Category Archives: Reviews

RSNO/Sondergard

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to this concert on BBC Sounds

Morison / Martineau

CATRIONA MORISON / MALCOLM MARTINEAU

THE DARK NIGHT HAS VANISHED
Linn

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raymond Yiu

THE WORLD WAS ONCE ALL MIRACLE
Delphian

Occasionally, a new composer will spring from nowhere with a musical style that seems completely chaotic, unapologetically eclectic and to all appearances untutored. Yet through the apparent mire emerges a personality so stirring, so imaginative, so wonderfully refreshing that what might be mistaken for stylistic naivety turns out to be an instinctive statement of wild self-belief.

If you haven’t heard of Raymond Yiu, he was born in Hong Kong in 1973, came to the UK in 1990 to study for A levels, before reading engineering at Imperial College London. Mainly self-taught as a composer, and with a freedom of language emanating from his early exposure to 1980s Western pop sung in Cantonese, his music was soon being played by the BBC’s orchestras, the success of the London premiere of The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured leading to commissioning of Symphony for the 2015 BBC Proms. Both feature on this curiously exciting disc.

Just how important it is to know that The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured takes its title from a pamphlet issued by the 18th century Scots-born bookseller Alexander Cruden – something of a latter-day Mary Whitehouse who styled himself a moral “Corrector” – is debatable. More interesting is Yiu’s analogy of modern-day international citizenship, a kind of cultural morass that finds form in the madness of extremes.

While the motivic germ is a borrowing from Elgar’s Cockaigne – a portrait of a very different London – this “game for orchestra” soon explodes into a restless, shifting menagerie of colour, gesture and references. There is violence and calm, industrial grit and spiritual calm, pealing church bells, wanton dance pastiche. It’s a crazy cacophony, skittish in parts, but hugely addictive. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, under David Robertson, reveals Yiu’s underlying craftsmanship in a performance bursting with vital exuberance and energy. 

In Symphony, Yiu displays the same freedom of expression. The protagonist is a countertenor (Andrew Watts), present from the word go – or rather, the gradually emerging word “strong” – in a time-travelling selection of texts from Walt Whitman, Constantine P Cavafy, Thom Gunn and John Donne. The five-movement format offers greater scope for Yiu to frame his thoughts, self-regulating the seeming free-for-all of the earlier piece. 

In no way, though, does it curb his eclectic toolbox, from which the likes of esoteric modernism and seventies’ disco are plucked with shameless confidence. Watts’ flamboyant and versatile performance is matched by conductor Edward Gardner’s cool mastery over the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which is a remastering of the original Royal Albert Hall premiere.

The World Was Once All Miracle features the indomitable baritone Roderick Williams with the BBC SO, this time under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis. Written in the years immediately following Symphony, it’s an extended setting of words by Anthony Burgess, commemorating the 2017 centenary of the A Clockwork Orange author’s birth, in which Yiu explores ever wider musical influences, such as the Malayan instrumentation that haunts the third song. 

Burgess’ words, of course, are just another perfect excuse for Yiu to engage in further wicked satire. With musical quotes from Thomas Arne (one very obvious snippet of Rule Britannia) and a blatant parody on mid-20th century popular song to end with (somewhat abruptly), mixed with anything else that takes his fancy, the charm of Yiu’s music is its compulsive listenability. Scots label Delphian, in remastering these performances, has done well to bring it to wider attention.
Ken Walton

RSNO / Gardner / Lewis

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Imagine this RSNO digital concert as a priceless painting encased in a tasteful picture frame that enhances, but never overwhelms, the masterpiece within. The latter is Edvard Grieg’s timelessly popular Piano Concerto in A minor; the outer casement consists of the two orchestral suites formed from the incidental music to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. What’s not to like?

Throw in the presence of British conductor Edward Gardner, whose current position as chief conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic gives him a direct link to the composer (Grieg filled that post from 1880-82) and a feel for the Norwegian spirit that courses through this music. And Paul Lewis, of course, a pianist with an intoxicating ability to temper rigorous intellectual capacity with alluring simplicity and affection. The entire combination, along with an RSNO in the suavest of shape, is as near perfection as you’d hope.

Neatly filmed and produced, and with unpretentiously informative spoken links from tubist John Whitener, violist Katherine Wren, and Gardner and Lewis themselves, this is also a medium which the RSNO is now well on top of. We’d all like to be back in a live situation, but there’s no denying the new skills that have been learnt through desperate measures, slickly on display here.

Gardner’s shaping of the two suites is masterly, poetically restrained, but engrained with a crystalline folkish dynamic that brings every fresh detail and sighing nuance to the fore. He opens with Peer Gynt Suite No 2, arrestingly dramatic to begin with, but then a subsequent cocktail of vying charms, from the heavily pastiched Arabian Dance (its opening flute duo weirdly reminiscent of Ronnie Hazelhurst’s theme tune to 1970s TV sitcom Some Mother’s Do Have Em!), to the sassy Peer Gynt’s Homecoming and calming simplicity of Solveig’s Song.

The more popular numbers – Morning Mood, Ase’s Death, Anitra’s Dance and In the Hall of the Mountain King – follow the concerto in Suite No 1, again lovingly shaped, the emphasis on richness of tone and unmannered suppleness. The shimmer of muted strings in Ase’s Death is sublime.

At the heart of this programme, though, is the clean-cut, effortless precision of Lewis’ concerto performance. He stops well short of proclaiming total detachment, allowing Grieg’s immortal themes to flow naturally from his disciplined fingers, avoiding temptation to sentimentalise, and knitting together the entire edifice – which too often invites misplaced overindulgence – in a riveting display of explosive control. 

