Category Archives: Reviews

Cumnock Tryst: King’s Singers

Trinity Church, Cumnock

For 55 years The King’s Singers have remained a popular, stable and self-regenerating national musical treasure. Bursting onto our telly screens in the sixties – notably on peak-time Saturday night variety shows – the posh boys from the poshest Cambridge college charmed the nation’s ears with a smooth spread of bespoke a cappella originals and arrangements, anything from hifalutin’ Byrd to down-to-earth Beatles. Now, like a collective Doctor Who, in their umpteenth reincarnation, the group are held with great affection as widely as ever.

It was easy to see why in this easy-flowing, classy Cumnock Tryst programme they presented on Friday night. It was a loosely-assembled sequence of “celebrations”, but with each King’s Singer contributing personably to the intertwining spoken narrative and its various nods to the centenary years of Hungarian modernist composer György Ligeti and Walt Disney, Byrd and Weelkes’ quatercentenaries, Vaughan Williams 150th, among others, what looked thinnish on paper materialised as an absorbing hour-plus feast of first-class entertainment.

What also contributed to the freshness of the presentation was the interpretational signing for the hard of hearing by Paul Whittaker. Even for those of us unfamiliar with this language, Whittaker’s expressive physicality was a fascinating, added dimension that enhanced the presentation meaningfully and beautifully, all the more helpful when the complexity of some of the music occasionally obscured the clarity of the texts.

The musical journey was smooth but adventurous. Days from Even Such is Time by Bob Chilcott (a former King’s Singer) offered a crisp and contemporary call to action, before the silvery perfection of Renaissance anthems and motets by Byrd and Weelkes. The joy in these earlier works was to witness that six-part group’s instant switching between moments of luxurious homogeneity and pertinent internal combat. 

The programme featured two of Ligeti’s whimsical Lewis Carroll settings from Nonsense Madrigals, as much theatrical as musical delights, the preamble to which – notably the Lobster Quadrille – causing considerable mirth with the evening’s other signer as he attempted to translate the near impossible and implausible.

A brief whiff of Vaughan Williams – his willowy Shakespearean setting of Over Hill, Over Dale – gave way to two short pastoral works by Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén, the calm simplicity of In Our Meadow and bucolic spring of And The Maiden Joins The Ring. But with a sudden change of tack, the multi-ethnic background of American-born Gabriella Lena Frank made its mercurial mark in the animated obstinacy and wit of Hechicera (The Sorceress), brilliantly captured in an effervescent performance.

James MacMillan may not be celebrating a significant birthday of his own this year, but who was to deny The King’s Singers the indulgence of simply celebrating his presence at the festival he founded, and the fact he has written so much over the years for the ensemble? 

They opened their short set with the iridescent unpredictability of In The Blue Lobster Cafe, a spicy setting of poet Michael Symmons Roberts, before enchanting this Cumnock audience with the composer’s easeful arrangement of John Cameron’s O, chi, chì mi na mòrbheanna, and of his famously melting melody to William Soutar’s poem, The Tryst.

The transition to Disney songs was swift, the singers dispensing with their music stands and formalised stance to regroup in close-harmony huddle, a cosy engagement that charmed the heart-warming lyricism of Toy Story 2’s When She Loved Me, and inflamed the raucousness of Dumbo’s When I See An Elephant Fly.

But it was to The Beatles that this immaculate ensemble turned for a couple of non-negotiable encores: Chilcott’s silken arrangement of Yesterday, the melody mostly entrusted to Patrick Dunachie’s light and airy countertenor;  and the lesser-known Honey Pie, Jonathan Howard’s sudden razzy Louis Armstrong interjection sealing his reputation as the King’s Singers jester-in-residence.

With perfection at every turn, not least in the unshakeably purity of their intonation, the King’s Singers brand seems assured for another half-century at least.

Ken Walton 

RSNO / Sondergard

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

While it is probably unlikely to provoke a popular uprising on the streets of the second city of the empire when Glasgow first hears David Fennessy’s new composition The Riot Act in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall this evening, you would bet that it will go down a storm, judging by the reception in less revolutionary-minded Edinburgh on Friday night.

Fennessy’s composition, delayed by the pandemic but arguably immaculately timed now, takes its inspiration from the attempt to read that 18th century piece of legislation to the boisterous populace at the “Battle of George Square” in 1919. Commissioned by the RSNO, it came with the gift to any composer of the same huge size of orchestra required to perform Stravinsky’s orchestral concert revision of his ballet music The Rite of Spring, which had famously inspired a “riot” among the audience at its 1913 Paris premiere.

The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland based composer has taken that opportunity and added to it – his Russian predecessor’s score does not call for four field-sports whistles crying “foul” at the back of the orchestra or a declamatory tenor singing the text at the top of his range at full volume.

Mark Le Brocq, the singer with that brief but challenging job, was rightly cheered to the rafters in the Usher Hall at the end of the six-minute work, as was Fennessy, who packs an extraordinary amount into its brief span, with the percussion section also turned up to 11 and the whole orchestra required to sing at the work’s end. A great deal of mythology surrounds the story of the events in the centre of Glasgow 100 years ago, but it has never had a soundtrack as compelling as this one.

The premiere of the piece ended up preceding the work whose equally myth-garnished first performance provided its forces, in what was a brilliantly-constructed programme. The first half had opened with Stravinsky’s even briefer explosive Fireworks, a dazzling orchestral display from 1908 that clearly set the composer on the path, via The Firebird, to the Rite.

It was followed by Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto, played with panache, and some swagger, by Stefan Jackiw. The RSNO’s Thomas Sondergard and the American violinist will work together again on the work with the Cleveland Orchestra in November in concerts that pair it with Stravinsky’s Firebird.

The soloist had some recourse to an electronic version of the score here, but it hardly impeded his expressive interpretation of a virtuosic work, whose difficulty is the chief impediment to more performances. That it was predictable that Jackiw would play an encore, and that that would be music by Bach, did not make the pleasure of its inevitable arrival any less.

As for The Rite of Spring itself at the conclusion of the evening, that was the RSNO and Sondergard – who started his musical life as a percussionist – working at peak performance. The last time this hall heard the work was in August’s acclaimed Edinburgh Festival performance by Les Siecles under Francois Xavier-Roth. This was a different beast, more widescreen but fascinating for the way the conductor steered through its linear but episodic structure and the split-second timing of transitions from one section to the next. There were excellent solo turns too, of course from bassoonist David Hubbard in that exposed high-register opening, and also from Henry Clay on cor anglais and timpanist Paul Philbert.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Stefan Jackiw

BBC SSO / Pintscher

City Halls, Glasgow

It is not so very long since the symphonies of Robert Schumann were rarely programmed, which now seems strange. Whatever kept them out of the repertoire, conductors clearly relish tackling them today, and orchestras playing them.

The first, the “Spring” Symphony, has the energy a young man, newly wed to Clara Wieck, and Matthias Pintscher, returning to the orchestra where he was an associate artist, communicated that from the podium with enthusiasm, bouncing on the balls of his feet. The conductor was on top of all the details of the score, and in command of the overall shape too, with a sense of pace building through the complexities of the third movement into the Allegro finale.

