Category Archives: Reviews

RSNO / Webster / Iwabuchi

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

The relative self-confinement of orchestras during the past year has thrown up practical but unexpected opportunities. In this latest RSNO digital series concert the current benefits of primarily engaging British guest artists and/or utilising in-house talent once again makes its mark.

In charge of a programme that culminates in Brahms’ meaty Fourth Symphony is the young Angus Webster, barely into his twenties and making his RSNO debut with major international prizes and conducting engagements already under his belt. Guest soloist is none other than the RSNO’s own leader, Maya Iwabuchi, stepping out front – after 10 years in the job – to perform Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto.

Before the might of Brahms and Barber, however, an air of stillness and mystery is established by the two short works that make up Craig Armstrong’s Stac Lee. They were written as part of a Decca project five years ago, resulting in the album The Lost Songs of St Kilda, for which the label asked some of Scotland’s most prominent composers to write new works based on songs from the long-evacuated archipelago that had come to light in 2006 when the resident of an Edinburgh care home started playing then on the piano.

Armstrong’s contributions bear the mark of the successful film composer. He portrays St Kilda’s massive Stac Lee sea stack in two lights, at dawn and at dusk. In both cases the sensitivity to texture and mood is masterful, Impressionism reborn. Webster allows them to unfold with a delicate combination of timelessness and character, the latter faintly feverish with meteorological allusions to the steely indeterminacy of the island weather. 

It acts as a perfect scene-setter for the Barber concerto, a great favourite of 20th century violin repertoire largely for the lyrical breeziness and clean virtuosity that feeds through its fundamentally Romantic framework. And what a showpiece for Iwabuchi, whose dominating presence in this performance colours every moment with focussed animation and that essential fusion of lightning panache and impassioned reflection.

Webster’s unfussy support seems to recognise Iwabuchi’s towering persona – she adopts at times her normal “leader” role with gestures that say “follow me” – so it isn’t until the Brahms that we get to see what he’s really made of. The outcome there is one of generous competence engineered by a pair of steady young hands. 

His approach to this symphony, its shades of melancholy tempered by the robustness of its architecture, is largely to let it happen, which it does with Webster setting safe tempi, allowing the music, its phrases, paragraphs and chapters, to breathe at every level. There are issues with balance. In the opening tutti, for instance, the wind and brass butt through the texture with occasionally boorish inconsistency, but otherwise Webster’s gestural simplicity reaps intelligent, musical rewards. His development will be intriguing to follow.
Ken Walton

Available to view on www.rsno.org.uk

SCO / Swensen

Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Swensen

Perth Concert Hall

Given his remarkably prodigious output, it is not so astonishing that French writer Jules Verne set his 1882 romantic novel The Green Ray in the West of Scotland. Over the course of his career he ran through a vast number of global locations in his work, as well as those that were out of this world.

Composer Gavin Bryars borrows the title of the book, and to some extent its subject matter, for his 1991 saxophone concerto, originally written for John Harle and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta. It was played here, at the centre of a concert conducted by Joseph Swensen, by Jess Gillam, the young virtuoso of soprano and alto saxes who has her own Saturday series on BBC Radio 3 and is the presentational face of this year’s BBC Young Musician finals, a competition in which she was a runner-up.

The was her debut with the SCO, and the work presented a side to her personality that contrasted with her engaging ebullience as a broadcaster. On an instrument, the soprano sax, that can be shrill, Gillam had a beautifully mellow tone throughout a score that is played as a continuous sequence and in which the soloist rarely has a break. It is not by any measure a virtuoso showpiece, however, with no flashy cadenzas or lightening fingerwork. Instead the sax has a lead role in the ensemble, perhaps depicting that rarely glimpsed, but ever-present, shaft of verdant sunlight seen at sunset in certain latitudes. The piece has a lovely arc to its construction, which Swensen clearly appreciated, underpinned by bass clarinet and contra-bassoon, with a significant orchestral piano part (played by Michael Bawtree, briefly credited on screen but mysteriously missing from the downloadable programme) and ending with an unmistakeable echo of the pipes.

It also shares some sonic elements with the work that preceded it, Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, most obviously the tubular bells but also in the string writing and deliberate pace. Part may never have met the English composer, but this is an exquisite eulogy, and also as perfect an encapsulation of the Estonian’s method: using the simplest materials to make the most profound music.

Arguably Beethoven was at something of the same game with his First Symphony. The opening bars of his symphonic odyssey can still sound startling 220 years on, and they did so here. With natural trumpets and baroque horns, there was a clear historically-informed approach from Swensen with brisk tempi and crisp playing across the orchestra. It was far from straight-laced, though, the brief third movement full of rhythmic playfulness, and clearly anticipating the finale of the Fifth and the dancing Seventh.

Sponsored by Pulsant

Keith Bruce

Scottish Ensemble: First Light

The Engine Works, Glasgow

If you are, like me, a little tired of hearing about “light at the end of the tunnel”, it may caution your approach to the new online offering from the Scottish Ensemble, under the guest leadership of violinist Max Baillie.

However, not only had the string group and its composer/director conceived this programme before that phrase became quite such a tired cliché, but there is also a delicious ambivalence in the way they have chosen to see the idea of First Light. Yes, the prevalent tone is one of optimism, and a new dawn, but don’t rule out the possibility of an on-coming train.

Filmed in Glasgow’s newest post-industrial arts-space, The Engine Works in Maryhill, once again the ensemble and its partner, Flux Video, sets the standard for online presentation. With projections on the walls and a dazzling, but not distracting, range of camera shots, First Light is a beautifully edited piece of film-making. No-one else, in Scotland at least, has made such consistently compelling use of tight close-ups alongside the more familiar perspectives on chamber musicians. The sound, doubtless very much through the input of Baillie himself, is exemplary, and not without its own clever trickery.

The choice of works, and their sequencing, is in some aspects typical of a Scottish Ensemble programme: a balance of early music with contemporary composition, although with the input of new arrangements of the older scores. Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in G Minor, which opens the recital, is, however, played “straight” and its central Adagio – exquisitely clear and precise – is movingly timeless.