Gardner supports without intrusion, but always with something to add to the mix, a counter-emphasis here, a loving whisper there. It’s that time of the year when the RSNO traditionally offers a St Valentine’s concert. Be sure and make a date with this one!
Ken Walton

Available to view via www.rsno.org.uk

Pandemonium / Nicolson

The Galvanisers, SWG3, Glasgow

Pandemonium? Stramash? Sounds like the ingredients for a wild Glasgow night out in the No Mean City of times gone by. 

In this case, the Festival is Govan’s Pandemonium, the piece is Alasdair Nicolson’s Stramash, and together, in a spirited performance by the Glasgow Barons, they represent a more sophisticated Glasgow than that once synonymous with warring football hooligans and Gorbals razor gangs.

Stramash is the short, single entity in this latest Pandemonium digital release from Paul MacAlindin’s impressive series, a work written in 2006 by Nicolson (who currently runs Orkney’s St Magnus Festival) for the City of London Sinfonia. It has a certain tartan gallus-ness that gets the feet tapping.

Not immediately, though. A violent frenzy of pizzicato and wild cello/bass ostinati provide a chaotic scene-setter that quickly morphs into the first of several hurtling reels, venomous and virtuosic. MacAlindin’s string band negotiates the cut and thrust with biting energy and toughness. Alternating waves of action and respite define the narrative, the latter deconstructive in character and rarely without ominous overtones – chilled harmonics over a false, fidgety calm. 

It’s not an easy piece to bring off, yet the Barons do so convincingly, up to a point. For just as blistering heat motivates so much of this performance, with dazzling solos and gritty interaction, a sense of fatigue cools the closing moments, initially in the rhythmically-charged unisons that signal the route to a fragmentary ending, less taut than it ought to be.

That aside, here is yet another uncompromising achievement for this ambitious Govan initiative.
Ken Walton

Watch the concert via Vimeo at glasgowbarons.com

Scottish Opera: Hansel and Gretel

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

The range of filmed performance, from fully-realised cinematography, through outdoor spectacle, to “as live” theatre shows, that Scottish Opera has managed to produce under the restrictions of the pandemic is mightily impressive. Within that breadth of work, the company has also managed to create a very specific Covid-era aesthetic in its home venue, with a socially-distanced, masked orchestra performing on the stage, and a performance area for the singers built out over the pit.

It works well, with the grandeur of Theatre Royal safely accommodating the style of the mid-scale productions the company has toured to Scotland’s smaller theatres. That sort of show was the origin of the reduced orchestration that Derek Clark had previously made of Humperdinck’s dark family fable, and which has been retrieved from the library for this compact version of an opera that was scheduled for a full production before fate intervened.

The first thing to say is that the music hardly suffers at all. Clark’s arrangement makes the most of the score and conductor David Parry and the orchestra perform it superbly, with some lovely solo turns, particularly principal cello Martin Storey. The singing is top class too, with company debuts for Phillip Rhodes, who brings vocal power and real charm to The Father, and Nadine Benjamin as both The Mother and The Witch, and Kitty Whately and Rhian Lois tackling the title roles for the first time.

They combine beautifully, playing somewhat against the gender stereotyping maintained in David Pountney’s slightly laboured English translation of the libretto. Director Daisy Evans has some fun with the restrictions of social distancing, the children allowed to stretch yearningly for each other but never touch, and measuring their steps on the diamond tessellation of the floor-cloth. Her principals match every reference with vivacious performances. From their lining up of soft toys along the footlights as an “audience” in the empty auditorium, this is a show where small gesture means a lot.

Lois has the pick of the tunes of course, or at least the top line in all the familiar ones, and she also brings some of the sassiness of her Musetta in Scottish Opera’s summer outdoor La boheme to counter the cloying moments. Female role-models also get a work-over in Benjamin’s doubling, with her somewhat dowdy pregnant Mother, all threats and curses, contrasting with a very glam, corseted Witch, full of promises and enticements.

Evans consistently translates the limitations on her staging into strengths, although the Christmas Grotto elements, even if seen as post-Twelfth Night cleaning and clearing up, look a little dated mid-February. Charlie Drummond is clad in Mrs Mopp head-square-and-rollers as The Sandman and The Dew Fairy, and the liberated gingerbread children are an Anime quartet of young women in onesies. With two shopping trolleys serving as all the necessary set and props in the children’s temptation, incarceration and victory over the witch, the third act becomes a madcap cross between Tiswas and Supermarket Sweep.

Available to watch free via the Scottish Opera website, on its Facebook page and YouTube channel.

Keith Bruce

Image: Kitty Whatley (Hansel) and Nadine Benjamin (The Witch) in Hansel and Gretel. Scottish Opera 2020. Credit James Glossop.

BBC SSO / Samuel

City Halls, Glasgow

It is likely that there were few arts organisations whose immediate response to COVID-19 was to make a SWOT analysis to inform their planning, but it has nonetheless become commonplace to point out some benefits to be appreciated as a result of the restrictions made necessary by the pandemic.

With social distancing limiting the size of musical ensembles and travel prohibition making the scheduled appearances of guest soloists and conductors impossible, there has been a focus on the wealth of international and indigenous talent that is resident in Scotland. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra in particular has been able to let a wider audience see its players in many different chamber music combinations.

This programme from the BBC Scottish was in some respect much more like a programme that the SCO might have undertaken pre-pandemic, with a previous or current leader of the orchestra directing from the violin. But it is also true that even the much larger RSNO has ventured down that road recently, tackling Beethoven symphonies without a conductor and emerging with credit from the exercise.

