Author Archives: VoxCarnyx

BBC SSO / Volkov

City Halls, Glasgow

If anything marks the BBC SSO out as distinctive in Scotland – and there have to be certain benefits to that in a climate where strangulation of the arts is an existential threat – it is surely its commitment to the most challenging outposts of contemporary music. No other orchestra would or could place such unapologetic emphasis on it, let alone take the commercial risk.

Thursday’s programme was specifically designed, and recorded, for BBC Radio 3’s New Music Show, yet it was also a weirdly entertaining revelation for a sizeable audience curious to discover who composers Stefan Prins and Øyvind Torvund were, and how a concerto for electric guitar and a reworking of 1950s pop “exotica” might brighten up a drizzly Glasgow evening.

It probably wouldn’t have done so without SSO principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov, whose track record in exploring and communicating the wilder horizons of the contemporary landscape is second to none. With a few words of welcome, and an invitation to enter a psychedelic twilight zone, madcap ideas were transformed into stimulating sonic experiences.

Both performances were UK premieres, and both were delivered with utter commitment and consummate skill, right down to violinists bowing over aluminium foil-clad fingerboards in Prins’ 2021 concerto, under_current, or the simultaneous virtuoso whistling that cast an anarchic, playful mystique over the opening of Torvund’s The Exotica Album. 

Such were the bracing novelties of these substantial works. The visual power of under_current was awesome, electric guitarist Yaron Deutsch using his instrument more as a generator of effects facilitated by the pedals, cables and signal processing units surrounding him, and the totemic presence of a towering thunder machine centrally positioned behind the large orchestra.

There wasn’t a melody, hardly even a motif, in sight. With guttural explosions from the guitar, wailing responses from the orchestra, Prins’ 40-minute work consciously defies conventionality, perhaps over too long a time scale. But so visceral and purposeful was the playing that Deutsch silenced the audience during the final applause to say this was the best orchestra he’d ever played with. It was a tough gig for all of us, but Volkov’s self-belief turned this seeming jumble of nuts and bolts into something organically akin to a kinetic sculpture.

Where Prins’ music is uncompromising, Torvund’s The Exotica Album (Sinfonietta with modular synthesiser and saxophone) is a triumph of exaggerated nostalgic indulgence. Taking its lead from the origins of late-1950s “exotica” – Martin Denny’s album Quiet Village – Torvund sharpens the concept of seriousness versus kitsch to such the point it transmits as the musical equivalent of an LSD trip. 

Set in ten short movements – with titles like Starry Night, Wind up Paradise Birds, Rainbow Crystal and Jungle Alarm – the overriding sensation was one of escapism, where soaring Hollywood-style strings vied with synthesised birds and frenetic electronic bloops, courtesy of Jørgen Træn on “modular synthesiser and noise”, and the pungent, provocative sax of Kjetil Møster. 

It was enormously pleasant to listen to, those whistlers in the opening Ritual 1 initiating a prophetic sense of the surreal, later moments where you might imagine noted bird-enthusiast Messiaen encountering the Clangers, the occasional confectionary spillover into wacky cartoon land, the sassy honking polyphony of Jungle Alarm, but altogether a feast of titillating excess that proved the perfect complement to the earlier concerto, and transformed a journey into the unknown into an invigorating night of discovery. 

Ken Walton

Recorded for later broadcast on Radio 3’s New Music Show, then available for 30 days via BBC Sounds.

Paul Lewis

Perth Concert Hall

It is not fantastical to think that when the designers of Perth Concert Hall – in all its structural, visual and acoustic detail – first envisaged the building at the start of the new millennium, they imagined it with a piano sitting in the centre of the stage.

Although the auditorium has proved itself highly adaptable, it is beyond argument one of the finest places in the country to hear a piano recital. So beginning a new series of concerts by well-known soloists, under the banner “Classical Stars”, with pianist Paul Lewis playing Schubert sonatas makes perfect sense. Even better, this is the start of a commitment by the musician to play all of them over the coming years, and Perth is the Scottish venue to hear that project.

On what was, by happy coincidence, Schubert’s birthday, Lewis began with a career-spanning taste of what that journey might have in store, from one of the composer’s earliest excursions into the form (albeit in a version revised later), via one from his most anguished period, to a sunnier – and much better known – late work. It was the same programme he played for BBC Radio 3 in London’s Wigmore Hall earlier in the month, and this was the performance of a man who has lived with – and in – these pieces and their narrative for a while.

In the E flat major D568 Sonata that was immediately clear in his organic phrasing of repeating phrases, full of subtle alterations in their sequence and, audibly, between performances. A very thoughtful Andante slow movement, unchanged by the composer when he returned to the work, was followed by a very sprightly Menuetto that was a long way from “strict time” in the dancing sense, and finished with what was almost a flamenco flourish.

In February 1823 Schubert had just been diagnosed with syphilis – a death sentence two centuries ago – and the A minor Sonata, D784, surely reflects his despair and anger. In its three movements, Lewis found the anguish and resignation at the work’s heart. Even more of a challenge, however, is the contradictory nature of the finale. Its pell-mell cascade of notes, with a glorious melody fighting through the fury to be heard, is writing on an epic scale for the instrument.

By comparison the character of D850 in D major, composed on a summer holiday two years later, is of a man more at peace. This is the sound of the fresh air and open country, even if the hiking is at an impressive pace. The Con moto second movement is not exactly bucolic, but the flowing stream it seems to depict is a picturesque waterway, and there is something of the fairground about the Scherzo that follows.

Lewis’s performance was all about the composition’s rhythmic playfulness, nowhere more so than in the concluding Rondo, with its clock-like pulse, and in his perfect phrasing of the charming coda.

Keith Bruce

Nikita Lukinov

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

When a line in his biography boasts of a recital last year that raised £5000 for Ukraine, it is safe to speculate that Russian pianist Nikita Lukinov has no immediate plans to return to the land of his birth. Since his early teens he has been based in the UK, and since 2017 has been at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where he is now in the midst of post-graduate studies and teaching in the piano department.

He is dizzyingly busy as a performer as well, with upcoming repertoire including a Beethoven concerto, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and Astor Piazolla. For Live Music Now’s Emerging Artist series on a Monday morning at the Usher Hall he chose some classic 19th century repertoire by Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Liszt, and attracted an impressive crowd to the organ gallery seating for the recital.

At the centre of his programme was the epic B Minor Sonata by Liszt, dedicated to Robert Schumann and dismissed as a terrible composition by his wife Clara. Later championed by Wagner, it has become a rite-of-passage showpiece for ambitious young players and a competition favourite, although its subject matter – if indeed it has one at all – is still the subject of debate.

Lukinov used the pandemic to learn the piece and has the arc of its half-hour span shaped beautifully. Although he is superb at the work’s ominous rumblings and lightning-fingered pyrotechnics, it was actually the slower, more meditative, central section that impressed the most. Here was real depth of feeling, less often encountered in younger players, however skilful.

Perhaps to focus our attention on that, he preceded it with Meditation, the fifth of the 18 Opus 72 piano pieces that Tchaikovsky wrote at the very end of his life, dedicated to teacher and conductor Vasily Safonov, who would champion the Pathetique Symphony after the composer’s death.

