Author Archives: VoxCarnyx

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

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.

Ken Walton 

Opera Highlights

Eastwood Park Theatre

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.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Sally Jubb

Lammermuir: BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

St Mary’s Church, Haddington

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.

Ken Walton

Dunedin Consort / Maxwell Quartet

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 AntiphonLet 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.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Nardus Williams by Bertie Watson

SCO / Heyward

Lanternhouse, Cumbernauld

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.

Keith Bruce

Lammermuir: Royal Northern Sinfonia / Sousa

St Mary’s Parish Church, Haddington

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.

Keith Bruce

Lammermuir: Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective

North Esk Church, Musselburgh/Dirleton Kirk

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. 

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Amy Harman by Kaupo Kikkas

Don’t Kill Tradition, Build On It

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

Lammermuir Funding

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.”

Lammermuir: Opening Concerts

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.

Ken Walton

Chamber music’s full spectrum

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.

Laudonia: Grand Tour

St Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh

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.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Bojan Cicic by Nick Rutter

Laudonia on the road

Soprano Susan Hamilton tells Keith Bruce how her new early music group follows in very specific musical footsteps.

Over three centuries after its first flourishing, the Grand Tour is back in fashion. At the end of September, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra opens its season with Maxim Emelyanychev’s Grand Tour, as their principal conductor takes a programme culminating in Beethoven’s Eroica to seven venues across Scotland. 

At the start of the month, however, there is another Grand Tour of Scotland and London by a new early music group, Laudonia, led by soprano Susan Hamilton. It is most appropriately named, because it celebrates the musical journey across Europe that prominent Scot Sir John Clerk of Penicuik undertook in the 1690s.

The Second Baronet of Penicuik is a crucial figure in Scots history, whose legal mind and political work put him right at the centre of events when he returned from his travels. After the collapse of the Darien Scheme in Panama threatened the economic stability of the country, he was one of the signatories of the Act of Union and one of the first Scots members of the Parliament of Great Britain, with responsibility for the financial affairs of Scotland.

He had studied law in Leiden in the Netherlands but was also a fine musician and composer and, in the last years of the 17th century, embarked on a Grand Tour that was musical in its focus and included lessons in violin and composition from no less a figure than Arcangelo Corelli.

Although much of his own work was lost in a fire that devastated Penicuik House in 1899, his emotional cantata Leo Scotiae Irritatus (The Lion of Scotland Enraged) will open the second half of the concert programme that Hamilton and her instrumental colleagues have devised for Laudonia’s first tour.

The soprano co-founded the Dunedin Consort in her twenties, but in recent years has devoted herself mostly to teaching. Now, she says, “I’ve found my wings again.”

Encouraged by her partner, Austrian arts manager Christoph Crepaz, who is Honorary Consul for his home country in Scotland, she began to assemble the ideas for Laudonia, which borrows the Roman name for the Lothians of Scotland. As with so much else, the Covid pandemic interrupted their schedule, but because the project began before Brexit it had established a foothold in both countries, and the group has already performed in Austria and at the Scottish Parliament.

This Grand Tour is Laudonia setting out its stall for the wider public for the first time, and Hamilton has assembled a stellar instrumental ensemble around her, led by Croatian early music specialist Bojan Cicic. He is joined by Aberdeen University-based Aaron McGregor on second violin, Lucia Capellaro on cello, and Mr McFall’s Chamber bassist Rick Standley on violone. With keyboard maestro John Kitchen on harpsichord and Jamie Akers playing theorbo, the other lead instrumentalist is Austrian natural trumpet player Martin Patscheider.

“I love the soprano and trumpet combination, especially in the church venues we are playing,” says Hamilton. “The obligato instrument you are singing with makes such a different to how you sing.”

There’s a certain amount of speculation about the music the travelling Scotsman could have heard in the programme she and Laudonia have put together, but it follows the route of Sir John Clerk’s youthful peregrinations across Europe, south through Germany and stopping in Vienna before a long stay in Rome, where he was taught by Corelli three times a week.

Alongside the Sonata La Follia showpiece for violin, Corelli is represented by the D Major Sonata a Quattro which adds a trumpet to the mix. The Trumpet Song from the music Daniel Purcell wrote for Thomas D’Urfey’s play Massaniello, is justified on the basis that it was spanking new in 1699 when Clerk was travelling through London on his way home.