Battling through the health emergency to meet its commitments, with changes of conductors and soloists, this was perhaps the first time the SSO used the situation to highlight the talent it has within its ranks, and what a buoyant uplifting experience it was.

It is not as if we did not know how good the orchestra’s wind principals are. Stella McCracken (oboe), Yann Ghiro (clarinet), Julian Roberts (bassoon) and even newer member Alberto Menendez Escribano (horn) have all been in the ranks for some years, distinguishing concerts with their soloing.

That quartet had the spotlight for Mozart’s other Paris Sinfonia Concertante, from the year before the one for violin and viola that he probably played himself. Although designated a Kochel catalogue number, it is still not entirely accepted as being by him, in the absence of an autographed score.

If someone else did write it, they have surely been denied credit for a lovely piece of work, which gives all four of the wind instruments a platform, and the interweaving lines of the SSO players were beautifully captured in this broadcast.

At the heart of many an SSO concert, however, is its distinctive string sound, and with leader Laura Samuel directing from the concert-master’s seat, this programme was really a celebration of that strength. If the Mozart is not strongest in that department – in some respects the root of doubts about the score’s authenticity – it was bracketed by Czech works that more than compensated.

Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings was hugely important for the composer, an early triumph on his rocky road to a professional career, and there is ebullience in every bar. That was what came across in this performance, liberated from any directorial interpretation that may have come from the podium. The tempo was not too strict to allow the music to flow naturally, with some lovely languid moments in the rich string sound.

The concert began with a briefer, less familiar, but also beautifully scored piece by Dvorak’s son-in-law Josef Suk, Meditation on an old Czech hymn “St Wenceslas”. Originally written for the Bohemian String Quartet, of which Suk was a member, it was a riposte to the occupying Austrians’ requirement that their national anthem be played at all concerts. Its political message may be obscured by distance and time, but the powerful community feeling it expresses was transmitted to an audience starved of the communal enjoyment of live music by the eloquence of the SSO strings.
Keith Bruce

Pandemonium: Sweeney

The Galvanisers, SWG3, Glasgow

Govan’s ongoing online music festival, Pandemonium, moves northwards across the River Clyde this week with the release of a single performance of William Sweeney’s suite for strings, Sian Orainn. The venue is The Galvanisers, part of the former Clydeside industrial yard now known as SWG3, and perfect as an adaptable bare-bricked performance space for these socially-distancing times.

That ruggedness is ideal for Sweeney’s atmospheric treatment of the South Uist songs that are the basis of the suite’s six-movement sweep, and which the strings of the Glasgow Barons Orchestra – a slick freelance band under Pandemonium’s artistic director, Paul MacAlindin – embrace completely as a resonant soundboard. The irrepressible folk muse casts its spell at every turn and in numerous hues.

Written for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Highlands and Islands Tour in 1989, these six songs range from the patriotic to the pious, the romantic to the pragmatic. And while Sweeney conserves the traditional melodies themselves, his treatment of them, both virtuosic and affectionate, gives fresh character and dimension to their central presence. 

The galvanising unisons of “O my country” are a sturdy framework to the episodic solos that intersperse, immediately countered by the pragmatic motorised pace of “Have you seen Euphemia”, a waulking song with a catchy, jaunty gait. Ghostly heterophony adds wistfulness to the third song, shades of English pastoralism strike a foreign note in Buxom Mór, before the painful fate of the cook-in-the-pot drake – the one moment where the string ensemble falters from its otherwise solid togetherness – gives way to the solemn density of “Praise to the Saviour”.

MacAlindin’s players, led by Ben Norris, are a young outfit with fire in their belly. Between the many solo demands of Sweeney’s hauntingly coloristic score, and the mix of translucent and full-bodied texturing he variously calls upon, the Barons’ lustre and finesse capture the iridescence of these alluring pieces.
Ken Walton 

Watch the concert via Vimeo at glasgowbarons.com

Sound Festival 2020 (Part 2)

It’s highly impressive what soundfestival has done to counter the limitations impacted on it by the pandemic restrictions. What would normally have been a single, annual full-length live event last October went online like every other festival in these restricted times. More interestingly, it was split in two: one reduced instalment staged back then; the other held over to last weekend (28-31 January), and despite inevitable last minute rearrangements and postponements, running smoothly and with remarkable cohesion.

This latest mini-event continued soundfestival’s ongoing focus on endangered instruments, centring on the French horn, and in particularly a glorious recital by the Glasgow-based Rookh Quartet. Filmed in its ambient home base at the city’s south side Episcopal church, St Margaret’s Newlands, the diversity of music by Jamie Keeseker, Violeta Dinescu, Drew Hammond and Elizabeth Raum for four horns reflected the range of potential expressive possibilities of this ensemble, from brooding darkness to tumultuous resonance.

In another thematic focus, a mix of music, film and discussion threw the spotlight on the power of creativity to inspire composers on the autistic spectrum. If Siobhan Dyson’s audio-visual Sound commission, Listen Carefully, was a super-sensory eye-opener into her personal perceptions of the world, her music also featured with other autistic composers in a rerun of the Hebrides Ensemble’s award-winning Diversions programme, a collaborative performance with the Drake Music Scotland Digital Orchestra filmed in 2019 in Edinburgh and replacing an intended fresh programme by Red Note Ensemble.