The chain of communication within the strings was just as apparent – across the front desks and through the sections in a fine ensemble sound. There was excellent work from principal oboe Stella McCracken and first flute Bronte Hudnott in that finale too.

There are more 20th century oboe concertos than manage to elbow their way into 21st century concert schedules with any frequency, but they have a fine ambassador in Spanish soloist Cristina Gomez Godoy. The story of the genesis of Richard Strauss’s 1945 Oboe Concerto is a particularly good one (suggested to the composer by an oboe-playing G.I. stationed in Bavaria at the end of World War 2, it was eventually premiered in the US by the man who subsequently signed Aretha Franklin for her first recordings, but passed on The Beatles for the American market) and it is a great showcase for a virtuoso player from the first bars.

Gomez Godoy was also very engaged with the work the orchestra was doing, in the many echoes and exchanges with the other winds, and especially principal clarinet Yann Ghiro. Predictably, given the timbre of her instrument – and Gomez Godoy plays an impressively “bling” gold-keyed one – the plaintive central Andante was a highlight, but the faster music on either side of it was equally lyrical, the most upbeat of Strauss’s compositional Indian Summer.

The real rarity of Pintscher’s programme was Alexander Zemlinsky’s 1934 Sinfonietta, which opened the concert in its first performance by the orchestra. The work demands much of the strings from the start, and they delivered clear, focussed playing across the sections, with fine solos from leader Laura Samuel.

Zemlinsky’s score is edgy and colourfully orchestrated and sounds increasingly of its time as it progresses – not at all in a bad way – through the central “Ballade” to the cabaret and jazz inflections of the third and final movement, building in pace and volume.

This is very dramatic music, which had its US premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1940, only two years before the Viennese composer died in exile in New York. Unlike some more fortunate fellow refugees from the Nazis, he was a great loss to Hollywood.

Programme repeated at Aberdeen Music Hall on Friday September 30 and available on BBC Sounds.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Emelyanychev

Perth Concert Hall

James MacMillan’s new Violin Concerto No 2, given its world premiere last week by co-dedicatee Nicola Benedetti, boasts a lengthy list of co-commissioners – The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Adam Mickewicz Institute and Dallas Symphony Orchestras – so we can safely assume it is guaranteed to have several key performances in the immediate future.

It was with the SCO that the honour of presenting the very first performance of this intriguing concerto fell, part of the orchestra’s opulent, and clearly popular, season opener in Perth. At the helm was chief conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, a musician of mesmerising unpredictability, never boring, often illuminating, willing to take daring chances where others wouldn’t.

So what would he, and what would Benedetti, make of a work that MacMillan composed during lockdown, additionally dedicating it to a Polish composer he much admired, Krzysztof Penderecki, who died in 2020? In recent interviews, he had alluded to a work of sincere intimacy, freshly explored musical solutions and very personal flashes of wit and reflection.

If this initial performance didn’t appear to capture all of these, it did challenge the listener to make sense of a work that is dizzily transient in style, novel in the imaginative relationships it explores between soloists and orchestra, and tough in the perception of its overall shape.

In this initial performance, both Benedetti and Emelyanychev seemed, at times, preoccupied with resolving the last of these points. There were so many individual moments to savour: the playful succession of “conversations” to be had with individual players in the orchestra, from the soloist’s pugnacious encounter with timpani to a lustrous engagement with lead violin, Joel Bardelot; or such lighter episodes where MacMillan slackens the tension with parodic interjections of Scots reels or German burlesque. But there was also a discomforting fragmentation in Benedetti’s overall presentation that suggested this is a work she has to live with for a while to get fully to grips with. 

That said, the poise she brought to that heart-stopping moment where the opening material recapitulates, and the delicacy of those final bird-like exchanges with the flutes, were as ravishing as they were conclusive. 

As for the rest of this programme, the term mixed fortunes comes to mind. It opened brilliantly with John Adams’ The Chairman’s Dances, extracted by the composer from his first opera, Nixon in China. The impact was immediate, Emelyanychev’s vital downbeat setting the incessant mechanised energy in motion as if switching on a light, then drawing endless detail from the constantly shifting textures, and variously caressing the score’s more restful episodes with wit, airiness and finesse. 

Where he succeeded with the Adams in extracting the absolute best from the SCO, that was not always the case in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony. Emelyanychev took massive liberties with this – an opening Adagio so laboured-over it risked being dismembered, and a general overindulgence that threatened the symphony’s natural momentum, provoked nervous mishaps with exposed entries, and ignored some dubious brass intonation. 

Not all of it fell flat, the central movements far tighter in spirit and execution than the outer ones, and therein a sizzling clarity from the orchestra. But as a whole, this was not a performance that always knew where it was going.

Ken Walton

Further performances at the Usher Hall Edinburgh on Thu 29 Sep; and City Halls, Glasgow on Fri 30 Sep

Songs from the Last Page

Wigtown Book Festival

Although not quite to the dispiriting extent that afflicted some fine work in the rebranded Festival of Brexit, “Unboxed”, Scotland’s Year of Stories 2022 has been one of those arts initiatives that has never really grabbed the public imagination, however fine its aims. It has, admittedly, been a tricky year in which to make an impact.

Some projects look to have legs though, and Scotland-domiciled Irish composer Gareth Williams’s Songs From the Last Page is one – a constantly evolving song cycle that has been bringing musical performance to book festivals across the country throughout the year.

He’s a most engaging raconteur, and Williams has honed the explanation of his music winningly. He sings and plays the (electric) piano, with SCO violinist Aisling O’Dea and cellist Justyna Jablonska completing his trio. The concept is self-explanatory: he sets words from the last page of books, mostly novels and mostly Scottish.

He began with Andrew Greig’s At the Loch of the Green Corrie and – after checking in with that author for permission (about which he has an amusing story in itself) – ran with the idea from there. With support from Chamber Music Scotland, Williams’s song-writing has become a literary journey that takes in contemporary fiction as well as the classics, the texts often remarkable for the allusions and references to other works in the Scottish literary canon.

Truth to tell, he often plays fast and loose with the words on the pages in pursuit of the structure of the song. More precious writers might bridle at his repetitions and re-ordering of their carefully-crafted sentences. Most, however, will be flattered by his attentions, resulting in a form he describes as “literary chamber pop” and which has echoes of the work of Randy Newman at times, while the string arrangements do a lot of the work in taking his melodies towards the classical side of things.

There is a continuity of style throughout the set, and although the set-list is revised for each performance, certain songs have become staples by virtue of their transparent success. Those include Ali Smith’s How To Be Both (although whether he has set your last page of that book depends on whether you read it the same way he did), and the end of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, which seems to have set a template for some other pieces.

There are less obvious choices in there too – although all are served with a tasty explanation for their presence – including Ely Percy’s Duck Feet and Ross Sayers’ Sonny and Me, and the composer’s challenge to himself to write an appropriate song for each recital produced an excellent addition for Wigtown, using the latest book by local bookseller-memoirist Shaun Bythell, Remainders of the Day.

In this session, however, it was the classics that impressed most: Sunset Song, with its quote from Flowers o’ the Forest in the strings, Treasure Island and its “Pieces of Eight” refrain, and the Tinkerbell-evoking pizzicato arrangement for a very selective choice of last paragraph from Peter Pan.

