Lammermuir: Jeremy Denk

Dunbar Parish Church

Had Jeremy Denk’s second solo recital as artist-in-residence at this year’s Lammermuir Festival consisted solely of Bach’s Partita No 5 in G Major and Beethoven’s remarkable final piano sonata, the Opus 111 in C Minor, few would have complained.

Both works are, in their very different ways, explorations of the nature of time. Denk strode on to the platform and was straight down to business with the Bach, although piano-playing for him is clearly more on the “pleasure” side of the equation – and he is eager to share the joy. His internal metronome is calibrated precisely enough that he can ease the strict tempo as the work unfolds and allow a little elasticity in movements that may be based on dance rhythms but were never intended for dancing.

The Beethoven, on the other hand, was eloquently introduced, its contrasting movements, in the pianist’s phrase, “a vision of one thing, and its antidote”, a remembrance of the past and a picture of the future so bold that there was nothing more the composer could say in this form. Denk gave the work an unforgettable probing performance, constantly moving with the fluid currents of the writing with an obvious reluctance to give in to any obvious “hook” in mere repetition.

However, it was what came between these two masterworks that elevated the concert to classic status. The suite of four pieces that Denk had assembled, in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests around the globe, began with London-born Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s treatment of the African-American tune They will not lend me a child and culminated in Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues from the late 1970s. It is an astonishing piece of post-minimalist expressionism that uses the full power of a grand piano in its motorik exploration of the dignity of labour as well as its trials.

The Coleridge-Taylor was followed by another remarkable work in “Blind Tom” Wiggins’s The Battle of Manassas, which re-creates, with samples and dialogue, an event in the American Civil War and, while more of a music-hall turn, is only slightly less creative in the use of the instrument, yet was written a full century before.

The cacophony of the battlefield was still dying away when Denk segued into Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin, the latter being a black ragtime composer who has the dubious honour of beating bluesman Robert Johnson to membership of the “27 Club” by 30 years, and Jimi Hendrix by more than another 30.

The earlier works were all effectively a pathway to the Rzewski, whose work is surely now ripe for reappraisal following his death at the end of June this year, at 83. Denk’s timely and thoughtful placing of it here was the ideal start.

Keith Bruce

Scottish Opera: Highlights Tour

Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock

Even when hidden by masks, it’s impossible to ignore the pleasure concertgoers are feeling as live performances gradually reopen. That sense of release was self-evident from the pre-concert buzz among the Greenock audience at this week’s opening location for Scottish Opera’s Autumn Highlights Tour, which now moves on to halls and theatres as far afield as Peebles, Ayr, St Andrews, Stornoway and Ballachulish.

The formula is a familiar one. Four singers and a piano present a sequence of arias and ensembles from across the operatic repertoire, given a connecting thread by the careful choice of music and simply animated stage direction. Between them, Scottish Opera’s head of music Derek  Clarke and guest director Jeanne Pansard-Besson have concocted a theme that illustrates the stormy emotions experienced within human relationships. 

So we have ensemble works to open and close the hour-long entertainment – the misplaced optimism of “Over the dark blue waters” from Weber’s Oberon and bottle-popping fizz of Johann Strauss II’s “Champagne Song” from Die Fledermaus – between which, music from Handel and Mozart to Bizet and Tchaikovsky presents ample pick’n’mix opportunities to showcase the singers in various combinations.

And these are young singers who embrace the occasion diligently, two of whom – mezzo soprano Lea Shaw and tenor Glen Cunningham – are newly-engaged Scottish Opera Emerging Artists. Former Emerging Artist, Russian baritone Alexey Gusev, and Welsh soprano Meinir Wyn Roberts (in her company debut) complete the set, working under the onstage piano direction of Fiona MacSherry.

They make the most of a somewhat historically-compressed playlist. It might have been more interesting to see the musical timeline extended either end beyond Handel and Strauss, perhaps with some Monteverdi and surely something from the 20th/21st centuries. Even so, there were delicious moments: Shaw finding rich sonority in music from Donizetti’s La favorita; Wyn Roberts and Cunningham enacting gentle tensions from Bizet’s Carmen; Alexey Gusev bringing a genuine Russian earthiness to Tchaikovsky. It was something of a novelty to hear the two men duetting in a serenade from the now mostly-forgotten Julius Benedict’s The Lily of Killarney.

If only there could have been more spark in an essentially simple staging that took too long to establish its own invigorating momentum. That will probably happen naturally as the tour progresses. But on opening night it was the musical performances that mostly captivated, aided by MacSherry’s valiant accompaniment, and despite a piano that sounded somewhat ropy. 

Ken Walton

Full details of the Opera Highlights Autumn 2021 Tour are at: www.scottishopera.org.uk

Red Note and Dunedin plans

Scotland’s Dunedin Consort and Red Note Ensemble have both unveiled new seasons of work, starting with their appearances at the Lammermuir Festival this week.

Wednesday September 15 sees Red Note play the music of James Dillon and Tansy Davies at Dunbar Parish Church before the Dunedin Consort performs Monteverdi madrigals at St Mary’s in Haddington.

The RPS award-winning commission Tanz/Haus: triptych 2017, in the Dunbar concert, prefaces a new Dillon work EMBLEMATA: Carnival, which Red Note will play at Perth Concert Hall on September 24, launching a new residency at the venue. This new commission from the Scottish composer will be recorded for Delphian Records and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 from the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in November. That performance will also include a new work from Scotland’s Aileen Sweeney, The Land Under the Wave, and Five Phase Sphere by Luke Styles.

The Styles piece premieres as part of the programme Red Note takes to Aberdeen’s soundfestival in October, where it is joined by the first performance of Ailie Robertson’s Unfurl and Edwin Hillier’s 37  Otago Street.

On November 4 in Perth, the Ensemble premieres a commission to mark COP26, with further performances in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Sub Mari is a multimedia work by Martina Corsini – Red Note’s Weston-Jerwood Creative Fellow – and Chilean bassist, composer and conductor Manuel Figueroa-Bolvarán and will feature contributions from Chilean youth choir Allegro and young singers from Scotland.