Nonetheless, Siobhan Dyson’s Long Sharp Winds for solo violin (Elizabeth Wexler) packed vibrancy and punch, idiomatically indebted to Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale in part, followed by Joe Stollery’s The Skene Obsession, a wild reel infused with ghostly harmonic warping. Then to Rylan Greave’s moody and deep thinking Permanent Address, Benjamin Teague’s soliloquising Miniatures for Clarinet, Sustain and Snap by the late Lucy Hale, Jason Hodgson’s The Destination is Obsolete and the rich pulsating textures of Ben Lunn’s Symphonies of Instruments. 

But if anything really spoke for current times, it was surely the one genuine live event, in which the combined forces of the North East’s contemporary music ensemble Any Enemy and the Brandon University New Music Group of Canada committed to “going live” albeit via Zoom technology, each player contributing in real time from the isolation of their own home either side of the Atlantic, but somehow managing to feed meaningfully into the challenge of creating spontaneous group performances dependent on collaborative improvisation.

Echoes of E M Forster’s novelette The Machine Stops sprang immediately to mind, where individual human isolation is imposed, and any attempt to manufacture physical societal interaction struggles to achieve genuinely visceral impact. Give these musicians credit, though. This remotely combined ensemble of soprano and instrumentalists did an estimable job in making corporate sense of a very big ask.

Yes, it took time to settle. Passing the metaphorical baton between players in Pete Stollery’s Social D(ist)ancing, a wistful muse on the daily rituals we currently undertake when encountering others in the street, fell victim to the idiosyncrasies of Zoom. The luminous melancholy deep-rooted in Melody McKiver’s All My Requests also succumbed to technical fragmentation, diminishing its instinctive cohesion. 

With Michael Ducharme’s Social Bubbles weaving snippets of Covid public information announcements through a sequence of five brief movements, its snappiness was its winning charm. Keith Hamel’s Three Years achieved its cumulation of mournful images, but it was Ollie Hawker’s It’s More Than Just Midi To Me, read from a self-generating midi roll score, that inspired the most gripping, improvised results, a resolute journey from confusion to clarity.

There was something oddly dystopian about the fragility and disconnect implicit in this ambitious programme that provoked a far deeper question about what makes music vital, and what it is we are desperately without at the moment: which is the confluence of real performers and real listeners in real performance spaces. 

The notes might look good on paper, but without the spark of human presence on both sides of the equation its mind-blowing potential is incomplete. This soundfestival had lots to say and offer, but that was perhaps its most poignant message.
Ken Walton

Selected programmes are still available to view at www.sound-scotland.co.uk

RSNO / Helsing / Roffman

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

If you can prise your violin-playing daughter away from Nicola Benedetti’s home-schooling videos, this is the concert for her. During an earlier lockdown, RSNO co-leader Sharon Roffman contributed some music for young people to the orchestra’s transmissions from home, and she proves as fine a teacher here in her spoken introductions to the two works on which she is the soloist, Dvorak’s Romance for Violin and Florence Price’s Second Violin Concerto. With Associate Leaders Emily Davies and Lena Zeliszewska on the orchestra’s front desk for this concert, the RSNO is far from short of female role models for violin students.

Taken together with an excellent programme note by Charlotte Gardner, the Dvorak Romance is placed beautifully in context before a very fine performance – it is a work that seems to blossom in the environment of a smaller number of socially-distance musicians.

The Price, on the other hand, requires a full band, complete with harp and celesta, tuba and three trombones. It is a late work by the African-American composer that was salvaged from the demolition of her summer home after her death, and in her own introductory remarks, Finnish conductor Anna-Maria Helsing – making her RSNO debut – implies that the score needs a deal of creative interpretation for it to work. However true that is, the piece sounds the real deal here, rather more expansive than its brevity might suggest and quintessentially of the USA, with harmonisations that are redolent of vaudeville and musical theatre.

The pieces that open and close the concert fare less well by comparison with those. It is hard to be definitive about Richard Thompson’s Suite from The Mask in the Mirror, because this seems a mere taster of a work that is already at a remove from the score of the opera premiered in New Jersey in 2012. While the full suite is a concert version of the narrative, this Scottish premiere of any of the music is just two movements from that. While they lack nothing in drama and atmosphere, with compelling orchestration, it is context that is singularly lacking.

But with Dvorak’s Symphony No 8, it is the composer who is sold a little short. Although its tunes are less well-known than those in No 9 “From the New World”, they are there in profusion. The balance that Helsing produces from the musicians in this performance, however, does not make the best of those melodic hooks, and they are often lost in the mix.

If the first movement could use more delicacy of touch, the third movement waltz is also less than light on its feet, and as for the instruction on the Finale, “Allegro, ma non troppo”, well, there is never really much danger of that. 
Keith Bruce

Scottish Ensemble / NYOS / Glass


Minimalism is the natural soundtrack to a train ride. Steve Reich made the point literally in his string quartet “Different Trains”. The connection is more of an interpretational one in this filmed performance of the final two movements of Philip Glass’ Symphony No 3 – the repetitive chuntering of the hypnotic third movement shifting gear to the motorised euphoria of the fourth – but no less incontestable.

Written in 1995 for the strings of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, it is presented here as a collaboration between the professional Scottish Ensemble and talented senior members of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland; and rather ingeniously as a film, created by Hopscotch Films, in which all 19 players are cast as passengers in a seemingly endless, dimly lit, train carriage. 

There’s a mysterious sense of the surreal from the outset. Through the windows is a restless haze of moonlit smoke and mist, the carriage interior a haunting chiaroscuro in which Glass’s autumnal timbres gradually journey from repeated cello and viola sequences to a point where the full complement of strings are woven deliriously together. 

The finale moves instantly up tempo, but now with more impulsive reiterated patterns. Urban images flash past the window. The train hurtles on. 

