Category Archives: Reviews

Hebrides Ensemble

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

We’re getting used to the mayhem associated with the mad music of Jörg Widmann, through his associations with Scottish Orchestras (he’s back this week with the RSNO) and in his multiple personae as composer, conductor and clarinettist. It was in the first of these roles that he made his mark again over the weekend, when his 5-movement Octet featured in a thoroughly pleasant afternoon recital by the Hebrides Ensemble.

The event was part of the RSNO’s new partnership activity with smaller Scottish ensembles, which in Glasgow’s music calendar has added a occasional new Sunday treat. This one, consisting of eight mixed instrumentalists matching the requirements of Schubert’s famous Octet, offered a programme that dressed old works in new attire.

It should have opened with Cassandra Miller’s About Bach, but with the Hebrides’ artistic director and cellist William Conway unfortunately indisposed, that risk wasn’t taken. Though inevitably disappointing – appetites were whetted for the Canadian-born composer’s music several weeks ago when Lawrence’s Power and the SCO gave a compelling account of her new viola concerto “I cannot love without trembling” – the resulting programme, albeit shortened, had a satisfyingly purposeful flow to it.

The theme remained intact, opening with Mozart’s re-tailored couplet for string quartet of his own Andante (from the Symphony No 8, KV48) and one of the five Bach Fugues transcribed as K405. They made perfect bedfellows, bringing one genius mind into direct touch with another.

That eased the passage into Tom David Wilson’s Three Schuberts, a reimagining of short selected works by the earlier composer in which Wilson takes tasteful liberties, using the full mixed octet resources to apply hyperactive twists and modernist techniques. Thus the impish eccentricities of Schubert’s Moment Musicaux No 3; the supercharged sound world of Erlkönig, its adapted instrumentation lending it the same melodramatic OTT-ness of a Midsomer Murders soundtrack;  and the quivering spookiness of Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man) from the song cycle Die Winterreise.

All roads led to the grand finale, Widmann’s Octet, which took the art of reimagining to its furthest extremes. We had the benefit of replacement cellist Christian Elliott, who had performed it with Widmann himself, to prepare our ears for the zaniness to come. Clear references to Schubert were few and far between, including the famous octet whose scoring configuration it replicates.  

Nonetheless, a fearless performance was all that was needed to take Widmann’s wile and wit in the nature of its intentions. Tingling Stravinsky-like chords and timbres lit up the Intrada; the Menuetto, a scherzo (joke) in its literal sense, played mischief at every turn; the extended loveliness of the Lied Ohne Worte took us deep into the weirdly oscillating world of microtones; while the Intermezzo and Finale steered a manic course from full-on riot and surreal intensity to resolution. 

Very Widmann, but as for Schubert……….?

Ken Walton 

RSNO / Sondergard

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

With two weeks of the RSNO’s season to go – and Jorg Widmann’s way with Mozart and the RSNO Chorus taking on Verdi’s dramatic Requiem still to come – this “All-Star Gala” was nonetheless a pinnacle of the orchestra’s year, coming immediately after its European tour. The presence of a trio of popular names as soloists – violinist Nicola Benedetti, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and pianist Benjamin Grosvenor – guaranteed a packed auditorium, including many for whom it was probably an unusual way to spend a Saturday night.

For those who had bought their first concert ticket, Scotland’s national orchestra laid on a terrific value-for-money programme – as fine an advert for classical concert-going as any seasoned fan of the music might hope for.

The programme culminated in Brahms’ First Symphony, the conclusion of a cycle of the Brahms symphonies RSNO Music Director Thomas Sondergard has conducted since the beginning of the year. Coming after recent performances and recordings of the works by chamber orchestras, Sondergard has made the case for big Brahms, and the Symphony No1, which was so long coming in the composer’s life, is arguably the work most suited to this approach, with its large slow statements at the start of the first and final movements.

The weight of those passages was beautifully contrasted with moments like the dialogue between leader Maya Iwabuchi’s solo violin and the oboe of Adrian Wilson in the slow movement. He was a star of this immaculately-calibrated reading, with other wind principals, including flautist Katherine Bryan (marking her 20th birthday in the post) and guest first horn Olivia Gandee, also on top form.

The Beethoven-like ending to the symphony was an interesting counterpoint to the younger, lighter Beethoven to be heard before the interval. Although this clever programme made more use of them, those star soloists were primarily contracted to play his “Triple Concerto” for piano trio and orchestra, composed in 1804.

It is a delightful work, the breezy conversation between the front-line voices rather disguising the fact that Kanneh-Mason was playing the more virtuosic part, with Benedetti riding shotgun and Grosvenor’s piano in a supporting role. The work has a lovely structure, particularly in the way the Largo second movement speeds up to segue into the dance of the finale. With the RSNO strings on sparkling form, this was smile-inducing stuff, and there were plenty of grins on the platform – and of course there was an encore lollipop, Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of the Londonderry Air.

The concert had begun with a showcase for the RSNO Youth Chorus, under its director Patrick Barrett, with each of the soloists providing accompaniment in turn. This was the real bonus treat for those new faces in the audience: three works composed in the past decade and performed by the coming generation, proving that “classical” music is in the peak of condition in the modern age.

The longest piece of the three was Russell Hepplewhite’s The Death of Robin Hood, a captivating narrative for young voices, setting a Eugene Field poem, with opportunities for solo voices as well as ensemble singing. It was performed with superb expression and clarity and followed on beautifully from a work the choir had learned for COP 26 in Glasgow, Errollyn Wallen’s specially-composed Inherit the World, with Grosvenor at the piano. It concluded the season’s valuable “Scotch Snaps” strand of performances of contemporary music.

The late addition to the concert brought together Benedetti and the Youth Chorus for American composer Caroline Shaw’s Its Motion Keeps. With the violinist supplying the work’s clever revision of early music continuo, this reworking of a 19th century shape-note hymn would be demanding fare for a professional choir of any age, but these young singers rose to its dynamic and tonal challenges with astonishing poise.

Keith Bruce

Picture, from Usher Hall performance, by Sally Jubb

Perth Festival / Red Priest

St John’s Kirk, Perth

Red Priest were new to me, if not to Perth and St John’s, and this well-attended midweek hoolie had a feeling of joyful reunion, with the CD stall doing brisk business at the interval.