Keith Bruce

Songs from the Last Page are next heard at Portobello Book Festival on Friday, September 30 and Findhorn Bay Arts Festival on Sunday, October 2.

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

Ryan Wigglesworth’s opening programme as new chief conductor of the BBC SSO told us much about what to expect from him as he nurtures his relationship with his new orchestra. It was anything but run-of-the-mill, offsetting the sparkling French textures of Ravel and Messiaen with brand new music by the interesting young Yorkshire-born composer Jonathan Woolgar. The musical journey, which also featured the pitch-perfect BBC Singers, was endlessly adventurous and repeatedly exhilarating. Wigglesworth has set his own bar unquestionably high.

As a composer himself, he has as eye – and an ear – for latent talent. In Woolgar’s new BBC commission, Symphonic Message in memory of L.R. (referring to the drama teacher Lynda Ross whom, the composer writes, inspired so many at his former school), Wigglesworth focused on the frenetic impatience of Woolgar’s musical characterisation, a fast-moving exchange of sharp-textured contradictions that paradoxically spelt completeness. 

Wigglesworth could have pressed a little more to punch out the detail, even where Woolgar’s motivic invention itself lacked a natural spark, but this was a performance that lived by its adrenalin and sense of constant surprise. As such, it served well as a springboard to the French feast that lay ahead.

On their own, Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi – a musical gift to his wife Claire Delbos, pet name “Mi”, rather in the manner of Wagner’s Siegried Idyll – are a 1937 set of orchestral songs fulfilling enough in themselves. But with the BBC Singers to hand, why not offer a scene-setter in the form of the contemporaneous Messiaen a cappella motet, O sacrum convivium? 

It was a magical moment, Wigglesworth’s contained gestures eliciting a mystical perfection from the 36-strong chorus, in both the thrilling unanimity and sustained stillness and slowness of the performance. 

Without a break, Canadian soprano Jane Archibald (replacing Wigglesworth’s indisposed wife, Sarah Bevan, as soloist) unleashed a glowing interpretation of the nine Poèmes pour Mi, probing every expressive possibility, from internalised intensity to outward rapture. It wasn’t always possible to hear every word she sang above the glittering orchestration, but as a whole, and with the SSO extolling the full virtues of Messiaen’s orchestral sweetness and translucence, this was an utterly sublime and moving performance. 

Much of that was down to Wigglesworth’s highly prescriptive conducting. He appears to be something of a perfectionist, each gesture carefully pre-considered and ultra-clear in its intentions. 

That was certainly a prime factor in ensuring that the concluding work in this concert, Ravel’s full 1912 score for the ballet Daphnis and Chloe, shone to its fullest and finest potential. Infinite colours abounded in a performance that variously sparkled and sighed, revelled and acquiesced. Acute textural detail informed mostly every moment, the wordless chorus spreading a comforting glow, like a red evening sky, over the shifting orchestral iridescence. It triggered off instant cheers and applause, and bodes well for Wigglesworth’s future relationship with his new orchestra.

Ken Walton 

RSNO / Berman

RSNO Centre, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The air waves have been awash with funeral marches over the past few days, so the prospect of an RSNO programme leaning very much to the dark side could easily have summoned emotional overload. Yet despite the morbid tolling drums that open Elgar’s fulsomely orchestrated Bach Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, the lugubrious symbolism of Vaughan Williams’ incidental music to Maeterlinck’s play The Death of Tintagiles, and the requiem-like Fourth Symphony of Franz Schmidt, this Wednesday matinee concert cast aside potential despair with performances that coupled deep, in some cases brutal, intensity with sparkling brio.

It was clearly music that struck a sympathetic chord with conductor Jonathan Berman, a message he imparted through spoken words, but then turned these thoughts into rich, meaningful music.

Elgar’s Bach orchestration has often been criticised for being a bloated over-egging of the original, but in this instance, a performance that effectively allowed Bach’s contrapuntal genius to comfortably inhabit the thick-set 1920s sound world of Elgar, the outcome was a triumph of anachronistic synthesis. Crisp clean entries preserved the structural clarity, Berman embraced the music’s natural momentum, so that Elgar’s wilful eccentricities – sudden explosive textural infills – bore the (possibly tongue-in-cheek) joy he no doubt intended.

Vaughan Williams’ shadowy score, composed for a one-off London performance in 1913 of Maeterlinck’s play, took us to a more sombre place, its opening gently lapping like Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead. Here and there, flickers of light burst through, just enough to reveal fresher glimpses of that famously rustling pastoralism – a modal viola melody taking flight, parallel harmonies lightening the air. Berman’s easeful reading, however, also emphasised the fundamentally cinematic function of this score – pre-echoes, perhaps, of Vaughan Williams’ later soundtrack to Scott of the Antarctic – and a sense in such a concert performance of a necessary missing parameter, the play itself.

Schmidt’s Symphony No 4 – written by the Austro-Hungarian composer in 1934 essentially as a requiem to his only daughter who died at birth – was anything but incomplete. In four continuous movements, and loaded with the naturally gnawing pathos that comes from a style rooted in Mahler and Richard Strauss but peppered with Second Viennese School influences, its wholeness is both emotional and literal. 

Opening with a soulful, unaccompanied trumpet solo – as hauntingly poignant as Aaron Copland’s in Quiet City – the mood in this thoughtful performance, and as the fuller orchestra gradually announced its presence, was captivating. Even the throbbing funereal underlay of the Adagio seemed less than grave with the cello solo rising above it. A frisky Scherzo, cut short in its prime, lifted the spirits higher yet before the Finale’s ultimate return to the quietude of the opening, that keening trumpet drawing magically to a final solitary note. 

If you’ve never heard a Schmidt symphony – Berman has been recording all four of them with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales – this final one is a powerful introduction. Even with its mournful message.

Ken Walton

Dunedin Consort / Butt

Perth Concert Hall 

It is still sometimes suggested that Mozart intended his Requiem for himself, but if he had foreseen his own death, surely classical music’s definitive whizz kid would have been careful to finish it. 

What the Requiem has had to cement its place in the repertoire is Sussmayr’s contemporary completion, an advantage not enjoyed by the composer’s earlier Mass in C Minor. In 2017, however, Amsterdam University’s Clemens Kemme published new edition of the work which presented an authoritative solution to the problems of the score. The first recording of his revisions, in Berlin, has not been judged a complete success, so Dunedin Consort, with its track record of benchmark-setting discs of early choral music, and specifically a Grammy nomination for the Linn-released Requiem, has an important job to do for Mozart, a mere 240 years on from the work’s likely first and only performance in his lifetime. 

What Kemme has done, and what came across magnificently in this performance under conductor John Butt, is to look at the composers Mozart was drawing from for his own mass – Bach and Handel – as well as to the music he was writing himself around the same time. 

The two male soloists, Joshua Ellicott and Robert Davies, are really in supporting roles, with Davies stepping out from the chorus – a choir of six women and four men. The vocal ensemble presented themselves both by voice (two each of soprano 1 and 2, mezzo, tenor and bass) and as a double choir of one-voice-to-a-part, as the music required – music that not only owes a debt to the earlier composers but sometimes echoes specific works. If Mozart had a copy of Bach’s Mass in B Minor to hand, it would be no surprise at all. 

