Category Archives: Reviews

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

SCO / Shostakovich

SCO / Prokofiev / Kaprálová /Bacewicz / Shostakovich
Perth Concert Hall

The search for workable repertoire by orchestras during the performance strictures of this pandemic has led to the unearthing of some pleasurable novelties. They are, of course, all geared to smaller ensemble sizes, but they are by no means diminished in interest and impact.

Who for instance, in normal times, would ever have programmed Prokofiev’s Sonata for Solo Violin, intended by the composer not just for a single player, but – with teaching purposes in mind – for several players in unison? With this, the latest SCO online concert from Perth, comes an ideal opportunity. 

Led by Stephanie Gonley, whose presence whips up a valiant head of steam from the outset, the SCO violin coterie make homogenous mischief out of Prokofiev’s angular devilry and softer lyrical sweetness playing musical tag with each other. 

The whole programme offers a similar bittersweet sensation. Two wind pieces by Viteslava Kaprálová and Grazyna Bacewicz maintain that mood, the first a flighty Wind Trio, the latter a punchy Wind Quintet. The playing is extraordinary, which in a way makes up for the neoclassical dryness that is, up to a point, this music’s piquant charm. 

Kaprálová’s Trio  – her premature death in 1940 at the age of 25, left works such as this unfinished – is heard in Stéphane Egeling’s reconstruction which utilises material from her piano music to plug the compositional gaps. The result is a testament to her craftsmanship and caustic wit, all of which is captured by oboist Robin Williams, clarinettist William Stafford and bassoonist Alison Green.

They are joined by Patrick Broderick (horn) and Bronte Hüdnott (flute) in the Bacewicz Quintet, where the fuller, more diverse, wind ensemble revel in its joyous virtuosity and riot of energy and repose. The spacious Perth Concert Hall and its warm acoustics provide a warm embrace.

It’s back to strings for the final work, Shostakovich’s early Two Pieces for String Octet, Op 11, written with a discernible nod to Mendelssohn’s more famous Octet, which the SCO ensemble acknowledge through the natural meatiness of this wholesome instrumental grouping. A rueful opening piece is countered by the robust second, the expansiveness of Shostakovich’s expressiveness, from plaintiff reflection to searing aggression, fully and resolutely explored. 
Ken Walton

Available to watch via www.sco.org.uk

RSNO/Bloxham: Clydebank 41

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

In different times than these, the 80th anniversary of Scotland’s worst aerial bombing carnage in the Second World War might have been marked by the inclusion of RSNO Principal Horn Chris Gough’s new work remembering the Clydebank Blitz in a live concert by the orchestra.

Instead the premiere of the work, commissioned by West Dunbartonshire Council’s Culture Committee, is on the orchestra’s YouTube channel, the filmed performance in Glasgow, conducted by Tyne-sider Jonathan Bloxham, prefaced by ten minutes of documentary written and directed by Tony McKee and narrated by Liam Stewart.

The collage of film, still images and sound that McKee has provided gives a hugely informative and powerfully compact context to Gough’s music, which then elides into the performance by way of some pastiche black and white “newsreel” of the orchestra in rehearsal.

The piece does not attempt to soundtrack the destruction of Clydebank itself, using an interlude of air-raid sirens and the over-head rumble of heavy bombers (with accompanying video) as an interlude between its two movements. The opening, The Steady Grind of Wartime Life, carries its own echoes of those sirens alongside the mechanical beat of pizzicato strings and muted brass.

Following that interlude (The Blitz Comes to Clydeside), the picture of Desolation begins with a plangent cor anglais, underscored by bass clarinet. The wind section theme, derived from a folk song, On the Banks of the Clyde, which the composer sourced in the Vaughan Williams online archive, is then taken up by the strings, and then brass, becoming a hymn of resilience.

As the work concludes, the names of all 528 who died in the bombing of March 13 and 14 1941 scroll up the screen, the range of ages, from primary school children to pensioners, and the many members of the same families all too evident.

There’s a lot else to notice here: the orchestra’s commitment to new music in its Scotch Snaps strand; the simultaneous link with the digital season’s Polska Scotland theme that the Clydebuilt Polish Navy destroyer ORP Piorun was back at the John Brown yard for repairs and helped repel the Luftwaffe.

In different times than these, much of this might have passed in the brief flourish of, at best, two concert hall performances for an audience of a couple of thousand. There is some reason to be grateful that the fine work of Gough, his RSNO colleagues and their associates is accessible to many more in its online incarnation.