Recorder virtuoso Piers Adams founded the group, using the nickname of composer Vivaldi, over 25 years ago, but with the return of baroque violinist Julia Bishop – whose other gigs have included the Gabrielli Consort, the Academy of Ancient Music and the Hanover Band – the line-up is three-quarters intact, harpsichord player David Wright replacing the late Julian Rhodes.

Bishop, one might speculate, relishes the opportunity to let her hair down. Wright apart, the musicians perform entirely from memory, and both she and Adams left the stage to promenade up close and personal with the audience. Cellist Angela East would likely have joined them if her instrument didn’t necessitate a chair.

That freedom of movement is paired with freedom of expression. There’s improvisation, tonal expansion and all sorts of tempo variation in the Red Priest approach to baroque music – about as far from any po-faced notion of period authenticity as it is possible to get.

For all the choreography, costuming and larking about, however, the final result is less showbiz than it is educational, in the least condescending way. Every piece, however unfamiliar or well known, some of them arranged together in the most singular of sequences, comes with a few words of introduction and a joke or two. No-one left St John’s on Wednesday evening without knowing a little more about Gian Paolo Cima, Anna Magdalena Bach or the music of the court of the Sun King.

Ideas about the possibilities of the recorder were surely revised as well, as Adams applied an extended range of embouchure techniques, some of them highly percussive, to the full pitch range of instruments. His digital dexterity was matched by all of his colleagues, with East’s cello also adding percussion as well as bass to the mix.

Her solo feature was a fresh take on a well-known Bach Prelude, and the repertoire successfully mixed the very familiar with the downright obscure, often in startling juxtaposition. Only Wright’s Couperin Chaconne perhaps overstayed its welcome in what was a slick, pacy performance, and that work’s uncanny prediction of 20th century minimalism still merited its inclusion.

At other points we were more in the realm of the traditional music session’s sets of jigs and reels, and the volume the acoustic quartet managed to produce without any sacrifice of detail or articulation was often remarkable. It was perhaps too easy to miss that level of technical excellence in a gig that was mostly about pure fun.

Keith Bruce

Perth Festival / The Ayoub Sisters

Perth Concert Hall

The corpses of young conservatoire-trained musicians that have been chewed up and spat out by the “classical crossover” genre litter the by-ways of the music marketplace. The Ayoub Sisters, you’d wager, are made of sterner stuff.

Of Egyptian heritage and Glasgow born and raised, they launched their second album, Arabesque, in Cairo and this Perth Festival date was part of its international promotional tour. The festival had tweaked the package, however, with the addition of support act The Lark Piano Trio, whose 20th century chamber music provided an impressively ear-exercising opening to the evening.

Post-graduate students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, pianist Anna Michels, violinist Emma Baird and cellist Helena La Grand championed composer Rebecca Clarke with their performance of her 1921 Piano Trio, which first appeared under her post-World War One nom-de-guerre “Anthony Trent”.

In a beautifully blended and balanced performance, and particularly in the meditative central movement, it was not hard to hear pre-echoes of better-known American male composers as yet unborn when the work was written.

The Ayoub Sisters opened their hour’s music with Misirlou, the Middle-Eastern folk tune made famous by surf-rock guitarist Dick Dale and the movie Pulp Fiction, which they played five years ago at Glasgow’s Proms in the Park.

Here, however, it introduced a programme that delved much more deeply into the siblings’ musical heritage, appropriating religious chants from different cultures as well as other folk music in their clever arrangements for violin and cello, amplified and looped through the sort of portable sampling technology familiar to fans of K T Tunstall and Ed Sheeran.

The pair have the possibilities of this kit at their fingertips and elegantly-shod toes, and the live layering of sound was very impressive, although never at the expense of overshadowing their genuine playing abilities. A backing track provided the Indian percussion for an excursion into the world of Bollywood soundtrack, but most of the execution was live and very slick indeed.

Their programme was also cleverly constructed to mix the less familiar music with more recognisable fare, including a terrific take on McCartney’s Blackbird and a more knockabout tilt at Boney M’s Rasputin as well as Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca. Taking turns to introduce the music, Laura (violin) and Sarah (cello) also have good stories and a congenial style to their presentation.

Scotland had its share of the spotlight too, from a vaguely Phil’n’Ally folk fiddle feature early in the set to an encore that saw Sarah move to the piano for the freshest take on some of the nation’s most threadbare favourites (including Flower of Scotland, Auld Lang Syne and Loch Lomond) that any in the audience will have heard in a while.

Keith Bruce

Perth Festival / The Seal-Woman

Perth Theatre

While Granville Bantock’s name may have fallen into relative obscurity today, the English-born Birmingham-based composer of Scots heredity was notable enough in British musical circles during his lifetime (1868-1946) to have found himself the dedicatee of Sibelius’ Third Symphony, such was the great Finnish composer’s gratitude for Bantock’s muscular UK championship.

His own music is interesting, at times inspired, a style emerging out of Wagner but with a curiosity for the modal adventures favoured by Vaughan Williams, Delius, even Debussy. Exotic whole tone harmonies vie with folksy pentatonic melodies, the latter no doubt emanating from his direct Scottish bloodline (his Highlands-born father was an eminent surgeon) and evident in such major works as his Celtic and Hebridean Symphonies.

But what of his 1924 opera The Seal-Woman, written in partnership with the Gaelic singer, collector and song writer Marjory Kennedy-Fraser, and currently enjoying a timely revival by The Scots Opera Project? It received two performances at this year’s Perth Festival, featuring a cast of upcoming professional opera singers, a pop-up community chorus, with musical direction and solo piano accompaniment by Scots pianist Hebba Benyaghla. Stage direction was by Ayrshire tenor David Douglas, who also sang the key male protagonist, The Islesman.

As for plot, think of variations on a theme of Disney’s The Little Mermaid or Darryl Hannah’s film Splash transported to a tiny Hebridean community, where a Seal-Woman and her sister enjoy the option of being human on land or mammal at sea so long as the magical robes they discard on dry land are there to reverse the process. In this case, the Islesman snaffles them, forcing the Seal-Woman to stay. They fall in love, have a child, but the call of the sea is too strong and the mother sacrifices family life to return to the deep.

In a production that played safe and fairly simple, strong performances were required to make up for limited action. The strongest of these came from Sioned Gwen Davies in the title role, a ripe vocal performance, particularly in the second half duet with her sister, sung sweetly if a little less assuredly, by Colleen Nicol. As the island’s matriarchal Cailleach, Ulrike Wutscher cut a suitably morose sage, her biggest challenge being to make something special out of Bantock’s overly monotone writing (Britten does that much better), but that was perhaps asking a lot. Michael Longden, as the Fisherman and Water Kelpie, gave what was necessary in his functional roles.

