Category Archives: Reviews

RSNO / MacMillan

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Handel’s Messiah was one of my gateways into music as a child and I still find something in every performance, but it would be no bad thing if Sir James MacMillan’s Christmas Oratorio muscled in on its territory. In this work, which received its Scottish premiere from the RSNO and RSNO Chorus, conducted by the composer himself, MacMillan has made a work of comparable majesty, with the additional virtues for affordable performance of requiring 50 per cent fewer soloists and being half as long.

Without question one of the Scots composer’s most significant works, in a catalogue not short of those, its arrival was complicated by the vicissitudes of the pandemic, which closed down venues and occasioned a ban on choral singing. It is to be hoped that its more gradual and less trumpeted arrival leads to growing status with performers and public, because it is a quite remarkable piece.

The architecture of the oratorio is in itself a thing of beauty, a palindromic structure to each of the two parts (designed to incorporate an interval) which mirror one another in their individual sections.

Four instrumental “Sinfonias” frame the piece and immediately adjacent to them are liturgical choruses, with words (and one melody) from a number of Catholic sources. The soprano and baritone soloists have arias in both halves, setting the poetry of Robert Southwell, John Donne and John Milton, and in the centre of each part are two “Tableau” which use both chorus and soloists, the first using Matthew Chapter 2 to tell the story of the Nativity, the second setting the opening of John’s Gospel.

The composer has chosen his texts with great skill, placing due weight on the darker side of the Christmas story in Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and the flight to Egypt, echoed in the dark tone of the Donne and Southwell sonnets. But there are also moments of lightness, in the opening and closing Sinfonias, for example, which clearly allude to the tinsel and Tinseltown sides of the “Holiday season.”

It is hard not to smile too at the repetitions MacMillan gives the choir to sing, ramming the continued currency of the story of Christ’s birth home in the Latin “Hodie” at the start of the Vespers setting at the end of Part 1, mirrored by “In the beginning” at the start of the Gospel chorus in Part 2.

These reflections and parallel musical allusions make for a work that is full of interest every step of the way, sometimes operatic, but with moments of intensely personal devotion. Some of the most obvious antecedents are in works by Britten, and the Milton setting – superbly sung by Roderick Williams – is the most Britten-esque MacMillan has ever sounded, but mainly it all sounds like MacMillan himself. Moments recall the drama of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie or Ines de Castro, others the quietude of the Seven Last Words or Strathclyde Motets.

Williams was paired with Rhian Lois, well-known to Glasgow audiences for her Musetta and Gretel with Scottish Opera, who was equally versatile in her full-voiced contribution. The work put in by the chorus, under their director Stephen Doughty was immense; this is far from an easy score and the choir gave MacMillan a magnificently expressive performance, as careful with unison singing on a single note (as in the last of the verses from St John) to some bold leaps in pitch.

The instrumental score is no less colourful, although MacMillan often uses the resources at his disposal with notable restraint before demanding full commitment and virtuosity. And while there were fine solo contributions from players across the platform, this was a season highlight for the whole orchestra as well as its excellent chorus.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Sir James MacMillan from rehearsal, courtesy RSNO

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow

With a week of concerts featuring Nicola Benedetti playing Beethoven next month, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is on a box office roll at the moment, and the younger pianist she triumphed over in the BBC Young Musician final at the Usher Hall nearly two decades ago was attraction enough to assure another good house in Candleriggs.

Add the popularity of Benjamin Grosvenor and the fan following Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev has built to a programme of Romantic classics, and it was little wonder that the hall was well filled.

Happily, what we heard was not equally a statement of the glaringly obvious, even if it looked very familiar on paper. This was a big SCO, but a particularly-structured one, with equal numbers of first and second violins and of violas and cellos, and four double basses high at the back of the platform. The acoustic balance had been carefully considered, as was the use and positioning of the timpani, brass and winds.

The full might of all that was immediately apparent in Brahms’s Tragic Overture, the companion piece to his more familiar Academic Festival Overture, and far from as miserable as its title suggests. It may lack the catchy tunes, but it is a piece full of drama, and Emelyanychev made sure that every twist of the plot was fully exploited in his meticulous guidance of the musicians.

Grosvenor has recently demonstrated a skill in championing works that have fallen below the radar – witness his award-winning recording of the Chopin concertos with Elim Chan and the RSNO. It is certainly arguable that Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 1 falls into the same category – it is much less often programmed these days than it would be reasonable to expect.

On one level it is a cracking show-off piece for the soloist, who makes a terrific first entry full of virtuosic pzazz that was subsequently aped by Mendelssohn’s successors for some of the major works of the repertoire. There’s lots of that sort of thing in the work, with breakneck-speed playing required throughout. Every ornamentation was executed with precision by Grosvenor here, while his phrasing in the Andante was exquisite.

The composer integrated the piano with the orchestra in such a way that the work really is chamber music writ large, the soloist in constant conversation with the strings, while dialogue with the SCO’s excellent wind soloists was as expressive as expected. That slow movement featured beautiful ensemble playing from the lower strings, and the variation in tempo towards the end of the finale was the culmination of a superb communicative partnership between conductor and soloist.

Mendelssohn’s other innovation – interestingly, since as a conductor he disliked applause between movements – was to have the work flow without any pauses, and that set up Emelyanychev’s reading of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony perfectly, thoughtfully pre-figured by Grosvenor with a Schumann encore.

The SCO performed the composer’s 1850s revision of the work, originally composed when he was newly married to Clara ten years earlier, but the conductor maintained the earlier incarnation’s through line and flowing narrative, each movement – as indicated in German, rather the original’s Italian – emerging from its predecessor.

The result was less a compromise than obviously sensible, as was the amalgam of instruments – valved trumpets, but a mix of modern and natural horns – and the balance of ensemble playing with star solo turns; guest leader Hed Yaron Meyerson’s obligato in the Romanze was a particular nightlight. By the time we reached the Scherzo, Schumann’s influence on 20th century orchestration was undeniable.

For works that were once relatively neglected, there has been a welter of Schumann symphonies in concert and on disc in recent years. So much so that it might be thought there was little left to add, but Emelyanychev’s intelligent interpretation proved that is emphatically not the case.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

It took Elgar until he was 50 to complete his First Symphony, the upside of which being its emotional maturity, technical mastery and a self-confidence through which the composer’s fingerprint dictates every level of its being. It was the major work in Thursday’s BBC SSO programme, a meaty challenge for its principal conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, and an epic, ear-catching conclusion to an evening that had hitherto blown hot and cold.