Jessie Montgomery’s brief Starburst, which follows, is the most vivacious, life-affirming work, the mix of pizzicato and bowed string sounds she employs finding echoes later on. There is as much exuberance in Haydn’s “Fifths” Quartet, here arranged for the larger ensemble by Baillie and Iain Farrington, but it is leavened with the darker tones of late Haydn as well as the playful rhythms.

A burst of Bach in Baillie’s minimalist, ethereal arrangement of the chorale O Lord let thine ear incline, precedes the violinist’s own Mirrors in Time, featuring himself on five-string electric violin and an ominous bass drum pulse. There is something ritualistic in his use of rhythms borrowed from African music as well as the Baroque and the dancefloor, and the sound and vision mixing is at its most sophisticated here. The richness of the ensemble strings disappears to leave Baillie alone in the space for his extended cadenza, before returning for what is a slightly querulous conclusion.

It is a big piece, but it is ultimately outshone by Steve Martland’s Eternity’s Sunrise. Like the late composer’s entire oeuvre, here is a work that is quite shockingly under-performed, demanding though it is. Taking its title from William Blake, here is a “First Light” as scary as it is to be welcomed. With sharp staccato playing as well as pizzicato pitched against legato lines, this is characteristically percussive, rhythmic Martland writing, propulsive and mesmeric in its subtly unfolding variations.

The band is rearranged physically for this, facing one another in a circle, doubtless for practical as much as presentational  reasons, but that speaks visually of the connectedness required of all of us as we face the future. A lovely visual metaphor to accompany the superb playing of a brilliant composition.

Keith Bruce

Available on the Scottish Ensemble’s You Tube channel until August 7.

RSNO / Lewis

RSNO Centre

Although on the face of it unlikely in the current circumstances, it is conceivable that Scotland’s national orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra synchronised online presentations so that, just a week after reuniting a full orchestra in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, the RSNO chose to broadcast a chamber recital that was filmed six months ago on the same weekend that the SCO fielded its full band in Perth, under the baton of Joseph Swensen.

Or it may simply have been a coincidence that the bigger outfit seemed to be trying on the clothes the chamber orchestra has been wearing so successfully at the same time as it donned its grandest gear. Either way, this recital was very much in the fashion of the bulk of the SCO’s online offerings, and arguably slightly mis-sold in the suggestion that pianist Paul Lewis is more central to the programme than he is.

Nonetheless, this is a value-for-money concert, with three substantial pieces, two of them showcasing recently appointed principal clarinet Timothy Orpen, the third with Lewis as soloist, and a splendid miniature for principal oboe Adrian Wilson.

The latter is a world premiere and part of the orchestra’s Scotch Snaps strand. Composed by Michael J Murray, one of the Ayrshire composers mentored by Sir James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst, it is an imagination of the interior musical world of a “silent disco” busker who is a presence in Glasgow City Centre. A highly original work, as beguiling as it is unusual, Wilson’s fluid articulation certainly seemed to suggest that is was a rewarding challenge to play. The interesting question was what had prompted the composer to make the oboe his instrument of choice?

Aaron Schorr is at the piano for the first work of the programme, Mozart’s Kegelstatt-Trio, with Tom Dunn completing the line-up. The focus is certainly on the clarinet, with the similar range of the viola in a supporting role, but the stringed instrument is buried in the sound-mix here.

The balance for Weber’s clarinet quintet is also less than ideal. Movements of this work are hugely popular clarinet party-pieces and Orpen plays beautifully, with lovely rounded tone and perfect phrasing, but the string quartet is too quiet, especially in string-led moments like the opening of the second movement Fantasia. Put that to one side, however, and the playful dynamics of the ensemble in the Menuetto, when the combination of instruments is at its most theatrical, is a delight.

Paul Lewis precedes his performance of a chamber version (two violins, viola, cello and bass) of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No12 K414 with what amounts to a caution against over-rehearsing with players of this calibre, and there is certainly a sense of the RSNO quintet – and indeed Lewis himself – being very relaxed and “at home”.

Lewis is superb, from the opening bars that sound so akin to the 40th Symphony, and particularly in the hymn-like central Andante. Although the balance is better (this piece was filmed and recorded a month after the others, with the BBC’s Andrew Trinick producing), one might still wish for a little more presence from the strings.
Keith Bruce 

Available to view via www.rsno.org.uk

Scottish Opera Live

SCOTTISH OPERA: Live from South Lanarkshire
Rutherglen Town Hall

On 14 March last year, Rutherglen Town Hall hosted Opera Highlights, the annual tour by Scottish Opera in which a small concert party of singers and pianist present a structured selection of operatic numbers to community audiences around smaller Scottish venues. It was to prove Rutherglen’s last public event before lockdown. Thus their delight in hosting a filmed “night at the opera”, Live in South Lanarkshire, now available to view on Scottish Opera’s website.  

It features two of the company’s Emerging Artist singers, soprano Catriona Hewitson and mezzo-soprano Margo Arsane, with head of music Derek Clark at the piano. The programme is more compact than usual, extending only from Mozart to Puccini, and the ensemble is halved in size from the familiar quartet. But where it loses in scope, variety and that all-essential platform intimacy, it gains from the charming personal introductions by the artists to each and every song.

Both singers carry that charisma into their individual performances: Hewitson’s ringing contributions moulded with shapely conviction in Mozart, Puccini (the ever-popular “O mia babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi) and Reynaldo Hahn; Arsane’s mezzo voice producing a broodier, deeper tessitura contrast in numbers from Bizet’s Carmen, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and more Mozart.

When they get together – in duets by Offenbach, Delibes (the famous Flower duet) and Humperdinck’s “Brother, come and dance with me” as a gleeful finale – the synergy is delightful, and Clark’s empathetic pianism always a reliable mainstay. While it’s not the all-embracing Opera Highlights we’re used to, it’s enough to keep our mouths watering for the eventual return to the real live experience.
Ken Walton

Available to view on www.scottishopera.org.uk

Image: Margo Arsane in Live in South Lanarkshire. Scottish Opera 2021. Credit Beth Chalmers

BBC SSO / Brabbins / Osborne

City Halls, Glasgow

The story goes, told in a radio broadcast by Aaron Copland himself, that the spelling of his family name resulted from the edgy twang of the Glaswegian patois. A Clydeside border official mistakenly took Kaplan – the family name his migrating Lithuanian parents gave when alighting in Glasgow en route to a new life in New York – to be Copland, which it can so easily be when expressed in the Glaswegian tongue.