Keith Bruce

Steven Osborne @ 50

STEVEN OSBORNE / 50th Birthday Concert
Wigmore Hall, London

Current circumstances prevent friends gathering for a major birthday bash; but there’s a way round it if you happen to be a highly-respected solo pianist and your close friends also warrant a place among today’s classical music elite. 

Thus Steven Osborne and friends were the starry concert party last Friday in an audience-less 50th birthday bash for the Scots pianist, forming part of the Wigmore Hall’s excellent live-streamed concert series, and featuring music chosen by Osborne himself. The outcome was a warm-hearted feast of Schubert and Ravel.

The friends – if you’ve followed Osborne in the many brilliant collaborations he has enjoyed over and above his international solo career – were personally chosen and predictably so: pianist Paul Lewis, the other half of a recently-released duo album with Osborne, the soprano Ailish Tynan, violinist Alina Ibragimova, Lewis’ cellist wife Bjørg Lewis, and Osborne’s own wife, clarinettist Jean Johnson. Their socially-distanced presence was a sequence of duo and trio combinations. 

Osborne’s single solo contribution came in the magically impressionistic sonorities of La Vallée des Cloches from Ravel’s 1904-5 suite Miroirs, which he introduced as “an aperitif” to the same composer’s Piano Trio in A minor – a typically modest touch; a typically breathtaking performance.

As for the Piano Trio – the personally chosen favourite around which Osborne planned the rest of his programme – its homogenous warmth summed up the extraordinary musical symbiosis that had thus far distinguished an evening beginning with the intimate salon charm of Schubert’s The Death and the Maiden (Osborne, Johnson and Tynan relishing – as we all are at the moment – the ultimate anticipation of Spring), and the Fantasie in F Minor for piano duo. 

In the latter, Osborne and a masked Paul Lewis went for the Covid-safe option of two separate pianos rather than the one-piano-four-hands Schubert intended, but the outcome was one of singular entrancement, an interaction of instant and instinctive ideas, and never once a suggestion that either pianist was going it alone. 

But it was that final Ravel which summed up the true nature of this celebration. It was not about noisy prima donna voices showing off among themselves, but rather a cosy respect for the music that defines their lives. The Trio featured the lustrously tasteful violin playing of Ibragimova alongside the equally amenable Bjørg Lewis and Osborne, all with personal flavourings to offer, but always with the common goal of respecting Ravel’s unmatchable ear for instrumental colour.

The story goes that Ravel picked up the opening theme of the Piano Trio from watching ice cream vendors dancing a fandango on the Basque coast. That’s as riotous as this exquisitely tasteful birthday celebration got. No encore, no histrionics, just a quiet recognition by some fine musicians that they were able to share a good friend’s special moment together. 
Ken Walton

Available to watch at www.wigmore-hall.org.uk

BBC SSO / Dvorak / MacMillan

City Halls, Glasgow

Sometimes the periphery of a programme outshines its intended core. There’s an element of that in this Radio 3 broadcast by the BBC SSO under Martyn Brabbins. For at its heart is a performance of Dvorak’s gloriously lyrical and substantial Cello Concerto featuring the highly popular Sheku Kanneh-Mason as soloist, the impact of which is lessened by moments of inconsistent tuning, particularly those high solo reaches towards the end of the opening movement.

That’s a pity, because otherwise there is much in Kanneh-Mason’s performance that shows sure signs of a maturing musical voice. Take the slow movement, where the young cellist colours Dvorak’s plangent lyricism with breathy sighs and yielding subtleties, dispelling the untypical shoddiness of the orchestral opening and finding a warmth and intensity that lingers into the finale. 

It’s an unusual version of the concerto, George Morton’s slimmed-down 2018 arrangement distilling Dvorak’s opulent scoring to chamber orchestra size, much of it to great effect. There’s less tension in the mightiest tuttis, the cello sings through without need to force, all of which contributes to a more easeful appreciation of the music. Brabbins grasps that opportunity, minor skirmishes aside, but the key concern remains those frantic periodic intonation lapses by Kanneh-Mason. 

Wrapped around this mighty concerto is a sublime opener from the pen of American composer Augusta Read Thomas, currently professor of composition at the University of Chicago, and an early seminal work from James MacMillan, Tryst, written for the1989 St Magnus Festival and premiered there by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Thomas’ Plea for Peace – a short ruminating work commissioned four years ago to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Chicago Pile-1, the world’s first controlled nuclear reactor – is both questioning and reassuring. In this alternative version, which replaces the original vocalised soprano solo with a sinuous interchanging of solo flute, oboe and trumpet against a sumptuous backdrop of stings, an austere Coplandesque simplicity prevails, magically so in this haunting, atmospheric performance.