That’s not to say there was anything objectionable in soloist Martin James Bartlett’s performance of Mozart’s D minor Piano Concerto, K466. Indeed, the 2014 BBC Young Musician winner was entirely consistent in his ultra-poetic delivery, an approach that underlined Mozart’s uncommon journey (for a concerto) into minor key realms, and allowed the pianist to challenge the orchestra’s escape attempts with visibly calming gestures and return to containment.

What his playing did require as a counter measure was steelier, more incisive finger work. For all its lyrical pleasantries it fell short in genuine sparkle. In turn the ghosts lurking within Mozart’s score struggled to surface other than benevolently, and little details, like Bartlett’s uneven ornamentation, transmitted low-voltage results. Where he did apply physical energy – those fiery cadenzas by Hummel (first movement) and Beethoven (finale) – the temperature briefly soared. 

Bartlett’s encore, on the other hand, was absolutely sublime, a meltingly poised performance of Schumann’s “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples” from Kinderszenen. 

Wigglesworth opened with a work he himself has championed, Jonathan Woolgar’s Canzoni et ricercari. Originally scored for 12 string players and premiered in Gloucester Cathedral in 2021, Wigglesworth suggested the composer create a version for enlarged string orchestra. Here it was, beefed up to full onstage and smaller offstage strings, and a performance all the more teasing for its theatrical surprise.

We were told the offstage strings were “hidden”, but not exactly where, so when they did release a screaming counter-offensive from behind us, the impact was nerve-tingling. The ensuing dialogue proved invigorating, the more extensive discourse on stage – a striking interplay of melancholic density and exhilarating frenzy – provoking varying degrees of bullish retort in return. The performance was wholesome, animated, if partly rough around the edges. 

Full-blooded consistency in the Elgar gave this concert a lift beyond the ordinary. Wigglesworth was impressively composed throughout, establishing grounded, timeless authority in the opening slow march, and navigating the shifting contours and moods of the lengthy first movement with clean, meaningful discipline. Similarly, the frenzy of the second movement Allegro giving way uninterrupted to the glowing inner warmth of the Adagio was as heavenly as the composer intended. The finale, with its affirmative thematic retrospection, was a conclusive triumph.

No small thanks to a impassioned SSO for this, nor to such exquisite solo snippets as the self-assured consistency of leader Kanako Ito. There was scope, perhaps, for Wigglesworth to apply a more airborne, expansive sweep, a stepping back to embrace the biggest picture, yet there was more than enough in this performance to take away and savour long after the event.

Ken Walton

The programme is repeated on Sunday at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh at 3pm.
Thursday’s performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available on BBC Sounds for 30 days

RSNO / Brossé

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

AS the RSNO establishes itself as one of the go-to orchestras for film soundtrack recording, with its home next door to Glasgow’s big hall now kitted out as a state-of-the-art studio, it is only fitting that it celebrated the 70th birthday of a local lad who has built a spectacularly successful career writing movie scores.

Doubtless the business of meeting tight deadlines and budgets for Netflix often seems a long way from the glamour of showbusiness, so here was also a chance to bask in the glitter of celebrity as well as honouring Scotland’s Patrick Doyle. This was no surprise bash for the composer, however, whose part in the proceedings stretched far beyond the music.

The two presenters of the evening, Richard E Grant and Peter Capaldi, both have personal connections with Doyle: he scored Grant’s 2005 directorial debut, Wah-Wah, while Capaldi’s memories of him dated from the later years of last century. Those reminiscences were coupled with Doyle’s in a script that had the composer’s own fingerprints all over it, although the funniest moments, with Grant’s ripe language and Capaldi’s self-deprecatory references to his own starry career, were of the actors’ own devising.

Those famous friends were counterbalanced – in an evening that managed to stay just on the right side of cheesiness  – with the presence of his family, from the onstage singing roles of his daughters Abigail and Nuala, to the sometimes equally vocal contributions of members of the extended Doyle clan in the auditorium. The star vocalist was Mairi MacInnes, with Gairm Na h-Oidhche from the 2018 remake of Whisky Galore!, but the Doyle sisters’ contributions from Mike Newell’s Into the West and Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express were not far behind. The latter also featured a solo turn from RSNO cellist Betsy Taylor, while guest first violin Hannah Perowne had the spotlight in Corarsik, Doyle’s evocation of the Argyll landscape, written as a gift for Emma Thompson, scriptwriter and star of the 1995 film of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility.

With traditional musician Fraser Fifield adding his skills to the RSNO winds and Lorne MacDougall being a highly adaptable piper to cope with the modulations in Doyle’s concert music, his compositions were most rewarding when the orchestration was at its fullest. Doyle’s scores are evocative, but little of this music was dramatically exciting – even the most recent piece, written for the coronation of King Charles, is a very sedate march.

It seems highly probable that, after Celtic Connections marked Doyle’s 65thbirthday and the RSNO threw him a party this year, the composer might look favourably on further celebrations. This one having dealt with the box office hits in his career, it would be interesting to hear a programme of his music curated by more objective ears.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Patrick Doyle with the RSNO by Martin Shields

SCO/RCS Winds: Side by Side

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow

Close your eyes, and the reality that half the musicians in Friday’s RCS lunchtime concert were students and half were seasoned professionals from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Wind Soloists would have passed you by. This was part of the SCO’s Side-by Side initiative with Royal Conservatoire of Scotland students, which has been on the go since 2016 and gives those young pros-in-the-making a first-hand feel for life in the musical fast lane.

Just as there was no compromise on standards, the programme itself smacked of challenge and curiosity. It opened with the wacky world of Darius Milhaud, the fifth of his six pocket-size Chamber Symphonies. To call it short and sweet is but a half truth. Yes, it says all it needs to in about six minutes, but hardly anything it says is sweet. The ensemble acknowledged that in a taut and acerbic performance, encompassing all that is sinister, snappy and sardonic about the composer’s hard-edged style.

Ruth Gipps’ Seascapes effected an immediate sea change. Born in Bexhill-on-Sea in 1921, it’s safe to assume she knew her subject well. The opening, with its liquid imagery however, suggested she’d dashed across the English Channel to consult Debussy. Yet within seconds, a flowering of individual thought emerged, rich in imagery and the resourceful use of instrumental texture. It allowed individuals to shine – the velvety cor anglais for instance, and a myriad of colourful pairings – and gave credence to the programme note’s claim that Gipps deserves to be better known that she is.

Then back to France for the neo-classical effervescence of Jean Françaix’s Nine Character Pieces. They were performed as a continuous sequence, which in itself highlighted the distinguishing charm of each of the succinct movements – a plaintive Amoroso, a rhythmically unnerving Subito vivo, and much more en route to a cat-and-mouse Finale that raced exuberantly to its quasi-operatic conclusion.