Hebba Benyaghla’s marathon 2-hour piano performance gave comforting impetus to the production, tastefully-spun in a way that appreciated Bantock’s clustered, often misty-eyed textures and folksy melodic inflexions. Could a single instrument ever replicate the colours envisaged by Bantock, a man noted for his skill as an orchestrator, in his original scoring? Who knows? We’d need to hear a full reconstruction of the opera to give a definitive answer to that pressing question.

Ken Walton

Perth Festival / ENSO

Perth Concert Hall

Scotland has much enjoyed the fruits of exceptional Estonian musicianship in the past, with Neeme Järvi’s years as music director still legendary in the minds of RSNO followers, and Olari Elts’ less distant tenure as SCO principal guest conductor notable for his energised results.

So what was the problem on Saturday, where an Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, variously associated with the same maestri, played under Elts, its current music director, as if charisma and confidence had been drained from its soul? 

There was, it must be said, a wonderful opening expectation where the calming reverence of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten acted as an emotional decoy before the anticipated explosions of Rachmaninov and Dvorak. That seemed to be the intent, inspired by the Estonian “holy minimalist” composer’s doleful tribute to Britten, its transcendental simplicity beautifully captured by the orchestra’s strings and single tolling bell.

But what followed was a huge disappointment, a performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2, with Irish pianist Barry Douglas, that failed to ignite, struggled to excite and generally lacked inspirational and practical cohesion. While Douglas seemed wrapped up in his own thoughts, and a somewhat choppy vision of the music, Elts threw his efforts into motivating an orchestra that sadly sounded as if its batteries were flat. 

It didn’t even keep time with itself in places, the basses lagging ponderously and troublesomely within the strings, the rear of the orchestra – even the timps – sometimes a hair’s breadth behind the front. What this produced was a prevailing sense of anxiety, a lack of self-propelling intensity propounded by unevenness in Douglas’s own thoughts and projection. A strange and unfulfilling outcome for such a standard concert work.

Nor did Dvorak’s Symphony No 7 realise its requisite surging inevitability. A nervous start didn’t help, nor Elt’s difficulty in garnering the overarching emotional thrust of the opening movement. Sparks of optimism gradually seasoned the inner movements, and the dramatic attacca into the finale heralded a promising home straight. It was realised, though a little too late.

At least there were encores to brighten the picture. Elts gave us two, one filled with muted ecstasy, the other a much needed riot of rustic colour and verve. The former was the movement from Sibelius’ Pelléas et Mélisande suite depicting the heroine’s death, gorgeously opulent in colour and pulsating with emotion; the latter, a boisterous Estonian dance by Eduard Tubin, delivered with hip-swinging brilliance and bravado, everything the main programme lacked.

The orchestra moved on to Edinburgh on Sunday with a slightly different programme, before continuing its current UK tour.

Ken Walton

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

Edward Elgar’s well-documented disappointment in the lukewarm reception accorded the premiere of his Second Symphony is more often remarked than that reaction itself. If the audience in 1911 expected memorable melodies and a climactic finale, they might indeed have been confounded by the piece.

The BBC SSO’s Chief Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth perhaps chose to end his first year with the work more because it is a suitably big piece for a season finale, requiring large forces on stage to perform the rich orchestration, rather than from a desire to leave the City Halls audience with a spring in its step and a song in its heart.

It was the conclusion to a concert that began with Richard Strauss’s rampantly colourful tone-poem Till Eulenspiegel, which not only shared those qualities, but was a fun place to start – especially in this particularly lively performance by the SSO musicians. From the opening statement of Till’s tune by guest first horn Christopher Gough onwards, the “merry pranks” of Strauss’s romp through the adventures of the medieval folk-hero were played with enthusiastic vigour, including fine E flat clarinet from Adam Lee.

Laura van der Heijden brought as much energy to the world premiere that followed: the BBC-commissioned Cello Concerto composed for her by Cheryl Frances-Hoad. Wigglesworth will have earned the thanks of cellists for helping this piece to funded completion, as Frances-Hoad, a Menuhin School cellist herself, has given them a substantial new work.

While the focus is on the soloist from the start, the composer has created orchestration which sat well with the past masters of the art on either side of it in this programme. There were moments towards the end of the opening movement when Van der Heijden’s busy fingering was not completely audible above the orchestra, but that may have been intended, and the broadcast of the concert on Thursday May 25 should clarify the question.

The work has an environmental inspiration – very clearly explained in the composer’s lucid programme note – and the final movement, entitled Air, seemed to balance the forces onstage more successfully. The work’s heart, however, is the slow movement, Sea, which not only seemed to evoke its inspiration most successfully, but brought to mind the classic concertos for the instrument by Dvorak and Elgar.

The latter’s Symphony No 2 featured the SSO strings in the top form we’d heard them all evening, with specific details, like the contrapuntal pizzicato bass line in the second movement, shining through. Great work from the trombones as well, while the five-strong percussion section, guest-led by Alasdair Malloy, put in a terrific shift.

Keith Bruce

Scottish Opera / Carmen

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

If nothing else, director John Fulljames has a reputation for making you think. That’s exactly what he does from the very outset in a new production of Carmen for Scottish Opera that reexamines Bizet’s popular opera, not from the standpoint of its historical performance tradition, but by digging into its psychological origins – Prosper Mérimée’s original novel – and shifting the emphasis to the crime and its murdering perpetrator.

As such, it is reasonably justified. We see before us a classic television crime drama. On one level there’s the running interrogation of Don José by a leech-like “investigator”, spoken with cold and menacing persistence by Scots actor Carmen Pieraccini. On another is the opera we are more familiar with – the dangerously taunting Carmen playing a passionately jealous soldier against a pompously self-loving bullfighter – positioned now as the back story. 

Just to add further intrigue, it’s all updated to a turbulent 1970s post-Franco Spain, when women like Carmen sensed the opportunity and felt the urge to exercise greater freedoms.

If that all sounds complex, it is and it isn’t. The real challenge is to shake off preconceptions of traditional Carmen presentations, where spectacle overrides evil, and consider the reality of the heroine’s murder and the hideous factors that precipitate it. Fulljames utilises a tart English translation by Christopher Cowell, and tends to subdue – with darkened visuals and digital projections from his design team – much of the traditional gaiety. His solution throws a lot at us, sometimes conflictingly so.

