Category Archives: Reviews

Scottish Opera / Don Giovanni

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

From the flashing of the house-lights, thunder sound effects and appearance of a masked figure behind the gauze at the beginning of the overture, there is a Hammer Horror kitsch element to Sir Thomas Allen’s Gothic Venice-set Don Giovanni, Simon Higlett’s clever adaptable designs for the Theatre Royal’s restricted space beautifully lit by Mark Jonathan. Even the chorus scene of Zerlina and Masetto’s pre-nup party is very monochrome, and only Kitty Whately’s Donna Elvira costume – is her character choosing to be a scarlet woman? – provides a flash of colour.

That scenic palette is, however, in stark contrast to almost every other element of a subtle production. Starting in the pit, where natural trumpets sit alongside modern horns, and the continuo playing is superbly balanced with the orchestra’s big dramatic moments, this an evening in which nothing is over-played. Giovanni can be performed very effectively as melodrama, but this narrative staging is much more interested in realism, even soap opera – in a good way.

All the central characters are believably human, with the inevitable exception of Keel Watson’s stocky vengeful Commendatore, who spends most of the evening cast in stone, after his initial appearance as a worried father. The physical balance between Zachary Altman’s miserable but venal Leporello and Roland Wood’s cavalier, single-minded Don Giovanni is pretty much ideal, which is often not the case. That casting common-sense runs through the principal roles, with Whately at once the most authoritative of the women and the most vulnerable, and Korean soprano Hye-Houn Lee, in glorious voice as Donna Anna, somehow revelling in her victimhood. Completing a top trio of female performances, Lea Shaw, who is in her second year as a Scottish Opera Emerging Artist, grows more confident in each role she undertakes, and is both blowsy and naïve as Zerlina.

Besides Altman, the other company debuts come from Emyr Wyn Jones as Masetto and Pablo Bemsch as Don Ottavio – Zerlina’s low-born fiancé likeable but dim, Donna Anna’s effete courtier equally useless but whose equivocal arias are exceptionally well sung.

With the focus clearly on the ensemble work from trio to septet, no-one pitches for the applause in their solos, and given the liveliness of the show elsewhere, some of these stand-and-sing moments seem the weakest elements, regardless of the quality of the singing. By comparison, the end of Act 1, when the stage is full of distractions to cover Giovanni’s seduction of Zerlina, including an early ghostly appearance by the Commendatore, is quite masterly, and the perfect set up for the intricate music of that septet.  

The stage-craft of Allen and his cast, with choreographer Kally Lloyd-Jones and James Fleming and Gary Connery directing fights and stunts, is top drawer, and even the sub-Cyrano business of Giovanni and Leporello swapping clothes and identities at the start of Act 2 is dispatched with casual ease.

While there is never any doubt who is villain of the piece – Wood is consumed by flames and booed at the curtain call – no-one escapes censure in Da Ponte’s libretto or in this production.  In the closing sextet, often omitted in years gone by,  they sing that Giovanni’s death was a fair result for his evil life. The ambiguity in the air is whether their share of culpability might also prove a stumbling block on the path to the Pearly Gates.

Keith Bruce

Performance sponsored by Miller Samuel Hill Brown. Touring to Inverness, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

Picture: Roland Wood (Don Giovanni) and Lea Shaw (Zerlina) by James Glossop

BBC SSO / Dausgaard

City Halls, Glasgow

When it comes to reflecting on Thomas Dausgaard’s 6-year tenure as principal conductor of the BBC SSO, it could very well be that his swan song will be seen as his greatest moment. At least, that was the immediate impression gleaned from last Thursday’s concert. It marked the midway point in what should have been his valedictory vision of all six Nielsen symphonies – he called off January’s opening performance of the Third, but made it for the Sixth in March – which ends this coming Thursday with a mighty two-pronged finale of Nos 1 and 4 (The Inextinguishable).

In this case, we heard the Symphony No 2, The Four Temperaments, one of the composer’s most gritty and direct, placed in the second half as a plain-speaking riposte to the burning fervour of Bartok’s ballet score The Wooden Prince. From the word go – an impatient and decisive downbeat that carried the ballistic shock effect of an Olympic starting gun – Dausgaard had the SSO playing with penetrating rhythmic bite and an immediate sense of propulsion that foretold the unceasing excitement about to unfold. 

Each movement relates to four Ancient Greek temperaments – Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholic and Sanguine – their characteristics filtered, in Nielsen’s case, through crude images he observed on the walls of a rural Danish pub. What transpires is a sequence of edgy, to-the-point musical representations, devilishly curt in both expression and length, but all the more visceral and entertaining for it.

The journey from feverish impetuosity in the opening Allegro collerico and dismissive charm of the scherzo-like Allegro commode e flemmatico, through the ultimate resignation of the slow movement (Andante malinconico) to carefree exuberance of the concluding Allegro sanguineo, was a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride.

Before that, the 1932 shortened version by Bartok of his The Wooden Prince, asked naturally for more expansive treatment, which it received by way of Dausgaard’s impassioned but unobtrusive approach. More than he often does, and without losing a hold over the big picture, he allowed the SSO ample scope to shape its own take on the descriptive tale of a prince whose ruse to win the heart of a princess by creating a puppet of himself initially backfires when the princess falls for the puppet.

The music itself was revelatory, Bartok dipping into a sea of derivatives, from Wagner to Stravinsky, yet marking his own presence with signature affirmation. If there was room for Dausgaard to exercise some of the same ferocity he applied later to the Nielsen, there was plenty in this performance to signal its fascination and extreme worth.

Ken Walton

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, after which it will be available for 30 days via BBC Sounds

SCO/ Emelyanychev

Perth Concert Hall

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s marketing department sold this season-closer under the banner “Maxim’s Firebird” and energetic Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev obliged by delivering a singular account of Stravinsky’s score that was only predictable in its unpredictability.

Preceded by the encapsulation of Beethoven’s craft that is the Leonore Overture No 3 and the equally compact and radical First Violin Concerto of Prokofiev, with Alina Ibragimova as soloist, this was a concert of music usually heard by larger orchestras performed by a big edition of the SCO that made explicit use and purpose of its chamber music sensibilities.

In all cases, but especially in the Stravinsky, the result was revelatory. There were details in the music that appeared fresh and newly-minted; from Simon Smith’s celesta and piano and Eleanor Hudson’s harp on the one hand, and from first horn Zoe Tweed, first flute Daniel Pailthorpe and the regulars on the reed instruments on the other.

Just as important, though, was the dynamic control the conductor produced from the musicians all evening. That was evident in his clear insistence on playing more softly at the start of the Beethoven, and reached its apotheosis in the sequence of Rondo, Infernal dance, Lullaby and Hymn at the culmination of the Stravinsky. There have been louder Firebirds, but few with such contrasts in sound and mood, turning on a sixpence with breath-catching impact, and with a momentum that was truly magnificent.

Towards the end of Overture, following a perfectly positioned off-stage trumpet, there was a brief sense that the winds were overloud, even as the strings produced an impressive pianissimo, but in the Firebird Suite (the version Stravinsky made in 1945) the balance was always fascinating. It should be remembered that this is the hall in which Emelyanychev and the SCO worked on filmed music during lockdown, so they know the acoustic well.