The programme ended with Dvorak’s popular Serenade Op 44, in which the winds were infiltrated by an SCO string supplement of cello (Donald Gillan) and double bass (Nikita Naumov). Not everything was smooth sailing – the slow movement took time to find its natural composure – but as the most abundantly-scored of Friday’s works there was gravity in the delivery to match the substantiveness of the score. Not that this cheery Serenade eschews Dvorak’s signature folkish verve, which this energised composite ensemble addressed with no end of spirited enjoyment. 

Ken Walton

This programme is repeated at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on Sun 19 Nov. Full information at

BBC SSO / Chauhan

City Halls, Glasgow

This hefty BBC SSO coupling of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler was not for the faint-hearted. Few will have left the City Halls on Thursday without feeling they’d been squeezed through the emotional wringer. On their own, Strauss’ Symphonic Fantasy based on his opera Die Frau one Schatten and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde are exhaustive enough as examples of post-Romantic, Austro-German intensity. Together, the danger was they might be one fix too many.

That wasn’t the case. Alpesh Chauhan – until recently the assistant conductor of the SSO – seemed ever-alert to the possibility, assured in his gestures and generously poetic in his phrase-shaping, but with a modicum of reserve and judicious application of self-indulgence. For us, that meant little discomfort and an ample double-helping of gratification.

There were some obvious issues – tenor Brenden Gunnell’s intrepid efforts to be heard over the orchestral clamour dominating the opening Mahler song (he was just short of screaming at one point, to little effect), and a general feeling that not everything had been done to fine-tune the expressive dove-tailing of the sinuous orchestral textures. But besides that, the delivery was impressive.

Strauss’ Symphonic Fantasy proved fascinating for the ground it occupies away from the opera that spawned it. Never conceived as a string of greatest hits – which don’t really exist in Strauss’ more organically creative mind – the impression is one of symphonic distillation. Recognisable themes provide the essential impetus for a powerful, self-contained, cathartic stream of consciousness. 

Foremost in this performance was its thrusting inevitability, wave upon wave of tidal surge punctuated by moments of idyllic calm (the early slow, smoking crescendo by the strings) or the thwack of menacing chords. Chauhan gauged the mood swings well, from Debussy-like mirages to irreverent playfulness. It was wild and heated, tempered by a cool head.

The Mahler, once its balance was better calibrated, was exquisite and every bit as compelling, Gunnell’s soaring tenor complemented by the golden-grained mezzo of Karen Cargill. There was pastoral frivolity from Gunnell in his songs, the scherzo-like “Youth” and a captivating laissez-faire in “The Drunkard in Spring”. Cargill revelled in her more reflective selection, the wistful ruminations of “The Lonely One In Autumn” and the shifting images of “Beauty” with its rapturous climactic interlude. 

But it was in the heart-stopping “Farewell”, meltingly sung by Cargill, that the full impact hit home.  Beyond the filigree instrumental delicacies of the earlier songs, and Mahler’s confection of impressions, from chattering chinoiserie and bird-like menageries to swarthy folk scenes, it was in this final timeless transcendence that magic happened. At its impassioned peak Cargill’s low register was a scorching presence. In the final fade out, pierced by a chiming celeste, we were left only with a chilling, seemingly eternal, silence. 

Ken Walton

RSNO / Bihlmaier

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Like This Midnight Hour, which the RSNO played in March under Elim Chan, composer Anna Clyne’s Stride, co-commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, is a cracking concert opener.

The pianist Steven Osborne has said – and demonstrated – that Beethoven pre-figured jazz piano in his late sonatas and Stride, although its musical material draws on an earlier one, the famous No 8 “Pathetique”, bolsters the argument by having the string basses emulate the walking left hand of the piano style in the title.

The work began a programme that ended with Dvorak’s Symphony No 8, given a performance of crystalline clarity under German conductor Anja Bihlmaier, making her debut with the orchestra. There was a lightness of touch to her approach to the music that paralleled her precision, so that the opening movement was a dance through the Bohemian countryside that brought to mind the Viennese Strausses, even before the third movement waltz.

It and the Allegro finale have tunes that are up with the composer’s best, and Bihlmaier was clear exactly when a little more oomph was needed, noticeably reining back the RSNO brass after the fanfare opening of the latter. Perhaps a little more leeway might have been allowed to the players in the joyous conclusion, but that’s a marginal call.

The conductor – elegantly clad in a sharply-cut teal tails suit – was also a most attentive partner to soloist Nelson Goerner in Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, the magnificent highlight of a fine evening. His first chord, so deliberately softly struck, set the tone for a considered reappraisal of the work that eschewed all the flashy showmanship it often comes with.

While no less virtuosic, Goerner played the piece as if the ink was still wet on the page, rather than as the old war horse it can be, and Bihlmaier was always sensitive to his interpretation. Soloist and conductor maintained a brisk Moderato in the opening movement and RSNO first flute Katherine Bryan and principal clarinet Timothy Orpen were measured duet partners in the big tune of the slow movement. The yearning cadences of the music were never in danger of mawkishness.

Bihlmaier’s guidance of the transition into the finale was masterful and there was a real feel of common cause across the platform all the way to the final bar. It may also have been one of the quieter Rach 2s many of us had heard, and was none the worse for that.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Currie

City Halls, Glasgow

When the Scottish Chamber Orchestra was founded 50 years ago, I was but a callow youth, on rhythm guitar and vocals, with limited knowledge of orchestral music. But an evening like this one, conducted by Scottish percussionist Colin Currie, would surely have been inconceivable to those who established the SCO.

For a start, none of the repertoire we heard had yet been composed, and it is very different from the music the orchestra’s earliest concerts explored. And many in the large audience the repertoire and this soloist/conductor attracted were yet unborn.

Yet there is a clear continuum, predating the establishment of the orchestra celebrating its Golden Jubilee this year by a couple of centuries, with the virtuoso soloist directing an ensemble of instruments, even if this one included an electric bass guitar and a couple of saxophones.

Those were required as part of the fullest forces assembled onstage, for Louis Andriessen’s Tapdance, the Scottish premiere of a work composed for Currie in 2013 in which the Dutch composer expresses his love for bebop jazz – most obviously in the use of a tune by Horace Silver. The bop big band sound is only one facet of the work’s eventful quarter of an hour, however. In that section Currie was a sonic Astaire or Kelly with what appeared to be spoons instead of mallets, when he wasn’t using his hands and arms to conduct – and sometimes accomplishing both tasks at the same time.

Later he moved on to marimba, which included an exquisite solo passage, and the music became more orchestral, building to a huge climax before the conductor added glissando tympani and it ended in a very poignant, almost funereal, passage.