That was where Giovanni Battista Draghi worked too, and Kitchen will play his Harpsichord Suite in A Major. If Clerk did not meet that Italian composer, it is very likely he did run into his brother Antonio, also a composer, in Vienna.

Clerk’s own memoirs recount his meetings with another Italian composer, Benardo Pasquini, in Rome and his music is included in the programme alongside that of his countrymen Antonio Cesti, with the solo cantata Non Si Parli Piu d’Amore (Let There Be No More Talk About Love), and Alessandro Melani’s Qual Mormorio Giocondo (Like the Cheerful Murmuring), again featuring trumpet obligato. Both Cesti and Melani worked at Leopold the First’s Viennese court, and Clerk records meeting the Holy Roman Emperor.

The dark horse of the pack is perhaps German composer Johann Rosenmuller, whose O felicissimus Paradysi aspectus (O Most Happy Sight of Paradise) opens the programme and also pairs the soprano voice with trumpet. Rosenmuller did not have the luxury of a Grand Tour, but instead made a Great Escape from his homeland to Italy, forced to flee when angry parents discovered the exact nature of his enthusiasm for choirboys.

Laudonia’s Grand Tour opens at Holy Trinity Church in Melrose on Friday, September 1 and continues to Edinburgh’s St Cecilia’s Hall (Saturday Sept 2), Dunkeld Cathedral (Sunday Sept 3), Inverness Cathedral (Tuesday Sept 5), Queen’s Cross Church, Aberdeen (Wednesday Sept 6) and St Mary Abbot’s Church in London’s Kensington on Friday September 8. All concerts at 7.30pm.

BBC SSO / Canellakis

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Conductor Karina Canellakis has some big opera projects on both sides of the Atlantic in the coming season, with Janacek’s Makropoulos Case, The Damnation of Faust by Berlioz and Wagner’s Siegfried in the Netherlands where she is based, and Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss at Santa Fe Opera. She may have begun musical life as a violinist, but her conducting career shows an affinity with singers.

That was very evident at the Closing Concert of this year’s Edinburgh Festival, when she was clearly enjoying the performance of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus in the work that brought this year’s classical music programme to a close, Rachmaninov’s The Bells.

It was also the work that concluded the tenure of Aidan Oliver as Chorus Director, as he moves to Glyndebourne and is succeeded by James Grossmith. The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland conducting graduate inherits a choir on very fine form indeed, wonderfully crisp in their opening utterances in the work’s “Sleigh Bells” start and then in lock-step with the orchestra for the climactic third movement.

The soloists – tenor David Butt Philip and then soprano Olga Kulchynska – have relatively smaller roles until the funereal finale when the chorus partners the baritone, Alexander Vinogradov.

If the symphonic arc of The Bells covers nothing less than human existence from cradle to grave, the two works of the first half were more basic in their concerns. The strings of the BBC Scottish gave Canellakis their best work as she shaped the distinctive sound of Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. This trailer for his opera features the famous Tristan chord, but after hanging in the air for much of the piece, it reached a glorious climax at the end.

For the work in between, Scriabin’s Le Poeme de L’Extase, extra horns and trumpets, harps, celesta, organ and even, handily, bells were added. The composer sometimes referred to this 17-minute tone poem as a symphony, but it really has more in common with the Wagner or modernist works to come in the 20th century.

For all Scriabin’s mystical leanings, the wave upon wave of instrumental climaxes and cascading orchestration in the music seemed to suggest activity rather more physical than cerebral. Canellakis and the SSO paced the work beautifully to its orgasmic last bars.

Keith Bruce

EIF: Simón Bolívar / Dudamel

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

The benchmark for Edinburgh Festival Mahler performances by orchestras of a younger membership was well and truly set by the Gustav Mahler Jugendrochester under Claudio Abbado in the 1990s. Their Mahler 7 has gone down in the annals as seminal, exceptional and thoroughly mind-blowing. The same cannot be said for the performance on Saturday of Mahler’s First Symphony by the Simón Bolívar Orchestra of Venezuela.

True, the Venezuelans are officially no longer a youth orchestra, but age eligibility remains limited at the upper end to 28, so they resemble in that sense their Vienna-based counterpart. And just as the GMJ benefited way back from Abbado, the Bolívars have as their champion and music director the now internationally-renowned Gustavo Dudamel. Not even his presence on Saturday, however, nor the numerous pockets of Venezuelan flag-waving fans cheering amid the near-capacity audience, managed to raise this Mahler to the levels of brilliance we might have hoped for.