The Chopin Etude that concluded Lukinov’s recital was also linked to the Liszt, most obviously in its sound, as the pianist said in his introduction, but also in its dedicatee. Chopin’s mature Etudes, the Opus 25 set, are dedicated to the Comtesse d’Agoult, who was Liszt’s mistress and the mother of his children, including Cosima, who would become Richard Wagner’s wife.

What made the piece an apt choice to finish is the way it points towards the music of the century to come, in a way that the later Tchaikovsky arguably does not. A very thoughtful programme from a highly-talented player.

Keith Bruce

Beacon Series / Shibe

Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock

There’s no mistaking the boldness with which Greenock’s Beacon Arts Centre opened its first classical music series. Anyone expecting world-ranking guitarist Sean Shibe to settle for a populist solo recital of, say, Spanish-style lollipops, Bach transcriptions or Elizabethan airs will have misread Shibe’s fearless evangelism, which placed a major modernist Picasso-inspired work, Harrison Birtwistle’s Beyond the White Hand, at the heart of his hour-plus afternoon programme. 

He acknowledged series curator James Waters’ willingness to go for it, proving in his intense and at times edge-of-the-seat performance that it simply takes a master craftsman to make sense of the seemingly impenetrable. The Beacon’s informal performance space, its floor-to-ceiling window views over a windswept River Clyde changing hue by the minute, seemed remarkably suited to Birtwistle’s angular and experimental virtuosity, his fragmented, to some extent heretical, rhetoric.

The rest of Shibe’s programme was easier to instantly digest. He opened with a pair of works by the 16th century Spanish vihuelist Luis de Narváez, their nimble eloquence like stage whispers enticing us into an intimate world. The accompaniment of trickling rainwater from the roof space above seemed strangely appropriate, like some Zen water feature.

Manuel de Falla’s Homenaje pour le tombeau de Claude Debussy (a habanera drawing on quotes from Debussy), even with its uptempo vibe, maintained that sense of reverie, as did Poulenc’s short, serene Sarabande. 

It was only after the ensuing Birtwistle that Shibe injected a more direct sunlight into his programme, firstly in the soulful radiance of Agustin Barrios Mangoré’s Julia Florida (a point, coincidentally, where the clouds lifted over the Clyde to reveal distant Helensburgh), then in five of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ 12 Guitar Etudes, sprayed with splashes of South American effervescence, and finally in Alberto Ginastera’s catchy Sonata. 

The last – dexterous, multi-coloured and exciting – seemed like a microcosmic précis of the entire recital: the internalised austerity of the opening Escordia giving way to a breezy, sometimes weirdly experimental, Scherzo; and after the searching restfulness of Canto, the manic motor-driven Finale.

Shibe attracted a healthy audience for this inaugural concert. Sitting near the back, however, it was difficult to pick out some of the finest details of his playing. Given the flexibility of the room, there is surely scope to try out different audience layouts, especially when such intimate solo instruments are featured. 

(Photo: Christopher Bowen)

Ken Walton

The Beacon’s first Classical Series continues with the Malamatina Guitar Quartet (26 Feb), saxophonist Dean Walker Garrity (March), accordionist Ryan Corbett (April) and ends in June with harpsichordist John Butt performing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Details at 

SCO / Stout & McKay

City Halls, Glasgow

While the SCO’s mission on Friday was fundamentally to operate as a backing band for folk duo Chris Stout (violin) and Catriona McKay (Scottish harp), the whistling and cheering from this Celtic Connections audience must surely have compensated. Rarely does a regular SCO City Halls audience mark its presence with anything beyond polite applause or a stifled cough. In truth, classical music could do with more of this unrestrained encouragement. 

But let’s not kid ourselves. The real focus for Friday’s uninhibited following was Stout and McKay, and a brand of music, rooted in progressive folk and embraced by an unpretentious sophistication that engenders its wide appeal. 

They opened with Seavaigers, written for them ten years ago by Sally Beamish, and ended with the duo’s own musical reverie, Glenshee. In between were equally substantial works based on poetry by Shetland-born Christie Williamson, himself present and involved, plus songs by Irishman Liam Ó Maonlaí that acted more inconsequentially as miscellaneous stocking fillers.

Otherwise the concert bore unified purpose under the overarching title Möder Dy, how Shetlanders describe the ocean’s mysterious undercurrents. There was instant reference to that in Seavaigers, a powerfully expressive scene-setter in which Beamish threads traditional influences through her trademark modernism. Stout and McKay brought it thrillingly to life in a wide-ranging performance that shifted inexorably from whispered mystique to mountainous swells of foot-stamping exuberance.

More substantial were the three lengthy musical responses to Williamson’s poetry that were, on paper, the meat of the programme. Williamson’s own vocal presence, pre-empting each musical moment with the relevant lines from his watery allegory, Waves Whisper, was one of slightly dishevelled informality. Maybe that’s the way of poets, but he should have stuck to the readings and left the casual asides to the more charismatic Stout. 

All three performances were predominantly showpieces for the front line and, to some extent, guest percussionist James Mackintosh, whose feathery brushstrokes on kit were more visually than audibly stimulating. As for Stout (alternating between violin and ruminative viola) and McKay, they commanded exclusive attention through their breathtaking chemistry, each knowing instinctively what nuance or dramatic change of gear the other was implying.

There wasn’t that much for the SCO to do in the Williamson-inspired pieces other than act as wallpaper, albeit peppered with momentary flourishes, but they did so with unstinting professionalism under the alert baton of James Lowe. More refreshing, perhaps, was that eventual escape to what Stout described as “a sonic postcard from Glenshee”, a sequence of contrasting tableaux touched up with rich Highland imagery and plenty of “wish you were here” sentiment.

Stout and McKay had no intention of leaving things there. Anticipating a call for a valedictory “set of reels”, they obliged, now very much in boisterous home territory. They are a dynamic duo, with a stage presence that plays to their distinctive personae: Stout’s rock-fuelled stomp and bad boy cool versus McKay’s matronly insouciance and smouldering sensuality. Maybe they should rebrand as Nigel and Nigella – Kennedy and Lawson, that is, just to be absolutely clear!. 

Ken Walton

RSNO / Søndergård

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

The only scheduled speaking from the stage on Friday night was at the start of the concert, when leader Maya Iwabuchi invited her former violin pupil and now featured young composer, Lisa Robertson, to introduce her premiering work, am fior-eun.

However, music director Thomas Søndergård could plainly not let the evening end without thanking the audience for turning out in such numbers and bringing such vocal enthusiasm. This was an Usher Hall filled to the rafters as the Edinburgh Festival would be delighted to see it, proving that the Celtic Connections festival at the other end of the M8 has no monopoly on January ticket sales.

If the music-lovers came out for the promise of Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto and Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, they brought ears receptive enough to greet new music with cheers of appreciation.

Robertson’s piece may be briefer than the 19th century works that followed, but it is on no lesser scale. Selected from the harvest of the RSNO’s Composer Hub project, it glories in the opportunity to compose for a full orchestra with a score that swooped across the available talent onstage like the eagles near Robertson’s West Highland home that it depicts.

Here was music that not only realised every word of the composer’s eloquent statement of her intention, but was audibly made in collaboration with those now playing it, extended techniques from strings, winds and percussion included. That’s not to say that others will not want to play it – such a colourful depiction of the Scottish landscape is sure to find further performances – but that these musicians set the bar for those who follow them very high indeed.