The cast is clearly on side. The first glimpse of Alok Kumar’s José coincides with the opening of the Prelude, seemingly at the point of confession under Pieraccini’s icy questioning. Throughout the opera he is a towering presence, troubled but insistent, rising to raging vocal heights as the tragic denouement approaches. His challenger in love, Escamillo, is not so convincing, a palpable weakness in Phillip Rhodes’ lower register robbing this toreador of an otherwise colourful and doughty conviction.

As Carmen, Justina Gringyté’s lithe physicality cuts a ballsy protagonist, with just enough softness to entertain empathy, and plenty snarls from her rich mezzo soprano voice to put up a necessary front. It’s not a wholly consistent vocal performance from the Lithuanian, and her English pronunciation occasionally misfires.

There’s a fine performance from Hye-Youn Lee as Micaëla, the childhood sweetheart from José’s homeland who attempts to save him, her big Act 3 aria surely the most moving moment of the show. Carmen’s friends (Mercédès and Frasquita) and the criminals (Dancaïre and Remendado) are a proficient grouping sung by Scottish Opera Emerging Artists Lea Shaw, Zoe Drummond, Colin Murray and Osian Wyn Bowen. Neat performances, too, by Dan Shelvey (Moralès) and Thomas D Hopkinson (Zuniga) complete the team.

What of the chorus, though? There’s a sense at times that their presence in this particular production is a minor inconvenience. They sing pleasingly well, and move with businesslike efficiency, but like the design concept their significance seems correspondingly muted. Except for the bullfight, where some resounding merriment lifts the spirits.

The ultimate, and most consistent, champions of this Carmen are the Scottish Opera Orchestra, whose performance on opening night under Australian conductor Dane Lam was exemplary, capturing Bizet’s red hot vibrancy, electrifying energy and melting expressiveness to the absolute full, proving that the beating heart of any opera emanates from the notes on the page.

Ken Walton

Carmen runs in Glasgow until 20 May, with further performances in Inverness (23-27 May), Aberdeen (1-3 June) & Edinburgh (9-17 June). Full information at

(Image: James Glossop)

BBC SSO / Menezes

City Halls, Glasgow

In what is now a fairly regular occurrence among orchestras, the BBC SSO was forced to field a last-minute replacement for its advertised conductor. Out went indisposed Estonian Kristiina Poska; in came Brazilian conductor Simone Menezes for an unchanged programme of Saariaho, Ravel and Mendelssohn.

It was a concert that began well, but seemed to lose its mojo in the second half. 

First up, Menezes addressed the sonic adventurism of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Laterna magica, a beautifully illusory response to the notion of the magic lantern – the machine that created the earliest moving cinematic images – and in particular its influence on the work of Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. Saariaho’s title is a direct lift of that which Bergman gave his autobiography.

It’s a work that progresses on its own terms, an overarching timelessness in which Saariaho presents her ideas patiently and confidently, with more than a touch of the surreal. Those weirdly drooping notes, the spectral floating chords, those shimmering dreamy textures compounded by words whispered by the players, all contributed to the slow-setting scene-opener. An eventual change in mood was predictable – given the presence of six horns and double timpani – coming in the form of a near cataclysmic climax rich in percussive glitter and ripened brass. 

Menezes adopted a mainly pragmatic role in sewing together the wistful, complex threads of this enchanting music, outwardly business-like and leaving the SSO to work its own magic. 

In Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, it was Russian soloist Denis Kozhukhin who took the commanding lead. Dramatic and uncompromising, his steely view of the opening movement dictated a performance that took Ravel’s expressive contrasts to their utmost extremes. There was lightning lustre and willowy calm, leisurely reflection and impatient vivacity, and a finality that brought us crashing back to earth.

Still to come was the melting lyricism of the slow movement, its unaccompanied opening theme searingly and effortlessly projected; and a finale bursting with an ebullience and effervescence aimed mercilessly at exaggerating its sardonic brevity. The SSO fed off Kozhukhin’s musical charisma with a sharpness and definition of its own.

Compared to that, Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony seemed disappointingly cumbersome. Menezes showed intent in narrating the lengthy first movement discourse, but did so with slowish, stolid pacing. There was spirited uplift in the swifter second movement, despite misjudged balance that left key melodies overwhelmed by over-inflated accompaniment. The slow movement evolved with pleasing unpretentiousness, but there was little sense of a returning joie de vivre in the finale, its closing maestoso curiously projected as an overripe afterthought, which it isn’t.

Ken Walton

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available on BBC Sounds. 

The programme is repeated on Sunday 14 May at 3pm in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh. Details at 

SCO / Emelyanychev

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

It is surely paradoxical that as Scottish churches close and dwindling Christian congregations are combined, classical music lovers are rarely more than a few weeks away from a performance of a Mass, Passion or Requiem. That was the concert hall audience that Johannes Brahms made a radical pitch for with his German Requiem, and he might be dismayed to find himself in competition with earlier church music for a slot in orchestral seasons.

Nonetheless, Ein deutsches Requiem holds a special place in the hearts of many, and this deeply moving work made a suitably grand conclusion to the SCO’s as it looks forward to celebrating its 50th anniversary. Perhaps few would have predicted that choice from Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev when he arrived five years ago, and it is emblematic of the way that his relationship with the orchestra – and the very fine SCO Chorus – has developed.

He will doubtless adapt it effectively for the confines of Glasgow’s City Hall, but Thursday evening’s performance took full advantage of the scale of Edinburgh’s Usher Hall by presenting the work as widescreen chamber music. This choir can make a mighty noise when asked (and did), but the detail in their performance, and immaculate German diction, often recalled the fine recording by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen with two piano accompaniment. The sole Gospel text in the work – the opening Beatitude “Blessed are they that mourn” – has rarely sounded as enticingly affecting.

Here, though, we had the full palette of orchestral sound with the four double basses split on either side of the stage, Andrew Watson’s contrabassoon alongside two of them stage right and the timpani of Louise Lewis Goodwin (on stellar form) behind the pair opposite. Crucial to the Edinburgh experience was the hall’s organ, played by Michael Bawtree, and especially – from that first movement to the end – those deep pedal notes.