That applied to the concerto as well, with Ibragimova fully on board with the project and projecting her own virtuosity at often daringly low volume. The opening Andantino began very quietly indeed and even the central, speedy Scherzo: Vivacissimo was working to hairline tolerances in terms of balance between soloist and ensemble. The concerto may not have had the narrative of the other works on the programme, but it lacked nothing in drama. The lyricism that reappears in the final movement was combined with a powerful edge, honed like tempered steel.

As former chief conductor Robin Ticciati steered the SCO into spheres of music it had previously not visited, as well as recalibrating more familiar repertoire, so too, in his own inimitable style, has Maxim Emelyanychev. He may, however, be bringing a more radical, and – crucially – more intimate approach to that aspect of his job.

Keith Bruce

Concert repeated at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh and City Halls, Glasgow tonight and tomorrow.
Picture: Alina Ibragimova

The Night With . . Juice

Drygate, Glasgow

Composer/promoter Matthew Whiteside’s strategy of presenting cutting edge new music in venues with none of the austerity often associated with that endeavour has never seemed as bold as it did on Saturday night, where the upstairs room was accessed through a pub/restaurant packed with folk who had probably been more concerned with sport that afternoon, and who were never inaudible.

If that meant the audience had to focus their ears more carefully as they quaffed the craft brewery’s ale, it was an exercise well worth the effort. Opening with Meredith Monk’s wordless call-to-attention, Offering, sung solo by Anna Snow, the vocal trio’s first set was completed by two world premieres, the second by Whiteside himself with an electronic underscore triggered from a laptop by himself. And This Too Shall Pass was a lockdown project full of signals of the passing on time – bells and metronomes, breathing and babble – which made considerable demands on the singers’ vocabulary of vocal effects, closely integrated with the instrumental soundtrack.

It was in contrast to the even newer work, by Royal Conservatoire of Scotland composition student Amy Stewart, Mountain High. Completed in workshops with the group, Stewart’s heartfelt lament for the stolen youth of the children caught up in the present conflict in Ukraine married the Kyrie from the Latin Mass with a Ukrainian folk song, There Stands a High Mountain.

Thereafter, the tone lightened, even if the music itself was often complex, three of the following four pieces being specifically concerned with the goddess Venus. Elizabeth Bernholz, a.k.a. Gazelle Twin, and the Afrofuturist Nwando Ebizie both start from the same point with their pieces Goddess Awake and The Birth of Venus, but travel in very different directions. With a looping soprano figure, sampled mezzo and narration, the precision-engineered performance of the former was the easier to appreciate, while the non-singing vocal techniques and pre-language story of the latter was a dense and complex climax to the programme.

The work of French-born sound artist Olivia Louvel has visited the 16th century before, and specifically the story of Mary Queen of Scots. Her composition Not a Creature of Paper draws on the Venusian love sonnets of Renaissance French feminist Louise Labe in a collage of overlapping text and tunes and fireworks in the electronic underscore.

With the rich alto tones of Steph Connor replacing Kerry Andrew in the line-up, these three works were perhaps the building blocks of a future Juice Ensemble album, the exception being Croatian composer Mirela Ivicevic’s Orgy of References, another solo – this one performed by soprano Sarah Dacey. An absolutely hilarious setting of the notional biography/curriculum vitae of a young musician, it plays with all the cliches in a jumble of showstopping moments and academic earnestness, and required huge amounts of skill and panache to pull off as successfully as Dacey did.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Sarah Dacey

SCO / Manze

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

For his first concert with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra since before the pandemic, conductor Andrew Manze presided over a magnificent programme that will surely be one of the most thoughtful and inventive to grace the 150th anniversary year of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Only one of the works – Britten’s Lachrymae – was familiar to me, and the highlight of a sensational concert was a world premiere, The Years by the SCO’s Associate Composer Anna Clyne, commissioned with funds from the RVW Trust.

Setting verses by Stephanie Fleischmann, this response to the pandemic was a real challenge for the 45 voices of the SCO Chorus, and music few other amateur choirs would have attempted. Clyne employed the voices incrementally, sometimes using very few of them. Here was a fabulous evocation of the solace we all found in nature during lockdown walks, with trilling winds and bugle-like calls on the trumpets. The integration of the chorus with the instrumentalists was masterly, with some exceptional sonic results.

Part of that rich mix of sound was an evocation of the sea, and the new work was preceded by the Sea Sketches for strings by Grace Williams, a pupil of Vaughan Williams and contemporary of Britten, and another female composer whose work is ripe for rediscovery. Introducing it, Manze must have been keenly aware that the violinists behind him included only one man, seconds leader Gordon Bragg.

He, leader Doriane Gable and first viola Jessica Beeston all had brief solos in the hugely effective third section Channel Sirens, which is followed by the brisk, picturesque Breakers. This is 20th century “sea music” as worthy of a regular place in the repertoire as the famous pieces by Britten, Debussy and Ravel.

The works that followed the interval were also sequenced superbly. Manze supplied his own orchestral arrangement of John Dowland’s If My Complaints Could Passions Move as a precursor to the Britten, which is based on the Renaissance song and was written for Scots viola virtuoso William Primrose. The soloist here was young Timothy Ridout, who has recorded it with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra on a disc that also includes music by Vaughan Williams.

The work by Vaughan Williams that brought this clever programme to a close was his Flos Campi, which features both solo viola and the chorus. It is structured on texts from the Song of Solomon, but the vocal line is wordless, and although it might have been a more straightforward sing for the choir, it is still far from standard repertoire. Given the composer’s interest in traditional music, it is little surprise that Ridout was required to bring some folk fiddle feeling to his contribution.

With the sopranos on especially impressive, precise form, the chorus that brought their best game to the very scenic scoring of the piece, in what was another pinnacle of a triumphant evening, repeated at Glasgow City Halls tonight.

Keith Bruce

Timothy Ridout picture by Jan Hordijk

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

A common mantra among many conductors is that less is often best. You see it in the most effective and moving performances, where a pertinent flick, an overarching gesture or, indeed, a visible cessation of any movement whatsoever may seem inversely proportionate to the heaving potency of the music, yet somehow the orchestra knows instinctively what is required of it and delivers with driven, burning intensity.

It’s something Ryan Wigglesworth might like to consider as he develops his imminent relationship as chief conductor with the BBC SSO. He was in Glasgow on Thursday performing a double act as soloist and conductor in this latest SSO afternoon concert, as well as attending the subsequent launch of what will be his first season in charge. The latter opens in September, when Wigglesworth officially takes up his new position (see the 2022-23 Season details in VoxCarnyx News).

Thursday’s programme wasn’t exactly as intended. It should have opened with the world premiere of Jörg Widmann’s Danse macabre, which was postponed “due to logistical constraints” to be replaced by Betsy Jolas’ Letters from Bachville. The now 95-year-old Franco-American composer describes her 2019 orchestral portrait of Leipzig, where Bach was its most famous Kantor, as a “Bach playlist”, filtering lightning quotes from the older composer through a fitful, cartoonesque score that ultimately seemed more skittish than cohesive. 

It could have been both had Wigglesworth stepped back a little, allowing its spontaneous energy, its capricious fits and starts, to self-combust. Instead, there was a sense of over-prescribed containment that not only suppressed any natural fizz, but killed the impact of its many punctuating silences by drawing undue attention to them.