Corsini is also involved in Red Note’s outreach work in Methil in Fife and Easterhouse in Glasgow, alongside composers Oliver Searle and Brian Irvine, whose new commission A Child’s Guide to Anarchy will be played at the end of that month.

Dunedin Consort also has a COP26 commission, Yince a Paradise by Drew Hammond and Isobel McArthur, as part of its autumn activity. The work gives its title to an a cappella choral tour visiting Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews in October under the guest direction of Grete Pedersen.

The 21-22 season marks the 25th birthday of the Dunedin and artistic director John Butt will be conducting performances of Messiah in December, and the music of Handel and Scarlatti in a February programme entitled The Trials of Love, with soloists Anna Dennis and Matthew Brook. Birthday concerts in March of next year, entitled Welcome to All the Pleasures, will be followed in June by a UK tour of Handel’s Acis and Galatea.

Associate Director Nicholas Mulroy, who is conducting this week’s Lammermuir concert, will direct Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and sing the Evangelist, in April. He is also in charge of concerts that include a new score by Pippa Murphy and pair the writings of post-modernist Roland Barthes with madrigals by Gesualdo and Monteverdi under the banner A Lover’s Discourse.

The Dunedin Consort’s latest recording, of three Bach cantatas, is released on the Linn label early in October.

Pictured: Ailie Robertson

Lammermuir: Così fan tutte

St Mary’s Church, Haddington

As artistic life opens up and opera makes its gradual stage comeback, it’s vitally important to witness such a predominance of youth in Scottish Opera’s production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, which received its live premiere at this year’s Lammermuir Festival. Roxana Haines’ ballsy new production – created initially for last December’s filmed version – lends itself well to such bright young things and the refreshing open-mindedness that comes as a consequence.  

They are what makes a scintillating success of this opera, despite the convoluted nonsense that is its plot, and despite the fact that transferring Haines’ clever production ideas for the filmed format to live stage diminishes to an extent its previous edge. Rationalising the unlikely love entanglements  as a modern-day reality TV show was, in the original media concept, a convincing hit. In the vastness of St Mary’s Church, and without the camera tricks to reinforce the message, its impact seemed diluted, at least visually.

The positive consequence was the immediacy of the performance. Here were singers responding as much to the audience’s close presence, its spontaneous applause, as to Mozart’s theatrical score. It helped that they were out front as first point of visual contact, the orchestra and chorus under music director Stuart Stratford stretching far into the darkened distance behind. Minimal props on a raised stage sharpened the central focus.

Rarely will you find a more integrated team for Così than this one, eliciting a spontaneous camaraderie that informed every action and reaction, but equally triumphed in the opera’s memorable ensemble numbers. But here was individuality too, each character richly coloured with his or her own demeanour and personality. 

Margo Arsane (Dorabella) and Charlie Drummond (Fiordiligi) played the sisters like two sides of the same coin, Arsane’s juicy flippancy and vocal delicacy an affectionate contrast to the glowing maturity of Drummond’s wholesomely versatile soprano. The tender, passionate tenor of Shengzhi Ren (Ferrando) proved the perfect foil to Arthur Bruce’s fast-acting Guglielmo, his rich lyrical baritone finding natural resonance in the church acoustics.

The playmakers – Michael Mofidian as the tricksy Don Alfonso (the game show host in Haines’ production) and the characterful Catriona Hewitson as the colluding Despina – were an artful pairing. 

If there was an inevitable sense of distance from the orchestra and chorus, Stratford’s punchy direction captured the lively spirit of the piece, but also accommodated its many poised and beautiful moments.

Ken Walton

Lammermuir: An Italian songbook

The Brunton, Musselburgh

Renaissance man Jeremy Sams is as likely to be found working in the West End as at Garsington or Grange Park Opera, and while his soundtracks feature on works for the large and small screen as well as the stage, his translations of Italian libretto and, more recently, German Lieder, have done more to make music accessible than any number of arts council initiatives.

In the context of his vast back catalogue, this brilliant little show looks like the sort of thing he might knock off in an afternoon, but I am sure that its deceptive breeziness masks a vast amount of work. It is also a rather larger show than it appears, featuring five developed roles for five fine singers with finely-honed acting skills, and a demanding shift for the pianist (co-creator of the show, Christopher Glynn).

Taking its cue from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte – which Lammermuir had happily featured in a compact Scottish Opera version a few days previously – this staging of Hugo Wolf’s combination of German and Italian influences in something that is not a million miles from the stories of Garrison Keillor, Armistead Maupin or The Archers, is rather more carefully plotted than the original. Crucially, however, Sams and Glynn (and co-director Louise Shepherd for this staging) do not labour either the parallels with Da Ponte’s tale of fickle lovers or their own narrative. The structure is there – and the performers have great fun with it – but the music is never in second place.

This cast, which tours the show to Liverpool, Bristol and London, has tenors Robert Murray and James Wray teamed with Kathryn Rudge and Rowan Pierce, and baritone Roderick Williams as the notebook-wielding Don Alfonso figure. He’s a manipulative rather than malevolent figure, but still destined to come a cropper, and the playfulness with such stereotypes also embraces the cynical soprano and tempestuous mezzo while the chaps juggled “innocent” and “hapless”. There was no social distancing on stage, but the performers had great fun with their characters’ gaps of understanding.

All five sang superbly, relishing the intimacy of the occasion with a huge range of dynamics, and making the most of Sams’ delicious wordplay, which fully realises the humour of Wolfe and his librettist Paul Heyse as well as adding a good deal of wit of his own.