It was also a perfect appetiser for what Søndergård and soloist Francesco Piemontesi had in store. In the way of current programme typography style shared by the RSNO and the BBC Scottish, there was an adjective on the cover of this weekend’s booklet: “Majestic”. It was no idle boast, because this was a concert that was all about making a big impression, as Lisa Robertson certainly had.

Piemontesi is a pianist who can tailor his performance to every occasion, and this was him giving it large. In collaboration with the conductor we heard Beethoven in all his majesty, and full of drama.

Did Søndergård overstate the transition into the Finale? Perhaps. But could he have asked the strings to push even more in the slow movement? Possibly also true. Certainly, there was no risk of the soloist being overwhelmed by the orchestra – Piemontesi was on fire from the first bar to the last.

The Brahms was just as epic, Søndergård drawing a clear distinction between how a full-sized symphony orchestra should play this music and more modest “period” interpretations, using bold fluctuations in tempo without sacrificing any precision. There may have been swifter Brahms symphonies, but few as rich.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow 

This was a programme that invited multiple layers of curiosity. How does Bach sit full-on, head-to-head with Stravinsky? Is repertoire that uses bits and pieces of a symphony orchestra, but never its full complement at one sitting, an efficient use of resources? Would such a stylised programme from the BBC SSO, augmented by the London-based BBC Singers, pull in the crowds? Under the programme’s originator, SSO chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, these questions were duly answered.

The pairing of Bach and Stravinsky was, indeed, an inspired proposition, especially as the latter was represented by two of his Neoclassical hits – the chilling intensity of the Symphony of Psalms and steely austerity of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments – and Stravinsky’s own arrangement of Bach’s Canonic Variations on “Von Himmel hoch”, originally for organ, here impishly rewired for mixed-bag ensemble and chorus. 

Against that, Bach’s funeral cantata, “Komm, Jesu, komm!”, and his exuberant D major Magnificat offered contrasting visions of a composer whose life’s work was dedicated “to the greater glory of God” – the contemplative genius reaching deep into the human soul, and the unharnessed virtuoso illuminating the famous Song of Mary with inimitable lustre.

It was a juxtaposition well worth savouring and contemplating. Wigglesworth seemed infinitely more at ease with Bach. In the cantata, requiring only a three-man continuo in support of the chorus, he adopted a poetic approach, which certainly gave the singers ample latitude to express the suppleness of the writing. In the wake of the Canonic Variations, a veritable cornucopia of Stravinskian hooliganism, the calming aura of such pure-grained Bach was a welcome touch.

It also cleared the air for the ensuing Symphony of Psalms, now with a larger ensemble in a work that uses near-mystical restraint to power its emotional soul. A cautious start from Wigglesworth had its worrying moments. His grasp tightened as the performance progressed, but not always with enough rhythmic tautness, or that vital sting in attack, to generate the “wow” factor. More a safe performance than a moving one.

Similar issues denied the Symphonies of Wind Instruments the sustained captivation and momentum it crucially needs. Not so with Bach’s Magnificat, though, which earned its place as the evening’s sparkling peroration. Now there was fire in the belly, spirited and stylish Baroque playing from the SSO topped by the nimble virtuosity of the trumpets, deliciously eloquent obligato solos from the woodwind, and a polished, solid performance from the BBC Singers, the solos issued from within its ranks.

So yes, this programme, courageous and ingenious, was also stimulating and coherent. The smooth choreography that eased such extreme switches in orchestration and layout between successive pieces was, in itself, a work of art. And there was enough of an audience to appreciate the boldness of the venture and to play its part in animating the live broadcast on BBC Radio 3. 

Ken Walton 

This programme was repeated in Perth. Listen again on BBC Sounds

RPS Awards nominees

The shortlists for this year’s Royal Philharmonic Society Awards includes a diverse trio of nominees from Scotland, alongside many others who are regular visitors or sometime residents.

Aberdeen’s sound festival is nominated in the Series and Events category for its 2021 festival, which explored the climate emergency through specially commissioned works and environmentally themed performances. Performers and audience members were encouraged to travel to the festival using sustainable modes of transport and the programme included a ground-breaking multi-media chamber work by composer Laura Bowler which saw soprano Juliet Fraser performing in Aberdeen with the Talea Ensemble streamed live from New York.

Director Fiona Robertson said of the nomination: “It recognises the contribution that the arts sector can make, both practically and artistically, to the climate emergency. It shows that it is possible to bring some of the world’s leading performers and composers to a festival in the UK, without an enormous carbon footprint.”

In the Opera and Music Theatre category Scottish Opera is up against ENO’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Garsington’s Orfeo and Theatre of Sound and Opera Ventures’ Bluebeard’s Castle, and unusually not linked to a single production. The citation reads: “Scottish Opera are on a roll. From their hilarious, magical take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream to their community-driven Candide, all their ventures this year have embodied their signature spirit and talent for magnetising audiences from near and far.”

Given the task of unveiling the shortlists on BBC Radio 3’s Breakfast show, Edinburgh’s Kate Molleson modestly omitted the Storytelling category, presumably as the writer and broadcaster herself is nominated for her acclaimed book exploring 20th century composition beyond the mainstream, Sound Within Sound. She is competing with James Runcie’s Bach novel The Great Passion and Manchester Camerata’s short film Untold: Keith.

The awards have been described as the classical music BAFTAs, but VoxCarnyx prefers to think of the BAFTAs as the RPS Awards for film and television! 

The full shortlists are available at and the winners will be announced on March 1 in London.

SCO / Leleux

City Halls, Glasgow

It is a terrible thing to say of a Frenchman, especially one who cuts a sartorial dash on the podium, but Francois Leleux is not the most elegant of conductors in his gestures. He is, however, supremely eloquent, his intention always clear and his stick hand unafraid to ensure that everyone is on the beat.

So the unusual lack of sparkle in some of the playing from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on Friday night was not down to him, and nor could the blame be laid at the door of the SCO winds, who tend to pull out all the stops for their kindred spirit, whether or not Leleux is actually playing his oboe.

Best guess might be in the absence of familiar faces leading the lower strings, although the guest musicians in their place were all quality performers in their own right. The difference was perhaps marginal, but detectable, especially after the interval with a perfectly fine, but not in any way exceptional, account of Schubert’s Symphony No 4, the somewhat ill-named “Tragic”, and in Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, which preceded it and was less meteorologically dramatic than it can be.

The more interesting music was in the first half, when Leleux was the soloist in fellow oboist Andreas Tarkmann’s recent arrangement for oboe and strings of Mendelssohn’s popular piano pieces, Songs Without Words. Leleux played six of the seven, chosen it would seem for the contrasts they offered. Here was the small double-reed instrument showing off its full range and a dazzling tonal palette. It would be wrong to describe the result as a demonstration of virtuosity, rather it is a showpiece for the capabilities of the instrument.

It is said that Louise Farrenc was acclaimed by Paris in the same era as Mendelssohn for the novelty of her gender as a composer as much as for the quality of the music. Contemporary sexism, on the other hand, simply underrates her if her Symphony No 3 in G Minor from 1847 is any guide. She clearly owes a debt to Beethoven, but there is no plagiarism in her work, rather a shared language and compositional techniques, particularly in the outer movements.