A quick reset and the piano was installed centre stage for Wigglesworth to play/direct Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A, K414. It was clear from the outset that this would be an elegant appraisal of a porcelain-textured work.  The orchestral opening presented itself as gentile and rosy, Wigglesworth’s first solo entry responding with the same mannered deliberation and unchallenging understatement.

Such polite mutual interaction continued throughout, something of a nostalgic throwback to an earlier school of Mozart playing, which threw up enjoyable moments of nurtured poetry and reverential eloquence. There was never much intention, though, to probe below the surface, most noticeable in the slow movement, the piano’s first statement bland and unclear in its purpose, and instances throughout the concerto where the rhythmic interpretation felt more studied than instinctive. It was agreeable rather than dynamic, a mood endorsed by Wigglesworth’s ensuing encore, Harrison Birtwistle’s simple and delicately undulating piano miniature, Berceuse de Jeanne.

A work that really requires internal probing is Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony, a harrowing symphonic enigma written when the composer was at a particularly low ebb, self-questioning and wrestling with his health. It was the final work in this programme and one equally testing for the performers as for the listener.

Wigglesworth’s approach was ever-thoughtful, SSO principal cello Rudi de Groote’s soulful solo emerging from the lower-string, tritone-infested depths of the gloomy opening like a beacon of hope, only to be countered by the suffocating orchestral bleakness that persists. The SSO – with Sibelius firmly in their DNA from the Osmo Vänskä days of the 1990s – responded with natural empathy to the bitterness and crying despair of the music, the thwarted optimism of the Scherzo, the aching waves of the Largo, the Finale’s frustrating, dissipating inconclusiveness.

Why, then, did this feel like a performance painted strictly by numbers rather than guided by a free hand? Wigglesworth has a tendency to beat, even subdivide, every breathing moment, the impact of which was evident in its occasionally awkward groundedness. And was there an issue with an orchestral layout that placed the elevated double basses across the rear, brought the concealed wind and brass down to ground level behind the strings, and most importantly threw the glockenspiel far to the side where its key prominence in the Finale was strangely muted?

These are early days in the Wigglesworth-SSO partnership. The new season throws up plenty opportunities for them to assimilate that relationship. As always, each can benefit and learn from the other. In time, we’ll find out how explosive the chemistry will be.

Ken Walton

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, after which it will be available for 30 days via BBC Sounds

RSNO / Yashima

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Born and trained in Germany and about to relinquish a position as assistant to Yannick Nezet-Seguin in Philadelphia to take up a senior post at the Komische Oper Berlin, conductor Erina Yashima’s first appearance with Scotland’s national orchestra on Wednesday comes in a year of debuts around the globe, from Canada to Korea, as well as across Europe. If her programmes are all as original as this hour or so of music, she’ll quickly be invited back.

Beginning with a symphonic selection of four from Antonin Dvorak’s 10 Legends for Orchestra, and concluding with Brahms’s violin-less Serenade No 2, one of the composer’s symphonic experiments on the road to escaping the shadow on Beethoven with his own four numbered symphonies, the spicy meat in the middle of this concert sandwich (as soloist John Whitener described it) was the Scottish premiere of Thea Musgrave’s Loch Ness: A Postcard from Scotland.

Premiered by the BBC Scottish and Donald Runnicles at the Royal Albert Hall in the 2012 Proms, it is quite astonishing that the SSO ceded the opportunity to debut the piece in Scotland to the RSNO. A nine-minute piece of enormous fun for the full orchestra, Whitener’s tuba is the featured instrument, portraying Nessie, the secretive and much-sought monster of Scotland’s deepest loch.

With bass clarinet, contra-bassoon and some funky slap string basses sharing that register, the tuba emerges from a low burbling score with shimmering cymbals on top. The music brightens to a climax of ringing chords, half a dozen trumpets and trombones to the fore, before diminishing to a rumble once again, the glimpsed gold of Whitener’s instrument when he stood up briefly once again submerged in the sound of the orchestra.

Musgrave’s gem was played as part of the RSNO’s ongoing series of “Scotch Snaps”, works by contemporary composers living in Scotland, and it would be madness if it was not heard more widely.

Dvorak was being championed by Brahms at the time he wrote the Legends, with his hit Slavonic Dances to quickly follow, yet he was already two-thirds of the way through the composition of his catalogue of symphonies – a job the senior composer found so daunting. If his most attractive melodies were still to come, the brilliant ensemble writing is all there, and Yashima made sure to bring out the way the themes in the horns and other winds are answered by the strings in the big fourth Legend in C that formed the centrepiece of the selection. Preceded by Numbers 1 and 3, the set concluded with the F major No 8, which does carry some suggestions of From the New World.

In a similar way, the third movement Adagio of the Brahms Serenade is the precursor of darker symphonic Brahms after an opening two that are more like large scale chamber music, with all the winds having good stuff to play over some demanding repeated figures in the strings.

There’s much more song and dance in the fourth and fifth movements, and they brought an entertaining afternoon performance to an appropriately lively close.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Erina Yashima by Todd Rosenberg

TECTONICS 2022

City Halls, Glasgow

The latest post-pandemic cultural reinstatement got underway at the weekend with the first live Tectonics Festival in three years. Nothing has changed from the now time-honoured format, save the actual music of course, which is, as ever, cutting edge and slightly off the beaten track. 

It has remained contained within the City Halls complex in Glasgow – a timetabled procession, hither and thither, between the august Grand Hall, the cobbled Victorian street ambience of the Old Fruitmarket and the blinged-up retro elegance of the Recital Room. The mark of cofounders Ilan Volkov and Alasdair Campbell persisted through the customary matrix of installations, discussion and concerts. New sounds, familiar setting.

It’s strange to think that the music of Janet Beat still counts among the former. Now in her eighties and quietly retired, it’s easy to forget that she played such a pioneering role, especially as a woman, in the development of electronic music, yet her music has remained in the shadows. Day 1 of Tectonics 2022 witnessed the first of two tribute concerts, The Beat Goes On, in her honour. At its heart, a performance in the Old Fruitmarket of Puspawarna, her 1989-90 piece for voice, gong and electronics, with Juliet Fraser as soprano soloist.

There’s an alluring datedness to the electronics dimension of this work, dominated – aside from Fraser’s dazzling incantations and the tolling gong – by the pungent persistence of a rhythmically sidestepping keyboard riff, much in the mould of early Messiaen. This was a captivating performance, surrounded either side of the Indonesian-influenced Puspawarna by contrasting improvised responses to Beat’s music.

While Japanese sound artist Yosuke Fujita’s Installation in the Recital Room remained self-functioning throughout the weekend, his live presentation on Saturday was the most visceral way to experience it. A thing of visual intrigue –  three miniature aquariums, from which he has synthesised water sounds, set around a primitive pipe organ and mixing desk – Fujita added his own vocalisations to the gradually metamorphosing soundscape, sometimes subliminal, other times gutteral, always with a sense of the spiritual.

It was back to the Old Fruitmarket for a brief double bill presented to some extent as a gladiatorial combat between Volkov and the BBC SSO in the world premiere of Joanna Ward’s “from the trees and from my friends (bean piece 3)” and Jamaican multi-instrumentalist Douglas R Ewart’s Red Hills, spiritedly performed under his direction by the super cool Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra.