It began promisingly, a magically-suppressed strings pianissimo challenged by the distant prodding of offstage trumpets, establishing a mood of threatening unpredictability, excitable wonderment that would prevail in various guises for the ensuing hour. Dudamel knew exactly what he was about, clearly envisioned, a paragon of authority and self-belief. 

What he didn’t always get was the same in return. While much of the bigger picture was fundamentally impressive – a wild symphonic adventure through earthy Ländler and parodic Klezmer, the ironic funereal play on the tune Frère Jacques, the whooping delirium of the finale – the devil was in the detail, and an orchestral response less self-assured in its finer execution. Shaky intonation, evenness of tonal balance, even nervous attack moments were frequent irritations.

The concert had begun on home territory, with recent music by two Venezuelan composers. The first, the hi-energy Guasamacabra by Paul Desenne, who died earlier this year and was a cello alumna of the orchestra, was fittingly dedicated in this performance to the composer’s memory. It’s sidestepping charm, insatiable energy and volcanic complexity made for an ear-catching opener, yet Dudamel unearthed beneath its deceptive, John Adams-like freneticism a golden melancholy that offered flashes of emotive depth which the later Mahler could well have done with. 

Gonzalo Grau’s Odisea (Concerto for Cuatro and Orchestra) proved the novelty act, featuring the popular Venezuelan cuatro ( a small 4-stringed guitar) player Jorge Glem. Glem, in his trademark red hat, cut a cool figure, the focus of the work more geared towards showcasing him, perhaps, than offering anything of much interest for the orchestra. 

They operated mainly in a support capacity, much of it benign underscore with the periodic requirement to emerge with link material. Yes, it was colourful in a classical-folk-rock cross-genre sort of way, and Glem’s freely extended technique, combined with exotic percussion dialogue, was a crowd-pleaser. His quirky encore quoted everything from Bach to Beethoven and Bizet, but seemed a tad indulgent when the concert was already running well over time.

Not that this prevented Dudamel and the entire orchestra, itself, from unleashing their own carnival-style encores after the Mahler. It’s what we tend to remember them for. In showstoppers by Strauss and Bernstein (razzed up Caracas-style), they duly obliged.
Ken Walton

EIF: Tannhauser

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

It will be a shame if 2023’s big Wagner opera in concert at Nicola Benedetti’s first Festival becomes known as “the Tannhauser of the music stands”, but understandable. Not only did the titular tenor hero of the piece require one to rest his score on, but the one supporting the copy from which conductor Sir Donald Runnicles was working on the podium collapsed early in the evening and a front desk fiddle player abandoned her instrument to effect repairs while the music continued.

That incident did nothing to impair the performance, but the same cannot be said for Clay Hilley’s reliance on the music, which was clearly more than just an aide memoire. Understandably, when every other principal in the cast was singing from memory, he appeared self-conscious about it, and as soprano Emma Bell’s Elisabeth and baritone Thomas Lehman’s Wolfram began to use more of the available space at the front of the stage in their performances he looked more static as the tale unfolded.

In the final analysis, the rest of the ingredients more than compensated. Unlike previous concert Wagner operas at recent Festivals this was a visiting company production with all the principals, whatever their country of origin, associated with Deutsche Oper Berlin, who supplied the chorus and orchestra (augmented by players from the RSNO), where Runnicles is Music Director.

Like Hilley, many were singing their roles for the first time – and some were doing so on just a few hours’ sleep because of delays and cancellations in their travel arrangements. The vivacious Venus of Irene Roberts was among those and her angry responses to the grumbling home-sick Tannhauser were an early highlight. Both she and Bell brought the drama to the performance, alongside Lehman’s characterisation of Wolfram as a resigned narrator of the tale and Albert Pesendorfer’s authoritative Landgrave, but there was real strength in the smaller roles too, notably Meechot Marrero’s Young Shepherd, sung from the top of the organ gallery, and tenor Attilio Glaser’s contribution to the song contest as Walther.

With two dozen RSNO players involved on and off stage, the Berlin instrumentalists were superb, from the muted ensemble of the opening bars of the overture onwards, the winds joined by metronomic strings and expansive brass. The much-garlanded Deutsche Oper Chorus was also as magnificent as its reputation, and heard to better advantage here than would have been possible in a staged production.

Tannhauser is a work from which the highlights do leap out, and favourites like Elisabeth’s greeting to  the Hall of Song, the Pilgrim’s Chorus and Wolfram’s Song to the Evening Star were all superb, but ultimately it was the sensation of Runnicles leading an ensemble he knows inside out that made this Tannhauser, despite its superficial deficiencies, sensational.