The heart of the work is a beautifully-shaped, if melodically unmemorable slow movement, with first clarinet Maximiliano Martin in the lead role, and a terrific Scherzo, which trips along at pace and has the better tune.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Böhm

Ayr Town Hall

So many times in the past, a programme by the BBC SSO geared primarily for its Glasgow City Halls’ home has either proved unsuitable for its repeat in Ayr, or is downscaled to suit the acoustical constraints of the smaller venue. This programme, however, was already of perfect dimensions and may even have benefitted more from the intimate warmth this bijou municipal venue favours. 

The larger-scored of the works – Prokofiev’s feverishly sweet Violin Concerto No 2 and Schubert’s crystalline Fifth Symphony – are hardly symbols of orchestral brute force. Instead, Prokofiev’s concerto, played here by the characterful Dutch-born violinist Rosanne Philippens, pits a zestful protagonist against a mutable kaleidoscopic spray of orchestral colour, its spiced delicacies only marginally threatened by the irksome persistence of the bass drum. Schubert’s Fifth looks back to Beethoven and Mozart, lithe and cheery, softened by the composer’s instinctive lyrical genius.

The young Austro-Spanish conductor Teresa Riveiro Böhm was in many ways a refreshing presence on the rostrum. A few years ago she spent time at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland  on a Leverhulme Conducting Fellowship that included mentorship via the BBC SSO, and has recently been appointed associate conductor at Welsh National Opera. On this latest evidence she was a visibly safe pair of hands, clear and precise with a decisive spring in her step. 

That certainly helped energise the Prokofiev, which was rhythmically catching and where conductor and soloist shared a mutual spark. Philippens was the prominent driving force, her fiery outer movements dancing to the music’s sardonic pleasures, contrasted in turn by the bittersweet tensions of the central Andante. Böhm’s handling of the orchestral balance wasn’t always as acute as it could have been, some of the most sensitive delights lost to what seemed a textural free-for-all. Philippens endorsed her dazzling persona with a Romanian folk-inspired encore by Enescu. 

Böhm’s Schubert did her far greater justice. Elegance and crispness underpinned her vision, as well as a far greater control of motivic interaction as the directional force. The slow movement may have underplayed Schubert’s prescribed “con moto”, but there was ample poetic soul in the lingering, lyrical lines to give it meaning and bearing. It was the expressive heart of a performance whose opening and closing Allegros harnessed natural, life-giving energy, and whose Menuetto was as naturally breezy as it was tightly disciplined.

Both works alternated with refreshing curiosities by female composers. The opener was by Bacewicz, her Divertimento for string orchestra, written four years before her death in 1965. Its combination of beguiling modernism, as influenced by fellow Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, with the pragmatic austerity of, say, Bartok or Hindemith, had clearly reached a point of magical synthesis by this stage in her life. The SSO strings captured that well in an incisive performance, clinically assertive in the outer movements, conjuring up an air of unworldly suspension in the central Adagio.

The Schubert was prefaced by the UK premiere of Lera Auerbach’s Eterniday (a linguistic elision of “eternity” and day”), which the American composer wrote in 2010 in response to the loss of her sketches the previous year in a fire at her New York studio. Formatted like a Baroque concert grosso, the central solo quintet vying with the larger surrounding ripieno, it represents, according to the composer, “something everlasting and fragile, yet blended together into one”.

Sure enough, the sound world is outwardly translucent with a heated density countering its natural inclination to float away into the ether. There’s drama in the series of fearsome, coruscating crescendos, abruptly shut off as they reach deafening point to reveal awesome punctuating silences. The impact of a glistening celeste diametrically opposed to the menacing cipher of the bass drum adds a signature surprise. 

Like everything else on Friday, it was of a scale that blossomed in this compact venue. 

Ken Walton

Glasgow Bach Cantata Project

St Margaret’s Church, Newlands

It’s well known that Bach, during his 27 years as cantor in Leipzig, wrote his weekly church cantatas like cars coming off a production line. This gave little time for rehearsal, so goodness knows what the performances were like – we have precious little on written record to gauge that by – but the music itself, as history has proven, was top drawer.

So there is an exciting relevance in the way the Glasgow Bach Cantata project has structured its initial series of concerts, driven by project coordinator Geraldine Mynors and co-directed by Michael Bawtree and Frikki Walker, and its dual objectives of raising money for the Glasgow City Mission (which provides much-needed grassroots help for the city’s homeless) and celebrating such uplifting music.

This was Concert Number 4 in an ambitious series that has already raised around £1500 for the Mission. It took place within the Neo-Romanesque elegance of St Margaret’s Church Newlands, on Glasgow’s south side, and featured three resplendent cantatas written specifically for this New Year period of Epiphany. Michael Bawtree directed a chorus and orchestra brought together on the day who offered their services free of charge, simply for the love of taking part. The performances reflected that glowing, instinctive enthusiasm and dedication.

It’s a fact that Bach, when he really wanted to make a joyful noise, employed three trumpets unrelentingly scored at their dizziest heights. Such a presence on Sunday – three gallant and exceptional students from the RCS – lit up the majority of performances that most certainly embraced the spirit of the music, ably negotiated the perils of Bach’s challenging writing, even if the chorus struggled at times to carry comfortably over the orchestra.

That was a diminishing issue as the programme progressed, so that the final work, the Epiphany section (Part 6) of the Christmas Oratorio, bore all the lustre required to send us into the cold Glasgow night with a satisfied inner warmth.

Bawtree’s practical and precise direction elicited nimble, eloquent support from a cast that drew its soloists from within the ranks. Soprano Aisling McCarthy applied fresh assertiveness to the aria Nur din Wink, with Rona Macleod’s plaintive oboe d’amore as a ravishing supportive presence. In the foregoing cantata, Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange (BWV 155), written during Bach’s earlier employment at the court at Weimar, and with its emphasis on solo numbers, the duet Du must glauben proved a highlight thanks to the mellifluous interaction of alto Emily Hodgkinson and tenor Peter Cooper.

If the opening work, Jesu, nun sei gepreiset (BWV 41), took time to settle in terms of balance, its success lay, as with the entire programme, in an unrelenting spiritedness that never once allowed Bach’s music to wallow or sag. 

Yes, there were dicey moments where minimum rehearsal presumably played its part, especially in the tricky accompanied recitatives, and having the choir repeatedly shift between the choir stalls and performance area was visibly messy and probably unnecessary. But this was ultimately a commendable exercise, delivered with all the right intentions and favourable musical outcomes – and all for a great cause.

Ken Walton

The next Glasgow Bach Cantata concert is at St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Glasgow on Sat 11 March.

SCO / Swensen

City Halls, Glasgow

The slightly cheesy title, “Musique Amerique”, that the Scottish Chamber Orchestra gave to its first season programme of 2023, should not detract from what was one of the most fascinating concerts given by the band’s Conductor Emeritus, Joseph Swensen, in recent years.

Its conceit was the traffic of musical ideas between Europe and America in the earlier part of the 20th century, a trade that not only brought US composers to the fore on this side of The Pond but radically transformed the practice of those in Russia and Germany as well as France.