Each band occupied opposing ends of the venue, requiring the audience to do a 180 degrees about-turn between pieces. First up, the awkward fascination of Ward’s itinerant experiment, SSO players constantly swapping positions as if engaging in some cross-contamination of musical chairs and speed dating, the music unfortunately forgettable. Ewart’s Red Hills, though, was an exuberant counterweight, its initial sultriness and composure exploding into a jam so energised and frenzied it had the joint jumping.

The big event on Saturday was the BBC SSO’s evening programme, which centred on premieres by French experimentalist Pascale Criton, American-born composer and sound designer Amber Priestley and the Norwegian visually-inspired composer Kristine Tjøgersen. 

Criton’s Alter, written during the pandemic and with a focus on the elemental transformation of sound and texture, re-introduced singer Juliet Fraser, whose own words fed into a vocal line initially inconsequential, but later powerful in echoing the increasing dramatic narrative of the music.

The SSO, as always, found infinite purpose in Alter’s expressive message, equally so in Priestley’s  For Jocelyn Bel Burnell, its title referring to the astrophysicist who discovered pulsars, the process of which Priestley reimagines as a conflict between gravitational references to Beethoven by the main stage ensemble, and ephemeral overlay by the assorted musicians spread all around the audience. The surround experience was exhilarating, the piece itself unhelpfully prolix. What started as a mesmerising juxtaposition turned eventually into an alien invasion.

Volkov saved the best till last, Tjøgersen’s Between Trees, its provocative colours and delicate nuances magically assimilating in a performance that matched ear-catching detail and ample literalism (the odd cuckoo among a clamour of birdcalls and other allusions to the natural world) with the collective clout of its structural arch. Tjøgersen’s background observance of traditional vocabulary made her exploration of new horizons all the more exciting. 

Ken Walton

(Photo: Alex Woodward)

The majority of Tectonics performances were recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3 & BBC Sounds

SCO / Carneiro

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro has become a familiar and popular figure on Scotland’s stages, and her relaxed and communicative style was an essential ingredient of the success of this well-attended concert. It is likely, however, that many in the audience were attracted by the accessible programme of music by Mozart, Chopin and Beethoven and the presence of piano soloist Benjamin Grosvenor, just a day after the RSNO had announced a season that includes the box office certainty of a gig featuring him with Nicola Benedetti and Sheku Kanneh-Mason.

He was playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 (actually Chopin’s first), of which he made a chart-topping recording with the RSNO and Elim Chan, and I’d wager that Carneiro shares Chan’s opinion that the view that the young Chopin was no orchestrator is exaggerated. In a performance that found Beethovian echoes in the opening of the first movement before Grosvenor had played a note, she was very aware that the work is all about the soloist, but made sure that the rest of the players had a share of the action. There may be long stretches, particularly in the Larghetto slow movement, when many of them are less productively employed, but the vivacity of the dance music in the finale was as much down to them as the piano.

Grosvenor’s playing was exemplary. The correct balance between rigour and passion seems to come naturally to him for this music, and it is not overstating the case to place him as the foremost interpreter of both Chopin concertos of our times.

On either side we heard composers who informed the Chopin’s style, with Mozart’s Symphony No 32 (really more of an overture, as Carneiro said) and Beethoven’s Sixth, the Pastoral.

With four horns and nearly 30 string players, the Mozart was a big opening statement, shaped by the conductor to wake up the ears. The clarity of her beat and signals of emphasis and dynamics are delightfully readable from an audience point of view, so she is a great asset in selling the music to those with less experience of orchestral concerts, as was perhaps the case here.

Not that the Pastoral needs much help. As probably the most popular of Beethoven’s symphonies, it resists attempts to intellectualise it, and what was clear here was how much it shares with the contemporaneous Fifth in the composer’s endlessly inventive re-working of his basic material – the difference being that Sixth’s is easier to like, prettier and more like Mozart.

Carneiro found a revelatory approach to the Andante second movement “Scene by the brook” with a balance that favoured the undercurrent of the low strings, the violins rippling more quietly on top, and the round-toned bassoon of Cerys Ambrose-Evans a crucial ingredient later. The rural partying that followed was full of fun, ended by a muscular, but not overpowering, storm.

Keith Bruce

Sponsored by Pulsant

RSNO / Boreyko

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

There’s an understandable nervousness among concert programmers to include Russian music at this sensitive moment. But when the RSNO stuck to its guns with its advertised Shostakovich Spectacular over the weekend, it was on sure ground. No-one handed out criticism more viciously, with more obfuscating genius, than Shostakovich in his subliminal, unprovable protests against Stalin and his terrorising Soviet regime. Nowadays, we recognise his music for its true meaning.

And that meaning was made all the more compelling with the unplanned presence of Andrey Boreyko, the St Petersburg-born artistic director of the Warsaw Philharmonic who replaced an indisposed James Conlon. Boreyko recently voiced his condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by duly cancelling all his Russian concert dates, and prefaced this programme with Mykola Lysenko’s Prayer for Ukraine, an emotional scene-setter to the politically-loaded Shostakovich.

The dramatic switch from this plaintive totemic 19th century anthem against Russian repression to the fearsome weaponry of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, represented here by two of the movements (arranged by the absent Conlon) from its derivative orchestral suite, was pure theatre, much in the spirit of an opera that in 1934 so enraged Stalin to publicly vilify its composer. It didn’t miss the mark in stirring Saturday’s contemporary Glasgow audience.

By this point, Boreyko had the RSNO fully alert to his intentions, plumbing the depths of the initial Passacaglia to an extent that imposed constant checks and frustration on its ripening ambitions, which in turn sharpened the impact of The Drunkard, a madcap burlesque played with vile spit and sardonic sting.

Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski’s flirtatious confrontation with Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2 made for the perfect follow-up. It’s a work, written for the composer’s son as a test piece for his high school graduation, that professed no concealed motives other than giving the young Maxim a relatively easy time, cleverly made to sound, by virtue of its supersonic sparkle, like a virtuoso showpiece.

Trpčeski invested wit and wile in a performance so laid back he literally bent backwards at throwaway moments to adopt a near horizontal position. He opened with dazzling but captivatingly suppressed finger work, always with a threat of a smirk, throwing down a gauntlet to Boreyko and the RSNO to respond with equal impishness. It worked, the ebullience of the outer movements monetarily calmed by the still, luscious central presence of the lyrical Andante.

Not surprisingly, after leaping off the stool for the final chord, Trpčeski chose to encore unconventionally with the help of RSNO leader Maya Iwabuchi and its Belarusian principal cello Alexei Kiseliov in the Scherzo from Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No 2. The internationalism of the impromptu ensemble held its own fascination, the playing brilliantly incisive with a strong, and appropriate, hint of belligerence.

The second half brought us Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5, famous in 1937 for its confessional soubriquet, “A Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism”, but outwardly, as the composer was to hint later through rather clandestine, third party means, more a subversive snipe at cultural dictatorship.