The significant arias, and more operatic music, were in the more than capable hands of Lucy Crowe and Anna Dennis, voices chosen with great care for the notes they had to sing and for the way they combined wonderfully together. Their duetting on Laudamus te was the first shiver-inducing moment of the performance, although the blend of the six women’s voices in the Gloria that preceded it had laid out that path with clarity. 

Davies had his moment, in partnership with three trombones, in Jesu Christe – Cum Sancto Spiritu, before the ensemble sequence – broken only by a demanding and demonstrative solo Et incarnatus est from Crowe – that ends the work. The Sanctus and Benedictus both end with choral Osannas that are part of Kemme’s crucial contribution, alongside the orchestration, based on what sketches Mozart left. 

In a clever piece of programming, Butt began the concert with Haydn’s Symphony No 80, from the same era and known to Mozart. It was an opportunity to tune the ears to the fabulous playing of the instrumentalists, an 18-piece Baroque band (yet to be augmented by brass, timpani and organ) producing a sound of wonderful clarity and spaciousness. The Adagio second movement was quite as lovely as the best of the singing that followed – and after the interval the Mozart singers sounded all the better for the quality of the playing behind them. 

Keith Bruce 

Portrait of Lucy Crowe by Victoria Cadisch

Lammermuir: SCO / Poska

St Mary’s Church, Haddington

Like the Formula 1 calendar and the soccer season, the itinerary of the Scottish orchestral musician now lacks much in the way of clear holiday breaks.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra visited Lammermuir on the last lap of its extensive summer touring schedule, with concerts of music by contemporary women composers aimed at school students in Musselburgh, Ayr and Dumfries to come next week before Nicola Benedetti launches the new season, premiering James MacMillan’s Second Violin Concerto at the turn of the month.

The woman in charge on Wednesday evening was the Estonian chief conductor of the Flanders Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Latvian Symphony, Kristiina Poska. Her programme majored on Beethoven, opening with the Overture “Coriolan” and closing with Symphony No 2, with Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony and a contemporary work from Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tuur in between.

Compact enough in duration, it was a rich, if often rather bleak, mix in a Lammermuir Festival that has found room for all three of Scotland’s orchestras – although perhaps not an enormous amount of room for the BBC SSO in Dunbar Parish Church this Friday.

On both the overture and Beethoven symphony, the SCO sounded like a larger outfit in this space with its reverberating acoustic. Nonetheless Poska, a very precise and clear conductor, had the playing edgy and keen, and the dynamics of the string sections particularly precisely graded. The Coriolan was powerful and the Second increasingly colourful as it went on, the SCO winds as dependable as ever, and guest first flute Daniel Pailthorpe (from the BBC Symphony Orchestra) a star turn. Poska really ratcheted up the performance as she built towards an explosive finale.

The works in the middle were more exercises in focused intensity, almost frighteningly so in the case of the Shostakovich, on which leader Michael Gurevich shone from the start, and principal cello Christian Elliot later. The composer’s amplification of his Eighth String Quartet for string orchestra is all about specifics of tone on the instruments, and the range of brooding notes they can produce. The balance Poska achieved was ideal.

Tuur’s Flamma also demands prodigious technique from a smaller string ensemble, particularly in the bowing, although there was some lightning fingering to appreciate as well. Commissioned by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the composer’s programme note references the indigenous people’s relationship with fire as a purifying as well as a destructive force, and the emphasis sounded to be on the former. As much as the Shostakovich, it is a work specifically tailored to the forces it demands, constantly switching between ensemble and solo voices, which sometimes echoed one another in minimalist fashion. The overall effect, however, was much more expressive and pictorial.

Keith Bruce

Programme repeated this evening in Blair Atholl and on Saturday (September 17) in Greenock.

Picture of Kristiina Poska by Kaupo Kikkas

Lammermuir: Hammond & Uttley

Dunbar Parish Church

Tenacity has proved a crucial virtue in the precarious world of music promotion in recent years, and the appearance of pianists Clare Hammond and Richard Uttley at this year’s Lammermuir was another fine example of that.

Festival co-director Hugh Macdonald proposed this re-visiting of the repertoire of the husband and wife duo Ethel Bartlett and Scots son-of-the-manse John Rae Robertson pre-pandemic, and it proved an idea well worth clinging on to. Bartlett and Robertson met as students at the Royal Academy of Music and married in 1921, after his service in World War 1, going on to huge success on both sides of the Atlantic in the inter-war years and beyond, until his death in 1956.

Not only did Bartlett & Robertson create a repertoire of transcriptions for two pianos in addition to playing the established classics, they also commissioned and premiered new music by Martinu, Bax and Britten. Hammond and Uttley steered an expert path between honouring their legacy and doing their own thing with a programme that began with one of the couple’s “greatest hits”, Bach’s soprano cantata, Sheep may safely graze, and concluded with the party-piece lollipop of De Falla’s Spanish Dance from La Vida Breve.

Those are akin to the sort of repertoire of classical chamber pops from last century that have been rediscovered by Elena Urioste and Tom Poster, and it is revealing that young players are doing that – some might say that the chances of the “crossover” populist recordings, and stadium-filling “classical” artists, of our own age are rather less likely to be worthy of the attention of future generations.

The meat of this programme was substantial indeed, and covered composition specifically for two pianos by Mozart, Debussy, Rachmaninov, and Arnold Bax – all with its own story attached, and introduced by the artists as well as in Macdonald’s programme note.

The Bax, from 1928, proved colourful, picturesque and impressionistic, while the Debussy of a decade earlier is the composer at his darkest, its slow central movement clearly coloured by composition in Normandy during WW1. It was bracketed by Mozart’s 1781 D Major Sonata, a perfect introduction to the interplay and exchange of ideas between two stylistically-different performers, and Rachmaninov’s 1901 Suite No.2, perhaps just as worthy of dedication to his therapist as the Second Piano Concerto that followed it. Its second movement Waltz and third movement Romance are the composer at his unbeatable melodic best, and would have justified the considerable expense of bringing the two top-quality Steinways to the Dunbar platform on their own.

Keith Bruce

Portait of Clare Hammond by Philip Gatward

Lammermuir: NYCoS Chamber Choir

Loretto School Chapel

Featuring a full complement of the Scottish orchestras, the presence of Scottish Opera, quality string quartets and more top drawer pianists than is quite decent, one of the few things the 2022 Lammermuir Festival is not about is debuts. Or perhaps it is.

With The Marian Consort, Sansara, The Orlando Consort and Dunedin Consort still to come in the chamber choir line-up, that strand began with the first public concert by the newest ensemble under the capacious umbrella of the National Youth Choir of Scotland.

Long in the planning, or at least in the aspirations of NYCoS founder and artistic director Christopher Bell, the NYCoS Chamber Choir takes his example of the pursuit of excellence with the young musicians of Scotland to another level. If the full forces of the senior choir have already impressed some of the world’s top conductors in performances in Edinburgh, London, Europe and the United States, this elite unit of between 20 and 30 young voices is a refinement of that success.