The focus here was on Paris, with two members of composers’ collective Les Six, Milhaud and Poulenc, opening and closing the evening. Poulenc’s four-movement Sinfonietta, from 1947, was the most conventionally-shaped score in the concert, and the only one to employ a recognisably entire SCO. The musical material within that structure, however, was very much of its era, with a recognisable debt to film music from behind the Iron Curtain as well as Hollywood, and echoes of the cabaret and music hall stage – but then Francis Poulenc was very much a man of the theatre.

Darius Milhaud’s La creation du monde was composed for what may have been a fascinating ballet that mixed quasi-African creation myths with elements of the book of Genesis, but perhaps more limited to its time. Half a century before Steve Reich’s work of that name, however, it is “Music for 18 musicians”, and the fact that Milhaud taught Reich (as well as Philip Glass, Burt Bacharach and Dave Brubeck) may be no coincidence.

It is a terrifically colourful suite, full of early jazz influence and often sounding even more modern, with an arco bass solo paving the way for the first brass interjection and many attention-grabbing duo combinations: flute and cello; oboe and horn. The closing section is built around a riff that starts in pizzicato low strings before involving the whole band, and is ripe for rediscovery by a contemporary jazz ensemble.

The heart of the evening lay across the Atlantic, with the SCO’s principal clarinet the featured soloist. Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto is meat and drink to Maximiliano Martin, even if Benny Goodman, who commissioned it, found the score the composer delivered trickier to play than he’d anticipated.

It was followed, after the interval, by an orchestration of Bernstein’s precocious Clarinet Sonata, composed during his student years at a Tanglewood summer school when he was being mentored by Copland. Martin has played the piece a lot in recent years, with pianist Scott Mitchell and the man behind the piano for the SCO, Simon Smith, but I had not previously heard this orchestration (strings, piano, and some very effective and often subtle tuned and untuned percussion from Tom Hunter).

The arrangement is the work of Sid Ramin, who died in 2019 aged 100, a collaborator with Bernstein on West Side Story, and then orchestrator of musicals by Sondheim and others. Written in 1994, after Bernstein’s death, it softens the work in places and makes it less obviously a virtuoso clarinet showpiece, but was nonetheless well worth hearing as part of a very thoughtful and immaculately-performed programme.

Keith Bruce

BBC Music Show Cuts

BBC Radio Scotland’s rumoured plan to axe a huge swathe of its specialist music programming has now been confirmed. A news exclusive this week by the Scotsman’s arts correspondent Brian Ferguson extracted a response from the press office at Pacific Quay that neither denied BBC Scotland’s intentions nor offered a convincing argument for the controversial decision.

Widely discussed over the festive season, Ferguson’s story confirmed that both Classics Unwrapped, presented by tenor Jamie MacDougall and Jazz Nights, fronted by singer and violinist Seonaid Aitken (pictured), had been “decommissioned” in response to the freezing of the licence fee and a shift from broadcast to digital output.

Added to the news that pipe music programme, Pipeline, was to lose its broadcast slot – revealed to writer and piper Rab Wallace before Christmas – the changes amount to the cancellation of the BBC Scotland’s commitment to much of its weekend broadcasting of traditional and classical music, opera and jazz.

Although BBC insiders believe that the cost-cutting measure is unlikely to be reversed, political condemnation of the organisation has been swift and widespread. Two of Scotland’s best known musicians, tenor saxophonist and educator Tommy Smith and composer and conductor Sir James MacMillan, have started online petitions opposing the decisions to cut Jazz Nights and Classics Unwrapped.

The new director of the Edinburgh International Festival, violinist Nicola Benedetti, quickly added her voice, and the campaign has also been supported by Creative Scotland’s Head of Music, Alan Morrison.

The justification for the axing of the programmes has looked desperately thin, with Smith and others pointing out that the programmes’ budgets will represent a small saving and Ferguson speculating that sports coverage has been ring-fenced at the expense of the arts.

It certainly looks like an abdication of responsibility on the part of BBC Scotland to curtail its support, reporting and discussion of areas of music that are a distinct national success story and whose funding is built into the political settlement of devolved government in Edinburgh.

Although its main paymaster is BBC Radio 3, it is also true that the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is a local asset paid scant attention by BBC Scotland itself, and whose long-term future is hardly helped by the decision.

Few will also be persuaded by the BBC Scotland spokesperson’s glib statement about a shift towards digital, when more thoughtful strategies of parallel development are being pursued elsewhere in the BBC. As the range of formats and platforms employed for recorded music has long demonstrated, consumers do not follow such a linear path but prefer to be able to choose and use the full range of what is on offer.

That it has been left to an un-named press officer to justify the cuts also speaks volumes of a decision that has been made to achieve savings without affecting BBC Scotland’s narrow definition of its core activity and staffing. A senior management representative should be called to account in the face of the vociferous opposition to the changes.

RSNO: Viennese Gala

Perth Concert Hall

The challenge with any traditional orchestral Viennese Gala is to make it more than just a routine January roll out. There’s not much you can do with the music itself – it will always be a core diet of Strauss family favourites, otherwise what’s the point? So it boils down to a presentation and performance format that will give the evening the necessary zing factor. This Perth performance by the RSNO was the first in a line of repeat presentations heading around parts of Scotland till next weekend.

By the time it reaches Saturday’s final destination in Greenock I suspect this particular Viennese Gala will be as svelte as any Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Day broadcast, but with more of a homely flavour as befits an audience probably reared on the couthy fireside charm of The White Heather Club. 

Thanks then to Scots broadcaster and versatile tenor Jamie MacDougall for doing not so much his Andy Stewart, but a creditable Bill McCue in peppering this tinselly sequence of Strauss perennials with an engaging mix of song and patter.

This was welcome in periodically whisking us away from the stylised 19th century Vienna populism so monopolised by the Strauss family business. MacDougall unleashed his inner John McCormack in the glorious sentimentalism that characterises such schmalzy numbers as pre-World War II German film composer Werner Richard Heymann’s Ein blonder Traum, Rudolf Sieczyński’s one-hit wonder, Vienna, City of My Dreams, or one actually made famous by McCormack, Charles Marshall’s I Hear You Calling Me.

The only detraction from these was a seemingly low-set amplification level, which left MacDougall partially unheard in the earlier songs. Correction made all the difference in the second half, making such further gems as Juventino Rosas’ The Loveliest Night of the Year and the more melancholy hue of Paolo Tosti’s L’ultima Canzona easy listening in every sense.

If MacDougall livened up the continuity, the conductor David Niemann – in his RSNO debut – responded with equally lithesome musical direction, evident straight off in the opening Overture from Johann Strauss II’s popular opera Die Fledermaus. For the most part, he garnered a rich response from the orchestra, at their best in the same composer’s febrile Thunder and Lightning Waltz, the more reserved ebullience of the Emperor Waltz, and in a quirky novelty piece, Künstler-Quadrille, that pieces together snatches of themes by other composers, almost too many to count.

Things weren’t so refined in the famous Blue Danube, where Niemann’s excessive temporal deliberations seemed to fox the players. Among the non-Strauss works, the same issue imbued Delibes’ Pizzicato Polka with a few stray plucks, unlike the hearty confidence exhibited in the foregoing Brahms Hungarian Dance. 