The concert had opened with the programme’s earliest work, Fratres by Arvo Part, that most adaptable of the Estonian’s “tintinnabula” exercises, performed here in Beat Briner’s wind octet arrangement with Currie supplying percussion. If the intonation across the winds was not absolutely true at the start, it was quickly sorted as the mesmeric quality of the piece asserted itself, and the control of the whisper-quiet horn duo at the conclusion was very impressive.

The first half ended with a work that even those who had bought a ticket mainly to hear the music after the interval probably talked about most afterwards. Julia Wolfe owes a clear debt to the propulsive music of Louis Andriessen but her Fuel, for string orchestra, upped the ante several notches. Fearsomely challenging to play, it embraces the uglier sounds bowed strings can make alongside the purest tones, and requires constant concentration combined with ferocious technique.

Currie was all over every detail of the work’s changes of pace, tempi and dynamics across – and sometimes within – the string sections, and the SCO players, led by Stephanie Gonley, were quite superb.

The composer whose name was on the evening’s ticket had the second half to himself. Currie knows the canon of Steve Reich intimately as a performer, but for these two works he was conductor only, bringing that expertise to complementary pieces from the second decade of this century.

Pulse, from 2015, might come as a surprise to those who love Reich for his minimalist repetition, highly melodic in the ensemble writing for strings and winds, but with the rhythmic consistency the title suggests in the piano and electric bass. Perhaps a less “toppy” sound on the latter would have suited the work better, and there was some inconsistency of approach in the use of vibrato in the strings, but it is a lovely lyrical piece.

The concert closed with the box-office work, Radio Rewrite, in which Reich repurposes a couple of tunes from the back-catalogue of rock group Radiohead. In fact he plays fast and loose with the songs for a piece that only ever sounds like Steve Reich, even if it was clearly a stepping-stone to the later Pulse. You can bet that Currie knows exactly where each reshaped bar and chord lies in the score though, so focussed was his direction of the musicians.

You would also put smart money on the percussionist’s debut on the podium with the SCO not being his last appearance. The orchestra’s management will be very keen to see this audience back in the City Halls of a Friday evening as regularly as Currie is himself.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Brabbins / McPhee

Paisley Abbey

By sheer coincidence, a concert scheduled to celebrate George McPhee’s 60th year as organist and director of music at Paisley Abbey, also happened to fall on his 86th birthday. The former achievement, in this age of lesser commitment to life-long jobs, is admirable enough, the latter all the more remarkable, given the alertness of McPhee’s starring role on Friday with the BBC SSO and an assortment of choirs – a home game for the much respected octogenarian who has not lost his devilish wit. 

After a  tear-inducing organ and orchestra encore arrangement (by SSO violinist Alastair Savage) of Auld Lang Syne, McPhee was coaxed into saying a few valedictory words. They were characteristically pithy, and anything but valedictory. “Despite the title of the last piece, I’m not leaving,” he snapped with immaculate comic timing. 

It was a full house, or church, that honoured this gratifyingly warm celebration. The opening half centred on church-related music, some of it radiating pomp and circumstance, some of it spiritually intimate, but all of it joyous and respectful.

For that, the SSO and conductor Martyn Brabbins were joined by three cathedral choirs – McPhee’s own Paisley Abbey choristers, and the Edinburgh choirs of St Giles’ (where he was once assistant organist) and St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedrals. At one end of the spectrum was the gushing rhythmical verve and dramatic opulence of Walton’s Coronation Te Deum, the majestic sumptuousness of Parry’s I Was Glad, and the florid ecstasy of Gabrielli’s Jubilate Deo a 8; at the other, the melting a cappella piety of William Byrd’s O nata lux, conducted by St Giles’ organist and master of the music, Michael Harris.

Before all that, however, a piece from Hollywood musical royalty, Scots-born film composer Patrick Doyle’s King Charles III Coronation March, first heard at last May’s Westminster Abbey coronation service. The relevance? Doyle, who attended on Friday, learnt his harmony and counterpoint under McPhee at the former RSAMD. His piece bore the hallmarks of his cinematic skills: simple, to-the-point, with the innate ability to send shivers up the spine.

If McPhee played a relatively supportive musical role in the first half, his true moment in the sun arrived after the interval in Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. And how better to appreciate this charismatically French work than with an organ installed originally by the celebrated 19th century Parisienne builder Cavaillé-Coll? Still present, even in its modernised manifestation, are both a fruitiness of tone and a snarling richness from the reeds, which provided oodles of poetic subtlety and fiery retorts in a performance further enhanced by the expansive acoustics.

Brabbins played a cool game, strategically undemonstrative, and by doing so harnessed a biting clarity that might easily have been lost in a more thrusting, impatient approach. The Adagio that closes the opening movement, underpinned by the organ’s gentle cushioning, was a luscious oasis of calm amid the surrounding drama. 

The final movement played its part in cementing the evening’s raison d’être, the cumulative impact of organ and orchestra doing tumultuously what the Doyle had done in miniature, raising the hairs on the back of the neck and, through the catharsis of its sheer volume, and the audience’s obvious affection for the Abbey’s longstanding incumbent, inciting a spontaneous standing ovation. 

Ken Walton

This concert was recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland

Scottish Ensemble: in Sync

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

There are as many routes to making classical music accessible as there are creative musicians putting their minds to that purpose, but there have been few hours to that end as entertaining as this one. After a run of performances in schools and a couple of public ones further north, this was the last outing – for the time being at least – of a collaboration between the Scottish Ensemble and Mish Mash Productions, which exists to bring classical music to young people.

They may be the target audience, but the programme worked just as well for those of us half a century beyond our youth.

Much of the musical content was typical for the group, moving easily between contemporary pieces by Anna Meredith, Jessie Montgomery, Jonny Greenwood and Caroline Shaw and arrangements of Purcell, Shostakovich, Piazzolla and Debussy. But with the players in motion around the auditorium, engaging one-to-one with the audience from the start, dressed more colourfully than is habitual and – crucially – performing everything from memory, the presentation was entirely different.

Beginning with an engaging explanation by violinist Laura Ghiro, there was also a fair bit of talking, and precious little of it was about the music. The clutter on the colourful stage set – picture frames, a coffee set, a shepherd’s crook and stirrups – turned out to be less random than first appeared, as the musicians used emblematic objects to speak of their lives beyond their professional career.

They ranged from the aforementioned crook (aspirant goat farmer violist Jane Atkins) and a Nintendo Switch portable games console (violinist Kate Suthers) to Carol Ella’s bonkers (and possibly entirely fabricated) turnip obsession. And was I the only one slightly disappointed by a mere photo of Kirsty Lovie’s motorbike, rather than the actual machine?

Here’s the thing though: did I listen more intently to her Carnatic violin solo from Reena Esmail’s Darshan as a consequence of her sharing some personal stories? I think I did, and the 15-year-old me certainly would have.