What Bell has done with the formation of the Chamber Choir is select the finest voices within the current cohort – and possibly recent graduates who are beyond the stipulated age-range in future incarnations – and created a group that can tackle specific repertoire. Who knows what that might be in the future, but this first concert set bold, contemporary parameters – putting, perhaps quite deliberately, clear distance between the NYCoS Chamber Choir and the other vocal groups at this year’s Lammermuir.

With Michael Bawtree at the organ for Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, which opened the recital, and the piano for Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year, which concluded it, the other two works were a cappella – James MacMillan’s Culham Motets and Caroline Shaw’s And the swallow.

Only the Dove, which dates from 2000, could be described as a secular work, although some of the poetry he sets – Blake, Dickinson and Tennyson among the texts – is faith-inspired. It was an especially appropriate work, not just for an unintended allusion to the death of the Queen, but also because the setting of Dickinson’s Answer July seemed to be a mature version of the sort of songs NYCoS has commissioned as part of its invaluable training of young musicians over its 25 years.

That coming to maturity of the organisation is perfectly celebrated in the birth of this choir. If Britten’s fascinating 1943 work – commissioned by the same clergyman responsible for Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and setting texts by troubled 18th century poet Christopher Smart – is not heard very often, it is because it is far from easy. Here too, though, step-outs from soprano Emily Kemp and alto Olivia Mackenzie Smith take the listener into a child-like world of cat and mouse, while tenor Alexander Roland and bass Christopher Brighty each made powerful solo contributions.

Kemp then supported fellow soprano Lorna Murray in the exquisite close harmony passages of the MacMillan, while all the female voices provided an ethereal underscore to solo tenor Lewis Gilchrist. With alto Morven McIntyre and tenor Jack Mowbray the solo voices in the Dove, this was a chance for individuals to shine, but mainly about the meticulous performance of the ensemble of young men and women whose musical abilities far transcend any “youth choir” or “non-professional” categorisation.

The group also gives Bell access to a whole realm of repertoire, including the newest piece in this programme, the setting of verses from Psalm 84 by America’s composer-of-the-moment, Caroline Shaw. And the swallow is a gorgeous piece which seems to take the sound-world of Whitacre or Lauridsen into a more sophisticated sphere, not least in the imaginative and specific vocal techniques it demands.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Stuart Armitt

Lammermuir: Jeremy Denk

Dunbar Parish Church

It is, as the Lammermuir Festival’s James Waters pointed out, unusual to see a musician selling their books rather than their recordings at performances. As a hardback is less concealable than a CD, it was also obvious how many were bought, but then Jeremy Denk’s Every Good Boy Does Fine is well worth the read – and “a love story in music lessons” that is tailor-made for his faithful following at the Lammermuir Festival.

By dint of being the star visitor of the event’s return to live operations last year, Denk has swiftly become Lammermuir’s golden boy, and this was the first of five appearances (including a non-playing book-plugging one) in the 2022 programme, two as an orchestral soloist (Brahms on Saturday with the RSNO, Beethoven a week on Monday with the Royal Northern Sinfonia) and one with violinist Maria Wloszczowska, playing Bach.

For the book-buying fans, his opening solo recital was the most personal and idiosyncratic. As he probably says everywhere, his promise to write programme notes had again come to naught (although Lammermuir programme editor David Lee provided another view of the works) so he chose to deliver his thoughts verbally, which is part of the attraction of his appearances. These are a mixture of historical context and musical illumination, and always worth hearing, but his personable delivery and wit are as important – Denk makes his listeners want to open their ears before he plays a note.

He’s some player though, which is the important thing. Opening with Mozart’s A Minor Sonata, K310, here was a reading of the rollercoaster of the composer’s emotions, the register of mood and pitch in constant flux. Perhaps there are pianists with more delicate Mozart, but few with Denk’s passion and commitment – or speed at some points.

The technically-challenging is meat and drink to him, as the full-on pianism of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, which followed, demonstrated. It’s a huge piece, but not short on humour when the gloomy tolling of Le Gibet is followed by the mischief of the gremlin Scarbo. Denk has a habit of turning to the audience at such moments, the expression of the music written on his face, and sometimes almost with an open-eyed look of surprise that the audience is still there.

The pianist spoke less after the interval, but his choice of programme said more. Concluding with Beethoven’s big Opus 109 Sonata, which references the Baroque keyboard style of Bach in the last movement, it began with a Toccata by the earlier composer, played on the Steinway in an expressive style that Bach could surely never have imagined. Between those two sat the recent American Pianist’s Association competition piece Heartbreaker, by Breaking the Waves composer Missy Mazzoli, and the fiendish Ligeti Etude, The Devil’s Staircase, both demonstrations of the capabilities of a modern grand – in the right hands.

It was show-off stuff, but delivered with something approaching no-sweat New York nonchalance. The bulk of the music was played from memory, but Waters found himself called upon to turn the electronic pages of Denk’s tablet computer for the dense modern works. Plaudits to him for being just as relaxed.

Keith Bruce

Lammermuir: Therese

St Mary’s, Haddington

There will, inevitably, be those who think otherwise, but the decision to press ahead with Scottish Opera’s Lammermuir Festival performance of lost Massenet opera Therese an hour after the news was announced of the death of the Queen was the correct one. The audience stood for a minute’s silence and listened to a (rather good) playing of the National Anthem by the orchestra before the show, but it was the work itself that turned out to prompt thoughtfulness about the monarch’s legacy.

Of course, as Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is alleged to have said of the French Revolution: “It is too soon to tell”. Massenet and his librettist Jules Claretie, biographer of Moliere and director of the Theatre Francais, were making a similar point in the first decade of the 20th century about the events of the last decade of the 18th in France.

If “Marianne” is the female symbol of the revolution, Therese is a more realistic depiction of French womanhood, caught between loyalty to her Girondist partner Andre Thorel, offspring of a lower-middle-class working man, and memories of her previous lover, Royalist nobleman Armand de Clerval.

Those three are the story, and Scottish Opera’s recent deft form in casting is continued here with Lithuanian mezzo Justine Gringyte ideally suited to the demanding range of the vocal line of the titular heroine, baritone Dingle Yandell looking as well as sounding the part as Andre (were he to consider slumming it in Les Mis, he’d be Jean Valjean), and former Scottish Opera Emerging Artist Shengzhi Ren having a welcome opportunity to show off his powerful but relaxed tenor voice.

Credit should go to the work of the language coach on the production, Florence Daguerre de Hureaux, for what is very fine diction of the text by all three – outstanding in Yandell’s case – as well as from everyone on stage, including the smaller roles and compact men’s chorus.

There are also surtitles, and that clarity (as the well-named librettist would surely concur) is important, because the background debate of ideas is as crucial as the love triangle onstage.

Yandell’s early aria, and duet with Gringyte, declares that “we must love to live” – condemning revolutionary hate, despite his loyalty to the cause – while Gringyte’s Act 2 opener of longing for the open meadows of rural France is a recognition of the values of the ancien regime in the face of the Terror outside the Paris apartment in which she – and, secretly, Ren’s Armand – are holed up.

