Category Archives: Reviews

BBC SSO / Scott of the Antarctic

BBC SSO / Scott of the Antarctic

City Halls, Glasgow

Whatever the modern viewer might think of Ealing Studios’ 1949 adventure film Scott of the Antarctic, with its Boys Own derring-do and plucky stiff-upper-lip, it’s worth remembering it was a child of its time.

It was Ealing’s first colour movie, scripted in the wake of the Second Word War, with the clipped lines of Sir John Mills as the quintessential “English” hero alongside such notable other castings as Kenneth More, Derek Bond and James Robertson Justice, even early sightings of a certain Christopher Lee and Dandy Nichols. Directed by Charles Fend, it recounted the bittersweet fortunes of of Scott’s tragic 1910-12 expedition, which in the 1940s would still have been fresh for the telling. And it did so with some spectacular camera work.

What we shouldn’t forget is the brilliantly moody and emotive film score composed by Vaughan Williams – especially this year when the musical world has been celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth – and that was the purpose of this wonderfully fluent “Live in Concert” screening featuring the BBC SSO, the women of the Glasgow Chamber Choir and soprano Katie Coventry, under the baton of the super-efficient Martyn Brabbins.

That it coincided with the anniversary was, it should be said, an accident of circumstances. The original intention by the event production company Big Screen Live and its creator Tommy Pearson, working with global film production company StudioCanal, was to stage it in 2020, but Covid put paid to that. Pearson masterminded the preparation of the film, overseeing the excision of the music from the original soundtrack, not an easy task, he explained, given that the score didn’t exist – as is the case nowadays – on a separate track from the spoken dialogue.

A sure sign of success in such ventures – where the orchestra performs in real time to the projected film – is when the orchestra’s physical presence gets forgotten. So smooth was Brabbins’ engineering of its entries and exits that it simply felt like a regular night at the movies, but with the musical dimension infinitely more visceral, and rather refreshingly no mass exodus as the credits rolled! 

The eeriness of the wordless female voices, over which Katie Coventry (a last-minute replacement for the indisposed Elizabeth Watts) cast her own siren-like descant, possessed a haunting, palpable otherworldliness. Vaughan Williams’ bold harmonies and uncompromising orchestral textures played on equal terms with the film’s awesomely crisp snow-filled camera work. And how that slowly ascending motif, appearing over and over again, matched the arduous but doomed march for survival of Scott’s diminishing team. Its ominous inexorability took on a life and soul of its own in this illuminating context.

Pearson, in his opening introduction, also explained that music originally discarded from the final edit had been judiciously reinstated for this performance, but more intriguingly that he had also created a concert prelude out of Vaughan Williams’ used and unused material. It proved an added fascination, rather like the film outtakes you get these days on a modern DVD, but as a foretaste rather than a tail-end curiosity. 

It also reminded us that Vaughan Williams later made his own full capital from the ideas, when he incorporated many of them in his “Antarctic” Symphony, completed in 1952. 

Ken Walton

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow

The ever-exuberant Principal Conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Maxim Emelyanychev, is a man who likes to spring a surprise, and – predictably enough – this programme, entitled “Maxim’s Baroque Inspirations”, came garnished with unbilled extra ingredients.

Playing recorder, he led a small group into the first floor foyer at the interval to perform music by 17th century London-based Italian violinist Nicola Matteis, revelling in his pied piper persona. And for an encore at the end of the published programme, he chose one of Grieg’s Elegiac Melodies, a string orchestra piece that nicely mirrored the Holberg Suite, which had opened the concert.

There was nothing haphazard about any of this. Rather the entire sequence of the evening was brilliantly conceived to show how early music had been drawn upon by more recent composers in the most imaginative ways.

In fact there was no authentically Baroque music before that half-time treat, but the performance of the Holberg was sparkling and full of variety. Emelyanychev’s emphasis on the pizzicato low strings at the start was masterly, the Sarabande surprisingly lush, the Gavotte suitably Handelian and the fourth movement Andante religioso almost like Rachmaninov.