There have, perhaps, been many similar shows, from Ned Sherrin’s Side by Side by Sondheim through to the format Graham Vick invented for Scottish Opera to reach remote parts of Scotland, which, as Scottish Opera Highlights, opens in its umpteenth touring incarnation this week, but few have been as slick and clever as this one.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Rowan Pierce

Lammermuir: Jeremy Denk

Dunbar Parish Church

Having long been a fan of New York-based pianist Jeremy Denk’s thoughtful recordings for the Nonesuch label, and learning only recently that I had missed three chances over the past decade to see him perform a mere 30 miles from my home, his arrival as artist-in-residence at this year’s Lammermuir Festival is a particular delight.

It turns out that Denk, who is becoming as noted a wordsmith as he is a musician, is a wonderfully characterful performer. His opening concert, of Book One of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, may technically have been his first public performance of the work from memory, but his opening remarks made clear that these are pieces he has known since childhood. The parallel he drew between his own stern father over-seeing his keyboard practice and Papa Bach’s position as the architect of Western music may have been personal, but it perfectly set up his playing of what are some of the best-known opening bars of music in the canon. For those whose first re-acquaintance with live music this was, they could not fail to be especially moving.

Playing this music is also a perfect match for the memoir of music lessons and teachers that Denk has been working on. Even listeners much less musically-literate than him can hear in Bach’s progression through the notated keys, and in playing that progressed from intimate to expansive over the course of the evening, the building blocks of composition. For the young pianist the Preludes and Fugues develop mental agility as much as manual dexterity as themes swap between the hands, or span both. It is like listening to Lego in the hands of a master-builder.

And if that suggests a certain playfulness in Denk’s approach, that is exactly correct. He found intimations of the cartoon music of Raymond Scott and Carl Stalling at points, as well as reminders that pianists from Jacques Loussier to Brad Mehldau have found jazz inspiration in Bach’s works.

More than that, and although he is far from being a flamboyant performer, Denk is apt to cast a knowing glance at the audience to be sure we are not missing a little musical joke, and his facial expressions are often in limpid contrast to the frenetic fingering going on. Technically brilliant, his playing is never “clinical”, as the sports-reporting cliché would have it, with an occasional buzzing string or foot stomp all part of the evening.

Having waited a while to see him live, the other pianist Denk occasionally brought to mind was the late Dudley Moore, who may be better known for his comedy and films, but was a damned fine jazz piano-player. In a very similar way, Denk is clearly entirely in his element at the keyboard.

Keith Bruce

Think Denk

Pianist Jeremy Denk talks words and music with Keith Bruce on the eve of his residency at the Lammermuir Festival.

Pianist Jeremy Denk has just had a negative Covid test and is cleared to fly to Scotland when I connect via Zoom to his New York apartment. He has also survived, unscathed, the storm and flooding that recently hit the city. “I stayed in that night and shut the windows, in a very New Yorker fashion,” he deadpans.

Denk is artist-in-residence at this year’s Lammermuir Festival, giving four concerts that cover the range of his musical practice, from solo Bach (The Well-Tempered Clavier) and a more varied solo recital, to chamber music with violinist Maria Wloszczowska and members of the SCO and the festival’s concluding concert with the full orchestra, playing two Mozart concertos.

Like British pianist Stephen Hough, however, Denk’s artistic life also embraces writing, which began as a blog, “Think Denk”, and will soon see the publication of a memoir that expands on a celebrated article about his piano teachers for New Yorker magazine.

That meant he was not idle when the worldwide spread of the coronavirus brought the music industry to a standstill.

“I used it as a work retreat. I had this book that I was supposed to finish, so I used a fair amount of the early pandemic to write and I was lucky to have that outlet, which was all-consuming for a while. 

“I also learned a bunch of newish pieces and I was working on The Well-Tempered Clavier. I did a video version of that earlier this year and it is a piece that is still in that nice honeymoon phase – every day it is different. I played it twice before the pandemic started, both with the music, but this will be the first time I play it from memory.”

The pianist is delighted that his brief for Lammermuir was simply to do things that he enjoys doing. Playing Mozart concertos is one of those, the two that feature in the East Lothian festival coming just days after the release of a different pair on his latest recording for the Nonesuch label.

“Mozart concertos work much better for me when they feel like chamber music and you get to talk to the winds, and sympathise with them, and bring the contact closer.

“One of the problems is often they are sitting way back on the stage, when they are really proxy opera characters, if you think of Mozart himself as at the piano. He often wants to cede the stage to the oboe or the rapscallion bassoon, and when I rehearse with an orchestra I look for the freedom to find that.”

Piano Concerto No 23, which will close Lammermuir at St Mary’s Parish Church in Haddington, has been very much on Denk’s mind. 

“In my book I was writing about that A major K488, which was the first Mozart concerto I learned when I was 12 years old, so it has a Proustian element for me.

“The piece for the New Yorker had lots of gaps and missed out lots of teachers who helped me. I was a clueless kid; I went to college a little young and I had to do a lot of growing up in a very short time. During the pandemic I found I could access those memories more directly than in the past.

“So it goes from my first musical memories with my father and the neighbourhood piano teacher, aged five, through to my New York debut when I was 26.”

What, I wonder, had prompted the urge to commit those memories to publication?

“Piano players spend a lot of time on their own,” he suggests, “so we have a lot of thoughts we have to unburden. I am extremely grateful to my teachers and I often feel regretful that I don’t follow their advice as closely as I should, so it didn’t take any particular prompting.

“And I have always been a looker-backer; even when I was six years old I had a premature nostalgic streak. Books were always my great refuge, along with the piano, so writing is a very natural outlet. Even if I watch more Netflix than I read now, I still wish it wasn’t so!”

Denk writes very eloquently indeed about music, and the new album, recorded with Minnesota’s St Paul Chamber Orchestra, has a fine booklet note, especially on Concerto No 25 in C Major, K503.

“The C Major is one of Mozart’s greatest achievements, it has this weird ecstasy which is unlike any other Mozart piece,” he tells me. “It is a love letter to harmony. Mozart has found two elements of beauty in the world of harmony, the seventh chord and the instability between major and minor, and he explores them in such profusion. I like obsessive pieces and that is an obsessive piece.”