It’s easy to forget the starting point for MacMillan, given the 30 or so years that have passed since such launchpad works as Tryst or The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, and the sheer prolificacy of his output ever since. Here, in Tryst, is a vivid reminder of the rawer 30-year-old, tangible conflicting influences exploding in abundance, yet the distinctiveness that was to become MacMillan’s maturer style piercing through the underlying turmoil.

So yes, there is jagged-edged Messiaen, factory-like Stravinsky (or are those incessant repetitive rhythms more Kenneth Leighton, MacMillan’s university teacher?), and becalming Brittenesque acquiescence; but there is also a driving, defining intent that knits such discordant elements into a powerfully argued entity.

The point is well-made in this gripping performance, which Brabbins steers with brutal excitability, hushed tranquility and consequential theatricality. A cathartic complement to the earlier Thomas.
Ken Walton

Available for 30 days on BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds

SCO/Mozart/Faure

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh 

Edinburgh born, and now resident there again, pianist Susan Tomes is a career chamber musician whose work with the Florestan Trio took her all over the world, but whose first global accolades came with a piano quartet, and specifically the second work featured in this latest online offering from the players of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. 

If that C Minor Piano Quartet by Gabriel Faure and the even more familiar and popular G Minor Quartet by Mozart are works Tomes must have played countless times, there is a zestful freshness – doubtless partly occasioned by her enforced recent absence from the concert platform – that is unmistakable in these performances. 

Joined by violinist Maria Wloszczowska, violist Felix Tanner, and cellist Philip Higham, this quartet may have been assembled for the occasion, but its combined experience is evident in the secure balance and instinctive communication across both works. For much of the time it is the string players who provide the muscle when it is needed, while Tomes conveys effortless poise. Some well-chosen camera angles mean that piano students can appreciate that at close quarters. 

The publisher Hoffmeister was famously dismayed by the challenges the work he commissioned from Mozart presented to his customers, but if he failed to read past the bold rhythmic opening of the first movement, he missed the Andante’s lovely conversation between violin and piano and the sequence of arpeggios on the strings that follows, with Higham’s rich tone especially ear-catching here. 

Not only is there a beautiful clarity in the recorded balance of this performance – and the extra space currently required between the players may well be assisting that – but the ability to easily appreciate the sound of the individual instruments melds with a lovely ensemble coherence. That is especially appreciable in the lightness of touch all four bring to the sparkling opening of the finale. 

Faure’s Quartet No.1 was three turbulent years in the writing and substantially revised four years later, in the year of his marriage, when the original Finale was discarded. How much of the work is autobiographical is a matter of debate, but the Adagio third movement sounds very much the work of a heart-broken man here. 

In her spoken introduction, Tomes draws attention to the churchy cadences of the work, and there is also something of a vocal quality to the opening movement, written during Faure’s engagement to a young singer whose voice was admired by Clara Schumann. The Scherzo that follows is more musically adventurous and exploratory and is performed by this team with delightful playfulness (although its changes would surely have terrified Hoffmeister a century earlier). 

Wherever Faure’s music originally went after that third movement, the fourth that we have is the sound of a chap striding through his misery. Although still elegant, Tomes unleashes some power, alongside that of her string partners, leading to a concluding few bars of wonderfully committed expression. 

Available via the SCO website and YouTube channel until April 11. 

Keith Bruce 

SCO / Macmillan / Prokofiev

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

At the heart of the first in this new series of Thursday online concerts by members of the SCO is James MacMillan’s Tuireadh, written in 1991 in memory of the victims of the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988. Scored for clarinet and string quartet, it sits powerfully within the programme’s common thread of wind-string chamber combinations, but its grim, often painful, countenance gives it an agonising central presence, Britten’s early elemental Phantasy Quartet and Prokofiev’s ebullient Quintet offering less anguish either side.

That’s not to underplay the depth of engagement in all three performances. As an opener, Britten’s student composition is illuminating as an early insight into the composer’s later signature voice. The extreme clarity of texture – a primal two-note opening motif expanding as a springboard towards the oboe’s first languishing melody – is far from naive, and a powerful preemptor of Britten’s ability to express his thoughts with intense nuclear precision.

This is a vital performance with exemplary playing from the string trio and, above all, Amy Turner’s exquisite and dominant role as oboist. An ending that returns to the opening material is all the more effective as the dissolving resolution to this all-embracing interpretation.