The less familiar music that followed was just as rich in instrumental colour. Thierry Escaich’s Baroque Song, composed in 2007, begins with some very sprightly wind playing, while Alison Green’s contrabassoon was crucial to the dark central Andante before Philip Higham’s increasingly frantic cello solo led into the lively finale. Escaich is a Parisian organist, and his cut-and-paste use of Bach at times inspired thoughts of Gaston Leroux’ Gothic novel, if not the musical it spawned.

Henryck Gorecki has as much fun with early music in his Harpsichord Concerto, filtering it through Kraftwerk and Kraut-rock with relentless repeating figures from both the soloist – Emelyanychev himself – and the strings. The big major chord at the end of the Allegro molto first movement sets up the change of tone for the Vivace second one, and there is at least a suspicion that the Polish composer has his tongue firmly in his cheek.

The interval treat set up a second half with two Vivaldi concerti, the first “for many instruments” demonstrating that there was little the composer could learn from his successors about orchestration, and pairs of winds, and string instruments both plucked and bowed taking turns in the spotlight.

In between was a gem of seven short movements by Paul Hindemith, composed for students at Yale University, where he’d escaped during the Second World War. The arrangements of 16th century French dance music – including one labelled “Bransle d’Ecosse” – are superbly voiced for five strings, five winds, trumpet, theorbo and percussion, a group sitting in size exactly between the Vivaldi ensemble and that strolling foyer group for the Matteis. As in every other immaculate detail of the evening, Emelyanychev had it planned to the last beat of the last bar.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Brabbins

City Halls, Glasgow

As we near the end of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, conductor Martyn Brabbins concluded his latest programme on the podium for the BBC Scottish with the composer’s Fifth Symphony before he directs the soundtrack of Scott of the Antarctic with a screening of the 1948 film on Saturday.

The score of the latter would be reworked as Vaughan Williams’ Seventh, the Sinfonia Antarctica, five years later, and it was the revised 1951 version that we heard the Fifth. Although its thematic material is richly various through its four movements, Brabbins made a coherent argument for its overall shape. The symphony begins with solos from the first horn and principal flute – guests Christopher Gough and Katherine Bryan here – and has a colourful and fun Scherzo second movement before a melancholy third movement Romanza featuring further solos from among the winds and strings.

Vaughan Williams dedicated the symphony to Sibelius, who admired it, and the musical material of the outer movements owes much to the Finnish composer, with specific echoes of his late work, Tapiola, which appropriately opened the concert. As impressive as they were in last weekend’s Wagner, the SSO strings were on superb form again here, the violas in particular at the start. Brabbins found a really sparky narrative drive in the work, with its evocation of a bleak and mystical environment, lashed by wind and rain.

However, the main attraction for many on what was a well-attended Thursday evening was the gentler autumnal sound of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Unlike Kurt Weill, Strauss finds a very short way from Spring to September in his setting of the words of Herman Hesse, and soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn brought a beautifully shaped, never indulgent, legato to that journey.

Having been a stalwart of Scottish Opera’s outdoor operas in its Edington Street car park during lockdown, Llewellyn has her own Glasgow following, alongside that of Brabbins, which doubtless helped at the box office. She also has her own distinctive way with the Four Last Songs, lighter of voice than many, but expressive and alive to all the details of interaction with the instrumentalists. Those included fine solo playing by orchestra leader Laura Samuel and lyrical work from flutes and piccolo.

The intimations of mortality in Hesse’s Beim Schlafengehen and Eichendorff’s Im Abendrot may have been more obviously realised by a fuller mezzo voice, but Llewellyn brought an individual ambiguity as well as a musical clarity to the cycle.