So too, says Denk, is Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, Opus 111, also in C major, which will conclude the pianist’s third concert in Dunbar Parish Church, and which was on a Nonesuch release in 2012, bracketed, brilliantly, by Ligeti Piano Etudes.

“It takes a rhythmic principle and adds a weird asymmetry. There is an element of chaos theory there that is also obsessive. Beethoven was obsessed by reinventing rhythm by destroying it. Time refuses to settle, and this continuing reinvention of time was what Beethoven was after in his later years.”

That remarkable work ends a recital that begins with a Bach Partita but takes a more modern turn in the works between.

“That suite of pieces was inspired by racial protests of last summer. Mostly, the other pieces talk to the Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, which is a very powerful musical translation of an incidence of American injustice. The Blind Tom Wiggins is an account of a Confederate victory during the Civil War, and is extremely violent, while the others are more lyrical.”

If there is a narrative there, then that is only indicative of how Denk’s mind works, both in considering his own life and the music he performs, as the latest chapter of his career plays out.

“Apart from a few scattered things, I have been doing more teaching than playing this summer, and this will be my first trip overseas. My experience of Scotland is very limited so this time I hope to immerse myself, although I am a very cautious person by nature so I will be keeping my distance! But I am so thrilled to be performing for people again.”

Jeremy Denk appears at Dunbar Parish Church on September 10, 14 and 16, and St Mary’s, Haddington on September 20. lammermuirfestival.co.uk

Mozart Piano Concertos by Jeremy Denk and the St Paul Chamber Orchestra is released by Nonesuch on September 17.

EIF: Edinburgh Festival Chorus

Edinburgh Academy Junior School

Henry Purcell, in his wicked moments, had fun with canons. On the face of it, they were innocent trifles, but combine the layers of successive voice entries and hey presto, tawdry language emerged from the wilful collision of syllables and vowels. 

In Aidan Oliver’s delightful final day presentation at the Festival, featuring members of his Edinburgh Festival Chorus and small instrumental ensemble, the air remained pure as he and his musicians breezed their way through a short but engaging canonic journey.

It was as much a journey through time. The opening Sumer is icumen in, rooted in 13th century origins and famous for its rousing presence in cult film The Wicker Man, paved the way for a variety of styles and treatments from 17th century Thomas Ravenscroft (his rousing fusion of Three Country Dances presented simultaneously as a round), to one of 20th century Benjamin Britten’s “Friday Afternoon” songs for children (his somewhat darkened version of Old Abram Brown), to the even more up-to-date sounds of Errollyn Wallen, Richard Crossland and Abbie Betinis.

Wallen’s Rice and Beans – and Plantains Too takes its structural inspiration from the Britten, but otherwise is laced with the eclectic contemporary twists this composer always utilises to energising effect. The title refers to a favourite dish from her birthplace in Belize, and here was a performance that served it up a treat, rhythmically infectious and with smiling countenance. It was also a neat little appendix to Wallen’s opera Dido’s Ghost, one of this year’s earlier Festival successes.

Other contemporary gems on Sunday included Betinis’ plaintive Be like a bird, with its surreal whistled conclusion, Crossland’s whimsical Liverpool Street Station, and Bob Chilcott’s updating of Tallis’ Canon, which takes an old favourite and wraps it in a blanket of melting, thick-set harmonies. 

One of the benefits in hearing the EIF Chorus in miniature is to experience it in a scale of repertoire it would otherwise not have time for. When do Holst’s partsongs ever make it onto an international festival platform? Three of them did so here, exposing their lush sentiment and charm.  

All of this could so easily have seemed like a casual miscellany. But thanks to Oliver’s personable and informative spoken links, the whole came together as seamless, directional and enjoyable. 

And it ended on a familiar note, Pachelbel’s Canon, but with the addition of Thomas Campion’s poem “Come, o come my life’s delight” as a neatly interwoven text, arranged by Oliver himself, and – as has so often been the case in this semi-outdoor Festival – a timely intervention from the outside world. On the words “come then and make thy flight” an outgoing plane roared overhead. Perversely. I’ve quite enjoyed these moments.
Ken Walton

EIF: Fatma Said & Malcolm Martineau

Old College Quad

Fortunate indeed is the young singer who secures the services of Malcolm Martineau as accompanist. Alongside mezzo Catriona Morison and contralto Jess Dandy, Egyptian soprano Fatma Said is one such, a young woman blazing a trail for her nationality on the international stage.

This recital was a demonstration of her range, and an encapsulation of a career that has embraced singing Pamina in The Magic Flute at La Scala, Milan and the award-winning genre-hopping debut album Le Nour, on which Martineau plays.

The pianist had clearly learned the lessons of working in this venue at the start of the Festival and had his partner as close as was possible. At times, in fact, she leant towards the pianist even as she kept her focus on the rapt audience.

Her opera training shone through her Mozart selections, and especially in the delivery of the Goethe-setting Das Veilchen and the anonymous, and less than politically-correct, Warnung.

The expertise of her stage partner was especially relevant in the Ravel that followed, Martineau having masterminded a series of French song recordings for Signum Classics. He demonstrated the most sophisticated of touches in the trills that begin the French composer’s Five Popular Greek Songs. The fourth one in particular looks towards the Middle East in its melody and set up the three from Sheherazade that followed, the last of those, L’indifferent, surely a homo-erotic pre-echo of The Girl From Ipanema.

There was a return to highly polished and sparkling brevity in both vocal line and accompaniment for the Seven Popular Spanish Songs of Manuel de Falla, the lovely Moorish lullaby from which was mirrored by the middle of three Old Spanish Songs by Federico Garcia Lorca. For the last of those and the Zarzuela encore, it would have been no surprise if the sassy Said had produced a pair of castanets.

Keith Bruce

EIF: Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Edinburgh Academy Junior School

It was not the fireworks-accompanying with which the SCO usually winds up its Festival commitments, but there was excitement nonetheless in the orchestra’s sole outing at full strength in the 2021 programme.