It’s a compelling piece of cross-genre interpretation. The production quality is top-notch, where neither film nor music is compromised. The deep mellow timbre of the opening has a golden glow – beautifully sound engineered, intensely performed – that is only enhanced by the unobtrusive synergy of visuals reflecting the aching dichotomy – stasis versus momentum – that embodies Glass’s personalised, often lugubrious minimalist style.

In the darkness, it’s often hard to pick out who is Scottish Ensemble and who is NYOS in the ensemble mix, but that’s part of this collaboration’s charm. Yes, there are minor slips in detailed synchronisation that could easily be put down to inexperience, but the overall homogeneity is sleekly polished and characterful to the last. 

As part of the Ensemble’s excellent ongoing digital work, and its commitment to working with young musicians – who in this instance also get hands-on experience of the filmmaking process – this 15-minute project is as significant as it is entertaining. 
Ken Walton

Available to view via the Scottish Ensemble website, www.scottishensemble.co.uk

SCO/Emelyanychev

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

A week after it was originally scheduled, this week’s online recital from musicians of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra reunites them with the dynamic young Principal Conductor who hardly had his feet under the table before the coronavirus brought a halt to live concerts.

As more recent restrictions brought a premature end to this series, it is appropriate that it is with a sequence of party pieces. As we have already learned, if a musical party is what you are after, Maxim Emelyanychev is your man.

He is at the harpsichord for the first two works on the programme – an Adagio and Fugue by Johann Adolph Hasse and an exuberant concerto by Haydn. The first may not even be the work of the prolific but now obscure German composer, but it sets a muscular tone in the real ferocity of the playing style of Emelyanychev and his string sextet. The Haydn then underlines the sparkling sound and superb playing of the man leading from the keyboard. It looks a beautiful instrument, but this vibrant performance of 18th century music is not about the kit, but about the playing. Even the antithetical Sir Thomas Beecham would surely have been beguiled.

Not only does Emelyanychev achieve a remarkable range of expression on the harpsichord, as director there is a delightful playfulness in his precision tempo adjustments across all three movements of the concerto.

The last of these is a lively set of variations on a Balkan dance tune, and is a link to the programme’s second half, which begins with the Yiddish songs that are the basis of Max Bruch’s Kol nidrei, composed for the Jewish community of Liverpool when he was Principal Conductor of the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra.

Cellist Philip Higham describes this duo rhapsody on two themes, with Emelyanychev on piano, as a prayer and a blessing, which is not only musically resonant but also makes clear, without overstatement, the significance of the work’s inclusion during the week of Holocaust Memorial Day.

It was composed in 1880, the same year as Giovanni Bottesini’s Gran duo concertante, an explosive concluding showcase for bassist Nikita Naumov and violinist Benjamin Marquise Gilmore, with Emelyanychev again at the piano. It is telling that both string players have the work from memory for this is a party piece par excellence, particularly for the double bass, with virtuoso passages beyond its usual range, above the bridge end of the fingerboard.

Available via the SCO’s YouTube and Facebook until February 28.

Keith Bruce

Pandemonium: Tchaikovsky

Pearce Institute, Govan

The title conductor Paul MacAlindin chose for The Glasgow Barons season of filmed concerts for the Covid era, Pandemonium, might better suit the other work Tchaikovsky wrote in 1880, The 1812 Overture, with its booming canons celebrating Russian resistance to Napoleon. The composer, however, thought that a worthless piece of hackwork and was dismayed by its popularity, while the Serenade for Strings, a suite of four movements of meticulous construction that falls, purposely, just shy of being symphonic, was a labour of love of which he was very proud.

His ideal ensemble to perform it would probably be rather larger than the one MacAlindin has around him in this performance, but the conductor draws the fullest sound from his socially-distanced players, many of them – although by no means all – familiar faces from Scotland’s top-notch youth orchestras and the back desks of our professional bands. MacAlindin keeps a very precise beat at all times and this is a very crisp performance that underlines the inspiration of Mozart and earlier baroque music in the score.

That purpose of the composer is especially evident in the opening and closing movements, and the final bars of both here brought to mind the “old style” of Edvard Grieg’s almost contemporary Holberg Suite. The Waltz and Elegy in between, however, are prime Tchaikovsky, the tune of the former as fine as anything in his first ballet score, Swan Lake, from a few years earlier.

The Elegy is no less melodious and altogether more complex, and is particularly beautifully paced here. Special credit should go to the single double bass of Stirling’s Daniel Griffin, carrying the root of the movement through all the variations of key and dynamics around him.

That light and shade is also enhanced by the acoustic of the Macleod Hall, which is the orchestra’s home in Govan’s Pearce Institute. The showcase it is having in this series is a nice counterpart to the more lavish profile other Glasgow venues are enjoying through online Celtic Connections concerts.

The big noise of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture might have more in common with work at the John Elder (soon to be re-named Fairfield) shipyard that Sir William Pearce had taken to the peak of its international reputation in 1880, but the Serenade for Strings is a more fitting memorial to the pioneering businessman who would be dead at 55 before the end of the decade, and memorialised in the name of the community building at the start of the new century.

Watch the concert via Vimeo at glasgowbarons.com

Keith Bruce

SCO / Whelan / Bray

Perth Concert Hall

It’s easy to see why Guadeloupe-born composer Joseph Boulogne, known also as Chevalier de Saint-George once he had inherited his plantation-owning father’s title, was so popular in his day, even more so in certain circles than the slightly younger Mozart. The overture to his one surviving opera, L’Amant Anonyme, is to 18th century Classicism what fine porcelain is to ceramics: delicate, translucent and well-proportioned.