There were other fine solo turns – notably double bassist Diane Clark’s party piece adaptation of Jay Leonhart’s It’s Impossible to Sing and Play the Bass – and the Montgomery, for example, required just a string quartet, but the main emphasis was on the collective “ensemble”. That included lots of movement – the choreography for Piazzolla’s Verano was really rather slick – as well as music, some audience participation percussion following musical director Donald Grant’s excursion into traditional Scottish music, and harmony vocals on the closing piece by the Danish Quartet’s Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen.

This was one of those projects that derived its success from a vast amount of work by people unseen as well as onstage, to appear almost effortless in its final form. A triumph from start to finish.

Keith Bruce

picture by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Westbourne Music: Edinburgh Quartet

Glasgow Art Club

It’s astonishing to think that all three pieces in the Edinburgh Quartet’s lunchtime programme for Westbourne Music were conceived within a thirty year period – three glorious decades between 1890 and 1920, in which the waning of Romanticism and dawning of modernity jointly fuelled the seismic European fin de siècle spirit. 

In Puccini’s mournful 1890 elegy for string quartet, I Cristantemi, written in a single night apparently in response to the death of his friend, the Duke of Aosta, is a language dripping with languid nostalgia, a lyricism caked in chromatic angst and reflective passion. If it took a moment or two for the Quartet to trigger its natural warmth – to be fair, the heating in a chilly but delightful Glasgow Art Club was on the bung – the end product was one of cloying eloquence, growing intensity and comforting resolve.

It was also a sweet aperitif to the more acerbic tang of Kodaly’s 1918 String Quartet Op 10 No 2, which straddles the nervy cellular obsessiveness of Janacek and the austere folksiness of fellow Hungarian Bela Bartok. This was a performance notable for its heartfelt expressiveness, which was no mean achievement given the sometimes unsettled fragility of its structure and the slightly impersonal harmonic world it occupies. But from the outset, in the interwoven complexities of the opening Allegro, there was a real sense of emotional understanding and dramatic intent. 

All of which prepared the way for the mercurial restlessness of the second movement, a turbulent journey from its rhapsodic opening recitativo and discursive meandering to an Allegro giocoso vitalised by intrepid dance rhythms and folkish charm.

The programme by Westbourne Music’s current resident ensemble ended with the F major String Quartet by Ravel, a supreme fusion of taut classical structure and the liquid lyrical modality of the early 20th century French idiom. It was here that the Edinburgh Quartet found their firmest, most expansive footing. After the fragrant melodic expansiveness of the opening movement, the playful pizzicato of the lively Assez vif hinted of Mediterranean sun and fun. Then the easing of tension, the contemplation, of the slow third movement, before the race to the finish of the Vif et agité, delivered with plenty vim and verve.

The Edinburgh Quartet has been through turbulent times recently with multiple changes of personnel. The signs here, performing in such diverse repertoire, and with illness prompting a brief return to the line-up by former violinist member Tom Hankey, are that they are returning to good musical health.

Ken Walton

Westbourne Music’s Glasgow Concert Series continues on 22 November with singer/songwriter and 2018 BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year, Hannah Rarity. Full details at

BBC SSO: Conquest of the Useless

City Halls, Glasgow 

It started with a blood-curdling chord that shattered the expectant silence. This was the opening of David Fennessy’s epic Conquest of the Useless, a dynamic 70-minute concert trilogy inspired by both Werner Herzog’s eccentric 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, and the process by which it was filmed as seen through American filmmaker Les Blank’s vivid documentary Burden of Dreams.

That the chord reeked of Verdi was no accident. Fitzcarraldo, played in the film by the volatile Klaus Kinski, is an opera-crazed obsessive (based on the real-life Irishman Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald) driven to construct an opera house in the Peruvian jungle, in the course of which he decides to haul a 320-ton steamship overland from one Amazonian river system to another. Caruso was his hero, whose recorded voice – singing bits of Rigoletto – feeds like a ghostly cipher through Fennessy’s opulent score.

Yet, as this first UK performance of the complete trilogy firmly demonstrated, Conquest of the Useless bears its own distinctive hallmark. Fennessy was fortunate to have the BBC SSO under Jack Sheen as the prime protagonists in delivering a work powered by individual thought and further animated by electronics (Fennessy on guitars along with computer performer Peter Dowling), Scots actor Brian Ferguson and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston. Caruso, himself, was symbolically represented by an old gramophone sited high in the choir stalls, spotlit, like a sacred altar.

Uppermost in Saturday’s performance was the driving intensity with which Fennessy expresses his fascination for Herzog’s iconic film in purely musical terms. The Verdi quotes – and others such as the poignant Bach chorale, Es ist genug, used by Alban Berg in his Violin Concerto – conjure up a deep-seated nostalgia, interwoven with the Glasgow-based composer’s edgy modernity to enshrine Fitzcarraldo’s unshakable obsessiveness.

Fennessy has lived with the creation of this music for much of the last decade. The Prologue dates back to 2013, performed then also by the SSO. In the context now of the two ensuing works – Caruso and “Gold is the sweat of the sun, silver are the tears of the moon” – its organic function is cemented. Sheen allowed the natural conflict between its Verdian pungency and exotic jungle shimmer (a sonic forest of guiros) to generate its own febrile electricity, harnessed by a magnificent slow-moving glissando that seemed to take forever to ascend from its subterranean origin.

It was the perfect set up for Caruso, nor was it long before another monumental crescendo paved the way for Fennessy’s evocative electric guitar, emerging as the voice of free expression, sometimes boldly improvisatory, sometimes intensely reflective. 

It was in the final work, however, that we encountered the most persuasively visionary and dramatic music. A perambulating Brian Ferguson (using a stepladder to cross between balcony and stage level) recited words from Herzog’s diaries, some of them frustratingly overwhelmed by volcanic orchestral surges. Enter, too, Jennifer Johnston, whose translucent vocal purity added a magical, if transient, angelic descant. For in the end, it is the inventiveness of Fennessy’s orchestral writing – unrestrained by stylistic dogma – that seals the deal. 

This kaleidoscopic summation, an unfettered Amazonian soundtrack, bears out the composer’s stated belief that the orchestra in Conquest of the Useless is “the embodiment of what could be the true central character of this whole trilogy – the jungle itself.”

Going by the screening of Les Blank’s documentary which, together with an ensuing panel discussion, prefaced this energising performance, Herzog may well have come to the same conclusion.

Ken Walton

RSNO / Sondergard

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

There are few classical violinists whose arrival on the platform occasions the sort of popstar reception that greeted Ray Chen on Saturday evening. The Taiwanese-Australian appeared gratified but not much surprised.