Other Strausses featured: brother Josef’s Ohne Sorgen! Polka, with its additionally notated guffaws from the players; and Johann Strauss I’s rousing Radetzky March as a programmed encore that very nearly didn’t happen. Niemann lingered overlong on his return to the stage, resulting in the audience applause fading prematurely. He made it, just in time to make it happen. 

Having served Dunfermline and Langholm since, and with Inverness and Musselburgh to come this week en route to Greenock, this enjoyable programme will probably be running like clockwork now.

Ken Walton

Further performances at Eden Court, Inverness (12 Jan), The Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh (13 Jan) and Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock (14 Jan)

ERCU Messiah / MacMillan

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

TO the ears of those who have heard John Butt whisk the Dunedin Consort through Part One of Handel’s Messiah in well under an hour, Sir James MacMillan’s conducting debut of the work will not have sounded very pacey at all.

Truth to tell, the older members of Edinburgh Royal Choral Union – a choir that now boasts a healthy number of younger faces – have probably been asked to sing their annual New Year staple faster in some pre-pandemic performances. But if the unhurried approach MacMillan took denied his stated intention when he spoke to VoxCarnyx before the concert, that was probably for the best. What we heard was a very expressive, but never bombastic, Messiah where the story-telling took precedence over any darker liturgical message.

The choir can take a great deal of the credit for that, dispatching the trickier choruses with panache, only coming apart slightly in Part Two’s penultimate one, Let us break their bonds, but recovering quickly. Edinburgh’s Pro-Musica Orchestra were also a crucial factor in the light touch, fielding RSNO and Scottish Opera players alongside the freelances under the leadership of the Grit Orchestra’s Greg Lawson, and with ERCU director Michael Bawtree at the harpsichord and John Kitchen in a telling supporting role on the Usher Hall organ.

But the key ingredient for many in the completely filled hall on Monday afternoon was the quartet of young soloists, three of them – soprano Catriona Hewitson, mezzo Catherine Backhouse, and baritone Paul Grant – born in Edinburgh, and, alongside Royal Scottish Conservatoire-trained tenor Kieran White, all representatives of a new generation of highly-accomplished young voices.

For them, the old distinctions between big choral society Messiahs with hundreds of singers and historically-informed chamber choir recitals of the work are ancient history. What they have learned to do is give their own best performance of the oratorio, individually and collectively, in the most communicative way possible.

That is exactly what happened for the rapt audience in the capital from White’s gently-crooned “Comfort ye my people” onwards, Grant upping the ante with his sharply-enunciated shaking of all the nations, before Backhouse’s run of arias foretelling the birth of Christ, rich in her lower register with a delicious flourish at the end of Malachi’s “refiner’s fire”.

The narrative stepped up another notch with the shift to the Gospel texts and soprano Hewitson, who delivered the story as if she was announcing the good news for the very first time to an intimate circle of friends.

The flow of nice interpretative detail continued after the interval in Backhouse’s He Was Despised and the sequence of choruses from the same chapter of Isaiah. This choir demonstrates a dynamic range that is a rare skill among large amateur choruses, and MacMillan made full use of that.

Hewitson’s How beautiful are the feet was a little jewel amongst those choruses, and both she and Grant – on Why do the nations? and The trumpet shall sound – gave excellent accounts of the best known arias in Parts Two and Three.

With all the usual cuts to the full score, this was not an epic Messiah, and nor was it an especially “authentic” one, but it was a performance that everyone in the capacity house savoured from start to finish.

Keith Bruce

RSNO Messiah / McGegan

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Messiahs come in all shapes and sizes, from old-fashioned, heavily-populated Edwardian-style marathons that take forever and a day, to the meatless extremes of the ultra-purists who favour briskness and a cast-size that would just about fit into a lift. Thankfully the music is mostly indestructible.

With bouncy septuagenarian Baroque specialist Nicholas McGegan in charge of Monday’s traditional New Year performance by the RSNO, Handel’s evergreen oratorio came as a sleek, svelte and stylish package. What really mattered, though, were the alluring intimacies, theatrical subtleties, refreshing surprises and the quietly overwhelming unity he brought to a work that many of this sizeable audience could easily have sung along to.

Some did, like those around me unable to resist joining in the Hallelujah Chorus, clearly imagining a sound in their head far removed from the tuneless grunts that actually emerged. But maybe that’s what Classical Music is missing, that spontaneous urge to go at it Glastonbury-style if the urge takes you. Next we’ll be waving our phone lights to For behold, darkness shall cover the earth.

In truth, it merely reflected the personableness of McGegan’s vision, brought seamlessly to life by a nimble RSNO Chorus, the sprightly bite of a Baroque-sized RSNO, and a superbly matched solo quartet notwithstanding the unexpected presence of Peter Harvey as a last-minute replacement for the advertised bass-baritone Stephan Loges, who was ill.

The latter group were a star act. Tenor Jamie MacDougall set the scene with his opening Comfort ye and Every valley, his eyes fixed firmly on the audience rather than the score, immediately establishing a warm and vital connection. 

From hereon in, the narrative was foremost, whether issued through the gorgeous willowy countertenor of William Towers (magically enhanced by the delicate darting incision of the strings in For he is like a refiner’s fire), the seraphic purity of Mhairi Lawson’s soprano (thoughtfully changing her garb from angelic white in Part 1 to a more demure black in Parts II & III for such golden reflective moments as her I know that my redeemer liveth), or Peter Harvey’s triumphant The trumpet shall sound.

The chorus, trained by Stephen Doughty, echoed impressively that charisma, negotiating Handel’s contrapuntal trickery with effortless precision. And I did like McGegan’s mischievous quirks in getting them to stand up amusingly at key moments in the soloist’s texts – “The kings of the earth rise up,” for instance. 

They presented a neatly balanced front, beautifully blended, words clear as crystal, intently responsive to McGegan’s nuanced direction. As did the lithesome RSNO, pert and essential in its role, quietly supportive yet crucial and characterful at every turn. 

Perhaps the most satisfying outcome of this Messiah was the success with which McGegan’s limited forces managed to fill the vastness of this 2000-seater hall, not just with actual sound (there were, to be sure, odd moments where a greater explosion of sound might have been welcomed), but with an expressiveness that genuinely pierced the soul. Granted, there were one or two unsynchronised glitches in Part II, but only passing ones and never so much as to undermine the compelling spirit of this sprightly performance.

Ken Walton

A trad New Year

The conductors of Handel’s Messiah in Glasgow and Edinburgh on January 2 talk to Keith Bruce

As young musicians they came to Handel’s masterwork as a trumpet player and a flautist, but this year James MacMillan and Nicholas McGegan are on the podium for the New Year concerts of Messiah in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. For one it is a conducting debut, while the other has been part of the revolution in historically-informed performances of the work for more than four decades.

“I went to performances of it as a boy in Cumnock,” remembers MacMillan. “The local choral union was the Kyle Choral Union and they used to put on performances of Messiah and other oratorios. In fact one of my earliest trumpet memories is of playing third trumpet in a performance of Handel’s Judas Maccabeus in New Cumnock when I was 12 or 13 with the Kyle Choral Union. So they performed Messiah as well, with amateur players from around Ayrshire.”

McGegan recalls playing flute in the Prout orchestration of the work when he was at high school in Nottingham, and then being disappointed to find out that Handel had not written flute parts at all.