It’s the opener in a chic Mozart-centric programme filmed in Perth Concert Hall by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and conducted by former SCO principal bassoonist Peter Whelan, the common link between Boulogne and Mozart being that they briefly shared lodgings in Paris.  

Cast in three short sections, there is more than symphonic pretence to this overture, existing successfully on its own as a concert piece. Whelan, directing from the harpsichord, engages at once with its elegant precision and cool-headed elan. The opening section is the epitome of finesse and le bon goût. But it’s in the central slower section where Whelan’s unassuming mastery comes to the fore, his responsive control of the textures drawing the ear to what matters, gently suppressing what doesn’t. Boulogne was as masterful a swordsman as a composer, we are told, which echoes true in the artful cut and thrust of the overture’s dizzy conclusion.

Mozart was well-known for his orchestral updates of Handel, notably the “Mozart version” of Messiah. But he also turned his hand to Handel’s pastoral opera Acis and Galatea, the overture of which throws an unlikely brace of clarinets into the limelight. 

It’s to Maximiliano Martin’s and William Stafford’s enormous credit that they found the exactness and versatility necessary to headline this vivacious performance with such stylistic conviction. That the overture ends on an imperfect cadence – there is, by definition, more to come – presents a curious, though some might argue theatrical, hiatus. 

Martin also plays a key role in the aria “Parti, parto ma tu ben mio” from Mozart’s late opera La clemenza di Tito, duetting mellifluously with the golden mezzo soprano of Katie Bray. Hers is a voice that combines the heightened thrills of the soprano with the soulful pungency of the lower tessitura. And where this impassioned aria – Sesto’s blind, reckless love overruling common sense – displays Bray’s range of emotional heat, what follows, the Laudamus Te from Mozart’s Mass in C minor, is a brilliant showpiece for an exceptional singer.   

Mozart’s Linz Symphony is, to some extent, a representation of his entire personality. Whelan takes every opportunity to demonstrate that, from the majestic poise of the opening movement, through the lyrical charm of the Andante and the simple elegance of the Menuetto to the gleeful, easeful finality of the closing Presto. No need for over-prescriptive hand gestures; the sheer joy communicated by Whelan’s facial expressions convey all that’s required to secure a vintage SCO performance. Classy to the last.
Ken Walton

Available to view via www.sco.org.uk

MacMillan : Christmas Oratorio

Concertgebouw, Amsterdam

If recent Christmas celebrations turned out to be something of a damp squib for so many of us, thanks to Covid, the festive season’s fundamental message found a belter of belated expression in a new Christmas Oratorio by James MacMillan. Its world premiere, broadcast live from Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus under the composer’s direction on Saturday afternoon, was nothing short of a Christmas miracle. 

Bombastic, seraphic, theatrical, esoteric, original, assimilative, introspective, extroverted, spiritual, down-to-earth: the list of opposites worthy of its description go on and on. That fact their compounded power seemed undimmed via radio says everything about this 90-minute work’s mesmerising impact, and of a performance, complete with soloists Mary Bevan (soprano) and Christopher Maltman (baritone), that hit just about every emotional button.

It’s a work that consumed the composer for over a year, completing it in January 2020 before the pandemic hit, which consequently played its part in quashing the intended London premiere in December by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, one of several co-commissioners of the oratorio that also include the Dutch orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The Dutch may have won the world premiere rights by default, but the others hope to have staged their own countries’ premieres by the end of this year.

What they all have for their money is something of enormous value. In the compositional sense MacMillan has pulled out all the stops. Forget the obvious spectre of the most famous and joyful of Christmas Oratorios, that of JS Bach. Yes, it was in MacMillan’s mind as he wrote his own response, but here is a version of the story that pits joy and childlike innocence against a murkier backdrop of turbulence, foreboding and fear.

Distant clarinet trills signal the start of the opening Sinfonia – there are four such instrumental sections framing each of the two halves – before a jaunty, carol-like melody casts its infant spell. Transferred to celeste, with its music box charm and just a hint of surreal menace, the spell is rudely broken by an ominous timpani solo. These elements recur in various guises throughout.

But that’s just the scene setter. The entire work consists of two large palindromes, each with a central Tableau guided by gospel narrative and surrounded by a reversed sequence of choruses and arias. The physical structure is unshakeably robust, but the content is a seething, visceral swarm of contrasts. Even the chosen texts place early English poetry by Southwell, Donne and Milton in potent contrast with the biblical.  

That’s familiar ground for MacMillan, and nothing exemplifies it more than the juxtaposition of his signature a cappella choral style – sumptuous echoes of Renaissance polyphony and polychoral density – and the unfettered ferocity and mind-blowing theatricality of his orchestral writing. There were moments in this absorbing performance – the setting of O Magnum Mysterium with its muted whirlwind of scales and glissando harmonics for one – that were transcendently heart-stopping. 

Equally, the full-blown venom of Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents did not pull its punches, nor did the chorus setting of Hodie Christus Natus Est, its febrile rhythmic electricity owing much to  the minimalist glitter of John Adams, hold back on its ecstatic intent. 

There is unadulterated sweetness too: in the Brittenesque fragility of Mary Bevan’s opening aria, a setting of Robert Southwell’s “Behold a Silly, Tender Babe”; in the warm intensity which Christopher Maltman attaches to a responding setting of John Donne’s Nativity; and most of all in a final chorus, an idyllic arrangement of a Scottish lullaby and one of those transformative moments where MacMillan’s sense of time and place borders on theatrical genius, beyond which the calming valediction played out by the orchestra in its closing hymn-like Sinfonia strikes a magical conclusion.