Idealists in their own way, Massenet and Claritie are arguing, during La Belle Epoque, for pragmatism instead of extremism – an accommodation of the strengths of France’s Royalist past within the egalitarianism of the Third Republic.

The composer – a tunesmith and orchestrator of proven skill, whose work we hear too little of and whose vast catalogue is scarcely covered in most opera guides – provides a sumptuous score to this debate. That early baritone aria comes with lovely pealing winds and the most captivating orchestral scoring accompanies the romantic memories of both male characters in Act 1.

The music does the work again in the move to Paris from the chateau near Versailles at the opening of Act 2, but staff director Roxana Haines contributes with eloquent simplicity in the staging, replacing the often-sung-about stone bench in the chateau garden with a covetable chaise (courte, rather than longue). The costuming is similarly stylish and pithily expressive, Gringytye elegant in black, blue and mauve, the chorus of revolutionaries in caps, Andre sporting the inevitable neckerchief, and Armand, amusingly, an aristocratic Barbour coat.

The sightlines may not be ideal in St Mary’s but the acoustic is wonderful, and guest conductor Alexandra Cravero, who is immersed in this repertoire and had the orchestra playing superbly, produced a balance that was ideal, every detail of the music emerging with clarity and the singers always perfectly audible.

Keith Bruce

Repeated at Perth Concert Hall tomorrow, Saturday September 10, at 7.30pm

Pictures by Sally Jubb

Sean Shibe: Lost & Found

Pentatone

Edinburgh guitarist Sean Shibe’s second album for Pentatone comes within a whisker of being too cool for school. The label describes it as “an ecstatic journey containing music by outsiders, mystics, visionaries, who often have more than one identity”.

Clocking in at 70 minutes, it would be pushing the envelope for a vinyl release, but is formatted that way, with a clear side one/side two split between Oliver Leith’s Pushing my thumb through a plate (originally written for harp) and Meredith Monk’s Nightfall (composed for voices).

The repertoire runs from Monk’s 12th century forebear Hildegard von Bingen to jazzmen Chick Corea and Bill Evans, by way of mavericks Moondog and Julius Eastman. It’s eclectic certainly, but all in the best possible current hipster taste, perfectly designed to appeal to the audience Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan astutely identified for the strand of “contemporary music” he introduced to the programme.

It’s also electric, Shibe playing two amplified solid-bodied guitars, through an array of effects, most extravagantly deployed on the earliest music. Recorded less than half a mile from the EIF’s Leith Theatre venue in Great Junction Street, it roams the globe and the repertoire, including a world premiere by Daniel Kidane (inspired by lockdown and sitting nicely amidst Corea’s Children’s Songs) and an arrangement of Shiva Feshareki’s 2018 VENUS/ZOHREH (originally for string quartet).

The latter’s graphic score, and the one for Eastman’s Buddha, are reproduced in the booklet of a package that has the guitarist indulging his cos-play enthusiasm. If you are looking for a precedent for the cover art style of Shibe’s recent output, look no further than Icelandic avant-pop pixie Bjork.

All of which suggest a bold level of ambition, and the undeniable fact is that Shibe pulls it off. His playing is immaculate, and the soundscapes he builds flawlessly constructed, never in any danger of straying into prog excess, and beautifully recorded. The disc is also sequenced with great care, so that the more melodious works arrive at exactly the correct time. Admirers of the guitarist’s acoustic classical work will find much to enjoy, as will those fans less likely to take a cottage in Earlsferry to hear Schubert chamber music at the East Neuk Festival each summer.

In record company marketing terms, Lost & Found is probably a “crossover” album, but one that is far too plugged into the zeitgeist and modern taste to deserve the label. It stands a very good chance of knocking some of the more obvious products bearing that label off their perches in the classical charts, but is well worth an attentive listen anyway.

Keith Bruce

EIF: Thank You, Edinburgh

Edinburgh Playhouse

At the end of an Edinburgh Festival during which political issues, from the personal to the international, have been particularly to the fore, an appearance by Californian soprano Angel Blue was most appropriate. In July the singer withdrew from La Traviata at Verona Arena because of the Italian venue’s use of blackface in a parallel summer staging of Aida. Although her public statement was eloquent and reasonable, the social media response explains her absence from those platforms now.

The 75th Festival was blessed to have her on the stage of its largest theatre as special guest of The Philadelphia Orchestra for a free concert that was also streamed live to an outdoor screen in Princes Street Gardens. Her quartet of songs – O Mio Babbino Caro and Vissa d’arte by Puccini, Gershwin’s Summertime and Harold Arlen’s Over the Rainbow – are likely  to be the part many of the audience remembers best.

The event was the last of many innovations from Festival Director Fergus Linehan during his tenure, and if it can happen again, it should – the closing fireworks concert enjoyed a good innings, and 70-odd reinventions of the wheel can be regarded as sufficient achievement. There are countless ways in which this free concert format could now be developed.

For this year, the title of the event worked especially well. As Linehan explained in his introduction, it was not just meant to thank the city for welcoming the Festival back after the Covid pandemic, it was specifically a thank-you to those working in the NHS and care-homes, teaching children and delivering food and other essential supplies during the health emergency. We can assume there was an element of personal appreciation from the director to the city as well, and that should be reciprocated – there has been much to celebrate about Linehan’s tenure, and the way the Festival responded to the restrictions of the previous two years was especially admirable.

This concert was an upbeat way to mark all that, and Angel Blue’s contributions were perfect for the occasion. For some obscure technical reason she switched to a hand-held microphone for the Wizard of Oz hit, which did her voice no favours at all inside the venue but possibly made sense in the Gardens, but, that apart, she was in glorious form, on the popular Puccini every bit as much as her Grammy-winning Porgy and Bess.

The ebullient Yannick Nezet-Seguin and his orchestra are also well-suited to a concert of classical pops, able to launch into everything with the appropriate level of energy. We heard the Dvorak Carnival Overture again, and a repeat of the Third Movement of Florence Price’s Symphony No 1, but also Rossini’s Overture to The Thieving Magpie and the Fourth Movement of Beethoven’s 7th, both vibrant masterpieces of orchestral writing, opening and closing the programme.

Just as successful in the context, however, were the two new pieces they played in a concert that was a whistle-stop tour of recent work by the orchestra and its music director. Carlos Simon’s Fate Now Conquers was from a slate of commissions to complement a planned cycle of Beethoven symphonies, and drew on the music of the symphony whose Finale followed, as well as from Beethoven’s journals for its title.

And Valerie Coleman’s Seven O’Clock Shout, which requires the players to cheer as well as play their instruments, could not have been more appropriate. It has become something of an anthem for the orchestra, after being written in 2020 as a sort of concert-hall equivalent of the UK’s clap for carers – a musical appreciation of the huge contribution of, and the sacrifices being made by, essential workers.

There was, of course, an encore after the Beethoven, and if a reappearance by Angel Blue would have suited the packed house perfectly, one of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances was just fine too.