He was at the harpsichord when he played it in a seminal performance at Westminster Abbey in 1979, under the baton of Christopher Hogwood with his Academy of Ancient Music.

“It was about zero degrees and I was wearing fingerless Bob Cratchit gloves, and soprano Emma Kirkby had thermal underwear underneath her Laura Ashley dress.”

Understandably, however, McGegan recalls that era as a thrilling time when baroque repertoire was being re-thought.

“I ran intro Chris Hogwood at Cambridge in 1970. He was living at the top of a house owned by Sir Nicholas Shackleton, whose collection of wind instruments is now at Edinburgh University. I was loaned an 18th century flute and I went to the library and got hold of a treatise to learn how to play it, so I ended up playing second flute on the first recording of the Academy of Ancient Music.

“It was an exciting time; Trevor Pinnock was also around and a lot of this music was being done for the first time in many years. I was a slightly junior member of the team: Chris and Trevor and John Eliot Gardiner were all about ten years older than me. I played the harpsichord for them and, when necessary, the flute, and I was part of the project.”

It was in the USA that McGegan graduated to conducting the work, in the middle of the following decade.

“I remember directing my first Messiah absolutely to the day. It was December 1986 with the St Louis Symphony and the soprano, as she was then, was the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and it was her first Messiah too. She was a remarkable artist and in 91 I was able to record it with her.”

This year McGegan is once again at the helm of the RSNO and RSNO Chorus, with soloists soprano Mhairi Lawson, counter-tenor William Towers, tenor Jamie MacDougall and bass-baritone Stephen Loges. On the same afternoon, composer James MacMillan conducts the work for the first time for Edinburgh Royal Choral Union, where Catriona Hewitson, Catherine Backhouse, Kieran White and Paul Grant are the soloists.

“I sang bits of it later in my student years,” says MacMillan, “but a lot of the music I sang at school and university was earlier and I never sang the big choral union sort of pieces. So preparing for this performance there has been a lot that felt like seeing and hearing it for the first time.

“Some of the arias I really didn’t know and the breadth that Messiah travels over its three parts is incredible, not just from Christmas to the Crucifixion but as a piece of music drama. It really takes you on a journey with a whole range of emotions and moods. I can see now why it established itself as a deeply loved masterpiece.

“The hinterland now is the difference of approach from the big choral union tradition to what the early music world has brought to it, with smaller choirs and a tighter, more authentic instrumental approach.

“All that has to be taken on board and that might be the reason why I’ve never conducted it before, because there is a specialism and scholarship to Baroque and Pre-Baroque music that puts barriers up for the rest of us. My choral music was earlier, unaccompanied music, but most of the orchestral music I’ve conducted in the last 20-odd years or so is later, so coming to Messiah for the first time is a new thing for me.”

At the same time, MacMillan’s own composing life has moved from smaller, unaccompanied motets toward exactly the shape of work that Handel undertook after his operas.

“In recent times I’ve written a lot of big oratorios – the Christmas Oratorio, the St John Passion and the St Luke Passion – and I suppose they acknowledge the historical hinterland of Handel’s oratorios and Bach’s cantatas and passions – it’s all there in the mix. You grow up with this music and it leaves an indelible mark, sometimes subliminally, on a composer’s mind.”

The Covid pandemic had yet to silence choirs around the world when McGegan last conducted in Glasgow, where he thinks he counts as a local boy because of his years as Principal Guest Conductor at Scottish Opera, and the flat he still has in the city’s west end.

“New Year 2020 was the last time I was with the RSNO, just before the pandemic, so a lot of the same people will be playing in the orchestra and I hope some of the audience will be the same too.

“What I do is bring my own orchestra parts, with my bowings, the dynamics and articulation written in. I’ve worked with nearly all the soloists before, either in Messiah or other projects – people like Jamie MacDougall and I go way back, Will Towers and I have done opera together as well as Messiah – so it is like organising a dinner party for friends.

“I first came to Glasgow in 1991 and did The Magic Flute with Scottish Opera two years running. My father was an Edinburgh boy and I had a clutch of rather terrifying great aunts in Morningside, who were horrified that I wanted to work there!

“I had the best time at Scottish Opera, I always enjoyed it. I’ll be 73 next month, but I hope I’ve still got a few Figaros left in me. I did Figaro, Giovanni and Cosi at Scottish Opera and loved every second of it.”

MacMillan may be making his Messiah debut in Edinburgh next week, but he has other concerts of the work upcoming.

“This time is very experimental for me, but I get to do it again a couple of times in December next year in Australia. I have been asked to conduct it with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in the week before my Christmas Oratorio. I think they thought if they were having me for one week they might as well have me for two!

“So it is something that will grow as I get to do it a few times. Keeping the pace lively is important and that is something we have all learned from the early music revolution. I’ve taken a couple of rehearsals now and I’ve been delighted how chorusmaster Michael Bawtree has trained the choir. It is very lithe and very light on its feet.

“I’ll bring a composer’s inside view to the process, and whether that’s valuable is for others to decide! I haven’t had a conducting lesson in my life, but I did have a consultation with Sir Colin Davis, who said that I should keep doing what I do, because there is something about a composer’s perspective that is unique. He thought that a contemporary composer’s view of the music of the past is valuable, and I was always encouraged by that.

“And the more I have lived with Messiah, I think there has to be a sense of through-composed travelling and of drama in the performance. I am wondering about whether some of the stopping and starting is really necessary and I might want to push on, so there’s not much hanging about between arias and choruses, and a non-stop feel to where the music is going.”

It is the non-stop sequence of performances of Messiah that McGegan identifies as one of its unique characteristics.

“It is one of the very few pieces I know that has been in more or less continuous performance since it was written. I know some musicologists would disagree, but I just see the basic story of the prophecies surrounding the birth of Christ, Christ’s life and passion and the resurrection, with the basic tenets of the religion without delving too deeply into the tricky stuff.

“It’s unusual for Handel because nearly all his oratorios have people singing roles. Jesus does not appear as a singing role and in some ways I think that makes it easier for everybody. It is not a portrait of Jesus, it is a portrait of the idea of the religion.

“Handel’s librettist, Charles Jennens, chose the texts very carefully to find the words that were easiest to sing and Handel sets those words very carefully. Handel is a master of writing for choirs, but the choruses are actually much more difficult than people who don’t sing realise. It is a masterpiece of very varied choral writing. That’s why people love it so.”

MacMillan also notes the way the work appeals as much to those of no faith as to the devout.

“When Messiah was first performed in the 1700s, I wonder what kind of mood there would have been in the hall. Would people want to applaud?

“How secular was it? How sacred was it? It seems to be a hybrid form that brought together the sacred and the secular in the world of music.”

The Edinburgh Royal Choral Union Messiah begins at noon in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on January 2. The RSNO and RSNO Chorus perform the work from 3pmon the same day at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

St Mary’s Christmas Concert

St Cuthbert’s, Edinburgh

At the start of 2022, VoxCarnyx was a partner in the campaign by St Mary’s Music School to inform the wider public, particularly in Edinburgh, of plans to transform the historic Royal High School at Calton Hill into a new home for itself and a public concert venue.