Emelyanychev placed the soloists – bass baritone Hanno Muller-Brachmann and soprano Louise Alder (a late replacement for Sophie Bevan) – above the orchestra and in front of the choir and the effect was to position their voices perfectly in the mix, more integrated with the chorus than is often the case, and never overwhelmed by the instrumentalists.

Full of period instrument colour though the orchestra was, this was another example of the hybrid engineering in which this partnership of conductor and ensemble now excels, clocking in at a mid-paced 70 minutes. Emelyanychev was as invested in Gregory Batsleer’s singers – and the soloists – as he was in the band, and the integration of all the ingredients was always delightfully readable in his baton-free direction.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Storgårds

City Halls, Glasgow

Finding a truly unique voice among living composers is not a guaranteed occurrence, but that’s what SCO audiences were treated to last week in the UK premiere performances of a new Viola Concerto by the Canadian-born, UK-based Cassandra Miller. 

It was unique enough, in that concertos for this instrument are – and have been throughout its occasionally maligned history – a testing challenge. But what of the fascinating novelty of the music itself, a language and style governed by adventurous free-thinking and explorative self-confidence, that was so completely original and absorbing. 

“I cannot love without trembling” – a title borrowed from the writings of the early 20th century French philosopher Simone Weil – was written for, and performed by, the exceptional Lawrence Power, whose musical persona was as much the impulse as the vehicle of its success. He lives up to his name, but more than that, Power extracts a purity of tone from his instrument – no doubt a very good one – across the full range of its possibilities, possibly even beyond.

Take the fingered harmonics that lend the opening its ethereal intensity, piercing through a gathering underscore; or the gauche succulence of exaggerated vibrato and trembling oscillations that, in sultry interaction with the orchestra, spiral up to the highest reaches of the fingerboard. Throughout the work’s five sections, which blossom with expressive intensity despite Miller’s deliberate compositional containment, Power’s free-flowing virtuosity was spellbinding.

The concerto, Miller tells us, is “about the basic human need to lament”, its flickering ornamental language drawn from improvised moiroloi compositions by the early 20th century Greek folk violinist Alexis Zoumbas. Both the resulting work and its performance under conductor John Storgårds fully captured a spirit of gnawing ecstasy.

The other fascination in this programme was, itself, a well-worn work, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The obvious question is, why was a chamber orchestra tackling such hefty symphonic repertoire? The answer is, they weren’t, at least not in the form we know it. 

Instead, Storgårds introduced us to a reduced chamber orchestra version by conductor/arranger George Morton which may have played havoc with listener expectations – the single wind all-too-often smacked of a lo-fat alternative, not their fault, and the inevitable thinning of textures led to uncomfortable imbalances – but much of which drew focus to aspects of Tchaikovsky often overlooked. The performance, itself, was admirably lithe and perceptive.

More satisfying all round was the opening work, Sibelius’ Suite No 2 extracted from his incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Here was a sequence of scene-setters and character sketches richly portrayed by a composer prepared to enrich a theatrically-prescribed musical response with his own enigmatic, sharp-edged personality. Storgårds’ casual authority ensured an illuminative performance. 

Ken Walton

SCO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

The concise and considered introductory remarks of conductor Mark Wigglesworth to his programme with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, finding common experience in the life and work of the three composers featured, were a model for his thoughtful approach to directing the music.

The highlight of that programme, notwithstanding the inclusion of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, was the Cello Concerto No 2 of Shostakovich, with soloist Laura van der Heijden, who has a particular affinity with Russian music.

It may be a very personal late work of the composer, but the hesitant opening notes on the cello and initial contribution by the low strings now sound very redolent of the mid-1960s Cold War period of the work’s composition. Van der Heijden was at all times clearly aware that there is little about the work that is a virtuoso showcase – that opening bar is one of the few moments where there is not something else going on alongside the soloist, her cadenzas not excepted.

The integration of the top line with the orchestration takes many forms, and many individuals in the SCO were called upon to make specific contributions, including Rhiannon Carmichael’s contrabassoon, a very fine horn pairing of Chris Gough and Andy Saunders, and a range of ear-catching percussion playing, culminating in some top-notch tambourine.

The soloist has the final word, but, as in so much of Shostakovich, it is a very ambiguous last utterance.

The opening Simple Symphony by a youthful Benjamin Britten was altogether more straightforward in intent, but was no less demanding of the SCO strings, who found a terrific range of dynamics in the Playful Pizzicato second movement and a beautifully coherent ensemble sound in the finale.

This orchestra is now expert at a sort of hybrid performance that combines modern instruments with baroque ingredients, like natural horns and trumpets, and that was key to this account of Beethoven’s masterwork. Wigglesworth, conducting from memory, was master of all the details of the score, particularly in the slow movement, which revealed colours and shifts of tempo that seemed completely fresh and new – so much so that the ripple of applause at its end seemed far from inappropriate. The Scherzo was as fine, but the last movement just failed to build on all that capital in realising the cumulative effect of its repetitions in the way it had seemed destined to achieve.

Keith Bruce

RSNO / Bringuier

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Here was Tchaikovsky that even Pierre Boulez – famously antipathetic to the works of the Russian composer – might have had time for. And the music was in the hands of another French conductor, Lionel Bringuier.

Bringuier stepped in at short notice last week to replace Norwegian Tabita Berglund for the RSNO’s scheduled programme, with American rising star Randall Goosby playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, followed by the Sixth – and last – Symphony, the “Pathetique”. This is music that it is too easy to wallow in, but the shared approach of Bringuier and Goosby, working together for the first time, was always crisp and precise, whether that was in the dynamic shifts in the opening movement of the symphony or in the impressively fast and clear solo line of the concerto’s “vivacissimo” Finale.

Goosby, just 27 and still completing his studies at Juilliard, is an astonishing player, with a clarity of tone and technical ability that impresses from the start. Perhaps his first movement cadenza was easier to admire than to warm to, but the distance from the emotional excesses players can bring to the work was always refreshing, as was his constant engagement with the orchestra and attention to Bringuier’s direction.

That meant the concerto was of a piece with the symphony, giving the audience – although there were more empty seats than might have been expected for this programme – an opportunity to assess the acoustic effect of the recent refurbishment of the hall. Not only are the new seats more comfortable, it does seem that there is better projection of the sound from the stage, although some of that impression may well be down to the approach of these musicians in particular.

The third movement of the Pathetique is Tchaikovsky at his very best, and every note was immaculately realised in this interpretation, as was the transition to the sombre last movement which so often tricks unwary listeners into premature applause. Its low register sonority also sounded enhanced by the venue’s makeover.