Scarcely longer than a fireworks concert, that brevity was in part explained by the late substitution of conductor with the withdrawal of Japanese Kazushi Ono due to quarantine-related travel complications. In one of remarkably few such changes this year, French conductor, and former Music Director of the Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich, Lionel Bringuier, took on the bulk of the pre-announced programme.

The casualty was Takemitsu’s Tree Line, but Toshio Hosokawa’s Blossoming II survived, surely because it was already known by many of the players, who premiered the EIF commission a decade ago under Robin Ticciati. The precisely-titled piece starts with a single unfolding note on the strings which opens out to embrace the rest of the orchestra before acquiring a bolder rhythmic pulse through bass drum, bass clarinet, double bassoon and string basses, with some virtuosic flurries from the string and wind principals.

There is also blossoming orchestration in Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin with its teasing first movement before the delayed arrival of the Forlane tune in the second. In this most lyrical of memorials, there was some beautiful oboe playing and Bringuier brought a particular finesse to the final bars of the Menuet, perfection not quite repeated at the conclusion of the Rigaudon.

Prokofiev’s contemporary “Classical” Symphony suggested further encounters between orchestra and conductor should be eagerly anticipated. Although there will always be a suggestion that the precocious composer was winding up the musical establishment with his referencing of old forms, there is no pastiche in his Symphony No 1. From the opening Allegro it was played here with real vigour and emphasis, and at pace, with an especially physical performance from the ensemble of strings. Hopefully there is much more to come from Bringuier with the SCO.
Keith Bruce

EIF: Ariadne Auf Naxos

Edinburgh Academy Junior School

Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos may well be the unintended outcome of a failed theatrical idea by librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It was intended as a brief postlude to Hofmannsthal’s adaptation of a Molière play. But there’s little doubt that what it eventually became – a prologue and opera combined into one remarkable piece of convoluted dialectic whimsy – is entertainment well worth having.

For someone of Strauss’ infinite compositional versatility, the challenge must have been irresistible, scintillatingly evident in this restless cinematic two-hour score, a seething mass of heated musical imagery in which heaving Wagnerian catharses seamlessly switch to witty, chattering parody in the blink of an eye. With a storyline designed to incite the cultural tensions between high opera and burlesque-style, you can hear what he was getting at.

It’s also an opera that requires complex and careful casting, which this high-energy concert-style staging by Louise Muller fully achieves. The 17-strong vocal line-up has the advantage of a virtuoso edge-of-the-seat RSNO performance to support them, under the alert musical stewardship of German conductor, Lothar Koenigs. 

It also has Dorothea Röschmann as Ariadne, a diva in the best sense, whose biggest moment arrives, as with David Butt Philip’s imposing Bacchus, in the euphoric closing moments of the opera. In a fit of burgeoning ecstasy she unleashes the full welter of her limitless instrument.

That all seems a world away from the domestic hustle and bustle of the opening Prologue, anchored by Thomas Quasthoff’s (spoken) Major Domo, and where Catriona Morison puts in one of her finest performances as the precious Composer, while around her the commedia dell’arte figures wreak havoc, not least Brenda Rae as the flighty, rather sexy, Zerbinetta. Her male sidekicks do a nifty song and dance routine with inflatable palm trees, and generally make mischief. Peter Bronder cuts a scampish Dancing Master to Martin Gantner’s common sense Music Master.

If the shadow of Wagner envelops the very end, there’s also an earlier hint of it in the three nymphs – Liv Redpath, Claire Barnett-Jones and Soraya Mafi – who, like Rhine maidens reborn, relate Ariadne’s fate as the duel-fuelled entertainment finally gathers steam. This is also where Rae’s Zerbinetta gets to exercise her piercing coloratura.

It’s a riveting show that fires on every cylinder.
Ken Walton

Further performances, Fri 27 Aug & Sun 29 Aug

EIF: Renee Fleming & Hartmut Holl

Old College Quad

That German pianist Hartmut Holl was in traditional full fig of white tie and tails seemed only appropriate. We are so used to hearing fine young voices, especially sopranos, that – if Renee Fleming will forgive the ungallant observation – one that is older, and run-in, comes as a welcome treat.

That, however, was only a small part of the truth of this varied and delightful recital, presented with all the conversational aplomb you would expect. Yes, there was Richard Strauss, the composer Fleming described as “the great love of my musical life” and whose Four Last Songs she will perform next week at Austria’s Grafenegg Festival with the Filarmonica della Scala di Milano. There was more theatre in her performance of a pair of his songs, Muttertandelei and Waldseligkeit, than in anything that had gone before, and she also bowed out with him, the last of three encores.

Elsewhere, however, she was happily exploring new ground, some of which will feature on a forthcoming album, themed on the consolations of the natural world that helped so many of us over the past year and a half. After Handel provided a prayer of thanksgiving and a meditation, her selection of Faure songs were all pinnacles in his vast catalogue: the ominous Prison, and the ambiguous Les berceaux, which puns darkly on the word “cradles” in a way that makes equal sense in English, with lighter fare of Reve d’amour and Au bord de l’eau framing the group.

Three of Grieg’s Opus 48 Sechs Lieder followed, somewhat surprisingly her first performances of them. The gravitas she brought to the last of them, Ein Traum, belied that recent acquaintance, while Zur Rosenzeit, which precedes it, might have been written with her voice and personality in mind.

That was certainly true of Evening, by contemporary American composer Kevin Puts, setting a poem by Dorianne Laux. Puts is the composer of a new opera version of Michael Cunningham’s modernist novel The Hours, which became a Stephen Daldry-directed and Philip Glass-scored film starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman. Fleming returns to the stage of the New York Met for the opera’s premiere next year, and this fine new song is a spin-off from that relationship. It was followed by a version of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now that boasted a lovely piano arrangement for Holl, and made the argument for the demolition of boundaries in music-making without the singer needing to say a word.