Copland’s musical accent, in such evocative works as Appalachian Spring and Quiet City, could hardly be more different. There’s no harshness in these contrasting evocations of wide open landscape and urban isolation, just a quietly intense optimism expressed through lucid, transparent colours and purified, fresh air harmonies. 

These represented the softer side of this Radio 3 broadcast by the BBC SSO, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, against which the subversive Soviet wit of Shostakovich offered the perfect counterbalance. Two of the latter’s works – the ebullient Piano Concerto No 2, with Steven Osborne as soloist, and the pithy concert suite compiled from his music for Shakespeare’s Hamlet – were the acid content.

If it took a moment or two for the atmospheric layers of Appalachian Spring to bed in, what followed was the very stuff of sentimentalised American pastoralism. But Brabbins never allowed sentiment to over-dominate. The emerging wind solos remained suffused with charm but laced with intent. There was sparkle as well as glow in the vivid folksy references, innocent passion in Copland’s human characterisations, and honest magic in the signature appearance of the famous Shaker melody, Simple Gifts. 

The shift to the Shostakovich concerto was all the more incendiary as a result. Short and snappy – it lasts just over 20 minutes – its outer movements are like delirious fairground rides to the sumptuous lyrical calm of the central Andante. Osborne played cautiously with his tempi, relying on disciplined, needle-sharp articulation and feverish insistence to create the thrills. His slow movement, so moodily Rachmaninov, was meltingly luxurious, the SSO equally aglow.

After the interval, in which presenter Jamie MacDougall added a track from Osborne’s superb new CD duetting with fellow pianist Paul Lewis, it was back to Copland and the sublime reflective tranquility of Quiet City, the dreamlike solos of Mark O’Keefe (trumpet) and James Horan (cor anglais) raptly interwoven within Brabbins’ seamless reading.

Shostakovich had the final word, and how bizarre was that for those of us used to the British view of Hamlet? Having written the original incidental music for a 1932 Moscow production by the avant-garde director-designer Nikolai Akimov, whose intent was to turn a tragedy into an absurdist satire, the eventual concert suite retains every ounce of that anarchy. 

Ophelia is given the cabaret treatment, the Requiem – complete with Dies Irae theme – reeks of the macabre, as if Brecht’s Berlin of the 1920s has been transported to 1930s Russia. This performance got the translation, and accent, spot on.
Ken Walton

Available to listen to on BBC Sounds

SCO / Swensen

Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Swensen

Perth Concert Hall

If it was a treat to see the RSNO back to max strength for last weekend’s concert of Polish repertoire, it is no less exciting to see the SCO performing with a full line-up, however thoughtful has been its exploration of a wide range of chamber music for most of its digital offerings.

With former principal conductor Joseph Swensen on the podium and leader Stephanie Gonley as featured soloist, this is an all-Schumann programme, two works by Robert bracketing one by his wife, Clara. Like Thomas Sondergard with the RSNO, Swensen is clearly delighted to be working with a full band, and the swagger he and they bring to the Overture to Schumann’s sole opera Genoveva is superbly captured in the recording in the Perth Hall’s fine acoustic. Here, as in the Spring Symphony later, the wind soloists have plenty share of the spotlight, and there are some lovely performances, but it is the ensemble sound, and the vigour of it, that is the real treat.

Clara Schumann’s Three Romances were originally written, in 1853, for herself and the couple’s violinist friend Joseph Joachim to play, and this orchestral arrangement by the conductor has been performed by the SCO with Swensen himself as soloist. There is a cumulative emotional effect to the three short movements, and a suggestion in the Allegretto and Romance that Clara might have found a home on Broadway if she had been working a century later. Stephanie Gonley revels in the colour that is in her solo part, and that is mostly matched in Swensen’s orchestration – only in the last movement is the loss of the percussive quality of the piano something of a regret.

When Robin Ticciati conducted and recorded the Schumann symphonies with the SCO, his opening to the first of them was a deal crisper than Swensen’s account of it here, but there is such an energy to the development of this first movement that it more than makes up for that. From the opening trumpet fanfare, this is a sumptuous, full-blooded, account of a work the composer dashed off in days. There is a longed-for richness, rather than any solemnity, in the entry of the three trombones at the end of the Larghetto, and if the singular rhythm of the Scherzo lacks some buoyancy initially, the shaping of the whole work towards its joyous conclusion is emblematic of the season in full flower.  

Keith Bruce

Available to view online until Saturday May 22

RSNO: Søndergård / Benedetti

RSNO: Søndergård & Benedetti
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The story of Poland is a volatile one. So it is inevitable, even in the very first programme of an intermittent Polska Scotland mini-series which runs through the RSNO’s new digital summer season, that some of its music should reflect that historic turmoil.

The opening concert, which now sees the orchestra relocated to the de-seated stalls area of the main Glasgow Royal Concert Hall auditorium, enabling the  deployment of a larger contingent of socially-distanced players, is a welcome sight and sound. Moreover, it paves the way for more expansive programming. 

In this case it is music by Mieczysław Weinberg, Karol Szymanowski and Andrzej Panufnik, a strange but intriguing mix of style and influence (musical and political). In charge is RSNO music director Thomas Søndergård, with Nicola Benedetti as soloist in Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No 1 (she returns for the second concert at the end of the series), the piece that secured her the career-launching 2004 BBC Young Musician prize.

That was 17 years ago, and it’s a more musically mature Benedetti who garners every ounce of lyrical passion and glistening heat this time round. There is also a wonderful air of composure in her performance, no better illustrated than the floating, timeless initial entry that instantly becalms the orchestra’s restless introduction.

Thereafter, the journey is one of mercurial fascination, expansive eloquence, crisp virtuosity and melting, poetic beauty. Søndergård exerts his own authority where the opportunity presents itself, from rip-roaring orchestral climaxes to the breathiest of moments, where time stands still. But this is triumph of partnership, no better illustrated than in the ethereal melting away of the final bars.