We will probably never know what Berglund would have made of her 20th century countryman David Monrad Johansen’s Pan, which opened the concert, but Bringuier deserves plaudits for sticking with the advertised programme. Although it becomes dramatic enough, and – as anyone might have guessed from the title – featured fine solo playing from principal flute Katherine Bryan, it is an unremarkable work, far outshone by the music that followed.

Keith Bruce

SCO / van Soeterstede

City Halls, Glasgow

The old cliché about the odd numbered Beethoven symphonies out-lasting the evens never really worked with the Pastoral, and a remarkable run of performances of No 4 in pre-pandemic times made a very eloquent case for it as well.

Symphony No 8’s relative brevity to those on either side of it mean it is sometimes especially belittled, including by the composer himself, but also makes it an attractive programming option. Its compact arc can create the temptation for conductors to keep the orchestra on a tight leash until the boisterous finale, but French conductor Chloe van Soeterstede was having none of that.

Ideal for the smaller forces of a chamber orchestra, the Eighth is brisk from start to finish and van Soeterstede made sure that pace – while never slacking – was very accurately measured. There is much musical jest and japery in the work, in unexpected notes and combinations of instruments, staccato chords and offbeat accents, and the conductor missed none of the gags. She also found an element of darkness in the Minuet’s septet of solo cello, horns, pizzicato basses, clarinet and bassoon that set up the pell-mell finish perfectly.

It was the culmination of a fine programme that had begun with the Symphony No 1 of neglected 19th century German composer Emilie Mayer. Some of Mayer’s songs featured in Golda Schulz’s recital of lost works by women composers at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, and here was evidence that her orchestral works – she wrote a further seven symphonies – are also ripe for rediscovery.

The models of her male predecessors in her homeland are much in evidence early on in the symphony, but she then goes very much her own way, with some starling changes of pace and direction later on. As with the Beethoven, this was a score very well suited to an ensemble with 24 strings.

In between was the star attraction of mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, singing the six songs of Les nuits d’ete that might have been written for her, had Hector Berlioz not in fact orchestrated them for his second wife, thus creating the first example of such a cycle.

It does have a lovely shape to it as well, beautifully communicated by Cargill, from the optimistic opening Villanelle, through the darkness of bereavement and loss, to the relatively upbeat, if uncertain, closer, L’ile inconnue. Scotland’s international singing star was on absolutely magnificent form, her superb instrument of burnished tone across the whole of its range, but always all about engaging the attention of the listener on a one-to-one basis.

There was plenty of instructive example here for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland students in attendance. Their intensive study with Cargill this coming week will culminate in a Cumnock Tryst recital in the Ayrshire town’s Trinity Church on Saturday April 28.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Chloe van Soeterstede by Olivia da Costa

BBC SSO / Brabbins

City Halls, Glasgow

It’s over 25 years since the BBC SSO performed William Wallace’s “Creation” Symphony in C sharp minor. It was a studio session in Glasgow recorded for BBC Radio 3 and a Hyperion CD. So it’s not before time that conductor Martyn Brabbins included it in his “Sound of Scotland” matinee programme with the same orchestra last Thursday, a performance that sealed its aesthetic and technical worth, but equally pointed to a London-based Scots composer responding in the 1890s to a musical world still starstruck by Wagner, while living amidst the stirring potency of Elgar.

These are the overriding influences in this symphonic representation of the biblical creation story, its dark opening groping steadily and Parsifal-like towards successive peaks through which Wallace demonstrates a mastery of orchestration and structuring. 

Such repertoire is right up Brabbins’ street, his relaxed, authoritative lead capturing the momentousness of the score, almost film-like in its epic ebbing and flowing. The SSO responded with infectious self-belief, going all the way with the first movement’s sugar-coated conclusion, the sunbursts that offer glimpses of character in the occasionally bland Andantino, a scherzo-like Allegro verging on jolly-hockey-sticks joie-de-vivre, and a finale oozing pride and pomp, as if Wallace was saying: “And God created the British Empire, and he saw that it was good”.

Such was the climax to a programme that began with Judith Weir’s tribute to the geometric Swiss painter Paul Klee, her Heroic Strokes of the Bow based on his musically-inspired “Heroische Bogenstriche”, but also mixed and matched a refreshing couple of viola duos with Iain Hamilton’s virile Clarinet Concerto.

Where Weir transforms Klee’s images into sparkling sonic gestures and whirlwind textures, all dramatically threaded through this pellucid performance, Hamilton’s early concerto proved an eye-opener for those more familiar with the acerbic rigour that dominates much of his later music. Soloist Richard Plane had the full measure of the piece, packing his delivery with physical vitality, athletic virtuosity, and where called for, sweet lyrical charisma.

Why the interspersed viola duos? It just seemed, Brabbins explained, an opportune moment to showcase the SSO’s front desk principals – Scott Dickinson and Andrew Berridge – who had used the restrictions during Covid to seek out new repertoire for themselves. Here were two of a still-growing collection: James MacMillan’s Canon for Two Violas; and the world premiere of Camino by none other than the unassuming Brabbins.

There was a satisfying complementarity between both works, the plaintive intimacy of MacMillan’s, with its wistful melodic charm and softly intermeshing complexities, countered by the sparkier interactions of Brabbins’ Camino, its more impulsive introspection inspired by his daughter’s solitary pilgrimage along the Camino Santiago de Compostela. In each case, Dickinson and Berridge brought accomplishment and poetic empathy to their performances.

Ken Walton

Recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3

NYOS / Larsen-Maguire

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

It’s heartening to think, with all the disruption to musical education and performance that happened during and beyond Covid, that our National Youth Orchestra can tackle one of classical music’s most mountainous challenges. The proof was tangible last weekend, with performances in Edinburgh and the newly-refurbished Glasgow Royal Concert Hall by the NYOS Symphony Orchestra of Mahler’s magnificent Symphony No 7.

Under the English-born conductor, Catherine Larsen-Maguire, there were so many moments when you could have sworn the massed musicians on stage were hard-worn professionals. For this is a symphony that demands every facet of seasoned musicianship: unbending stamina, steely conviction, technical virtuosity and, most of all, an assertive understanding of Mahler’s wild emotional thoughts.

For the most part, that’s what this Glasgow audience witnessed. Larsen-Maguire, a conductor used to working with such prodigious youth, struck an inspiring balance between strict disciplining of her forces and allowing enough latitude in solo or small ensemble passages that call for more intuitive self-expression. 