To say this is one of MacMillan’s crowning achievements to date is not mere hype. Evident even from this broadcast premiere was a sense of effortless technical assurance servicing the needs of infinite expressive possibilities. His is a style that draws honestly on multiple influences – a Bruckner-like scoring for lower brass, a Britten-like sensitivity to achieving simplicity out of harmonic guile, an adherence to the subliminal power of 16th century choral techniques, the density of the Wagnerian peroration – but remarkably assimilates these into a personalised wholeness that speaks entirely for itself, by itself, and without pretension.

This Christmas Oratorio is a masterpiece, plain and simple. Scottish orchestras ought to be queuing up to give the Scottish premiere once regulations allow. 
Ken Walton

You can listen to the concert again via https://www.nporadio4.nl/gids-gemist/2021-01-16

RSNO / Lowe / Cargill

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

A “technical issue” resulted in Friday’s planned release of the RSNO’s first 2021 digital concert being delayed until Saturday. Given this glitch offered a version that chopped the final bars off Dvorak’s New World Symphony, the decision to delay was wise. There’s nothing worse than experiencing the same fate as the long distance runner whose legs buckle a few metres short of the finish line.

Be assured, the rectified version takes us all the way, with a rousing end to a performance in which conductor James Lowe and the orchestra finally feel at home with each other and a mutually conducive spark is lit. 

Lowe was brought in to replace Ryan Bancroft and a programme originally intended to feature violinist Midori in the world premiere on Glanert’s Violin Concerto No 2. In its place comes the popular Dvorak symphony and Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with mezzo soprano Karen Cargill.

The opening work remains unchanged, Errollyn Wallen’s surging Mighty River, written in 2007 to commemorate the bicentennial of the signing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. Like the political momentum gathering pace then for a lengthy ongoing liberation campaign, Wallen’s metaphor of choice is the unstoppable power of water, its vitality, the unceasing journey that a mighty river undertakes in search of the open sea.

Familiar tunes make their presence felt: Amazing Grace feeds through the opening bars like a shared opening prayer; the spiritual Deep River more immersed within the later fabric of increasingly frenetic textures. The language encompasses echoes of Copland’s fresh-faced dissonances, powering minimalism à la Reich or Adams, besides Wallen’s own lyrical, occasionally mystical fingerprints. It is a compendium of 20th/21st century Classical Americana underpinned by incessant, pulsating energy. 

This performance doesn’t quite get to grips with all that. It’s more matter-of-fact than edge-of-the-seat, more routine than gripping, especially where the vital underpinning rhythmic motor seems more content to chunter along than switch to overdrive.

Cargill’s presence in the five songs that make up Wagner’s gorgeous Mathilde Wesendonck settings provide a welcome instant transformation. The rich sonority of her lower range channels their emotional depth from the offset, Cargill brilliantly fractious in Stehe Still – a touch of the Wagnerian nasties – and glowingly ecstatic in Im Treibhaus, spine-chillingly intense in Der Engel and aptly dreamy in Traume.

Hans Werner Henze’s orchestration poses its own challenges, the highly exposed solo lines and curious colour mixes dependent on super-refined management. While Lowe’s direction provides inoffensive, efficient support for Cargill, it struggles to find the vital essence of Henze’s weird and wonderful intentions. They are more convincing than they sometimes appear here.

No lack of conviction when it comes to the Dvorak, despite niggling aspects of (recording?) balance that occasionally vulgarise the opening Allegro molto. Thereafter, there’s the leisurely Largo, sprightly Scherzo and wholesomely conclusive Allegro con fuoco to seal the deal on a programme that takes its time to fully settle.
Ken Walton

Available to view on www.rsno.org.uk

SCO : Czech music

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Hot on the heels of her star turn in the SCO’s first 2021 foray into the Igor Stravinsky jubilee repertoire, The Soldier’s Tale, the chamber orchestra offers a Wild Night in the company of percussionist Louise Goodwin in its latest online concert.

And that’s not the half of it, because this recital – of mostly 20th century Czech music – also includes two colourful visits to the theatre and kicks off with some charming, but rarely heard, salon music. Dvorak, the composer of the latter, and Martinu, whose music ends the programme, are the better-known names, but Scotland can boast particular connections with the other two: Hans Krasa and Pavel Haas. 

Krasa’s children’s opera Brundibar was a rediscovered centrepiece in the exploration of the music composed in Terezin concentration camp at Stirling’s Macrobert Arts Centre some years back, and the string quartet named after Pavel Haas, who was also imprisoned there and also died in Auschwitz, made its UK debut at Orkney’s St Magnus Festival after winning a European competition at which Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was a judge.

There is an elegant simplicity to the four easy pieces – “Miniatures” in his catalogue – that Dvorak composed in 1887 for himself and two friends to play, performed here by violinists Ruth Crouch and Amira Bedrush-McDonald with Brian Schiele on viola, and the closing Elegie hints at some of the darkness that surrounds the music that follows. Piano, percussion, flute, piccolo, clarinet and trumpet join the strings for the Brundibar Suite, arranged from the opera’s full score for the Nash Ensemble by David Matthews in 2011, and faithful to the instrumentation Krasa had to work with in Terezin.

The cabaret feel to the band is particularly evident from the music’s percussive edge, not just in Goodwin’s hands but also those of pianist Aaron Shorr and Shiele’s banjo-imitating pizzicato viola. The seven short movements of the suite end with a march that is easier to imagine a battalion in step with than the one in Martinu’s louche four-movement La Revue de Cuisine. 