Keith Bruce

EIF / Fringe: Philadelphia Orchestra | Baker | Cordes en Ciel

Usher Hall | Pianodrome | St John’s, Edinburgh

The second Usher Hall appearance by The Philadelphia Orchestra at this year’s Festival includes the First Symphony of rediscovered black American composer Florence Price. At the other side of the Old Town, mezzo-soprano Andrea Baker concluded the Fringe run of a show that celebrates Price’s contemporary Shirley Graham Du Bois, whose opera Tom Tom was premiered the same year (1932) and, although praised, similarly then sunk without trace.

Baker’s show, the latest in her Sing Sister Sing! project and entitled Tales of Transatlantic Freedom, does much more than that, however. Tracing her own lineage to an enslaved great-grandfather (who, like Du Bois, became a very successful student, she at Oberlin, he at Yale), Baker’s operatic training is apparent in her selection from Du Bois’ work, but elsewhere she ranges from gospel and blues to the songs of Robert Burns, her argument being that diversity has always existed in music, it has merely been lost in  the present age.

Directed by John Paul McGroarty, the show made best use of a unique Fringe venue, housed within the Old Royal High School, once ear-marked for the Scottish Parliament and now destined to be the new home of St Mary’s Music School. At first prowling around the perimeter of the amphitheatre (which is partly constructed of old pianos) singing field hollers, the mezzo made her case with powerful performances of Ca’ the Yowes and A Slave’s Lament as well as spiritual Steal Away and lascivious dance moves, and some challenging eye-contact with members of the in-the-round audience.

Her essential partner in all this was pianist and arranger Howard Moody, just as versatile as she on two working pianos – “prepared” and otherwise – melodica and assorted percussion (often also the piano). It’s a show sure to have another life.

Cordes en Ciel: Kristiina Watt and Heloise Bernard

A duo of younger female musicians brought a run of lunchtime recitals at the Just Festival in St John’s at the West End of Princes Street to a close earlier on Thursday. Under new manager Miranda Heggie, the music, art and discussion programme concludes with Messiaen’s Quartet for End of Time this evening.

Cordes en Ciel was formed by two international students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Estonian lutenist Kristiina Watt and French/American soprano Heloise Bernard. Specialising in music heard at the courts of Louis XIV in France and Charles I & II in England, they are a charming partnership, and the period of their music nevertheless demanded considerable versatility. From Watt that was a range of accompanying techniques on theorbo and guitar as well as lute, and from Bernard singing in French and English and of emotional love songs as well as wry narrative. The music of Lully and Purcell were understandably to the fore, but we ended in the Franco-Iberian territory popularly explored by Jordi Savall.

The Philadelphia’s first Usher Hall concert, originally to have been Beethoven 9 with the Festival Chorus, began with an unbilled “present” to the Edinburgh audience – as conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin announced it – of Dvorak’s Carnival Overture. Although a problematic addition for the Festival, as the previous “resident” orchestra at this year’s event, the Czech Phil, had begun with the same work a few days previously, it helped shaped Thursday evening’s programme by getting things off with a fast and furious bang.

The first work in the agreed revised programme was Rachmaninov’s less-often-heard Isle of the Dead. Inspired by a black and white print of an already sombre painting, its is nonetheless far from colourless even if many of those colours are dark ones: eight basses, tuba, bass trombone, contrabassoon and bass clarinet. Mostly about huge ensemble sound, tempi and dynamics controlled with a tight rein by Nezet-Seguin, it nevertheless featured some fine solo playing from leader David Kim and first clarinet Ricardo Morales.

The orchestra’s star principal clarinet was also among the prominent voices in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but it was all about the conductor’s shaping of the old warhorse – without reference to any score. Out of the blocks like a whippet, this was a vigorous Five that shifted through the gears of pace and volume, showing The Philadelphia to be a highly responsive machine. Nezet-Seguin took long-ish pauses between the first and second and second and third movements, perhaps to prepare ears for the perfection of the segue from Scherzo to Finale – the make-or-break point of any performance.

Regardless of the bolt-on bonus at the front end of the evening, there was an encore, although we have, of course, heard the poignant Prayer for Ukraine from other orchestras too.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Yannick Nezet-Seguin by Hans van der Woerd

EIF: Saul

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

To describe Handel’s oratorio Saul as “an opera in all but name” is also to acknowledge the risk that it is neither one nor the other, and that was true of this concert performance at the Edinburgh Festival. Like the Philharmonia’s Fidelio in the opening week, it might have been enhanced by the involvement of an overseeing directorial eye, placing and moving the musicians.

It is a small thing, but particularly annoying was the seating of the natural trombones – instruments with which the composer was breaking new ground – almost invisibly behind the handsome, and very tall, chamber organ that had been brought on to the platform for the occasion (the hall’s own fine built-in instrument being anachronistically too powerful for the job).

The orchestra here was period band The English Concert, founded by Trevor Pinnock, currently directed by Harry Bicket and conducted here by Dunedin Consort’s John Butt, replacing Bernard Labadie. Scotland is indeed fortunate to have on hand someone not only able to jump in and direct three hours of rare Handel, but guaranteed to do so in a style that finds the natural propulsion of the score and is supremely sensitive to the needs of the singers.

And what a cast of principals we heard! Countertenor Iestyn Davies is as capable of filling the Usher Hall with swelling sustained notes and filigree ornamentation as he has been of holding a Queen’s Hall audience in the palm of his hand. His David was wonderfully matched at the start by Sophie Bevan’s Merab – the finest acting performance from among these singers and in glorious voice. Canadian tenor Andrew Haji and American soprano Liv Redpath were excellent, if slightly less animated, as Jonathan and Michal, and James Gilchrist the perfect choice to double in the ecclesiastical and pagan roles of the High Priest and the Witch of Endor.

The same casting wisdom applies to bass Neal Davies in the title role, who caught exactly the right tone for the vacillating King, allowing us to find a little sympathy for a difficult character.

In what was the only choreographed move of the night, the 26 singers of the English Concert stood up by section before the opening choruses (the “Hallelujah” is near the start of this one), which immediately made apparent how few of them were producing such a rich sound. The choir’s precision dispatch of the complex “Oh fatal consequence of rage” at the end of Act 2 was particularly memorable. Step-outs in the smaller roles were uniformly excellent, and bass William Thomas – credited only in the supertitles at the start – made a huge impression in his Act 3 cameo as the Apparition of Samuel.

As well as those trombones, the period instrument band was full of fascinating colours – this was a work on which Handel really indulged himself. Silas Wollston’s chamber organ had an early showpiece and Masumi Yamamoto supplied the bells of the carillon in Act 1 as well as her harpsichord continuo, while Oliver Wass followed a Iestyn Davies aria with a lovely harp solo played from memory. Among the combinations of instruments Handel deploys, the trio of cello, harp and archlute for Bevan’s “Author of peace” was especially lovely.

If the Act 3 Death March, once a mainstay of state funerals, is best known of the music, the scene that precedes it is Saul at its most operatic, as the King turns his back on his faith to consult the witch. We are in similar territory to Macbeth here – librettist Charles Jennens was a Shakespearean as well as a Bible scholar – and surely paving the way for the confrontation between Don Giovanni and the Commendatore. Those parallels appeared, and sounded, to be in the mind of Neal Davies’s impressive Saul.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Neal Davies by Gerard Collett

EIF: RSNO | Mahler 3

Usher Hall

Scotland’s own orchestras have been impressive throughout this 75th Edinburgh International Festival, and the trend continued on Tuesday with a thoroughly captivating Mahler’s Third Symphony courtesy of the RSNO, mezzo soprano Linda Watson, women members of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, the RSNO’s own Youth Chorus and the orchestra’s music director (soon also to become music director-elect of the Minnesota Orchestra) Thomas Søndergård.