Key among the latter were the soaring violin solos of leader Chun-Yi Gang, the punchy dynamism of the orchestra’s timpanist, a trumpet section that scaled dizzy heights, and horn playing that was gloriously ripe and radiant. As for the fullness of the entire ensemble, Larsen-Maguire extracted an ever-changing array of colour, from the symphony’s sombre opening mood, through the nocturnal rumination of the two Nachtmusik movements and wilder demonic Scherzo, to the resplendent awakening of the Finale.

There was very little in this performance that did not project with emotive self-belief and impressive resilience, except perhaps the final movement, where concentration dipped but reasserted itself for a biting finish.

Exciting challenges also presented themselves, though of a different nature, in Lotta Wennäkoski’s guitar concerto Susurrus, which preceded the Mahler and featured the pre-eminent guitarist Sean Shibe. It’s a work that challenges the norm in both guitar and orchestral techniques. A clue lies in the title, which means rustling or rasping, resulting in a sound world packed with exotic colourings, ethereal effects and very little in the way of a tune.

As such, it is beguiling, Shibe at one point even extracting an eeriness from his instrument with a plastic ruler and the orchestra responding with abstract like-mindedness. That said, Wennäkoski adds fire to her music in the form of motorised rhythms, glistening textures and a surprisingly curt ending that nips a late emergence of extrovert showmanship in the bud. These NYOS players took to its alluring unorthodoxy like fish to water.

Ken Walton

(Picture: Ryan Buchanan)

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

On the same night the BBC SSO released its plans for a challenging and adventurous new 2023-24 season, its chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth was pre-echoing that explorative spirit directing a concert dominated by one of the eight tableaux, The Sermon to the Birds, from Olivier Messiaen’s only opera, the epic Saint François d’Assise. 

Completed late in the French composer’s life, and premiered in 1975, it’s an encapsulation of Messiaen’s life and music. A self-styled radical, he called on the ecstatic freedom of birdsong, the distinctive qualities of systematic modes and Eastern-inspired rhythms from which his harmonic and melodic sound world was derived, and an engrained Catholicism, to formulate one of the most distinctive modernist 20th century voices.

The tableau performed here from the opera’s central act – The Sermon to the Birds – is perhaps the most demonstrative of this: the cathartic extravagance of its avian counterpoints rich to the point of wild cacophony; the powerful juxtaposition of compressed harmonic colour, constant rhythmic surprises and searing melodies; the spine-tingling exuberance from a colossal of the percussion section; and the heart-stopping intensity delivers by those high-density major chords that finally appear as if to ground the whole experience.

Wigglesworth and an expanded SSO gave it big licks in Thursday’s riveting performance, one which, with the help of assistant conductor Emilie Godden and the luxury of three penetrating Ondes Martenot, was a triumph of controlled and mostly well-coordinated intent. The two soloists, Scots tenor Nicky Spence and bass-baritone Ashley Riches, proved a solid, complementary and emotive pairing, though audience access to the text – surtitles perhaps? – would have facilitated a more detailed appreciation of the French narrative. 

The Messiaen followed an earlier paean to nature, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Wigglesworth’s approach may have been essentially cautious – we’ve witnessed far more impetuous storms and expansive countryside greenery from the SSO in the past – but in this performance he elicited such endearing warmth from the strings and meaningful fluidity from the wind that any brief moments of laxity proved inconsequential. 

The programme is repeated at the Usher Hall Edinburgh on Sunday 16 April, 3pm

Ken Walton

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available on BBC Sounds. It is also repeated at the Usher Hall Edinburgh on Sun 16 April at 3pm

Dunedin: Matthew Passion

New Auditorium, RSNO Centre

I’ve been spoilt when it comes to Good Friday performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion by the Dunedin Consort. It may have been nine years ago, but the memorable setting was on tour in Weimar’s historic Herderkirche, against a backdrop of Lucas Cranach’s vivid altarpiece and the very font used to baptise the composer’s son, CPE Bach, with a German congregation joining in the chorales that, in this sublime retelling of the Easter story according to Matthew, represent “the voice of the people”. Hard to forget.

The setting for this year’s Good Friday performance was very different, the secular modernity and bright functionalism of the RSNO’s home auditorium insisting largely on one key focus for the delivery of the spiritual message, the music itself. If part of me ached for the holistic “living history” experience of 2014, director John Butt and his nuclear cast of singers and period instrument players provided little short of a wholesome presentation to a near-capacity Glasgow audience.

Followers of Dunedin will be familiar with its ways: one singer to a part (double SATB chorus in this case) and proportionately minimalist twin band. The inevitable intimacy of such an approach – the soloists drawn from the vocal ensemble – brings with it a thrilling intensity and engagement that made this 3-hour-plus event fly past in a breeze. 

If anything, a bit of acclimatisation in the opening chorus, the first of two featuring members of the RSNO Youth Chorus as the soaring line of Ripieno Sopranos, left some aspects of balance – the otherwise efficient youth choir slightly under projected – in flux, but once tenor Andrew Tortise’s captivating Evangelist took firm hold of the narrative, sure-footed confidence wiped away any initial uncertainty. Indeed, Tortise’s performance – judiciously emotive in the best story-telling tradition – was the purposeful linchpin around which a versatile cast played out its drama.

That team spirit established a lightning fluency in delivery, the host of protagonists (from Jesus to Judas to Pontius Pilate) each enacted with searing individualised charisma, yet as a chorus, the vocal team retreated into homogenised near-perfection. Any sense of imperfection – single voices that momentarily edged above the parapet – was strangely, often beautifully, impactful. Those brief rabble-rousing chorus interjections around the trial scene sent shivers up the spine.

Individually, Edward Grint captured the bass role of Jesus with noble poignancy. Fellow bass Christopher Webb breathed fire into his assortment of character cameos, alongside multi-hued performances by sopranos Nardus Williams and Miriam Allan, tenor Christopher Bowen and countertenor Rory McLeery. But the ultimate showstopper was surely alto Jess Dandy’s soul-stirring aria Erbarme dich, sung with melting warmth and impassioned amplitude in liquid partnership with lead violinist Huw Daniel’s exquisite obligato solo.

That’s not to take anything away from other virtuoso instrumental contributions, such as Jonathan Manson’s free-flowing viola da gamba counterpoint to the bass aria Mache dich, or the sultry duetting oboe d’amores that embellish the soprano aria, Ich will dir mein Herze schenken. 