Keith Bruce

EIF: Gerald Finley & Julius Drake

Old College Quad

To perform Robert Schumann’s 16-song cycle Dichterliebe, setting the verse of Heinrich Heine, is a mighty undertaking. To do so twice in quick succession, to meet the audience social distancing requirements at this year’s Festival, and add the six Heine settings in Schubert’s posthumously-published Schwanengesang to the recital, is to demonstrate vocal fitness of Olympic standard.

Further than that, however, Canadian baritone Gerald Finley and pianist Julius Drake had clearly considered the move to an outdoor venue with great care. This was a very deliberate Dichterliebe indeed, with very careful pacing and the dynamics of the performance honed to perfection.

Finley stood well back from the onstage microphones, and it was quite impossible to tell how much of the sound reaching the ears of the audience was being enhanced. The singer at full stretch was quite capable of defeating extraneous contributions from the world outside, and it was a joy to hear him in a way that he might have tempered in the Queen’s Hall. Der Atlas, which opened the Schubert selection, was muscular and powerful enough to bear the weight of the world indeed.

Finley’s delivery was not all about power though. He has the full spectrum of volume and expression across his entire vocal range, and showed it over the arc of the Schumann. Im Rhein began on sonorous form but  there was real tenderness at the start of Hor ich das Liedchen klingen and a gentle poignancy to Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen. Drake’s pianism matched his flexibility with sparkling phrasing on Das ist ein Floten und Geigen and deliciously spare playing on Ich hab’ im Traum.

The fatalism of Die alten bosen Lieder and its long piano outro were rewarded with respectful silence before the applause, a response repeated after the ominous Der Doppelganger closed the Schubert selection.

Keith Bruce

EIF: Joyce DiDonato

Edinburgh Academy Junior School

The Edinburgh Festival director who preceded Fergus Linehan, Jonathan Mills, was first to appreciate the growing appetite for early music and put it on the event’s main stages. It seemed bold in the first decade of the new millennium but is now absolutely mainstream, with Nicola Benedetti’s new Baroque band and vivacious Kansas mezzo Joyce DiDonato’s partnership with European period outfit Il Pomo d’Oro two of the hottest tickets in the 2021 programme.

DiDonato’s entrance, and indeed presence (stage centre of course), was much more that of the star frontwoman, although she ceded a fair share of the stage time to her instrumental colleagues, directed from the violin by Bulgarian Zefira Valova. It was, however, rare that their Monteverdi, Rameau and Handel dovetailed with the selection of arias that the singer has entitled “My Favourite Things” and that contributed to the difficulties with a performance that was slow to click into gear.

Following her first song, in fact, there was a pause on stage in clear expectation of applause that failed to materialise. Relations were quickly more cordial, with the drama of DiDonato’s Addio Roma from L’incoronazioni di Poppea, and then the expansion of the onstage septet to a full eight-violins-and-winds ensemble, but it was over half way through the programme before there was a genuine and sincere ovation, and the sequencing of the material remained a problem to the end. The inclusion of a Dowland lute song in the final fifteen minutes brought things to a standstill, with the rest of the players left twiddling their thumbs.

There were plenty of highlights, including Piangero la sorte mia, from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, when the balance between voice, strings and continuo was pretty much perfect, and DiDonato’s superb voice and dramatic delivery had ample opportunity to shine, but if this selection really merits the description of her “favourites” it was odd that she needed the score on the stand for many of them.

Fans of Maxim Emelyanychev, who directed this team’s award-winning In War and Peace album before he became Principal Conductor of the SCO, might say that the addition of the dynamic young conductor to this recital could well have bound the programme together much more successfully.

Keith Bruce

EIF: Lonely House

Old College Quad

A week after these Edinburgh Festival performances, Barrie Kosky and Katharine Mehrling take their Kurt Weill cabaret to the composer’s birthplace, Dessau, for the Kurt Weill Festival. The pianist, and musical director of the show, suggests – probably with just a little camp exaggeration – that this is akin to Daniel and the lions den. Professor Kosky’s thesis is that the German view of Weill is that he wrote nothing of worth after his collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, and Lonely House is entirely composed of songs from the composer’s exile in Paris and then New York.

Clearly the Australian Intendant and Chief Director of the Komische Oper Berlin is comfortable and confident in his position there, and as the architect of a recent Threepenny Opera who is currently rehearsing The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, he is also enamoured of the Brecht/Weill catalogue. More to the point, perhaps, is that Germany is very familiar with Weimar-era Weill and he and his singer have a lot of material that will surprise and delight the composer’s home audience.

Those of us more familiar with Broadway Weill may also make discoveries in this programme, particularly among the Paris songs. Le grand Lustucru, Youkali, and Train du ciel are all from 1934’s Marie Galante, while Complainte de la Seine is a stand-alone from the same year, and all are much more than worth the archaeology, being fine additions to the canon. Mehrling, who is from a village near Frankfurt, is as relaxed and comfortable in French – and a noted interpreter of Edith Piaf repertoire – as she is in English.

To be plain, Katharine Mehrling is superb. The London-trained and Berlin-based actor and singer is a big name at home and should be an international star. Her superb voice and easy stage presence perhaps put a sheen on the work that is different from the edge other singers bring to Weill’s songs, but she is a very fine musician of great charisma.

More than that, she interprets a lyric beautifully, bringing fresh insight to the familiar September Song and Speak Low and making a captivating journey of a medley from 1941’s Lady in the Dark.

The boisterous presence onstage is Kosky, with his big, theatrical piano style and mission to educate as much as entertain. If ever an opera director embodied his production style, he is that chap, but he also knows real performing talent when he sees and hears it.

Keith Bruce

EIF: The Soldier’s Tale

Edinburgh Academy Junior School

Normally it’s just the forces of evil that performers have to deal with in Stravinsky’s satanic music theatre piece The Soldier’s Tale. In the first of Saturday’s two EIF performances, however, the forces of nature had an equal stake in the outcome. Torrential rain battered off the taut roof of the giant Edinburgh Academy tent, cascading over its open sides, adding an apocalyptic dimension to a performance that was already doing pretty well on its own.