With a reputation built via YouTube and social media, partnerships with Sony Electronics, games companies and fashion houses, a Decca recording deal and his own app that makes instrumental practice a community endeavour online, the RSNO’s guest soloist also has an impeccable coiffeur to match his international fame.

In January the orchestra tours Europe with him and a programme including the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, a virtuoso work played and recorded by Jascha Heifetz. Chen plays a Strad once owned by Heifetz and it was another work from the 20th century virtuoso’s 1950s fame on stage and in the studio, the Sibelius Violin Concerto, that he performed in this week’s concerts in the RSNO season.

Although the soloist’s first flashy cadenza comes half-way through the long opening movement, the main fireworks in the Sibelius come later, particularly in the devilish dance of the final movement. Chen, however, was chewing the scenery from the start as he stared down the fingerboard: his facial expressions and athletic eyebrows almost outdid his lightning-speed playing.

The 34-year-old has impressive technique, but his opening gambit was not really what Sibelius wrote in terms of dynamic and timbre. And when we arrived at the closing Allegro over 20 minutes later, Chen’s phrasing of the opening bars there might most kindly be described as idiosyncratic. The fast music always looked intense and exciting, but the best of Chen’s playing came in the slow second movement with a much lighter touch at the start and real delicacy in the final bars, all bolstered by a richness of tone from the RSNO strings.

Without the spotlight on their young guest-star, the orchestra had a superb evening. The opening work was the Scottish premiere of Finnish composer Lotta Wennakoski’s Om fotspar och ljus (Of Footprints and Light), a brilliantly orchestrated piece that is part of a series of commissions by the Helsinki Philharmonic. Its origins are an interesting slice of Finnish musical heritage, but heard on its own purely musical terms it was a fascinating ten minutes or so, demanding an array of operations from the percussion section and extended noise-generating techniques from strings and winds.

Swells of sound appeared from the orchestral sections in turn but it was the tiny details, on harp and in the basses and brass, that constantly caught the ear – and the closing bars from the front desk fiddles were quite magical.

Conductor Thomas Sondergard was as particular in the details of Dvorak’s Symphony No 6, which followed the interval. This is the work in which the composer first fully integrates Czech folk melodies into a sumptuously-orchestrated symphony, and it built his reputation across Europe. If it is sometimes overshadowed by the composer’s later works, Sondergard made an eloquent case for its equal status with a lightness of touch, a wide range of dynamic variation, and that meticulous attention to every nuance of the scoring. The rhythm of the Scherzo, a specific Slavonic dance meter, was a joyful delight and the Finale built to a spirited climax that was as fulfilling as it was pin-sharp and exactly as stipulated.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Bancroft

City Halls, Glasgow

Of the many quality ingredients in Friday evening’s SCO concert conducted by Ryan Bancroft, the droll introductory remarks of recent recruit as the orchestra’s first viola, Max Mandell, deserve their own recognition. Chosen to talk about the American music in the programme for his accent, he guessed, the Canadian’s disparaging description of contemporary Connecticut as a haven for dislikeable people will live long in the mind.

He was altogether more admiring of the music Charles Ives composed about the place a century ago, and the performance of Three Places in New England we heard justified his enthusiasm. The SCO strings were beautifully calibrated from the first bars of what was a wonderfully atmospheric reading of the work by Bancroft, the music sounding perfectly suited to these forces.

Through all the snatches of songs and tunes, changes in dynamics and direction, the cacophonous climax of Putnam’s Camp and the pastoral idyll, climax and coda of the closing section, the conductor found a superb musical flow that was always moving, in both senses of the word.

If such a continuous thread was less apparent in the world premiere that followed, that may simply be because Errollyn Wallen’s Dances for Orchestra is quite differently constructed. The work, an SCO co-commission with the Irish and Swedish Chamber Orchestras, is exactly what it says, and in its rich mix of melodies and rhythms, and occasional clashing discord, it sat well between Ives and Copland.

It is a big work that begins with a Latin feel, before morphing into a lopsided waltz led by the flutes. A funky pizzicato string figure opens the second section with the clarinet introducing a one-note samba on top. Later some hard rock riffage from the basses is decorated with a little jig from the winds before a stately pavane expands into cinematic scoring. Perhaps inevitably, the finale borrows from traditional Scots reels, replete with foot-stomping.

On first hearing, the piece seemed a bit of a jigsaw, but a highly entertaining one. The composer had specifically requested that Bancroft direct the premiere because of their shared history as students of dance, and the concert was appropriately completed by the full ballet score of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

The young Californian conductor, who trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and is now Chief Conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic as well as Principal Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, was by chance following Kristiina Poska’s precision reading of the Suite with the RSNO last week. The full score is twice as long and although it is never as dark as the titles of some of its episodes suggest (Fear in the Night, Day of Wrath), its range of colour and tempi means there is less danger of tending towards Hollywood, as Copland explicitly prohibited.

What Bancroft found again was a lovely narrative line, so that choreographer Martha Graham’s outline to the composer was always apparent. The tale came to a quite exquisite conclusion in the last bars of The Lord’s Day as flute, clarinet, strings and percussion exchanged phrases – producing a spontaneous standing ovation from a large number of those in the stalls of the City Hall.

Keith Bruce

RSNO / Poska

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

As well as soloist Rachel Barton Pine and guest conductor Kristiina Poska (already well known across Scotland through her work with the SCO), the other star of this programme was the first clarinet – not the RSNO’s principal player Timothy Orpen on this occasion, but Yann Ghiro, on loan from the BBC SSO.

The sotto voce opening of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, played with great sensitivity by Ghiro, was just the first of a series of solos across the evening, and it set the tone for what was a superb performance of the work in which its quietest moments were the most exquisite. Too often performed in an expansive, Hollywood soundtrack style, this ballet suite is much subtler than that and Poska was meticulous in her approach, as if applying rigorous early music practice to this mid-20th century masterpiece.

Her strict-time left hand baton is a distinctive tool in her armoury, and that precision was reflected in the response of the orchestra, with principal trombone Davur Juul Magnussen’s entry later in the work also beautifully measured.

By contrast, Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No2 is often clearly redolent of the Golden Age of Hollywood and film scores at their most appealing and decorative – and quite “old school” for the era of its composition (early 1950s). Under a quartet of an hour long, it is not a big work, and much of the interest in it is due to the difficult tale of how it has come down to us now. Barton Pine’s championing of the work has included partnership with the RSNO on a new recording, and she ceded the limelight in much of this performance, while quietly dispatching the most virtuosic elements. At points it was the brass underscore that proved the most compelling ingredient, and Ghiro popped up again to contribute tellingly to the closing bars.