The sense of restraint imposed by Boreyko in the jagged opening, the mountainous climaxes that bore a paradoxical robotic emptiness, the puckish rat-tat-tat of the Scherzo, the expansive, molten angst of the Largo, and the pungent irony of the Finale – what erstwhile RSNO music director Alexander Lazarev once described as “hollow rejoicing” – all came torridly together in this energised, if very occasionally unclean, performance.

But the overall message of the evening was powerful, provocative and relevant, even if much of that came about by chance. 

Ken Walton

(Photo: James Montgomery)

Bridge Festival / Nachtsmusik

Barrowland Ballroom, Glasgow

The inaugural Bridge Festival (21-24 April) opened with a musical statement of its defining purpose, to bring together like-minded ensembles from around Europe, share ideals, and generate a spirit of discovery and surprise among potential new audiences. The venue for Thursday’s launch concert was Glasgow’s iconic Barrowland Ballroom. Who’d have thought this temple to populist Glasgow, its fraying decorative tat, its Buckfast glamour, its aura of nostalgic decay, would have served the purposes of Classical music? Strangely, and excitingly, it did. 

Hemmed in by the low barrel roof – more commonly the soundboard for stacks of Marshall amps – the acoustics encountered by the joint forces of the hosting Scottish Ensemble, Norway’s Trondheim Soloists, Germany’s Ensemble Resonanz and the Estonian youngsters of the PLMF Music Trust were remarkably friendly. It was astonishing, indeed revelatory, to hear the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony etched out so viscerally, screaming at times with gut-wrenching hyper-intensity.

That was just one highlight in Nachtmusik, a gritty time-travelling journey under the baton of Manchester-born Catherine Larsen-Maguire that spanned ten centuries of music, from the exotic medievalism of 12th-century mystic Hildegard von Bingen (an enchantingly modernised adaption of her sensuous chant, O Ecclesia!) and the wrap-around polychoral luxuriance of Gabrieli’s Sonata XVIII, to the edgy experimentalism of world premieres by former rock musicians Mica Levi and Estonian Erkki-Sven Tüür. 

Things got off to a nervous start. Larsen-Maguire fought bravely to galvanise the dispersed elements of the Gabrieli, but at times it seemed held together only by the thinnest of threads. Yet it was a momentary issue. Once everyone was together on stage, a natural dynamic took hold. Scottish Ensemble leader Jonathan Morton spun a mystical violin solo in the Bingen, instantly obliterated by the abrasive counter-assault of Levi’s new commission, Flag, its nerve-jangling ferocity – a vicious and incessant cacophony of blood-curdling tremolandi – cutting through the air like an Arctic hurricane. Harsh, uncompromising, yet fuelled by a powerful, slow-moving metamorphoses, it made its point.

So did Tüür’s Deep, Dark Shine, though in a darker, more gnomic way. It had the feeling of a “de profundis” about it, shadowy depths through which shafts of light venture to shine. If at times Tüür is given to clichéd modernism, this was a performance with enough purpose, gravitas and belief to bring it off.

The second half was constructed as an intriguing call and response, Penderecki’s 1962 sonic experiment, Polymorphia for 48 strings, answered immediately by 48 Responses to Polymorphia by the Radiohead guitarist and keyboardist Jonny Greenwood. The former, performed with captivating deference to its linear sound world, nuclear clusters, percussive effects, elliptical humour, and that glorious sunburst of a closing C major chord, set a high bar for Greenwood’s response.

It rarely disappointed. Framed over nine sections, and introduced by a Bach-like chorale that soon dissolves into the ether, this pan-European band entered fully into Greenwood’s spirit of deference and curiosity, capturing the outrageous wit that defines its final moments.  Larsen-Maguire nurtured both its subtleties and its provocations, but could have made more of those moments where the sound sweeps around the orchestra like a mutating swarm of bees. It made linear sense, but lacked a vertical dimension.

Nachtmusik attracted a sizeable audience, which bodes well for the remainder of an enterprising festival that is spread around some unusual Glasgow venues. 

Full details of The Bridge Festival events are at www.bridgestrings.eu 

Ken Walton 

NYOS / Hasan

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The area of music making likely to have suffered most over these past two years of Covid-enforced hibernation has surely been the communal opportunities lost to youngsters in the formative years of their musical development. To see the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland spring back to life last week, in particular the public concerts presented in Edinburgh and Glasgow by the organisation’s flagship Symphony Orchestra, was a heartening sign that the seeds of recovery are beginning to shoot.

An intrepid NYOS fielded a mighty contingent for its substantial and demanding programme of Respighi, John Harle and Shostakovich. Key to inspiring and galvanising it were two intriguing personalities, still young, but established in their fields of enterprise: British-born conductor Kerem Hasan, a 30-year-old alumnus of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, now chief conductor of the Tiroler Symphonieorchester of Innsbruck; and the virtuoso saxophonist Jess Gillam as soloist in a work specially written three years ago for her by Harle.

Gillam was not only the star turn, but an irrepressible force of nature whose electrifying presence, let alone her exuberant blue and yellow sartorial creation, demanded nothing less in return from the orchestra. Harle’s music – the suite Briggflatts, based on the autobiographical poem by the British modernist Basil Bunting – played its own part as a vital stimulant, driven much by an infectious motorised minimalism, restless rhythmic unpredictability, rich jazz-infused melodies and a high-voltage Rant that converts its base material, Cumbrian folk music, into a delirious foot-stamping finale.

But all eyes were on Gillam, whose visible egging-on was the motivating linchpin, encouraging Hasan and the orchestra to take risks they may not otherwise have considered. If such encounters with danger took the performance to the very brink, it inspired nothing less than an explosive triumph.

To some extent Respighi’s ruminative symphonic poem, Fountains of Rome, which opened the programme, could have done with some of that same alertness, not in the brash sense, but in stencilling out its scented, filigree colours. There were magical moments, from poignant solo contributions to deliciously atmospheric nuancing by the upper strings. Hasan shaped the performance with meaningful organic flow and perceptive delicacy. At times, though, it just seemed to lose its immediacy and luminescence.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No 10 offered a very different challenge, technically daunting and driven emotionally by the composer’s feverish thoughts at the time of writing,1953, just after Stalin’s death. Again, Hasan captured the broad picture magnificently, from the tortuous granite-like intensity of the opening movement, through the abrupt second movement scherzo and personalised nocturnal reflection of the third, to the ultimate raging force of the finale. 

There was no escaping the eager responsiveness of the young players, even when the briskness of the scherzo sent the upper strings into a near-calamitous flurry. It was ultimately an overall success, but symbolic too, perhaps, of what the pandemic has done to young people. They desperately need regular opportunities again to express themselves with full confidence and in tandem with each other. Good to see them back on track.

Ken Walton

BBC SSO / Elder

City Halls, Glasgow

In their own way, Mozart, Wagner and Richard Strauss thought a lot of themselves and expressed as much in their music. While that might seem a gross understatement where Wagner is concerned, and a potent but pleasant truth when it comes to Strauss, for Mozart it was expressed in terms of honestly-intentioned free-spiritedness with a capacity to express the frivolous and the wretched with almost unrivalled humanity.

This was a BBC SSO programme, combining all three composers, that was right up veteran conductor Sir Mark Elder’s street. He is a Wagnerian par excellence, capable of eliciting maximum intensity with minimum interference. He translates that naturally to the emotive excesses of Strauss, wisely so in an approach that guards against a potentially riotous free-for-all. In Mozart – in this case with the slimmest of reduced forces – his respect for classical tautness and proportions is flexible enough to accommodate dramatic fire.