If that proved an earth-shattering entity in itself, there was an added bonus, the world premiere of Sir James MacMillan’s For Zoe, a brief and eloquent tribute to the former RSNO principal cor anglais player, Zoe Kitson, who died earlier this year at the age of 44. In what must have been a extremely personal moment for the orchestra, MacMillan’s elegy, inevitably driven by a soulful and expansive cor anglais solo played enchantingly by current incumbent Henry Clay and enshrouded in a mist of ethereal whispering strings, served to honour its reflective intention.

It played a magical part, too, in programming our minds for the Mahler to come. In its gentle wake, and after a choreographed silence, Søndergård’s vision of the symphony emerged with persuasive patience and organic potency. 

The opening movement is, itself, a monumental challenge, any underlying structural logic offset by the nervy extremes of its restless content, a seemingly incongruous series of frenetic mood swings. Yet, with the extended RSNO in thrilling form, such contradictions were the powerhouse of a thundering, directional triumph. The all-important trombone solo, cutting through the texture like an Alpine horn blasting from the highest peak, was a compelling presence, immaculately played by guest principal Simon Johnson, more normally seen in his home patch with the BBC SSO.

But there wasn’t one weak link in this line-up, its breathtaking commitment and precision furnishing Søndergård with the freedom to input insightful and energising spontaneity, not least in the sparkling allusions to nature in Part Two (the final five movements). Luxuriant ease characterised the wistfulness of the Tempo di Menuetto, like wild flowers wafting in an unpredictable breeze. Then to the “animals” of the friskier Scherzo, its rawer rustic charm offset by momentary bouts of nostalgia.

“O Mensch! Gib Acht” (O man, be careful), warns the mezzo soprano in the shadowier Nietzsche setting in the slow movement. Watson delivered this with weighing restraint, deliciously understated but not without an enriching warmth. As such, the sudden clamour of (real) church bells, the thrilling innocence of the children’s voices and the more cautionary adult chorus that embody the penultimate movement was like a brilliant sun suddenly bursting through a clouded sky.

If this performance began with a monumental philosophical statement, it ended with a truly cathartic one, Mahler’s ultimate, ecstatic expression of “the love of God”. Søndergård shaped this concluding movement with unstoppable conviction, from the soft-glowing, hymn-like sincerity of the opening to the bells-and-whistles euphoria of the final bars. Here, Mahler wallows in excess glitter and sentimentality so OTT you wonder just how much of a Hollywood hit he would have been had he lived later and felt the inclination to sell his soul to the movies. He certainly knew how to write a musical blockbuster.

Ken Walton 

Picture by Andrew Perry

EIF: SCO / Emeyanychev

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Max Bruch would surely be dismayed to know how much he is still identified with the first of his three violin concertos (which he sold to a publisher for a pittance), his later Scottish Fantasy its only real rival in the modern repertoire.

Nicola Benedetti plays both, of course, and few regular concertgoers in Scotland will never have heard her perform the concerto during her starry early career. It is a box office favourite, and best known for the Hungarian dance music of the Finale, written for the work’s virtuoso dedicatee Joseph Joachim, who had no small hand in the shaping of the piece.

If you were fortunate enough to be hearing it for the first time at the start of the final week of the 75th Edinburgh International Festival, however, you will have heard another side to the concerto – and one that might have gratified its long-dead composer.

Benedetti, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and its Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev put the focus firmly on the central Adagio movement, treating the faster music around it almost as supporting furniture. It was a glorious account of a beautifully structured part of the work that takes its themes through many changes of key, falling figures in the winds playing against climbing ones in the solo line, and lush interplay that owes much to Mendelssohn and to Schubert.

With little more pause before the Finale than there is between the first and second movements, Emelyanychev and Benedetti made a wonderful arc of the whole piece, the violinist allowing neither her cadenza at the end of the Vorspiel nor her first bar of the Allegro energico to disturb the flow.

Of course, the faster showier music was still there, and few play it with more panache than Benedetti, but it was far from the whole story here.

For an encore, Emelyanychev was at the piano for another familiar favourite recorded early on by Benedetti – the Meditation from Thais by Massenet.

After that, Tchaikovsky’s ballet music for The Sleeping Beauty could almost seem an exotic choice, but Emelyanychev chose to play a sequence of music that eloquently told the tale that everyone knows, even if some of the score is much more familiar than other parts.

Guest principal clarinet Yann Ghiro, first trumpet Shaun Harrold, principal cello Philip Higham and harpist Eleanor Hudson all made telling solo contributions, but it was the precision tempi of the ensemble – playing as if in a pit for a performance – that impressed most. The music at the end of Act I built to a sumptuous peak from which the marvel was being able to continue, although the Entr’acte Symphonique of Act 2 matched it.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Ryan Buchanan

EIF: Czech Phil | Mahler 7

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

For the second of its Edinburgh Festival appearances this year, the Czech Philharmonic, under its St Petersburg-born music director Semyon Bychkov, turned its attention to a single, monumental symphonic statement, the gnarled psychological discourse that is Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. 

This is the orchestra that once delivered the original premiere in 1908 under Gustav Mahler’s baton. He did so despite concern over its “less than first rate” capabilities. No such worries for Bychkov, whose tight-knit control over the modern Czech Phil on Sunday presented the 80-minute symphony in colourful, manic and ultimately propulsive light.

His eye was firmly set on the endpoint, a triumphant finale still bearing the savage twists that pervaded and unhinged (for the right reasons) the previous four movements, yet through which sufficient dazzling positivity emerged to shake off Mahler’s palpable doubts and demons. This was a cathartic moment, heroic Wagner-like grandiosity mixed with equal measures of Straussian opulence and intimacy, yet the sniper fire of acid modernism constantly threatening to sour that optimism. Here, the orchestra reached blazing heights, the final moments gloriously exuberant and exhaustive.

If the performance lacked anything to that point, it was the potential for greater derring-do. Any risk seemed to be all Mahler’s, orchestral colourings that verge on extreme surrealism, a harmonic battle field that pits minor and major as almost irreconcilable warring factors. Yet, while Bychkov chose to contain much of the wilder moments, his justification came in the controlled, explosive impact of the finale.

Nor did he underplay the most distinguishing features of this work: the dark, disturbing freneticism underpinning the opening movement, the spellbinding virtuosity of the first Nachtmusik (remember the 1980s’ Castrol GTX advert?), the sardonic eccentricity of the central Scherzo, that moment of limpid reverie, the second Nachtmusik, characterised by the mandolin and guitar. 

This was never a Mahler 7 that centred its intentions on simply raising the roof. Instead, it was a performance of real substance, relevance, potency and intelligence, offering one of many viewpoints this ambiguous symphony is capable of inspiring. 

Ken Walton 

Picture: J Shirte

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