Arguably more memorable of the soloist’s contribution to the evening was her encore – inspired by her participation in a traditional music session after the previous night’s Edinburgh concert – of Mark O’Connor’s Caprice No 1, a glorious mash-up of Bach and Appalachian fiddle.

The RSNO’s guest first clarinet was in the spotlight once more for the improvisatory beginning of the First Symphony of Sibelius, a brooding solo that is actually statement of a theme that recurs throughout the work. This was more or less home turf for the Estonian conductor, and her precision was again crucial. The front desks had their feature moments but it was the rhythmic pulse of the low strings that was most impressive.

There is something cinematic about the symphony’s slow second movement, but from the swing of the Scherzo through the rich orchestration of the Finale to the distinctive ending, it becomes a crash course in the unique compositional language that Sibelius enthusiasts love in his later works.

The RSNO, of course, has a distinguished history in the performance of Sibelius, from nearly a century ago and through the era of conductor Sir Alexander Gibson. In Kristiina Poska the orchestra has found another fine partner for his music.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Rachel Barton Pine at Usher Hall, Edinburgh by Leighanne Evelyn

SCO / Altstaedt

City Halls, Glasgow

Although its regular Friday venue was just over half-filled, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra may judge the experiment of a 2pm matinee – the first of three concerts moved to that slot during its 50th anniversary season – a success. Friday evenings have seen smaller houses, and there was a palpable buzz in this audience.

That was substantially down to the quality of the music-making. To start at the end, the concluding performance of Mozart’s Symphony No 38 , the “Prague”, was as vibrant and colourful as you’d expect of a work that has been core SCO repertoire for its history. This orchestra would turn out fine late Mozart without the help of a conductor, and it initially seemed that cellist/director Nicolas Altstaedt realised that and did not impose, although his podium presence was energetic enough.

There was, nonetheless, something very distinctive about Altsteadt’s handling of the opening of the Andante, with its changes of key and chromatic shifts, and the Presto finale rarely sounds quite so anticipatory of the revolutions of Beethoven as it did here.

The Mozart was something of an outlier in this programme, however –  Eastern European in the location of its premiere and nickname alone. We had begun with the early work of his older contemporary Franz Joseph Haydn at the Esterhazy court, with Altsteadt soloist and director of the Cello Concerto in C.

In our era full of rediscovered works, compositions neglected for cultural and socio-political reasons, this is one that simply went AWOL for a couple of centuries before turning up in Prague in 1961. Now firmly re-established in the canon, there was much of the era from which it was lost in the sound and manner of Altstaedt’s approach to the work, using a baroque bow on gut strings.

His first movement cadenza emerged as a thing of mesmerising wonder, a delicate web of notes, and the one in the Adagio was just as beautiful, the space between them as important as the notes themselves. His direction of the ensemble was of a piece with that, the Finale brisk-paced and full of detail.

We remained in the same geographical locale but moved to the mid-20th century for the two works on either side of the interval. Altsteadt the conductor delighted in the rich orchestration of Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta, as well as in fast tempi and changes of pace and gear, the nimble SCO demonstrating its collective ability to turn on a dime. First clarinet Maximiliano Martin was the star soloist, finding exactly the right, slightly earthy, tone for the work.

The four short Transylvanian Dances of Kodaly’s pupil Sandor Veress were the least familiar compositions of the programme and proved a real treat, Altsteadt joining Philip Higham on the front desk of the cellos to direct the string ensemble. The pair’s mournful duet at the start of the third one, underscoring Max Mandel’s solo viola, was just one memorable ingredient of a sequence that climaxed in something even closer to a ceilidh than the Kodaly, with foot-stomps and vocal exclamations all part of the mix.

Keith Bruce

Scottish Opera / Barber of Seville

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

It’s sixteen years since Sir Thomas Allen first staged his frisky production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville for Scottish Opera, but the years have been good to it. This is its second revival and with a new cast to mould, a pithy English translation by Amanda Holden, and fresh thoughts on the pantomimic shenanigans of an opera he knows so well as a performer, Allen has given it a bright new sheen.

Visually, Simon Higlett’s set designs maintain a period solidity, the inner pandemonium of Dr Bartolo’s house, in which Rosina’s quarters are a mezzanine boudoir overlooking the pick’n’mix  furnishings of the main living area. The latter provides a dynamic backdrop to a dynamic production. 

Allen insists on detail, every one of his characters permanently up to something, even when they’re out of the spotlight. A jokey stumble here, a mischievous glance there. There’s almost too much going on at times to take it all in, but that’s the joy of it all, to stimulate sensory intoxication.

The casting is inspired, at the centre of which is a truly mesmerising Simone McIntosh as Rosina. She commands every scene she inhabits, a woman with enough guile to outsmart her ineptly predatory guardian Bartolo, but not without the gentlest of charm, and topped by a vocal performance capable of assimilating virtuosic agility with lyrical enchantment.

She’s just one of a winning team. David Stout’s Bartolo is a triumph of character, his delusional intentions towards his ward brilliantly amplified by impeccable comic timing. In tenor Anthony Gregory there’s a purposeful Count Almaviva, slightly sinister, mostly self-possessed, always on the look out for the next opportunity. After an edgy start on opening night, his voice relaxed into a seamless flow of bel canto. 

Samuel Dale Johnson’s dashing Figaro also took time to settle vocally, but soon found its true mojo and a characterisation rich in humour and virile nuance. John Molloy presents Don Basilio as deliciously precious – pomposity combined with defensive intent. And it’s heartening to see such exemplary performances from Scottish Opera Emerging Artists Ross Cumming (unceasingly expressive as the Officer) and Ukrainian soprano Inna Husieva as Berta, whose sole aria is a wonderfully disarming oasis of reflection. 

There are minor issues in balance between stage and pit that will doubtless calibrate themselves as the run progresses, but the Scottish Opera Orchestra under Stuart Stratford’s direction is as lively and receptive as the theatrical spectacle on stage. This is a operatic comedy at its best, literally laugh-a-minute.

Ken Walton

(Picture credit: James Glossop)

Scottish Opera’s The Barber of Seville is in Glasgow till 22 October; Edinburgh 3-11 Nov; Inverness 16 & 18 Nov; Aberdeen 23 & 25 Nov. Full details at 

Songs of Wars I Have Seen

New Auditorium, RSNO Centre, Glasgow 

You just wonder which came first: the RSNO and Dunedin Consort dreaming up their intriguing initiative to work together creating a subsidiary partnership series within the former’s main season; or whether such hybrid works as Heiner Goebbels’ Songs of Wars I Have Seen – which integrates period instruments with modern – sparked the idea of this slightly madcap collaboration in the first place.