He was joined in the last – the rarely-heard concert aria “Ah, lo previdi” dating from the end of Mozart’s Salzburg period in 1777 – by the soprano Sophie Bevan, wife of the SSO’s newly-appointed chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, who, incidentally, will replace Marin Alsop in charge of next week’s Thursday Series concert. 

Bevan’s performance, a pseudo-operatic narrative based on texts from a libretto by Vittorio Cigna-Santi on the trials and tribulations of the woeful Andromeda, was one of passionate engagement, stopping short of melodrama, but with a vocal range that freely explored the score’s volcanic vicissitudes. Elder gleaned empathetic support from the orchestra, bringing principal oboist Stella McCracken front stage for her gently persuasive solo obbligato in the final Cavatina.

The opening Wagner – a coupling of the Prelude from Act I and Good Friday Music from Act III from his opera Parsifal – took time to settle. While a degree of timelessness informed the slow, aching unfolding of the Prelude, it bore a fragility that undermined its intensity, its sense of expectation. Intonation malfunctions in critical woodwind chords merely added to the unease. Elder’s magic took root in the second extract, however, the orchestra now onside with a heart-felt performance oozing soulfulness and sublime warmth.

It was the latter qualities, plus the curbed temptations to overindulge, in Strauss’ 1899 self-serving tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) that proved the outright hit of the evening. Philosophically bound to the Nietzschean concept of man as a hero whose self-overcoming struggles lead to inward fulfilment, and vividly applied by Strauss to aspects of his own life, the musical journey is a whirlwind of impassioned extremes.

Elder shaped those with masterful reserve, leaving much of the initiative to the significantly inflated SSO ranks – among them 8 horns no less, and 6 trumpets – yet always there to draw a red line. That was imperative in matching the explosive magnitude of the battle music to the modest hall, which he impressively achieved; and brilliantly effective in articulating the cacophonous carping of the critics, which Strauss must have had enormous fun in writing. 

But central to this performance, and to a great extent defining it, was leader Laura Samuel’s extended solo violin role, opening reservedly with awe and wonderment, but soon adopting a full-blooded bravado that harnessed the tempestuousness of the composer’s wife, a manic concoction of the sensual and the irrational. It’s unlikely Strauss was out to make too many friends in the references he bravely pursued.

Ken Walton

Available for 30 days after broadcast on BBC Sounds

SCO / Schuldt

City Halls, Glasgow

Given all that has happened – or failed to happen – in recent years, it says a lot for the enthusiasm of the SCO for German conductor Clemens Schuldt that this was, by my reckoning, his fourth return visit in the past five years. By way of comparison, the soloist for this concert, Colin Currie, revealed that it was his first concert in the city since he moved back to Scotland and bought a home in Glasgow in November 2019.

Thus we have waited a long time to hear the 2018 Percussion Concerto written for him by Edinburgh-raised Helen Grime. It was a touching gesture that Currie dedicated the performance to two composers of an earlier generation – Lyell Cresswell and John McLeod – who died recently and had been an inspiration to both of them.

The work turns out to be a fascinating addition to the expanding catalogue of concertos the virtuoso percussionist has caused to be written. Rather than compose an explosive demonstration for the soloist with an accompaniment and underscore from the chamber orchestra, Grime has given Currie the lead with all the musical material – and there’s a lot of it – and invented a vast range of responses to it from the full palette of orchestral sounds at her disposal.

Currie’s “follow me” start on tuned percussion is immediately answered by slap bass and trumpet blasts and as the piece develops the percussive sounds of timpani, harp and celeste are crucial supports, as are the vibrant double bassoon, cor anglais and E flat clarinet colours in the winds.

The soloist is rarely required to hit the untuned percussion very hard, but some of the writing is very fast indeed. The third of three unseparated movements has a long marimba solo before it ends on a shimmer of glockenspiel, string harmonics and breath effects on the horns.

Grime’s radical modernity was framed by works of Beethoven, Haydn and Anton Eberl, the latter two overtures to operas about islands and women. While Eberl’s Overture to The Queen of the Black Islands made you feel you had seen the opera in its full-on drama, Haydn’s for The Uninhabited Island rather made one yearn to see a full staging of the shipwreck story.

Completing the programme was Beethoven’s Symphony No 4, a work that seems to have featured regularly in Scottish concert schedules of late. Schuldt’s version came in very clearly delineated chapters, with a very bouncy second movement Adagio and huge enthusiasm for the rhythmic games of the Scherzo. Among the fine wind solos, first bassoon Cerys Ambrose-Evans stood out.

Keith Bruce

RSNO in Germany (2)

Rudolf Oetker Halle, Bielefeld

To the loudly-expressed delight of the German audience, conductor Thomas Søndergård  announced the surprise of a world premiere at the conclusion of the third concert in the RSNO’s European tour.

For decades, this orchestra – alongside other Scottish ensembles – has dusted off John Fahey’s arrangement of Eightsome Reels as a traditional-music flavoured encore. When they played the piece in the United States, I described it as “bulletproof”, and it will remain so. Now, however, the RSNO has a new weapon in its armoury, courtesy of principal horn Christopher Gough.

In what might be compared to the sort of upgrade Formula 1 teams introduce midway through a Grand Prix season to give them a competitive edge, Gough has re-tooled the Eightsomes, using some of the screen-scoring skills he learned on a sabbatical on the Valencia campus of Boston’s Berklee School of Music. Gough’s re-boot, with its daring changes of pace and time signature, may be trickier to clap along to, but it is a more thorough demonstration of the capabilities of a full symphony orchestra, and this arrangement looks certain to become a familiar bonus at the end of RSNO tour programmes.

It also sat particularly well at the end of this one, which was a unique sequence of music on this tour. It had begun with a more established evocation of Scotland in Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and the swelling melody of the sea at Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa. Requiring smaller forces than the rest of the programme, it was distinguished by the punchy wind playing Søndergård demanded, and precision trumpets.

From then on, it was an all-Rachmaninov concert, a bold stroke of programming that only seemed a little too rich because the first movement of the composer’s Second Symphony would arguably benefit from a little editing.

Before that, French soloist Lise de la Salle played the Piano Concerto No 2, with which she had wowed the orchestra’s home audience last month. In her hands it is a work designed to demonstrate the literal meaning of the name of her instrument – the pianoforte as a machine that works for delicacy as well as raw power. 

The famous opening bars have been played faster than she chooses to begin the work, but few players approach the dynamics of the score so deliberately. Every note counted and her lead was reflected in the contributions of soloists within the orchestra, notably again in the winds. Like Midori earlier in the week, it was to Bach that the soloist turned for her encore, describing his music as a “prayer for peace” to match the Ukrainian ribbon she wore.

The second movement Allegro of the symphony – with the work’s best tune – swiftly rescued it from the slightly unfocused journey that the opening section becomes, and with leader Maya Iwabuchi contributing a lyrical solo, the slow third movement was followed by a thoughtful pause before Sondergard launched the party of the Finale.