The limelight shifts to clarinet for the MacMillan, critical from the outset where an emerging breathy hiss transforms into a single chilling note, agonisingly repeated. It’s a dramatic moment, right up clarinettist Maximiliano Martin’s street, from which this lengthy lament unfolds with agonising grief. 

Like the Britten, it is representative of MacMilllan in his early years of mainstream composition. The seeds are there: the bare theatricality of isolated unison notes rising to deafening crescendos; keening glissandi that evoke a rugged Scottish primitivism; harmonics that throw a ghostly halo over hymn-like harmonies. These are like a blueprint for later, greater MacMilllan. 

At the time of its origin, one critic said of Tuireadh that “MacMillan has written nothing better”. The fact is he’s written lots better ever since, though that is not to dismiss what is a genuinely moving reflection on the mood of the time in the wake of a disaster that took so many lives. 

There is, nonetheless, a sense of fragmentation and consequent prolixity, together with a noticeable presence of stylistic borrowings, which are hard to ignore even in such a heartfelt performance as this. Yet Maximiliano and his colleagues find everything that is powerful in its deep-felt message. It remains a tour-de-force in MacMillan’s now epic canon.

The concert ends on a cheerier note with Prokofiev’s Quintet Op 39, a six-movement suite made up of music from his chamber ballet Trapèze, written in 1924 while he was living in Paris. Scored unusually for oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and bassoon – he wrote for the ensemble he was presented with – the music is typical of Prokofiev’s acid pen, combining satire and nostalgia like a bittersweet pill. The SCO ensemble revel in its playful irreverence while respecting its warm and affectionate undercurrents.  
Ken Walton

View this concert at www.sco.org.uk

RSNO/Sondergard

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Let us hope that the RSNO is re-energised by the move into the larger space of Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and the opportunity to perform with larger forces in its recently-announced new digital season, because there is a slight sense of fatigue in this final concert of the current one.

That is no fault of guest soloist Nicky Spence, who brings expressive commitment and an enthusiastic musicality to Britten’s Les Illuminations. These nine Rimbaud settings may have been written for, and dedicated to, a soprano, Sophie Wyss, but that was surely as much because of the restrictions of the time (1940) and the emotions behind both the verse and Britten’s music sound more powerful in the tenor voice. The specific dedication of the seventh of them, the bold and assertive Being Beauteous, to Peter Pears, meant that the composer himself was being neither coy nor particularly careful.

The Scottish Ensemble made a go-to recording of the work with Toby Spence (no relation) and there is a coherence to that group’s string sound – with all the percussive effects and imitation of other instruments in this score – that is often missing here. The current necessity for social distancing might be some explanation for that, except that string players in general, and RSNO ones in particular, have noted some benefit in sitting at individual desks.

The Britten is preceded by George Walker’s roughly contemporary Lyric for Strings. While there is no argument that the compositions of the first African American to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize are ripe for rediscovery, his reputation might be better enhanced by tackling meatier fare than this early imitation of Barber’s Adagio, lovely though it is.

Thomas Sondergard’s Beethoven Five, which concluded the programme, is neither fish nor fowl – but then a hybrid of historically-informed practice and contemporary brio is what most orchestras and conductors aim for with the work these days. So we have natural trumpets and modern horns, and string playing that is brisk but not quite crisp enough in the first movement.

The conductor may be keeping his powder dry, but there is also an odd imbalance in the sound – uncharacteristic of engineer Phil Hobbs – which continues in the Andante, with the wind soloists, although all on fine form, rather too far up in the mix.

When more muscle comes into the performance in the Finale, that difficulty disappears, as does the lack of rhythmic rigour. The sprint to the tape, at least, whets the appetite for the orchestra’s return in April.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

In these lean times, when orchestral forces are pared to spartan COVID-friendly levels, it says a lot of a conductor when he can glean such richness of string tone as Mark Wigglesworth did from the BBC SSO in this latest Radio 3 live broadcast.

And it came with a dash of style, particularly in the two Classical symphonies that bookended the programme: Haydn’s spirited Symphony No 1 (yes, he had to start somewhere); and Mozart’s Symphony No 40 (the second of his final three symphonies, not that he envisaged them as such).

The instant joie-de-vivre of the Haydn, a natural effusion of craftsmanship and ingenuity integrating prevalent Mannheim symphonic traits with newfound Austrian zest, produced a stimulating opener: nothing trenchant or intellectually taxing, just a no-nonsense, honest appreciation of the music’s charm and integrity. As with the later Mozart, there seemed a conscious limitation on string vibrato, which gave this performance a refreshingly raw, period countenance. 