The east-west tug-of-war affecting Poland in the 20th century sent artists in various directions. For Weinberg, after fleeing the Nazis in Poland, the ultimate draw was Moscow, encouraged there by Shostakovich whom he admired greatly. There’s no mistaking the latter’s influence, nor Weinberg’s Jewish heritage, in the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, which opens this programme.

From its growling lugubrious opening there is a lingering shadow of nostalgia, even where Weinberg opens the floodgates and unleashes the full orchestral might. That hint of suppressed rapture permeates this mostly trenchant RSNO performance, with only a suggestion of nervousness from the exposed violins in their opening bars.

For Panufnik, the escape route from Soviet-run Poland led west, defecting to the UK in 1954 and leading a successful life as a conductor and composer up to his death in 1991. His Symphony No 3, Sinfonia Sacra, was written in 1963 to mark 1000 years of christianity in Poland. The RSNO gave the Polish premiere in Warsaw in 1968.

Based on the earliest-known Polish hymn, the Bogurodzica plainsong, there are two parts to the symphony: Three Visions and Hymn. With the RSNO brass standing aloft like heraldic warriors, their impact here possesses a thrilling undercurrent of menace. Søndergård plays on that, but equally on its haunting mysticism, at its most sublime in the quiet strings of the second Vision. He also shapes the drama in this powerful symphony with unstinting, ultimately overwhelming intent.
Ken Walton
Available to view via www.rsno.org.uk

SCO Winds/DAniel

SCO Winds/Daniel: Caplet, Clyne & Dvorak

Perth Concert Hall

If the programmes, and combinations of instruments, that have featured in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s digital response to the pandemic have been abundantly filled with rare treats from centuries of repertoire, this concert still stood out as an absolute classic.

Over the years the SCO has been distinguished by the quality of its wind soloists, and the current membership continues that tradition. Here, guest directed from the oboe by Nicholas Daniel, are ten top players with three works for double wind quintet, one a world premiere.

That new work stands out in the midst of some exquisite music. The SCO’s associate composer Anna Clyne has described the chance to write for these forces – effectively replacing the scheduled UK premiere of a work co-commissioned with three other orchestras – as “an opportunity to refine my craft”. In fact she has created a superb ensemble work that makes the most inventive use of the instruments. Not only that, but it works with very carefully defined musical material in endlessly fascinating fashion, passing short motifs between flutes, oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons.

Beginning and ending with unusual use of the pair of oboes, Overflow is full of atmosphere, like a film score in miniature – and it will be no surprise if it turns up in exactly that context in future.

Clyne took her inspiration from the Emily Dickinson poem By the Sea and Jelaluddin Rumi’s Where Everything is Music, so it was fitting that the premiere was prefaced by Andre Caplet’s three-movement Suite Persane. It dates from 1901, the year the Frenchman won the Prix de Rome (beating Maurice Ravel), and it must have been absolutely a la mode at the time in its use of Eastern-sounding melodies. It is the outer movements where that is most obvious, while the lush Nihavend in the middle could only be French, until the flute figure of the final bars, even if the title refers to a Persian scale.

Like the Clyne piece that followed, however, there is a wonderful democracy about the work, a real showpiece for a section of the orchestra working together as a team, disdaining any hierarchy. The social distancing required between the players only seems to enhance that impression, as well as the clarity of the sound.

That is also true of every detail in the arrangement of Dvorak’s Czech Suite, which closes the concert. His travels may have been ahead of him, but the composer’s folk music borrowings and dance rhythms often sound from a tradition altogether more local to this venue, bagpipe drones and all.

Keith Bruce

Susan Tomes / RSNO Winds

Perth Concert Hall

One of the great advantages for a pianist teaming up with key wind principals from a single orchestra to form the required ensemble for Mozart’s and Beethoven’s only Quintets for Piano and Winds is its diminishing of the risk factors regarding coordination.

For pianist Susan Tomes, therefore, spearheading this pairing of works for the last of Perth Concert Hall’s engaging week-long Easter Lunchtime Concert Series, the integration here with her RSNO friends is akin to a joining of two minds rather than five. The unified, easeful enjoyment of these performances translate as such.

What didn’t happen as planned was Friday’s associated BBC Radio 3 broadcast, given that the BBC turned over its entire radio network to coverage of the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, so the concert’s only current availability is via the film version purchasable via the Concert Hall’s website.

It, too, has its unplanned moments, such as the false start to the opening of the Beethoven: a strangely unedited moment (uncorrected at the time of writing), but at the same time offering a touchingly human moment that could easily have happened in any live context. Such are the vagaries of these uncharted times.

That aside, these are both exceptional works that are a joy to experience anytime in any way, and when the essence of chamber music is adhered to – no place for egos here – the music truly sings. Not even in the Beethoven, who places more soloistic emphasis on the piano than Mozart, does Tomes feel any need to play the prima donna. She is, and always has been, a naturally sensitive chamber musician.

Her interaction with the RSNO players – Adrian Wilson (oboe), Timothy Orpen (clarinet), David Hubbard (bassoon) and Christopher Gough (horn) – is both generous and empathetic; their familiarity with each other in return gives a natural homogeneity and precision to the complementary wind unit.

Nonetheless, the real joy of these performances are those moments where self-expression shines through – a penetrating horn melody perhaps, the surprisingly bullish emergence of the bassoon, or of course the many opportunities for the piano to capitalise on concerto-like opportunities. 

It’s in the slow movements where the most melting musical moments arise. The lyrical warmth of Mozart’s central Larghetto and Beethoven’s Andante cantabile find Tomes and her colleagues at their most spontaneously and most comfortably expressive. The outer movements vary in consistency. 

Should a slight hesitancy of attack in Mozart’s opening Largo – Allegro moderato concern us? Only when the initial mist clears to reveal a crisper, more vital team spirit. And are the solo piano openings to both the Mozart and Beethoven finales deliberately understated? Again, the instant shifts of gear as the winds enter in each case leave you wondering. 