This was the last of three programmes in violinist Nicola Benedetti’s week-long Festival residency, which cast her in a more democratic role as equal participant in a roll call of three actors and seven musicians. Not that she failed to showcase her own presence. Her fiery red attire made a distinctive impression against her more sombrely-clad colleagues.

Yet this was a starry cast right across the board. Joining Benedetti was a hand-picked premiere league of instrumentalists, among them names familiar to Scots audiences, such as clarinettist Maximiliano Martin, bassoonist Ursula Leveaux, double bassist Nicholas Bayley and percussionist Louise Goodwin, all either present of past members of the SCO.  Add to that a speaking cast of veteran baritone/opera director Sir Thomas Allen as the narrator, fellow singer Anthony Flaum as the Soldier, and actor Siobhan Redmond as the Devil, working to a simple but cutting presentation devised by Allen.

Stravinsky’s piece, in which a naive soldier falls prey to the devil’s trickery, is a wonderfully gauche  parable, spelt out in the acerbic, often grotesque parody of the musical score, and tersely voiced in the script’s well-worn English translation by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black. Thank goodness for the surtitles, though, which compensated those moments in which Allen’s otherwise lyrically-intoned narration, albeit amplified, was obscured by the ensemble, or when that intervening deluge threatened to drown out the entire cast.

Otherwise, this was a slick and captivating show. Flaum’s happy-go-lucky Soldier proved a convincingly wretched foil to Redmond’s manipulative, chameleon-like performance, her variable personae distinguished by a shifting repertoire of accents. Interaction with the music was vital and seamless, Benedetti leading an ensemble whose animated incision made easy meat of Stravinsky’s mischievously virtuosic score, brilliantly capturing its catchy, bittersweet irony. 
Ken Walton

EIF: Dido’s Ghost

Edinburgh Academy Junior School

Whatever happened to Trojan hero Aeneas after that calamitous chapter of his story related in Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas? Part of the answer can be found in Ovid, or better still in Errollyn Wallen’s new opera Dido’s Ghost, which received its Scottish premiere on Friday by the Dunedin Consort at the Edinburgh International Festival.

We learn now that Aeneas’ previous departure from Carthage and the ensuing suicide of his lover Dido, was not the end of the affair. Now established in Italy, Aeneas is married to the high-maintenance Lavinia, but Dido’s sister Anna mysteriously appears, washed up as a refugee, reawakening the deceptions of the past and the dying curse that Dido issued against the Trojan race.

The magic of this opera has not simply been for Wallen, her song-writing librettist Wesley Stace and stage director Frederic Wake-Walker to carve out a straightforward sequel. Instead, they have taken the entirety of Purcell’s opera, positioned it as a flashback play within a play, and composed a narrative around it that reexamines the present in the context of the past in a bid to resolve unfinished business. 

The lattice of intrigues it creates is beguiling, and Wallen’s score plays its part in fully achieving that. To hand are the Baroque specialists of the co-commissioning Dunedin Consort, both its splendid period instrument band and hot-blended cohort of singers, from which soloists emerge to enact sundry bit parts.

To that, though, she adds percussion and electric bass guitar, used to juicy effect in defining the time shifts, as in the really cool bass riff that wrenches us from authentic Purcellian masque to smoky interjection by the jealous Lavinia. More subtle are the occasional Purcell quotes that Wallen couches in steamy jazz harmonies.

But it’s the holistic power of this concert-style production that is its winning card. Dunedin conductor John Butt masterminds a mostly slick musical performance, around which Wake-Walker’s cast weave a mesmerising theatrical tapestry, thanks to their cumulative energy and sharp characterisations.

Sopranos Golda Schultz and Nardus Williams are a potent double presence as Anna (doubling as Dido) and Belinda. As Lavinia, gritty mezzo soprano Allison Cook spits venom with unbridled  conviction, matched by the stentorian malevolence of Henry Waddington’s Sorcerer. Those secondary roles sung by chorus members, from the wacky witches to Aeneas’ dutiful son Ascanius (tenor David Lee), are every bit as vital.

At the emotional heart of Dido’s Ghost, however, is Matthew Brook’s towering portrayal of Aeneas, which, with Wallen’s and Stace’s evocative writing, invests in the character a human depth that Purcell opted not to explore to any great extent in his own opera. It’s Aeneas’ moment, and Brook laps it up. He even pinches Dido’s famous Lament, but with an interpretational twist that makes it very much his own. 
Ken Walton 

Image: credit Ryan Buchanan

BBC SSO new season

Following its return to live performances for audiences at the Royal Albert Hall and Edinburgh Festival, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has announced an autumn season of concerts at its home in Glasgow’s City Halls, and two Sunday afternoon concerts at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall.

The first home concert is on Thursday September 23 with Sibelius Symphony No 7, when Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro is on the podium and Pekka Kuusisto the soloist for Magnus Lindberg’s Violin Concerto No 1. The same team then appears in Edinburgh on September 26 when Kuusisto plays the Sibelius Concerto before the 7th Symphony.

The second Edinburgh concert is on November 28, when Veronika Eberle plays Beethoven’s Violin Concerto before conductor David Afkham directs Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, the Third. The Glasgow performance of that programme, which is completed by a new work by Unsuk Chin, is on the evening of November 25.

Schumann’s Symphony No 2 is played the previous month in Glasgow, when Jorg Widmann also directs the orchestra in his own Con Brio as well as playing Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No 1. That programme is repeated at Perth Concert Hall on Friday October 29.

Another wind player and conductor, Francois Leleux, both performs and directs at the City Hall on September 30 for a programme of Mendelssohn, Mozart and Farrenc.

November also sees concerts featuring Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, conducted by Yutaka Sado, and Brahms’s Fourth Symphony and the Grieg Piano Concerto, with soloist Garrick Ohlssohn, conducted by Hannu Lintu.

The orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor Ilan Volkov oversees a performance on October 21 for BBC Radio3’s New Music Show that includes Lucia Dlugoszewski’s Abyss and Caress with New York jazz trumpeter Peter Evans, for which tickets are free.

December sees a two-concert focus on Tchaikovsky, with Associate Conductor Alpesh Chauhan conducting the Sixth Symphony in a programme that also includes Karen Cargill singing Korngold’s Abschiedslieder. In the second Tchaikovsky programme Martyn Brabbins conducts the First Piano Concerto with soloist Pavel Kolesnikov.

Seating for all of the concerts will be partially distanced with reduced capacity, and audiences will be required to wear face coverings. The orchestra hopes to announce appearances in Aberdeen soon and will reveal details of concerts for the new year in November.

bbc.co.uk/bbcsso

EIF: RSNO / Gergiev / Osborne

Edinburgh Academy Junior School

There was a marked drop in temperature on Wednesday evening in the giant tent that has been such a successful venue thus far for EIF orchestral concerts. It didn’t help, perhaps, that the RSNO Strings’ all-Russian programme, under conductor Valery Gergiev, ran well over it’s appointed time – thus the partial audience exodus during the final piece – nor that the roof sheeting was billowing wildly from the harsh gusts of wind.

Yet this was a sizzler to start with. When have we last heard this string section play with such zeal and sonorous depth as evidenced in the meaty opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings? It was the perfect vehicle for Gergiev, whose trademark conducting style – a cigarette-sized stick in one hand, the other fluttering incessantly like a butterfly – seemed in this case to communicate a fluidity and eloquence that was manifest in the orchestral response.

That said, there was a noticeable dependance by the orchestra on keeping eye contact with each other, almost manically at times. Is this how Gergiev plays it? Throwing the onus on the players to interact? Whatever, this was a performance that ebbed and flowed with the most natural musicality, that inevitable thematic recap near the end a ripe and satisfying launchpad to the adrenalin-charged sign-off.

That the originally published soloist, pianist Daniil Trifanov, was replaced by Steven Osborne for Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 1 was no reason to be disappointed. On the contrary, Osborne’s track record in this repertoire proved itself again with a performance in which his dominance was breathtaking. 
It’s a strange work, with a confusing backstory, the outcome of which is the presence of a solo trumpet acting sometimes as muted commentary to the solo piano, at other times as the icing on the cake. RSNO principal trumpet Christopher Hart played his part sensitively and brilliantly, cool as a cucumber but sharp as a tack. 

As for Osborne, he nailed the music’s eccentric temperament, moments of gloom and melancholy that switch without notice between fitful moods of flippancy and rage, joy and the macabre. It all sounded very hairy as the concerto reached is final moments, as if things weren’t quite together, but Osborne’s unflinching reliability and energy was ultimately the steadying force. 

Had the concert ended there, we’d have gone home buzzing and electrified. But there was still Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète to go. In the right context its gauche neoclassicism and simple sensuality would have had a welcome presence. But here it struggled, in my mind, to assert itself as a meaningful conclusion, even with the eloquent violin solos of leader Maya Iwabuchi and the generally delightful intricacies of Stravinsky’s ballet score. 

Maybe it was the increasing cold, maybe also nature’s outdoor soundtrack interfering with the music’s veiled delicacy. Whatever, it just seemed a little like an anticlimax.
Ken Walton

EIF: Chineke! Orchestra

Old College Quad & Edinburgh Academy Junior School

Scheduled to appear at the Queen’s Hall during last year’s cancelled Festival, the chamber group drawn from the Chineke! Orchestra brought a shorter programme to the Old College Quad, and it did Ralph Vaughan Williams few favours. He disowned his early Piano Quintet in C minor and it is undoubtedly less played now than the Nonet by a teenage Samuel Coleridge-Taylor of a decade earlier, which has been championed by Chineke! and recently played by members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and pianist Tom Poster’s Kaleidoscope Collective.

Even without some poor balance in the sound mix for the quintet, it would have suffered from the comparison, the nonet having better tunes, and more sparkling rhythms. It was also clear that a few of those on the stage have a real passion for the piece, with some great playing from the winds, which included Sasha Rattle, son of conductor Sir Simon, on clarinet.

The 2021 Festival programme also brought a visit by the Chineke! Orchestra itself, although it was a very small version of it, with only double the number of players seen in the ensemble. The concert it played, under conductor William Eddins, who has a longer association with EIF, was still something of an occasion. Both works were premieres – one brand new and the other, I think, for Scotland and by Scot Judith Weir – and the composers were in the audience to acknowledge the applause.

Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s Blush, commissioned by Chineke! to accompany Weir’s woman.life.song, might almost have been marking the recent 50th anniversary of the score to the film Shaft. There were not only hints of movie score about it, but also the flavour of orchestration of the early 1970s jazz orchestras who played them. The composer made full use of a three-piece Latin rhythm section and the ensemble’s flautist had most of the lead lines.

The group expanded only slightly for the song-cycle Jessye Norman commissioned from Weir and writers Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It is not unfair to acknowledge that mezzo Andrea Baker does not have the magisterial presence of Norman, and the shifts of tone and style over the sequence make considerable demands.

Angelou’s thoughts On Youth and On Maturity frame the work and the finest poetry comes in the middle, from Toni Morrison, and is set to the most distinctive of Weir’s music. Pinkola Estes supplies the early light relief with Breasts!, the words of an “innocent wild-child” anxious to grow, set to something akin to a show-tune, with jazzy acoustic guitar, and then the later devotional texts on motherhood, its vexations rather than consolations, and the pain of losing the one who brought you into the world.

There are no passengers onstage with Weir’s score, which constantly surprises, and Baker has a lot of power at her disposal even if her singing sometimes lacked the nuance the work demands. The slightly random points at which the audience chose to clap also suggested the overall shape of the work was less apparent than it might have been. For all that, I’d still be keen to hear it again.

Keith Bruce

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