If there’s anything Haydnesque about Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1, it’s the Soviet composer’s preoccupation with the cellular motif. Identified immediately by its brusque four-note monogram, Shostakovich powers his concerto with a single-minded insistence that borders on violence, which is why soloist Steven Isserlis refuses to play it on his Stradivarius. “For this, you need an instrument that doesn’t mind being hit,” he revealed in his pre-performance interview.

Despite the warning, Isserlis was careful not to go ballistic. Yes, there was forthright assertiveness and fiery detachment in his opening gambit, but this was not an exercise in basic extremes. Instead, there was a real sense of journey, the opening movement tempered with gnawing undertones, the Moderato equally cautious of overstatement, the cadenza shifting momentously from ruminative soliloquy to fiery springboard unleashing the rumbustious peasantry of the relentless finale. 

Fine horn playing, too, from SSO principal Alberto Menendez Escribano, and the lighter addition of a Kabalevsky dance (No 3 of 5 Studies for solo cello), played as an encore by Isserlis and dedicate to his friend, Berlin Philharmonic cellist Wolfgang Boettcher, who died last week.

Post interval, Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante defunte removed any lingering shockwaves from the Shostakovich, its wafting melodies and summer-scented harmonies, plus a sumptuous Ravel orchestration to die for, paving the way for the genius of Mozart.

This may have been 56-year-old Wigglesworth’s first time conducting the G minor symphony, but the clarity and cogency of his interpretation suggest the time was ripe. There was a meaty energy to this performance, essential in addressing the robust counterpoint of the finale, but never at the expense of capturing textural detail. It wasn’t the tightest playing of the evening, the occasional hint of rushed freneticism rocking an otherwise steady ship. But the overall encapsulation of Mozart’s heavier moods, especially that deliciously emotive chain of suspensions at the heart of the Andante, was enough to dispel any minor quibbles.
Ken Walton

Listen to this concert on BBC Sounds

Morison / Martineau

CATRIONA MORISON / MALCOLM MARTINEAU

THE DARK NIGHT HAS VANISHED
Linn

In one short song – Scheideblick (Parting Glance) – the justification for Scots mezzo soprano Catriona Morison’s inclusion of six of Josephine Lang’s Lieder in her debut solo album is sealed. It’s an emotionally muted number, a sinuous melancholic setting of a single poetic verse, Lang’s melodic shaping in perfect tune with the sentiment, the simplicity of the piano writing in pianist Malcolm Martineau’s capable hands gently nuanced with harmonic ingenuity, and Morison’s delivery impeccably and movingly intoned.

To position Lang (1815-80) amid such heavyweight songwriters as Schumann, Brahms and Grieg is to give her a rightful airing, for her songs, though mostly conservative in spirit, are both artfully expressive and stylistically adventurous within the parameters of the day. Early lessons from Mendelssohn and promotional support from both Robert and Clara Schumann were supportive in Lang’s bid to make a living from composition after the premature death of her husband, the lawyer and poet Christian Reinhold Köstlin.

It’s Reinhold Köstlin’s own words that are the inspiration for another of Lang’s songs, Ob ich manchmal dein gedenke, Morison again mastering the soft embodiment of this passionate setting. In all Lang’s songs featured here in fact, mostly from the Op 10 set, there is a genuine affinity between their easeful unfolding and a mezzo voice that exudes golden richness in its lower range and ringing lustre in its uppermost tessitura. The final number, Abschied, is a gorgeous example.

Morison and Martineau open this disc with Grieg’s Sechs Lieder and the springlike optimism of Gruss. The relative transparency of these songs, emphasised by their folkish charm, lead satisfyingly into the deeper realms of a Brahms selection that is introduced by the sultry questioning of Dein blaues Auge, and which lingers low until the final muscular exuberance of Meine Liebe ist grün 

Schumann’s Op 90 songs open in martial mode with Lied Eines Schmiedes, immediately countered by the sweet affection of Meine Rose. Morison negotiates the ensuing mood swings with honest and persuasive versatility, concluding on a sublime note with the rippling acceptance of Requiem, but not before releasing those gripping outbursts of passion at its heart.

This release comes at a significant time for Morison, given the enforced emphasis during these Covid months on her concert repertoire. She has the voice for it, and the musicality, and the proof is here.
Ken Walton

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