But there’s no escaping the unique brilliance of these hybrid works, the fascinating sound world they explore, and the powerful affection and instinctive musicality elicited in these genuinely inspired performances. 
Ken Walton

Available to watch via www.horsecross.co.uk

Dunedin Consort / Hebrides Ensemble

Dunedin Consort/Hebrides Ensemble: Passio

St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh

If, as originally planned, this collaborative performance of Arvo Part’s 1982 setting of the Passion from the Gospel of St John had toured Scotland, the opportunity to hear it sung and played in different acoustics would have been very enticing.

Instead, there is just this single outing, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and filmed for streaming from April 17. In lieu of the tour, the radio transmission certainly whets the appetite for the opportunity to watch. How are voices distributed in the vast Cathedral? And how much of the extraordinary depth to the sound is down to clever sound-mixing and microphone placement rather than the natural reverberation?

A liturgical work quite unlike any of the others heard in the Easter season, the Estonian composer asks for a very particular set of forces. The Evangelist is portrayed by a vocal quartet and an instrumental one of violin, oboe, cello and bassoon, Christ by bass Matthew Brooke, fresh from the same role in the Dunedin’s Bach St Matthew Passion, and Pilate by tenor Hugo Hymas. The St Mary’s Choir and the Cathedral organ add crucial punctuation to the narrative.

Those last elements are often in the audio foreground when they arrive, while the solo characters, while clear enough, sound some way off, as if speaking from history. The complex narrative voice of singers and instrumentalists sits in the centre, combining in different combinations. It is not clear why Part chooses certain vocal ranges and instrumental timbres to express particular Biblical verses – although emotional impact may be key – but there is a detectable technical method in his use of pitches among the players and singers in the pursuit of his “tintinnabulation” process.

If the first impression is of music that springs from the earliest chants of Part’s adopted Orthodox faith, it swiftly becomes clear that something much more contemporary is going on, even if the complexity of its harmonic structure is well-hidden behind the sometimes glacial pace. This is music that has little in common with the American minimalists with whom the composer is sometimes bracketed, altogether less showy and much more reliant on moments of silence throughout the score. The rests in the notation are as important as the notes, particularly when the role of the church’s acoustic is taken into account.

All this is beautifully measured in this performance, conducted by William Conway of the Hebrides Ensemble. The work asks a great deal of its singers, with some particularly challenging leaps in the lines sung by Hymas’s Pilate, but there is an almost studied lack of drama by comparison with the operatic Passions of Bach, even in choral interjections like the command “Crucify him!”

Part’s style of theatre requires concentration, as he homes in on a very precise definition of what constitutes the Passion story, culminating in the last uttering of Jesus on the cross “It is finished”, after which the choral response is in an altogether changed register and tone, more akin to the Lutheran chorales of Part’s upbringing. It is, however, a very understated moment of catharsis.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Farnsworth

Perth Concert Hall

One of the most exhilarating aspects of the online experience we are currently enjoying in response to Covid is the freedom it has given for experimental concert presentation, none more informative and characterful than when the very players themselves are given screen time to offer their own illuminating introductory thoughts on the music.

Here is a prime example – a gorgeous cornucopia of relatively peripheral Baroque music selected by violist Brian Schiele and harpsichordist/organist Jan Waterfield, introduced by them and baritone Marcus Farnsworth, and played by a stylish coterie of fellow SCO players. Yes, the music itself is rendered with lively affection and stylistic panache, but the intervening introductions are what bring the connection up close and personal. We shouldn’t lose this factor when things get back to the so-called new normal.

It’s to the early Baroque that this programme turns first, a lush and stately Pavan à 6 by Johann Schop, the late 17th century Lower Saxon who made his name in Copenhagen and Hamburg. Foremost in this performance is the clarity of texture emanating from the purity of tone, particularly the fruits of inner detail issuing from the second violin and violas. 

It sets an anticipatory atmosphere for Telemann’s Devil-slaying solo cantata So grausam mächtig iso der Teufel, which Farnsworth, as solo protagonist, imbues with determined and triumphant fervour. Then to Sperantis Gaudia from Florilegium 1 by the much travelled Georg Muffat – a composer, we are informed, whose Scottish grandparents fled 16th century Catholic persecution to mainland Europe – and an instrumental work enriched by the multiple viola presence and consequentially soulful inner voices.

If anyone set Baroque string writing ablaze, it was surely Bohemian-born Heinrich Biber, famous for the often extreme literalism of his instrumental effects, heard here in much more tempered vein, though no less rewardingly, at the core of his Serenata “The Night Watchman” – that dramatic moment when Farnsworth appears on stage with an apparently authentic 17th century nightwatchman’s song, to the serenading accompaniment of a pizzicato string band.

Then a palate-cleanser, Waterfield’s crystalline solo performance on harpsichord of Froberger’s Toccata III – crisply disciplined finger-work with neatly-judged expressive fluidity – before an unexpectedly reflective finale from the pen of Johann Christoph Bach, uncle and one-time guardian of the younger Johann Sebastian. 

Again, Farnsworth is at the forefront as soloist in this mesmerising lament, Ach, dass ich Wassers g’nug hätte,  and the Bach signature is unmistakable: aching musical sighs that penetrate to the very core of the texts (taken from Jeremiah and the Psalms) and a musical offering as consummate as any of the more famous Bach. If Farnsworth’s interpretation very occasionally eschews complete focus, the bigger picture wins out. The ending is magical.

Ken Walton  
Available to watch on www.sco.org.uk

Maxwell Quartet

Perth Concert Hall

How very well chosen were this pair of crucial works of the string quartet repertoire, complementary in their forging ahead with the form, well short of two decades apart in their composition, and each utterly emblematic of the voice of the composer.

Just as significantly, Haydn’s “Rider” Quartet, Opus 74 No 3, and Beethoven’s “Harp”, his 10th String Quartet and also, curiously, Opus 74, are works for an experienced group to explore fully. Just as they are mature works by their respective composers, they are pieces for a well-established quartet. The Maxwells are that group, no longer youths who met at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and won their first international recognition at the Trondheim competition. Even the flowing lockdown locks and bushy beards cannot disguise that.