Keith Bruce

EIF: Oslo Phil | Bluebeard’s Castle

Usher Hall / Church Hill Theatre, Edinburgh

In the second of its two Usher Hall appearances, the Oslo Philharmonic presented a star-studded programme. On the one hand they were joined by a pianist with a reputation for risqué showmanship – Juja Wang chose a tasteful dress collection for her two Ravel concertos – and on the other, chose to end with Shostakovich’s incendiary, hard-hitting Symphony No 5. This was also a first chance in these parts to experience live the impact the 27-year-old Finnish conductor, Klaus Mäkelä, has had on his Oslo orchestra since becoming music director in 2020. 

What was instantly revealed in the Ravel concertos was a musicianship of extraordinary perception, vision and clarity. Mäkelä was as respectful to soloist Wang’s insistent self-belief as he was in driving his own agenda. They worked as a dream team, the opening volcanic tremors and graduated eruptions in Wang’s intense delivery of the Concerto for Left Hand aligning dramatically with a kaleidoscopic orchestral backdrop that Mäkelä masterfully shifted in and out of focus.

It was the perfect scene-setter, too, to the very different Piano Concerto in G, reflected in Wang’s rapid offstage change from slinky red dress to sparkling yellow. Again, the incisiveness of her finger technique and reading of the textural subtleties were a sheer delight. The prevailing tone was dizzy ebullience tempered by super-charged delicacy, and a generosity that allowed prominent instrumental counterpoints – the magical harmonics and glissandi from the harp, for instance – to shine through. 

The Shostakovich shifted the focus exclusively onto the orchestra, and a performance that took a conclusive approach to an equivocal symphony. Was the composer, in his so-called “just response” to vicious criticism from Stalin, kowtowing to the powers that could so easily make him disappear, or had he laced it with vicious, vengeful irony?

Mäkelä’s superbly-paced reading asserted the latter, couched in cool perfection but also unmistakable provocation. The ecstatic final bars – their empty triumphalism – were a gripping summation to a harrowing journey, one that variously explored the ominously quiescent, or the downright truculent and grotesque. Mäkelä had its every measure. He and the Oslo Phil are a world-beating team.

Just as mind-blowing is Theatre of Sound’s radical take on Bartok’s short opera Bluebeard’s Castle at Church Hill Theatre. Stage director and author of a new English translation, Daisy Evans, doesn’t mess around. She goes for the jugular in the sense that Bluebeard and his latest wife Judith are no longer the dark protagonists of a Gothic-style horror in which Judith encounters the hideous fates of her predecessors; she’s now an ordinary housewife in a simple family house, suffering from dementia and its impact on her marriage.

It’s an uncanny fit with Bartok’s music, but it completely restyles the nature of Bluebeard, exhausted and frustrated, wondering what to do, sanguinely played and powerfully sung by Lester Lynch. In the end, though, this is Judith’s story. 

Susan Bullock’s show-stopping performance guarantees that. From first note to last she is all-consuming and unwaveringly believable. You live through her confusion, feel the pain (and her husband’s) as she grapples with the memories contained in a single trunk and visions of younger versions of Judith personified by walk-on roles. There’s implied family tragedy too.

This is a hugely brave exploration of a sensitive issue, which does nothing to destroy the integrity of Bartok’s original. Even music director Stephen Higgins’ ruthless reduction of the orchestral score heightens rather than diminishes its impact, especially when he has the dynamic forces of the Hebrides Ensemble to hand. Rarely will you see opera so true to human experience. 

(Bluebeard’s Castle is at the Church Hill Theatre till 27 Aug. Cast varies)

Ken Walton

EIF: Child of Our Time / Davis

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

While the bulk of Sunday’s Usher Hall audience will have known what to expect with Tippett’s oratorio A Child of Our Time, fewer will have been familiar with his Concerto for Orchestra. This pairing constituted an intriguing snapshot into the 20th century English composer’s complex, personalised sound world, delivered consummately under the seasoned baton of Sir Andrew Davis.

The former, a stirring 1940s wartime response to human violence and oppression, ranks among the composer’s few instantly-accessible pieces, notable for its thrilling climactic use of Black American Spirituals, their spine-tingling harmonies and tearful pathos. 