As the year comes to a close, approval for the development is in place and work will begin on the site next year. It is likely to be 2026 before the school has relocated from its current home in the west end of the city, but there was nonetheless a real sense of celebration at the school’s year-end concert that the 50th anniversary of St Mary’s starting instrumental teaching in Edinburgh has been marked by such a decisive step forward.

The younger pupils who performed on Monday evening – and the Junior Strings included a trio of girls from P5 – will see and soundtrack that move. Here they opened the instrumental programme with Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, a work paralleled by the Handel of the older players in the Early Music Group, directed by the Dunedin Consort’s Hilary Michael and featuring some round-toned oboe from Alasdair Cottee.

A violinist in that group, India Reilly, would lead the senior orchestra in the concluding performance of Haydn’s Symphony No 56, while Sixth Form viola player Daisy Richards was the soloist and director of a nonet of strings for Hindemith’s Trauermusik. There was an admirable autonomy in that bold decision, but the lack of a steering hand from a conductor was audible in both cases. The inclusion of a pair of alto saxophones in the orchestra would have surprised the composer, but I’d suggest probably please him too.

The first half of the concert was bracketed with singing, from the St Mary’s Cathedral Choristers at the start and the school’s Senior and Junior Choirs at its end. Californian composer Frank Ticheli’s Earth Song was a highlight of the latter, while Manhattan-domiciled Norwegian Ola Gjeilo’s very traditional Sanctus showcased the pure tone of the young sopranos.

The premiere of the night was by school alumnus Simon David Smith, and the latest in St Mary’s Seven Hills Project. Working with a collection of poems written by Alexander McCall Smith, who read his “Corstorphine Hill” before the performance, the project celebrates the capital’s topography with seven composers commissioned to write music in response to the words.

Smith’s work had prominent roles for John Hall’s soprano saxophone, Daisy Richards and her viola in the pulpit and Carlo Massimo on St Cuthbert’s fine organ. Although its title, A Shared Mystery, came from the last line of McCall Smith’s poem, in fact the writer was musing on the hill’s supposed links with the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, while the composition seemed more interested in the process of creation, and the freedom its structure gave to the players.

Fascinating stuff, and possibly more than idly reflective of the long journey St Mary’s has embarked on during its 50th anniversary.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Manze

City Halls, Glasgow

Throughout the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s near half-century existence, one of the greatest joys has been the orchestra’s intimate connection with Mozart. It was present once again in this final 2022 programme, which featured the classy South Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 27 in B flat, and flashed up pleasurable memories of the complete Mozart concerto series performed with the same magnetic poise by pianist Mitsuko Uchida with the SCO way back in the 1980s.

Eum Son’s delivery had the same honesty and purity about it, lightning finger work precisely placed, an evenness of tone informing crystalline phrase, and a composure that allowed the music to express its intentions with natural elan. That conductor Andrew Manze – whose violin-playing days were once equally notable for their clean-cut Mozart – was of the same mind, brought a satisfying unity of purpose to the performance.

It was clear from the unending applause that Eum Son had no option but to deliver an encore, and boy did she oblige with the chattering brilliance of Moritz Moskowski’s Etincelles (Sparks) Op 36 No 6, like Scarlatti on steroids and offering a pyrotechnic glimpse of the pianist’s showier persona.

All this came immediately after the Concerto for String Orchestra by another amazing woman, Grazyna Bacewicz. As a pioneering female Polish composer in mid-20th-century male-dominated Europe, who had previously established herself as a celebrated violinist, it’s clear from this gutsy work (and others that have increasingly crept into concert programmes in recent years) that she was a voice to to be reckoned with.

Bullish, ultra-confident and instantly arresting, the opening movement was one unstoppable adrenalin rush, Manze drawing visceral heat from his eager, belligerent players. The wrestling complexity of the Allegro, a sizzling cauldron of thematic conflict, gave way to the more restful, rich-textured Andante, before the hi-octane finale, with its rhythmic twists and turns, produced a relentless, resolute dash to the finishing line. 

Manze completed his programme with music more often reserved for larger entities than the SCO, Dvorak’s Symphony No 7 – some may recall a BBC SSO performance a couple of weeks ago under Portuguese conductor Nuno Coelho. What transpired, though, was a refreshing reconsideration of its expressive potential. Where the string numbers were limited, the quality of sound was so alive and intense it captured details in the textural world of this heated symphony that are rarely heard.

As is standard with Manze, this was a programme brimming with refreshing thoughts, studiously intelligent on the one hand, passionately revealing on the other.

Ken Walton

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

BBC SSO / Volkov

City Halls, Glasgow

When the weather outside is frightful, the music can be delightful – and under the baton of Ilan Volkov it needs no garnish of tinsel and holly.

It was admirable how the BBC Scottish put some promotional muscle behind this typically bold programme from the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor, which he enthusiastically commended to music-lovers who don’t feel the need to tuck in to the usual seasonal fare at this time of year. The result was a good attendance, doubtless including some who savour the taste of Volkov’s Tectonics weekend at the same venue in May.

The audience’s reward was a brilliantly-crafted concert, both in its planning and the way the different works – all from the last century but spanning six decades – spoke to one another, and in its execution by the musicians.

The earliest work was Debussy’s Jeux, composed to a Diaghilev commission at the same time as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, but now as likely to be heard for a revival of the tennis court love triangle ballet as in the concert hall. It requires a vast orchestra (there were a few familiar faces from other Scottish outfits as well as freelances augmenting the SSO) and has a huge range of tonal colours. The perhaps predictable harps and flutes feature alongside an extended cor anglais solo and late interjections by the trombones.

What made all the details of the score leap out was the fact that Volkov had preceded it with the rarely-heard Xenakis work, Atrées. More by coincidence than design, the five movements of that piece, composed as the 1950s blossomed into the early 60s, utilised some similar instrumental techniques, picked out in detail by a very specific chamber octet, plus percussionists.

Long before the late Johann Johannsson’s career-making exploration of early IBM computing in Iceland, Xenakis was working with IBM France on music that explored probabilities and referenced mathematical thinking of three centuries previously. The result is a work that exploits the sonic range of each of the instruments as well as the orchestral possibilities of their combination, developing over its 15 minutes in a unique and compelling way. It demanded much of the players, but Volkov’s direction of them could not have been more lucid and precise.

Some of those sounds – especially the use of glissando and pizzicato – would be explored after the interval as well, when Bartok’s masterpiece Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste was prefaced by Ligeti’s Ramifications for strings, from the later 1960s.

Both works require mirroring symmetrical set-ups on stage, with the 12 stringed instruments in the Ligeti in two groups tuned a quarter-tone apart, a dissonance that is sometimes corrected by the fingering. Again it seems unlikely that Ligeti is specifically referencing the Bartok in any way, but Volkov had identified elements of shared language and common reluctance to settle for any conventional notions of harmony. Just as importantly, the exercise of listening to the Ligeti prepared audience ears to appreciate a stonking performance of the Bartok which was full of foreboding in its opening movement and gloriously expressive in its dancing finale.

It is hard to imagine anyone but Volkov delivering such an immaculately-structured programme, and ensuring that it was executed with such precision and finesse. Approaching two decades on from his arrival at Glasgow City Halls as a preciously young Chief Conductor, he still exacts the pinnacle of performance from the members of the BBC SSO.

Keith Bruce

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