The crisp and vibrant opening Allegro of the Haydn made that intent immediately obvious, but it was the rich, blended sound in the Largo that follows that confirmed it, with first violin Colin Scobie on special form on top. The short Menuetto began and ended with as much flourish before the Finale that gives the work its nickname through its galloping rhythms. This is Haydn at his most playful and smile-provoking, and there were smiles all round to confirm that.

If it is possible that Haydn indeed had horse-riding in his mind, it is less likely that Beethoven was in any sense trying to mimic the harp with his pizzicato writing in the opening movement of his Opus 74. Although the composer was already battling encroaching deafness, the first movement is all about the particular character of the plucked string resonance on these instruments, a responsibility that is passed around the ensemble and was sparklingly played and recorded here. Once again, Scobie was on fine robust and lyrical form with his lead line.

As in the closing Allegro of the Haydn, the Adagio second movement is as much about the spaces between the notes as the notes themselves, and here again the Maxwell displayed their mature, unhurried but decisive, approach to the score. The Finale is a very close rhythmic cousin of the opening of the Fifth Symphony, which Beethoven had premiered only a year earlier, and that was made very clear in the quartet’s coherent attack from bar one. Classic performances of two pivotal pieces.

Keith Bruce

Available to watch via horsecross.co.uk

Martin / Mitchell

Maximiliano Martin/Scott Mitchell

Perth Concert Hall

During the entire duration of this live concert hiatus, opportunities to hear Maximiliano Martin have not been rare at all. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Principal Clarinet has popped up in many a chamber music series, he has his own new concerto album out with an orchestra from his native Tenerife, and been a mainstay of the SCO’s stream of digital transmissions from Edinburgh, Perth and St Andrews.

The final work in this recital of sonatas in the company of pianist Scott Mitchell was, in fact, a feature of one of those, in October of last year, with Simon Smith at the piano. Leonard Bernstein’s two-movement Sonata for Clarinet and Piano is the sound of a young composer finding his own voice, and quite compelling for that reason: the first movement in the academic mode of 1941, the second exploring the jazzy showbiz style that would take him to Broadway and Hollywood.

As the presenter of this concert on BBC Radio 3, Tom Redmond, pointed out, chamber works for clarinet are associated with the final years of Mozart and Brahms as well as two of the French composers that made up the bulk of this programme. However, the first of them, Ernest Chausson, was also represented by a piece from the tail-end of his student years at the Paris Conservatoire. The explosive Allegro of his Andante and Allegro is a real showpiece for clarinet and was a great sparkling start here.

The Saint-Saens sonata that followed is a wonderfully-constructed work, no less flashy in places but with a deliciously sombre tone in the middle that then leaps from the bottom of the clarinet’s range to the higher register before a piano-led segue into the last movement.

In what was a compact history-lesson in works for these instruments, it was the perfect bridge to the meaty fare of Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata. Commissioned by Benny Goodman, its composer died before he could play the piano part with the King of Swing, so a young Leonard Bernstein stepped up. It is a big work that is also, like those on either side of it, full of variation, with an ear-catchingly repetitious song-like slow movement and a cinematic rapid car chase of a finale.

The video presentation from Perth’s Easter Festival was characteristically understated, marred only by a minor captioning error and occasional vision-mixing glitch. Radio listeners were treated to a brief Debussy encore. 

Keith Bruce

Available to watch via horsecross.co.uk

BBC SSO / Urioste / Poster

City Halls, Glasgow

There has been no point in the past century or two of musical history at which an orchestral concerto with more than one soloist was anything other than a poor career move for a composer, given the obvious extra requirement for performances. Precocious talent though he was, that difficulty may not have occurred to the 14-year-old Felix Mendelssohn when he wrote his Concerto for Violin and Piano in D Minor in 1823. First performed with his violin teacher and the young composer at the piano, it was unpublished in his lifetime and a definitive edition only appeared in the last year of the 20th century.

Nonetheless, it had its UK premiere in 1968, in a Glasgow studio concert by the BBC Scottish, which would have been a good reason for performing it this spring at the City Halls, although it was not the one here. Instead, the work, which requires virtuoso turns from the soloists, was the culmination of a programme created by life and musical partners Elena Urioste and Tom Poster, whose relationship began as members of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme.

More recently the couple have been one of the sensations of the “at home” online projects with their Lockdown Jukebox of varied repertoire. That imagination was very much in evidence here, in a 20th and 21st century sequence that preceded the Mendelssohn, beginning with a duet before works that teamed them individually with the SSO strings. Throughout there was a sense of chamber music intimacy that made the concert something of an extension of those broadcasts from home.

For mysterious reasons, between its recording on March 25 and its broadcast, the BBC had changed the title of the recital from Dreamscapes, the name of the work Urioste would play, to Spiegel im Spiegel, the more familiar Arvo Part composition that opened it. Poster claimed a hypnotic state was part of the method of playing the Part, but that can only be true if the concentration for its minimalist rising and falling measures is second nature.

The Gerald Finzi Eclogue for Piano and Strings that followed may be no stretch for a pianist of Poster’s ability, but its pastoral Englishness is the setting of many a dream idyll, with unmistakeable similarity to Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending.

Dreamscapes itself is a decade-old composition for violin and strings by Clarice Assad, daughter of Brazilian guitarist Sergio, that has its own echo of The Lark at the start. Urioste gave the New York premiere of the work three years ago to the day of this broadcast. After some rhythmically Latin scoring, the work becomes much more edgy about two thirds of the way through its 12 minutes. By some distance a less soothing dream, its turbulence resolves into a more gentle awakening, rather than being suggestive of nightmare.

Urioste and Poster were joined by orchestra leader Laura Samuel for a post-Mendelssohn encore composed by Donald Grant of the Elias Quartet in what was a beautifully-curated programme. A refreshing change from conductor-led thinking, and a relationship that the orchestra would do well to nurture.

Keith Bruce

Quartet For The End Of Time

PERTH EASTER FESTIVAL: QUARTET FOR THE END OF TIME
Perth Concert Hall

While it’s tempting to compare the enforced incarceration Olivier Messiaen would have experienced as a French prisoner of war in 1940-41, when he wrote the incredible Quartet for the End of Time, to the “imprisoned experience” we’ve all been facing in recent months combatting Covid, it’s also perhaps too convenient. 