The Concerto, however, is later Tippett – commissioned for, and premiered at, the 1963 Edinburgh Festival – the language by then more testing and austere, the milder dissonant complexion of Child of Our Time consigned to the past. Yet, as these engaging performances illustrated, a commonality persists – an elusive, mystical personality arising from complex objectivity. In other words, a consistent and recognisable musical voice.

Davis knew instinctively how to extract that personality from the RSNO in the orchestral opener, serving up exactly what it says on the tin, a concerto for orchestra, in which no-one gets an easy ride. It played out like a quick-fire conversational theatre piece, multi-layered characterisations ricocheting off each other with unceasing changeability. It featured delicious solos for flute, cello, even timpani, and sparky ensemble cameos – a parping tuba paired with piano, for instance – but also a concealed lyrical thread that formed a cohesive backbone to this fascinating, iridescent work.

That same unyielding determination fed through A Child of Our Time, Davis calmly in charge, but generating, through judicious pacing, an organic sense of the epic. The Festival Chorus took their lead accordingly, solid as a rock, openly expressive – especially in the unison singing – but sensitive, too, in shaping the big picture. Within the solo quartet, Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha’s soprano was an exuberant foil to Dame Sarah Connolly’s burnished mezzo, tenor Russell Thomas and bass Michael Mofidian equally generous as a pairing. As a complete team they were resplendent. Once again the RSNO were faultless. 

The outright winner, of course, was Tippett, so often maligned and misunderstood – not unreasonably in certain cases – but reconfirmed here as a legitimate and unique voice in what was a turbulent, sometimes unfriendly, 20th century musical landscape.

Ken Walton

EIF: Castalian Quartet

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

It’s just over a month since the excellent Castalian String Quartet struck a particularly refreshing note at Fife’s East Neuk Festival. On that occasion, the repertoire was mainstream Mozart and Dvorak, the music stirringly revitalised by astute characterisation and an entertaining spirit of playfulness. At the heart of Friday’s Edinburgh International Festival appearance, the key challenge was to introduce an entirely new piece, the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Awake.

As it happened, the stakes were raised twofold. With regular second violinist Daniel Roberts ruled out through illness, his place was taken last-minute by the young London-based Japanese violinist Yume Fijise. To fill Roberts’ boots in such a rushed way, and on such a prominent platform, would have been no easy ask, yet Fujise responded not only with laudable efficiency, but a sense of musical compatibility that grew more easeful and confident as the programme progressed. She’s no stranger to quartet playing, being leader of the award-winning Kleio Quartet.

Turnage’s new string quartet – an uncharacteristically understated creation by a 63-year-old composer more associated in his younger days with musical hooliganism – was in safe hands. Inspired by the black Polish-African violinist, George Bridgetower, who famously impressed Beethoven, and to whom the latter’s Kreuzer Sonata was originally dedicated, a solo violin has first say, establishing an air of elegance and calm that is seldom seriously challenged throughout the two movements, their soft political message implicit in the titles, Bridgetower 23 and Shut Out.

This performance emphasised the reflectiveness and genuine attractiveness of the music, even where a hint of a rock ostinato emerged in the cello, abating rather than dominating as the opening movement subsided to near nothing. That plaintiveness persisted in the second movement, this time a jabbing repeated motif offering the only real threat to its languid countenance. What was so surprising about this piece was also a mark of its incredibly beauty.

The Beethoven connection prevailed either side of the Turnage, if effectively one step removed in Janacek’s String Quartet No 1 – subtitled the “Kreuzer Sonata”, though directly in reference to Tolstoy’s novel – which opened the recital. It’s a nervous piece at the best of times, frenetically buzzing ponticelli like some restless obsession, the focus of which took time to settle here, but when it did, embraced its excitable allure.

To end with Beethoven’s String Quartet in B flat, Op 130, and its original Grosse Fuge finale (later numbered separately as Op 133), was to send us away mentally exhausted. The opening five movements provided neat and precise stimulation, from the gentle whimsy of the scherzo and lapping waves of the Alla danza tedesca, to the lyrical sweetness of the Cavatina. Then the full force of the Grosse Fuge, like a wild uncontrollable force of nature, courting danger at times, venturing close to collision, but ultimately providing the explosive catharsis Beethoven unequivocally intended.

Ken Walton

EIF: LSO/Rattle | Phaedre/Minotaur | The Threepenny Opera

Usher Hall / Lyceum / Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

As befits an Edinburgh Festival posing a question about the direction of travel in this century, the third weekend of the programme offered an excellent opportunity to hear and see crucial works of the last one.

Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila-Symphonie, Benjamin Britten’s dramatic cantata Phaedre and Kurt Weill’s breakthrough music-theatre work Die Dreigroschenoper are all essential to an understanding of the art of their creators, even if the Britten is from the very end of his life.

Phaedre has not been heard at the Festival for almost 20 years and this staging by Deborah Warner featured a visceral acting performance from mezzo Christine Rice that made the work a chamber opera. Using a piano version of the score, played with percussive propulsion by Richard Hetherington, the instrument itself became one of the simple props (alongside sheets, a chair, shoes) at her disposal.

If the structure of the work is Handelian, the emotional heft of Britten’s setting of Robert Lowell’s text is searingly contemporary – the work is not yet half a century old. Rice conveyed the passion of her character’s incestuous love powerfully, but more moving was the mix of wistfulness and regret she found in the work’s closing bars.

Warner partners the work with a danced version of the story of Phaedre’s sister Ariadne, played by Royal Ballet artist Isabel Lubach. The sound collage by Eilon Morris was a long way from Britten but its broad palette served the classical line of Kim Brandstrup’s choreography well, Lubach partnered by Tommy Frantzen and Jonathan Goddard.

The work of Elizabeth Hauptmann that Bertolt Brecht used in the writing of the adaptation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera half a century earlier is no longer unacknowledged. Australian director Barrie Kosky’s Berliner Ensemble production of The Threepenny Opera may be very self-consciously “Brechtian” in much of its conception, but he is as admiring of Brecht’s collaborators, especially composer Kurt Weill.

The score was performed by an authentic seven-piece pit band led by Adam Benzwi from piano and harmonium, and the singing actors had varying levels of musical ability, with Gabriel Schneider’s charismatic Macheath and especially Bettina Hoppe’s soulful Spelunken-Jenny the best of them.

The distancing achieved by Rebecca Ringst’s somewhat grandiose designs – six tall multi-platformed towers moving up and down stage on rails – might have fitted Brechtian philosophy, but while the performers went out of their way to engage with the audience front-of-cloth, they only rarely engaged with one another. Doubtless this was deliberate, but it sometimes made the Festival Theatre stage look very large for the show. And for a script with a lot of sex – and a Kosky production – it wasn’t very sexy.

Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila is all about sex, alongside the Tristan and Isolde myth, Eastern music, birdsong, and his devout Catholicism. The fact that the composer saw no contradiction in any of these elements is what makes it so thrilling.

There will be few performances of this massive piece from the mid-point of the 20th century as thrilling as the one by the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle that brought the orchestra’s Festival residency to a close. There was a real sense of occasion before a note was played, as Rattle’s tenure as music director of the LSO comes to an end, Festival director Nicola Benedetti opening the evening’s two concerts with a lavish encomium to Rattle’s place in British music.

He reacted, as he only could, by moving swiftly on to talk about “The Road to Turangalila”, the title given to the three works in a preceding early evening concert that influenced Messiaen’s masterpiece. His comparison of Pierre Boulez’s reaction to the work with Fringe perennials The Ladyboys of Bangkok, encamped across Lothian Road, was wittily provocative.

The Fanfare from La Peri by Dukas, Milhaud’s La creation du monde, and Debussy’s La Mer paved that road. If 11 LSO players made the fanfare sparkle and the full orchestra gave a wonderfully rich account of the Debussy, with terrific soloists and a choral quality to the strings, the Milhaud was the revelation.

An alto sax has the lead line at the start of the piece, but the jazz content of this 1923 piece really kicks in with arco bass and a “Hot Five” front line of trombone, trumpet and clarinet from the 20-piece ensemble. Here was evidence from this side of the Atlantic to support Duke Ellington’s argument against labelling genres of music.

If jazz and movies are the great cultural developments of the 20th century, Turangalila is the musical expression of widescreen cinemascope. Rattle’s partnership with pianist Peter Donohoe on this work goes back to his time with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and Donohoe was as important as the LSO to the spectacular success of this rendition. So too, of course, was Cynthia Millar at the ondes Martenot, with its unique swooping proto-synthesiser sound, but it was always very carefully placed in the mix, and the other solo voices in the orchestra, as well as every detail of the percussion (requiring 10 players), were equally favoured.

Beyond argument, Turangalila was one of the events for which Benedetti’s first Festival will be remembered; the fact that the Usher Hall was full for the concert was also a notable achievement.

Keith Bruce

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