of the parliaments of Scotland and England a few years later.
Perhaps wisely, the musicians of Laudonia chose not to delve too deeply into politics. Instead violinist Aaron McGregor introduced this pivotal work in their programme by noting that its composer later appeared to think music too frivolous a pursuit for an 18th century landed gentleman and member of the new amalgamated legislature.
The group’s programme focused on the music Clerk heard, played and wrote before he assumed those responsibilities, on his Grand Tour through Germany, Austria, Italy and France after his law studies in Leiden in the Netherlands – a “gap year” that took him to the court of Leopold I in Vienna and the studio of Arcangelo Corelli in Rome for violin and composition lessons.
Structured around four solo cantatas sung by soprano Susan Hamilton, Laudonia’s Grand Tour was very specific and specialist in one sense, but also made perfect sense as an entertaining programme.
Hamilton’s voice has acquired heft in its lower reaches – immediately apparent in the opening religious cantata by Johann Rosenmuller, a bright and jolly affair for all its lyrical slaughter and blood. It also introduced us to Austrian trumpet player Martin Patscheider, whose precision on the natural horn often made it sound uncannily like a modern instrument.
His partnership with Hamilton’s voice, on music by Daniel Purcell and Alessandro Mallani as well, was crucial to the recital and the balance the group achieved in this intimate space was remarkable, the theorbo of Jamie Akers and harpsichord of John Kitchen as clear as the frontline of trumpet, violins and cello, with Rick Standley on bass violone.
Kitchen had his solo moments in music by Draghi and Pasquini, played on the remarkably loud 1709 instrument he had borrowed from the University of Edinburgh collection housed in the venue, and first violin Bojan Cicic had a virtuoso showcase in Correlli’s La Follia variations. Almost as notable for the ferocious supporting cello work by Lucia Capellaro, it was far and away the best-known piece in the programme, its screen soundtrack use recently including an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.
Occupying the same slot in the first half sequence, Antonio Cesti’s Non Si Parli Piu D’Amore was another highlight, full of tricky intervals for the soprano and switches of mood. Melani’s Qual Mormorio Giocondo, which brought the programme to a close, is more obviously structured but was a well-chosen finale piece to showcase the full range of a very fine new ensemble.