Martinu made this suite for sextet from the music he composed for a bonkers ballet about the private lives of kitchen utensils, written in Paris in 1927. As well as some wonderful writing for Eric de Wit’s cello, it is coloured by the bassoon of Paul Boyes at the top of its range and the selection of mutes varying the voice of Peter Franks’ instrument in a style the trumpet section in Duke Ellington’s band knew well.

That promised Wild Night is the 4th Movement of Pavel Haas’ String Quartet No 2 “From the Monkey Mountains” for which the composer specified the defining addition of percussion, a score detail often ignored in string quartet performances. Not only does Louise Goodwin’s contribution here emphasise the jazz influences in the music, in this context it underlines the sadder question of where both Haas and Krasa may have taken their music given the opportunity to exchange ideas with artists elsewhere that Martinu was fortunate to enjoy.
Keith Bruce

This performance is available to view via the SCO’s Facebook page and YouTube channel until February 14.

Pandemonium: Musgrave / Turner

MacLeod Hall, Pearce Institute, Govan

Done and dusted in a mere 15 minutes, Thea Musgrave’s Night Windows for oboe and 15 string players (adapted from her original oboe/piano version) may be a showpiece in compositional concision, but its true worth lies in the persuasive diversity of the vying emotions that inhabit its five short movements.

Here is a performance, marking the opening classical music contribution to artistic director Paul MacAlindin’s unfolding online Govan-based Pandemonium festival, completely at ease with Musgrave’s compelling response to voyeuristic assumptions inspired by the 1928 painting, Night Windows by Edward Hopper.

What is really going on inside the apartment, Hopper teasingly asks in his painting, concealing the closed-off life of the partly hidden female subject behind the window’s sturdy masonry? There’s a similarity in concept to the Glasgow tenement view in Avril Paton’s Windows in the West, but Hooper’s image is more enigmatic and sinister, its stark colour contrasts and cinematic suggestiveness firing up vivid musical equivalents in Musgrave’s kaleidoscopic score.

MacAlindin conducts this socially-distanced performance, featuring the exceptional Scottish Opera oboist Amy Turner with encircling members of his own Glasgow Barons Orchestra. Turner’s presence is mesmerising as the siren-like protagonist. Loneliness, the opening movement, cuts a spectral vision, the oboe’s free-spirited enchantment as serene as it is desolate, cushioned by ephemeral strings.

Then to the edgy freneticism of Anger, the mawkish pining of Nostalgia which luxuriates in the acoustic’s ambient glow to be finally left hanging in the air, the lyrical gloom of Despair and the final dizziness of Frenzy. This is a powerfully dramatic piece, containing a softness of heart we don’t always associate with the now 92-year-old Scottish-born, American-based composer, and a performance that beautifully captures its beguiling appeal.

As with all online material in these Covid times, sound and visual production is as key to successful presentation. Roderick Buchanan-Dunlop curates a clean and vibrant sonic outcome; the camera work by Progressive is lively and responsive. Perhaps an image of Hopper’s painting could have been woven in, given MacAlindin’s reference to it in the introduction, but otherwise a top quality result.
Ken Walton

Caprices and Laments

Maximiliano Martin/Orquesta Sinfonica de Tenerife/Navarro

Delphian

The centrefold of the  booklet that accompanies this fine new disc of clarinet concertos features one of the most eloquent orchestra publicity pictures you’ll see. With their trousers rolled and hemlines skimming the water’s surface, the shoe-less orchestra of the Canary Islands, in full evening dress, are assembled around a pair of timpani, a line of white surf lapping at their ankles and the famous black sand of Tenerife between their toes. It is an image that immediately makes you want to know what these game musicians sound like. The additional knowledge that they were recorded by the Delphian team in the stunning Auditorio de Tenerife designed by Santiago Calatrava should only further whet the appetite.

The good news is that they are very good indeed. An internationally-recruited outfit, there is a crisp freshness to their string sound, the section that makes up all bar seven players on the disc. The featured soloist is local lad Maximiliano Martin, long-standing principal clarinet of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and stalwart of the SCO’s current programme of digital concerts featuring smaller groups.

For all that this is Martin’s disc, his countrymen are by no means a mere backing track, given the robust repertoire he has chosen to showcase his own virtuosity. The concertos by Copland and Nielsen and James MacMillan’s one-movement Tuireadh are contrasting works, but each has fine scoring for the strings, not excepting the MacMillan, which began life as a work for clarinet and string quartet. Conductor Lucas Macias Navarro is himself a wind player, with the benefit to his role here of having played oboe in concerts and recordings directed by Claudio Abbado, and his feel for the balance between soloist and strings is surely crucial to this album’s success.

Composed as a memorial to the 167 lives lost in the 1988 fire on the Piper Alpha oil rig in the North Sea, Tuireadh is always a harrowing listen, with its borrowings from laments in Scottish traditional music and raw vocal keening. Placed last in this sequence, it is one of the few works that could follow the already troubled late work by Carl Nielsen, the character of which is said to come less from its composer than from Nielsen’s dedicatee, the clarinettist of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, Aage Oxenvad. With no reference recording in existence, Martin creates an image of this turbulent chap, in particular partnership with the snare drum of Juan Antonio Minana, that is a portrait in sound.

Aaron Copland’s concerto was written 20 years later for Benny Goodman, who reportedly – and slightly incredibly – found the score more challenging than he had bargained for. It is a sparkling jazzy opener on this disc, and another illustration of Martin’s command of a range of voices on his instrument, recently demonstrated in the SCO’s excellent performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale.

Keith Bruce

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