It is not just onstage that this tour has had to adapt swiftly to changing circumstances. Covid has  meant a last-minute shuffling of responsibilities in the admin team as well, while post-Brexit regulations mean that the RSNO’s instrument trailer is hooked up to an Ireland-registered tractor unit with sub-contracted drivers. Somehow, the arrival of a brand-new encore work to energise the players and delight audiences seemed both appropriate and positively therapeutic.

Keith Bruce

RSNO in Germany (1)

Heinrich Lades Halle, Erlangen

Scotland’s national orchestra is blazing any number of trails on its Spring tour to Germany and Poland, and it is not betraying confidences to mention that there were those who had put huge amount of effort into making it happen who nonetheless had fingers crossed, and would have been unsurprised to see it collapse at the last minute.

At some point, however, the RSNO was bound to embark on its first excursion since the Covid pandemic and the changes made necessary by the UK’s departure from the European Union and it has succeeded in doing so at what is really the first available opportunity.

Because it is performing with two soloists, violinist Midori and pianist Lise de la Salle, that has meant more repertoire than might usually have been the case for six dates, and because musicians were still testing positive for Covid-19 up until the eve of departure, freelance players were still getting calls to ask if they were available to join the orchestra very late in the day. 

Trumpeter Marcus Pope, who had been responsible for dressing his colleagues in the blue and yellow of the Ukraine flag a few weeks ago, is one of those now missing. His place has been taken by Cardiff-based Rob Johnston, while the unfamiliar faces in the strings include a British violinist now working in Berlin. From some angles, this is almost a barely recognisable RSNO – although in fact most of the key players are in their places.

After beginning in Coesfeld concert hall, where Midori’s Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto was preceded by Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and followed by the Second Symphony of Rachmaninov, the second performance with the violinist teamed the Tchaikovsky with the quintessentially English fare of Walton’s Scapino, “a comedy overture”, and Elgar’s Symphony No 1. 

As posters all over the neat Bavarian town testified, the visit to Erlangen by the Japanese-American star was a big deal, so it was gratifying for the RSNO players to see a saltire displayed by audience members in the gallery, signifying a level of appreciation for what looked like her “support band” on the publicity.

The Heinrich Lades hall is a multi-purpose venue that will also welcome the European tour of Glasgow’s Simple Minds in a few week’s time and its acoustic is not ideal for orchestral music, but the reception the packed auditorium gave to the Scots was wonderfully enthusiastic. Yes, the soloist was the star. She played the concerto with her usual consummate elegant stylishness – and she was cheered until she obliged with a Bach encore. But there was as much of an ovation for the orchestra, and they should surely have had their own encore ready to go.

The RSNO’s secret weapon here was the German member of the first violins, Ursula Heidecker Allen, who grew up in Augsburg in Bavaria and, as a veteran of many a pre-concert talk in Scotland, was an adept emcee in her native language. Rest assured that the humour in a Scottish orchestra playing mostly English music was not ignored.

And the Walton is indeed a fun work, and scored for a large ensemble, so a grand showpiece for a big orchestra on tour, while Elgar’s First Symphony may be his most singular, but in the way Thomas Søndergård shaped it there was clear evidence of the 19th century German influences on the English composer.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow

With the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union giving its annual performance of the work in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall on Sunday, re-scheduled from the early days of the New Year because of pandemic restrictions then, there has been ample opportunity for Central-belt Scots to hear Handel’s oratorio masterpiece, Messiah, in the run-up to Easter.

Unarguably, the work sits better at that point in the Christian calendar in terms of its libretto – the Nativity actually gets pretty short shrift after the “Pastoral Symphony” in the middle of Part 1 – but Messiah is much less a narrative of the life of Christ than an expression of some of the knottier philosophical issues presented by the faith, as outlined in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament. It is not to diminish the achievement of Charles Jennens, who supplied the composer with the clever text, to note that Handel himself was as well-versed in these arguments and highly Biblically literate. That is why he was able to set the words so successfully.

Led by Stephanie Gonley, who contributed some fine solo playing of her own, this edition of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra included some old friends, some early music specialists, and the keyboard talents of both the Edinburgh Choral’s director Michael Bawtree and the newly-announced director of the RSNO Chorus Stephen Doughty, alongside the harpsichord of SCO Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev.

If the bouncy excitability of Emelyanychev seemed a little over-exuberant in the instrumental opening bars, there were some inspired touches in the conductor’s interpretation later on, notably the bagpipe-like drone with which he began the aforementioned “Pifa”, which here became more a stately dance. His ornamentation at the keyboard was a sparkling foil to the extra grace-notes the soloists added to their recitatives and arias.

They were a stellar quartet too. Tenor Hugo Hymas brought something of the personality of Bach’s Evangelist to his role, while Matthew Brook was as terrifically dramatic as only he can be on some of the most theatrical music of the work – and, of course, Why Do The Nations So Furiously Rage Together? seemed especially pertinent.

But there was magnificent animation in the performance of counter-tenor Xavier Sabata as well, with a memorably huge “Shame” in the middle of He Was Despised, and Anna Dennis revelled in some of Emelyanychev’s brisk tempos. The soprano was in spectacular voice, very possibly the best I have heard her, with Part 1’s Rejoice Greatly as precise as it was speedy and Part 3’s I Know That My Redeemer Liveth devastating.

Chorus director Gregory Batsleer has the SCO singers – at 50 voices a large chamber choir as much as a chorus – drilled to perfection. There were some startling moments from them throughout the performance, including a very gentle start to All We Like Sheep, a wonderfully crisp “Let us break” from the nine tenors after Brook’s furious “Nations”, and the pinpoint dynamics and pitch of the unaccompanied Since by man came death in the final section.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Anna Dennis

BBC SSO / Brabbins

City Halls, Glasgow

A big concert with two soloists and a well-loved conductor on the podium, the SSO’s live broadcast from Glasgow looked a terrific programme on paper, but did not quite cohere in performance, even if every part of it had something to enjoy.

The second half pairing of Ernest Chausson’s Poeme de l’amour et de la mer and Claude Debussy’s much better known La mer did serve to illustrate how two contemporaries of the same nation might approach the same broad subject in an entirely different way. As even those not familiar with the work of Martyn Brabbins might expect of the music director of English National Opera, the latter was full of drama, and built beautifully to the climactic third movement “Dialogue of the wind and the sea”, the unfolding orchestration a captivating use of the vast forces onstage.

Chausson’s songs, setting the poetry of Maurice Bouchor, also make for a piece of scale, but owe much to contemporary German Romanticism. Mezzo Dame Sarah Connolly did not really sing them like Mahler or Strauss, however, taking a rather more narrative approach, which was enhanced, rather than in any way diminished, by her reference to the score. With a bassoon-led instrumental interlude separating the two texts, the shape of the work was as clear as that of the Debussy, and first cello Rudi de Groot added a lovely solo to the second one. Although it was probably undetectable to radio listeners, there were a few moments in the hall where Connolly’s immaculate diction was a little swamped by the orchestra.

Why Debussy’s early March ecossaise sur un theme populaire, which opened the concert, is rarely heard, particularly from Scottish orchestras, is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it is a little Brigadoon, but as the Frenchman wrote it, to order, more than half a century before that movie, it is difficult to dismiss the piece as in any way kitsch. And as a celebration of the oft-cited, if historically dubious, “Auld Alliance”, it would surely be popular with local audiences. Again, it uses a big orchestra, and even the young Debussy knew well how to make the most of that.