In all of this John Butt’s leadership counted for everything, impeccable timing that heightened the dramatic juxtapositions, expressed moments of deep sensitivity and chilling theatre in equal measure, and which triumphed in expressing the wonderment and relevance of Bach’s creative symbolism.

Ken Walton

Lammermuir: Catriona and the Dragon

Dunbar Parish Church

The fact that Lammermuir Festival kept faith with its latest community opera project for four years, through all the prohibitions of the pandemic, makes celebrating it something that overrides any conflict of interest I may have in doing that for VoxCarnyx.

My son, baritone Arthur Bruce, was one of three professional singers involved, alongside mezzo Andrea Baker and – in a demanding multiplicity of roles – soprano Catriona Hewitson. They would concede that the show was not about them, however, as they voiced the story-telling alongside a huge cast of local people, from adults to young primary schoolchildren, singing, acting and playing most of the orchestral instruments.

Conducted by Sian Edwards, who marshalled their varying skill-levels with impressive aplomb, the orchestra was led by Katie Hull. It was in itself a fascinating development of the McOpera ensemble established by Scottish Opera players when their staff contracts became part-time, with musicians from the SCO, Maxwell Quartet, National Youth Orchestra of Scotland and elsewhere as principals.

Composer Lliam Paterson and librettist Laura Attridge had risen to the challenge of giving everyone in this diverse company an important part to play in a narrative that used local folklore and had a lucid, and unpatronising environmental message. Not only were all the young participants on board for the anthemic chorus at the end, but a child of no more than one in front of me was engrossed by it all.

Leading the community cast in the role of Queen Catriona, Nora Trew-Rae not only revealed a fine voice as the show evolved, but also put in a good number of laps of the auditorium in an energetic performance. That physicality ran through the project and the directors – Attridge, Moira Morrison (Chorus Director), and Ian West (Movement) – achieved wonders of co-ordination. It was Hewitson who often provided the icing on the cake, especially in her soaring singing of the Dragon, but also with some startlingly fast changes of costume.

The climactic confrontation between the Queen and the beast happens off-stage, reported and enacted by her courtiers, Carruthers and Colquhoun (Baker and Bruce). That is a device that can be traced back to ancient tales like Beowulf, but it perhaps lacked a little dramaturgical – rather than performative – style to be a complete success here, solely because it was the only time there were so few people onstage.

It hardly mattered, though, as the chorus quickly returned for that moving Anthem for East Lothian. The county, and Lammermuir Festival, can be justly proud of its talented people, making such a vibrant show in this terrific wee venue.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Catriona Hewitson in rehearsal with the cast by Rob McDougall

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow

It helps to get off to a good start. That’s as much the case for journalists – are you still with me? – as it is for musicians, be they performers or composers. This SCO programme, guided by the impishly convincing eccentricity of chief conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, was all about good attention-grabbing openings.

First up, those three arresting chords that herald Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute, in this case supercharged with electrifying brutality, yet still seriously solemn to the core. It was a call to attention no one could ignore, least of all the SCO whose response was instant and penetrating. 

Then, as if to intensify the conflict inherent in Mozart’s final opera – an intellectual discourse steeped in the symbolism of Enlightenment ideals and Freemasonry disguised, as all good satire is, within pantomimic nonsense – Emelyanychev played feverishly with the music’s jostling extremes. Responding to the stern chords, a hell-for-leather fugue bristled with red-hot energy, superbly intensified by sparky symphonic jousting, individual instruments firing out motivic one-liners like petulant points of order only to be countered by matching reaction. In total, and in every sense, what an opener.

The tone changed completely for Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and an introductory 8-bar cello and bass melody that cast a sense of mystery and awe, its simple melodic framework woven with unhurried deliberation and expressive wholesomeness, almost complete in itself. 

What impressed here and beyond was the intoxicating sensitivity Emelyanychev drew from the SCO, every utterance freshly conceived, every detailed moment worth savouring. Again, his role was simply to set the scene and inspire freedom within a performance that oozed spontaneity within his prescribed vision. With such casual, but never laboured, tempi the impression was one of leisure well spent. If ever there was an argument for Schubert leaving these two movements as they were (he did sketch out ideas for a third movement) this was it. 

As openings go, a deafening whistle blast from a referee is something guaranteed to send the adrenalin into overdrive. It did so – timpanist Louise Lewis Goodwin doubling pointedly on said whistle – in James MacMillan’s Eleven, a succinct concert work about football written last year and premiered by the SCO on tour in Antwerp, now receiving its UK premiere. Raucous, impetuous, and symbolising everything in the “beautiful game” from terrace chants and on-pitch exuberance to post-match melancholy, it’s typical of MacMillan that he finds musical depth and allure in such a commonplace scenario.

Even the number eleven presents him with intellectual stimulus, feisty combative themes that seem to snap off prematurely (twelve possesses more rounded proportions, but would be less provocative), dense harmonies that mask the familiarity of such familiar tunes as “Auld Lang Syne” (I wasn’t aware it had common football usage?) and flavour the unexpectedly demure ending to an otherwise bombastic entertainment. 

Emelyanychev certainly viewed his own solo role in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 22 in E-flat as genuine entertainment. He performed on, and directed from, the fortepiano, intrinsically a delicate instrument, but played here with such incisive sparkle that, even in those moments where the orchestra surged powerfully, the Russian’s playful motions were still enough to convey his intentions.

Nor did he stick religiously to the written score, something the famously spontaneous Mozart would no doubt have approved of. Where he felt the urge, Emelyanychev casually threw in impromptu right-handed flourishes, either stolen from existing instrumental lines or fruitily embellished, though never at the expense of the composer’s core material. In that, this enlightening performance was charmingly authentic, with some initiatives – such as occasionally cutting the string ripieno down, concert grosso-style, to solo quintet – that sharpened the intimacy. 

Then there was Emelyanychev’s quirky opening, a moment that caught us all on the hop, where the pre-match tuning process morphed almost unnoticed into an improvised fortepiano transition, its final paused chord providing the expectant springboard to the music proper. It’s not often the very opening note of a Mozart concerto brings with it an appreciative snigger from the audience, but such is Emelyanychev’s confident appeal, and such was the power of this unexpected gesture. He encored with the slow movement from Mozart’s similarly-scored K.488 concerto.

Ken Walton 

« Older Entries