We’ve at least maintained our basic home comforts; Messiaen and his fellow prisoner-musicians, who premiered the work in 1941, did so on salvaged instruments in the bitter January cold of an overcrowded spartan Stalag VIIIA in what is now southern Poland. Yet the music arising from such adversity is gloriously ecstatic, fuelled by inspiration from the seven angels and trumpets of the Book of Revelation, full of infinite hope and lustrous conviction.

It was a fitting choice of repertoire, then, with which to start this week’s daily series of chamber concerts from Perth Concert Hall, featuring musicians based in Scotland and available to watch on Vimeo via the hall’s own website, or to listen to daily at 1pm on BBC Radio 3. In this single-work opener, pianist Steven Osborne is joined by members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra: violinist Maria Włoszczowska, clarinetist Maximiliano Martin and cellist Philip Higham.

The visual experience is simple but effective, warmed by a blue-wash backdrop, highly appropriate for a composer who envisaged colour as intrinsic to the textures he invokes. The sound recording is rich and penetrating. Above all, the quality of performance is unerringly virtuosic and expressively profound.

From the calm awakening of Liturgie de cristal to the transcendent acceptance of Louange à l”Immortalité de Jésus, this is a paradoxical 8-movement journey of introspective outpouring. Even the infinite timelessness of Abîme des oiseaux (Martin’s soliloquising breathtakingly magical) and Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus (the unending elasticity of Higham’s cello melody cushioned by Osborne’s gently pulsating chords) bears a mystical effusiveness.

There is, nonetheless, unbridled drama where Messiaen prescribes it: the abrupt violent outpourings that embrace the otherwise mesmerising lyricism of Vocalise, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps; the biting unisons, like plainsong on steroids, of Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes; or the sugary ecstasy that defines the work’s ripest climax in Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps, where the richest textures unfold before being quelled ultimately by Włoszczowska’s sublime interpretation of the final Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus.

Only momentarily – the final bars of the sixth movement – does a slight unhinging of the tight ensemble occur. Otherwise, there’s very little to complain about in a truly gripping performance of a thoroughly awesome piece.

Ken Walton
Available to watch via www.horsecross.co.uk.

Ayr Choral Union: Masterworks

The vaccine roll-out in the UK may be the most important work the National Health Service is doing at the moment, but regular encounters with Ayr Choral Union should also be available on prescription.

Following the same model as the online Messiah last October, but with the bonus of choir director Andrew McTaggart joining the same quartet of soloists – soprano Catriona Hewitson, mezzo Penelope Cousland, tenor Ted Black and baritone Colin Murray – this was a greatest hits package from the Ayr chorus, hosted on Zoom. It is not a platform suited to audio collaboration, so hearing the choir sing together is not an option, but McTaggart and the 150 others who joined him do not allow that to stand in their way. The community of singers were all muted, but they could be seen lustily joining in with the young professionals on a programme that began with Handel’s Coronation Anthem Zadok the Priest, and included selections from Bach’s St John Passion, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, the Requiems of Brahms, Mozart and Faure, and contemporary work by Ola Gjeilo, Morten Lauridsen and the choir’s patron Sir James MacMillan.

Sir James had actually been part of the coaching sessions, guiding the choir through the Lux Aeterna from his Strathclyde Motets at one of their online meetings prior to this concert. Others were sectionals, with the soloists joining McTaggart to work on the repertoire. When they are permitted to sing together again, Ayr Choral Union will be nearer match-fit than many choirs.

The accompaniment for this concert was a string quartet (Katrina Lee, Kirstin Drew, Aaron McGregor and Alice Allen) filmed in Glasgow Cathedral with Andrew Forbes on keyboards. He was also responsible for editing the contributions of the singers and players together in what was a very slick split-screen operation. There was some lovely ensemble work from the quartet – notably on the Mozart Lacrymosa and Gjeilo’s Northern Lights – and McTaggart sometimes popped up in duplicate, conducting and singing, including a fine solo Libera Me from the Faure Requiem.

Not only has Ayr Choral continued to work through the pandemic, it has also been raising money for charity, regardless of the lack of ticket money for the coffers. In her upbeat introduction to the concert, choir president Kate Wilson may not have used the words “deficit be damned” but the implication was there.

So if your choir needs a kick-start after Covid, get in touch and see if they’ll share their fine film for a few quid. Just say VoxCarnyx sent you.

Keith Bruce

Dunedin Consort: St Matthew Passion

Perth Concert Hall

It is not only in its three-hour duration that Bach’s St Matthew Passion is an epic undertaking, and the hiatus of last year’s cancellation – the first victim of the coronavirus lockdown at Perth Concert Hall – has had the useful effect of reminding us just how important is the Dunedin Consort’s annual performance. As the choir’s chief executive Jo Buckley points out in her introductory remarks to this “as live” stream to start Perth programmer James Waters’ Easter Festival, it is a work that contains every possible human emotion and there is an added poignancy this Easter to its message of hope and salvation.

More than that though, this concert hall presentation, with all the required social distancing, makes the remarkable ingredients of Bach’s masterwork apparent in ways that could not have been predicted. There is a clarity about the ingenious storytelling, and use of the narrative voices, both musical and in the cast of characters, that is very special indeed.

Most obviously that is in the way the concert looks, with its two choruses, two orchestras and soloists, as well as how it sounds, the Perth hall’s wonderful acoustic beautifully recorded, a full, rich instrumental sound (no period instrument weediness here), and the singers placed in widescreen stereo across the stage. With effective and undistracting lighting, the video work is understated, usually (but not obsessively) matching the voices and instruments to be heard, with the occasional cross-fade as arias are accompanied by soloists or conductor John Butt directs a particular transition.

He has an A-team to conduct: Andrew Tortise is a measured and dramatic Evangelist with immaculate diction, and Matthew Brook a weighty and compelling Christus. However, it is the early outings of the women soloists that really make you sit up, alto Jess Dandy accompanied by the pair of flutes, soprano Jessica Leary stepping out of the second chorus and Anna Dennis just as expressive in partnership with the oboes. The other three solo voices, bass Benedict Nelson, tenor David Lee, and alto Judy Brown are no less impressive when their opportunities come around.