The world premiere in the programme, the new Clarinet Concerto, “Sutra”, by Wim Henderickx for fellow Belgian Annelien van Wauwe, also contained some liquid noises, not only in the electronics that form a crucial element of its structure, but also in the playing required of the lower strings. There are a lot of different ingredients in the score, with many of the ideas coming from the soloist and dedicatee.

Like violinist Elena Urioste, she combines her musical practice with yoga tuition, and the disciplines of meditation and concentration are themes of the central two movements. Only in the third one did the work become at all virtuosic, with a step up in tempo, a speedy Balkan melody line and a big band sound from the orchestra.

Elsewhere the players were required to breathe audibly, both through and without their instruments, and there were a number of vocal exchanges between soloist and ensemble. It may be a box-fresh composition, but there was something very 1970s about much of this, as well as in the use of wine glasses among the percussion, and in Scott Dickinson’s viola solo toward the end. It was tempting to speculate that the composer may have drawn on his teenage prog and jazz listening.

He also gave van Wauwe plenty of opportunity to demonstrate the lower register of the basset clarinet, although the most attractive and exciting passages she had to play seemed to fall within the range of the regular instrument.

Keith Bruce

The concert is available to listen to on BBC Sounds for 30 days.

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasow

It’s not often you hear delirious cheering, verging on rock hysteria, at a classical music gig, but the noticeably young audience section, whose unrestrained appreciation crescendoed over the course of this all-Mozart SCO programme, certainly wasn’t backward in liberating its Friday night fizz.

This was heartwarming to say the least, as concert-going inches back to normal. Nor was it difficult to identify the source of their adulation, Maxim Emelyanychev, the orchestra’s fresh-faced Russian principal conductor, whose rousing frontman presence – punchy, unpredictable and a whisker short of anarchic – is to the SCO what Freddie Mercury was to Queen. 

To describe the SCO, though, as a Mozart tribute band on this occasion, is perhaps taking the pop analogy too far. Yet these were performances through which Emelyanychev seemed intent on marrying the impression of Mozart the disorderly showman of his day with Mozart the musical museum piece. 

Full credit to the Russian, these performances really brought the music to life, not simply as if the ink was still wet on the score, but that some bits had even been left unfinished, to be made up on the spur of the moment.

That was literally the case in Emelyanychev’s solo number as performer/director in the Piano Concerto No 20 in D minor. He’d hardly sat down at the Steinway when he cut the applause dead, defying expectations with a short improvised fantasy, allegedly based on a harmonic sequence from Mozart’s Requiem (the Lacrimosa), delivered with a sort of pre-Lisztian demonism that eventually hung endlessly on a dominant chord in preparation for the concerto proper.

It was daring and electrifying. With the SCO tuning vigorously into this spirit of deflection and danger, grittily and spontaneously, the concerto’s familiarity was jeopardised in the best of senses. Yes, the purity of Mozart’s content and construction was judiciously maintained, its motivic interplay and seamless melodic invention bound by integrity, but this was also an object lesson in dynamic, on-the-spot music-making, which can only happen when an orchestra has such absolute belief in the man at the front. 

They won over their audience with interactive spontaneity and unheralded surprise. There was no second-guessing Emelyanychev’s chosen course, which sometimes involved walking away from the piano and into the midst of his colleagues. His own performance was fiery and fickle, just occasionally, in softer passages, failing to communicate the fullest of tone. And why make such an issue of retuning the orchestra between movements? It seemed more like an act than a necessity.

The concerto sat between the curiosity that is Mozart’s Serenade No 6, “Serenata notturna”, introduced by Emelyanychev who then disappeared to let this unconventionally orchestrated delight take care of itself, and the late Symphony No 39 in E flat.

The Serenade played its part as a showpiece opener, the central “concertante” group (a string quartet with double bass instead of cello) encased within the exuberance of the wider band. Louise Goodwin’s timpani, placed centre front stage, unleashed a solo break to rival Buddy Rich. 

Emelyanychev was back in harness to direct the closing symphony, predictably unpredictable, set ablaze by a freedom that invited snatches of improvised ornamentation from the woodwind and febrile gutsiness from the strings, but nearly burned to the ground when Mozart’s mischievous false finish, riskily exaggerated, set off premature applause and subsequent laughter. 

Was that the intended response? I wouldn’t put it past the SCO’s charismatic enfant terrible.

Ken Walton 

BBC SSO / Sanderling

City Halls, Glasgow

For the second week running, the BBC SSO has played like an orchestra utterly transformed. Why has the sound been so instantly arresting and synergic? How come every moment of attack has been like a bolt of lightning, everyone – audience included – on the edge of their seats?  Why are there smiles of satisfaction and sheer enjoyment on the players’ faces? Easy, it’s all down the conductor.

This week, Michael Sanderling, of the famous German conducting family, was on the podium. From the word go, in this upbeat coupling of Haydn and Mahler, there was a palpable magic in the air. Foremost, he instilled in the orchestra a confidence to express itself: disciplined and super-clean in Haydn’s Cello Concerto No 2, but with a pliable, cosseted warmth that enriched its vital interaction with the soloist Alexey Stadler; and equally Haydnesque in articulating the steely definition of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, but wild and free enough to capture its childlike wonderment.

Stadler’s own performance in the Haydn was a captivating amalgam of exuberance and poise. He conquered effortlessly its challenges – rapidly virtuosic with a tendency towards the topmost reaches of the cello’s fingerboard and beyond – and with a lustrous singing tone that married crystalline focus with hair-raising magnitude. 

There was nothing routine or subordinate in the SSO’s performance, Sanderling – himself a cellist – nurturing every nuance with calculated accuracy and meaningful prominence. Nor, after such a brilliant performance by the Russian soloist, and the audience demanding more, was there much chance of Stadler getting away without an encore. He responded with aching pathos – the haunting unaccompanied strains of the Adagio from the Solo Sonata No 1 by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Polish-born Jew who suffered oppression under Stalin while living in Soviet Russia.

That moment of resonating contemplation was instantly swept aside in the second half with the jingling bells that introduce Mahler’s Symphony No 4. There are many ways to convey the visionary innocence of this instrumentally-light – for `Mahler – work. Sanderling chose detailed precision as the catalyst for his persuasive solution. 

“Don’t hurry”, indicates the composer in his opening tempo instructions. That was exactly the impression Sanderling imparted, a very Germanic approach that fed the overall performance with powerful, self-generating momentum. Rather than stifling Mahler’s impetuous tempi changes, this heightened their impact, a sense of harnessed ecstasy that, when it was offered release, did so with thrilling abandon. 

The orchestral playing brimmed with electrifying incision and distinctive colourings, as much from the many solo contributions as the integral ensembles. The Adagio, its timeless expression of death and acceptance, served breathtakingly its pivotal role between the devilish Scherzo and Mahler’s final illuminating vision of peace. 

Swedish soprano Miah Persson imbued the Finale’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn text – “Heaven is hung with violins” – with an embracing, motherly charm. The unwinding to ultimate silence was a mind-blowing clincher – milked thoroughly by Sanderling – with which to end.

Ken Walton

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, after which it will be available for 30 days via BBC Sounds 

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