Either way, Saturday’s mongrel presentation in the more intimate RSNO nerve-centre, the New Auditorium, within Glasgow Royal Concert Hall provided both a sense of respite within the RSNO’s heavy duty symphonic output, and an evangelical platform for the excellent Dunedin players (strings and continuo) to showcase their stylistic versatility to a more diverse audience.

The work, itself, was thoroughly refreshing – a 19-strong mixed ensemble piece based on spoken extracts (read variously by the musicians themselves) from Gertrude Stein’s Wartime Diaries, contained within a living room stage-set of assorted lamps and tables, and brightly illuminated by Goebbels’ eccentric score. The displacement of the musicians – early music contingent to the fore, the more raucous wind, brass and percussion behind them – emphasised the music’s stylistic elasticity.

It’s a musical solution Stein’s arbitrary reflections welcome, her thoughts ranging from the most mundane aspects of wartime (the replacement of sugar with honey) to its frightening realism and futility, either in the here-and-now or in the context of history repeating itself. 

In responding to the latter, Goebbels incorporates actual music from the troublesome 17th century by Matthew Locke, which is where the most striking juxtapositions in this performance occurred. Such magical, silken moments from the Dunedin Consort were like historical parentheses, misty cameos imbued with a ghostly intensity.

These were especially effective within the overall context of Goebbels’ wider musical adventure, which shifted restively in character. The idiomatic mutability of this performance was its defining strength, very much a high-end cabaret concoction of funky modernism, smokey jazz, even spacey electronics. Conductor Ellie Slorach’s sizzlingly taut direction ensured that every minute counted. 

And for all that Stein’s words often seemed to matter less at times than their musical response, the overall impact was quite compelling and strangely moving. 

Ken Walton

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

It’s a brave BBC SSO that puts on a programme unlikely to fill seats when the corporation is openly pleading poverty. Yet that’s what it did on Thursday. Besides a quick Beethoven overture, the menu before us was a Mark-Anthony Turnage concerto, an Unsuk Chin novelty piece and a Stravinsky ballet score notable for its steely restraint – an intriguing and challenging concoction, entirely palatable but highly dependant on the persuasiveness of its delivery.

Under chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, it was not without charm. Beethoven’s overture Leonore No 2, one of the composer’s multiple attempts to furnish his opera Fidelio with a suitable overture, is perhaps his most thrilling – a bombastic rhetoric within a sea of prophetic expansiveness, pregnant silences exaggerated for effect and a glimpse of the future through music anticipating the naturalism of the later Romantics and the obsessiveness of Berlioz or Bruckner. 

The most liberating moment in this performance was the time-stopping offstage solo trumpet, casting a momentary magic spell before the skirmish of the home straight. To that point Wigglesworth’s reading mostly attuned to the music’s impetuosity, even if periodically unnerved by a kind of clipped, scurrying, theatricality.

In the phlegmatic neoclassicism of Stravinsky’s Orpheus, he sourced bewitchment in many of its fluid scenes: the melancholic nostalgia of Orpheus’ Bachian Air de Dance, the muted chorale-like eeriness of the final Apotheosis. The narrative dimension was moodily enticing, neatly tempered, but just short of finding that necessary sheen, the detailed intensity, to offset Stravinsky’s emotional containment

Turnage’s Your Rockaby for soprano saxophone and orchestra, is a Samuel Beckett-inspired concerto written in the early 1990s and shortly afterwards given its Scottish premiere in Glasgow’s Tramway by the SSO, It was performed here by its original soloist, Martin Robertson.

There was no escaping the unctuous queasiness of the jazz idiom that commonly defines Turnage’s music – a seediness lurking throughout, those angry harmonies, sneering glissandi and a busy background percussion combining to create a kaleidoscopic whirlwind. Sometimes gorgeously sleazy, sometimes with ecstatically pungency, Robertson played the protagonist with charismatic obstinacy.

Opening the second half, Unsuk Chin’s Subito con forza provided a flip side to the opening Beethoven. Written in 2020 for the latter’s 250th anniversary year, the source material is recognisable – sporadic snatches of Beethoven, each subjected to instant obliteration, as if Chin is firing incendiaries at the originals, releasing instant showers of musical shrapnel. The point was well made in a straightforward, resolute performance. 

Ken Walton

RSNO / Søndergård

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

It’s a bold new RSNO season that kicks off with a Keats-inspired tone poem by a female composer born at the tail end of the Victorian era who most people today will not have heard of. Dorothy Howell lived from 1898 to 1980, impressed Sir Henry Wood, had her music premiered, aged 21, in his London Proms earning her the epithet of “English Strauss”, before concentrating more on teaching from her late 20s onwards.

Worth hearing? Absolutely! For in Lamia, Howell demonstrates a sweeping tidal wave of inspiration that transforms Keats’ narrative poem into a swirling musical fantasy, its influences ranging from Debussy and Richard Strauss to the prevailing Englishness of Elgar and inklings of Wagner, even with prophetic hints of modernist thought. 

Yet, as this romantically-charged RSNO performance under music director Thomas Søndergård illustrated, Howell’s imaginative orchestral colourings and solid grasp of structuring were both authoritative and visionary, laced with evocative pictorial detail. 

In a period where tokenism is in danger of throwing second rate music at us for its own sake, here was a truly deserving example of fruitful musical archeology. As with the rest of Saturday’s programme, Lamia will be heading to Salzburg next week where the RSNO is undertaking a 3-day concert residency. 

Also on that trip will be feisty French pianist Lisa de la Salle, whose performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 on Saturday explored a more vigorous option to this familiar work. Steely dynamism informed the pianist’s opening gambit, her assertive touch commanding and demanding, yet never once losing sight of the music’s lyrical essence. 

The slow movement, leisurely in the extreme, unfolded in long, languid phrases, though never without purpose, while the finale was a breathless and dazzling romp to the finish line. If the last few bars took Søndergård and the RSNO momentarily by surprise, they were otherwise magnificent in aligning with de la Salle’s vivid mindset.

A stirring concert ended with Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, a work this conductor and the RSNO have successfully recorded together, and which certainly sounded like a trusty old friend. A journey in which the composer centrally casts himself as the hero was, as it should be, gloriously indulgent without slipping into self-mockery. Søndergård struck the perfect balance, the hero’s proud emergence, his exhortations of love, his adversaries and battles, and ultimately his repose and fulfilment expressed in a flood of emotional conflict. 

So this new season launched on a musical high; but why have the audience suddenly started bringing multiple food and drink into the auditorium? One group near me tucked into slices of cake. Behind, someone with ice in their plastic cup provided offstage percussion. Is it only a matter of time before the buckets of popcorn and fizzy drinks join in?

Ken Walton

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