It is the clever matching of the arias, providing the commentary of the faithful on the Passion story with the singers who have been characters in that narrative, that is so spectacularly clear here. This is Butt’s Bach scholarship made flesh in a way that anyone coming to the work for the first time will instantly appreciate.

The conductor takes his time over his tale, with none of the regulation briskness that can blight historically-informed performance, secure in the knowledge that Bach’s version of Matthew’s telling of the Easter story is unique on its own terms. Similarly, there is nothing clinical in the playing of featured instrumentalists like flautist Katy Bircher and first violin Huw Daniel or in any of the singing, with the occasional natural imprecision enhancing the narrative flow.

If the restrictions of social distancing have no negative effect on any of the individual elements, it is also impossible to detect any diminishing in the ensemble instrumental sound, or the varied colours of the continuo – to which Butt adds chamber organ – or those moments when the two choirs combine for the glorious punctuation of Bach’s chorales.

That hymn-tune may be the ear-worm of the work but this Passion could hardly be less austere and presbyterian. It is the operatic quality of this oratorio for which this concert performance decisively argues the case.

Keith Bruce

Image: credit Tommy Slack/0405 Photography

SCO: Purcell, Reich, Part

Perth Concert Hall

Many of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s streamed online concerts have been an education, but few quite as well structured a lesson as this one. Not that it necessarily feels like we are in class, but percussionist Louise Goodwin, who programmed and presents the recital, is also a very good teacher, explaining the thought behind each juxtaposition and the arc of the concert as a whole.

Goodwin stepped into the shoes of Matthew Hardy a few years ago and is usually seen behind a pair of compact kettle-drums, although one of her early concerts also involved triggering samples for a Martin Suckling composition. There are no timpani in sight here and her technological skills are called upon once again for the central piece of the evening, a solo tour-de-force entitled Shades, by contemporary composer Dani Howard, who is still in her 30s.

Operating a loop pedal to repeat phrases she has played, Goodwin builds up the multi-layered work from her station behind the vibraphone, extracting different timbres from either end of her sticks and adding shimmers of ride cymbal, claves, woodblocks and tom-toms to the mix. Never frantic, but complex and virtuosic, it all adds up to a memorable soundscape.

It is, however, only one of five distinctive soundscapes in a programme that has rhythm at its heart. Demonstrating as eloquently as you will hear it the close kinship between minimalism and early music, the recital begins and ends with Henry Purcell and his 17th century fascination with repeated bass riffs as a basis for extemporisation. Chacony in G Minor and the familiar Fantasia in D Major “Three parts upon a Ground” are performed by a quintet and a sextet of strings with Jan Waterfield at the harpsichord, bracketing works that are, Howard’s apart, all composed by men born in the 1930s.

Goodwin is joined by Richard Cartlidge for Steve Reich’s Nagoya Marimbas duet, a modern percussionists’ showpiece that harks back to his ground-breaking 1970s compositions and builds on layers of harmonic sophistication.

The two percussionists then join a string quartet for Arvo Part’s Fratres, in its string quartet version but with minimalist claves and bass drum added. That punctuation is a brilliant aural assist for the snails-pace melodic material that Part passes around whatever combination of instruments is assembled for its challenge. Challenging it certainly is, and the SCO quartet gives a very fine account of its nuances of tempo, balance and dynamics.

The mayhem of Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union might seem at another extreme, but it unites not only all the players (again the composer permits any ensemble) but the rhythmic obsession of the recital. The dignity of labour here is in the ever-changing pulse of the score, while the choice of notes are the players’ own, although rising and falling pitch is indicated. Here is the ultimate demonstration of why the beat is the essential ingredient of music. Or at least one of them.

Keith Bruce

Colin Currie

H K Gruber Percussion Concertos

Colin Currie Records

In many ways the most remarkable thing about the first work on this disc is that Scottish percussion virtuoso Colin Currie had nothing to do with it coming into being. Either as the commissioner or the populariser (as in his Naxos recording of James MacMillan’s Veni Veni Emmanuel), Currie has been a great expander of the repertoire of major works for his instrument. Scotland can take some pride in the contribution Evelyn Glennie and he have made to the percussion soloist’s place on the concert platform.

That does not extend to Rough Music, however, the three-movement composition that maverick Austrian H K Gruber created for a colleague in the early 1980s when he was a bass player in the same Viennese orchestra. The boom in percussion concertos that Glennie and Currie encouraged was still in the future and forty years ago orchestral works for percussion soloists were few.

Having a sparse selection of templates suits Gruber, however, whose work sounds like no-one else. With a popular trumpet concerto for Hakan Hardenberger, a piano concerto for Emanuel Ax and a cello one for Yo-Yo Ma demonstrate, the form fits his style, and the interplay between soloist and orchestra works well for his method. Often this is brazenly oppositional: if one side of the equation is melodic and tonal, the other will be brash and angular.

Rough Music is anything but what its title suggests; this is sophisticated stuff and often a very beguiling listen. Much frantic business from the soloist at the start gives way to calm about four minutes into the first movement, when the strings provide a melodious underscore, the brass becomes percussive, and the percussion soloist rather lyrical.

In the central movement the soloist alternates between hi-velocity work on a drum kit and a suite of arias for vibraphone, and the finale quotes liberally from Erik Satie and his disciple Henri Sauguet in a sequence that seems to be a tribute to French chanson and dance music, with a suitably dramatic conclusion.

The BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Juanjo Mena at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall in 2014, has slightly less presence in the mix for that work than is immediately audible in the BBC Proms recording under John Storgards at the Royal Albert Hall a year later. This was the premier of the work Gruber composed for Currie, into the open . . ., a multi-layered half-hour which exploits the soloist’s athleticism on an enormous array of percussion, Japanese gongs prominent alongside tuned orchestral instruments.

While still very much about the musical possibilities of the forces at his disposal, there was another side to the composition of this work for Gruber, in that it remembers his friend, musicologist and great Kurt Weill scholar David Drew. Small fragments of Weill’s Alabama Song pepper the score and there is an aching sense of anguish and loss in the work, and, more challengingly perhaps, of unfinished business.

Keith Bruce

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