Keith Bruce

Book review: House Concert

Igor Levitt and Florian Zinnecker

(Polity, £20)

Pianist Igor Levit has not played in Scotland for a while, having pulled out of his scheduled pre-pandemic appearances with the RSNO and SCO due to illness, although he has performed at London’s Wigmore Hall at least three times this year. One of those concerts included Scots composer Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH, an 80 minute assault course for piano that he has championed and recorded.

It fits with Levit’s practice in a way that it suits few other pianists. Virtuosic, certainly – in this book, Levit talks of music that is “too big for the piano” and Stevenson’s Passacaglia, with its explicit instructions to sound like other instruments or as if coming from outer space, fits that description – but also the work of a composer of robust views well to the left of today’s political mainstream.

Levit’s detractors – and he has plenty – would contend that he thinks himself “too big for the piano”. Since he came to international attention with his Sony label debut recording of Beethoven’s Late Sonatas a decade ago, Levit has become as well known for his outspoken political views and, until recently, bold presence on social media.

House Concert (published in German, as Hauskonzert, last year and newly translated by Shaun Whiteside) is as much concerned with that side of his public identity as with his musical life, and the title of the book is a little misleading.

During the first, international, Covid-19-necessitated lockdown, Levit was an early exponent of the possibilities of online performance, broadcasting in lo-fi, using basic technology, from his home – solo performances advertised on social media and free to all. Although he was by no means unknown to music-lovers before the pandemic, he undoubtedly found new fans during it.

That story is told in the book, but it is a relatively small part of what is both a memoir of his career so far, and a more specific justification of the responsibility he feels to speak out against racism, antisemitism, and the rise of right-wing movements, particularly – but far from exclusively – in his German homeland.

That’s a lot for a 250-page book, but it is a pacey read, once you get past its structural peculiarities. When artists speak of themselves in the third person, they invite ridicule, often with justification. Although his is the name with top billing, House Concert talks of “Igor Levit” from the start to the finish. As one of the pianist’s hot takes is the necessity of speaking personally, and saying “I” honestly, rather than using the impersonal “one”, this becomes even odder as the book goes on. There are long passages of direct quotation from the man himself, and doubtless he had final say on every word, but the authorial voice is actually that of the Die Zeit journalist identified in smaller print, Florian Zinnecker.

Their collaboration predates the disruption of coronavirus, so Zinnecker is clearly an adaptable chap, as well as a loyal one happy to be identified as in Levit’s camp, but House Concert is probably not the book the pair set out to write. That, to some extent (although not entirely), excuses its chronological waywardness, some repetition, and the imperfect editing, and may in fact mean a volume that will assume a greater importance as a document of these difficult recent times as the years go by.

If that is so, we must hope that is because Levit turns out to be on the winning side. Few musicians are as bold as he has been in using the concert platform to speak about issues beyond music. In House Concert he is clear about why he felt compelled to do so, careful to reiterate precisely what he has said – and how he has been misreported – and honest in his admission of missteps. Most compellingly, he and Zinnecker relate his political development to his performing career. For the pianist, and his amanuensis, there is no separating the impulse to play all of the Beethoven Sonatas, that Stevenson piece, Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, or Erik Satie’s bizarre epic Vexations, from the compulsion to call-out bigotry and xenophobia.

If that is the headline takeaway from House Concert, the earlier part of it has plenty about the music as well. Although they are very different books, there are parallels with Jeremy Denk’s Every Good Boy Does Fine in the individually unique perspective each memoir brings to the story of the development of a precocious young piano talent. Fine reads though they both are, there is a common ingredient of self-indulgence as well.

It is a lack of editorial rigour that rankles as far as Levit’s book is concerned. I read an uncorrected proof of it, but the finished copy I subsequently received had some glaring holes in the proof-reading. When that is a missing digit in an opus number it hardly matters, but the penultimate sentence of the text (excluding a brief updating Afterword added for the English edition) has retained the nonsensical use of the word “coincidence” where “confidence” is quite clearly the word intended.

That is unfortunate, because the pianist may well mean House Concert to be some sort of last word on a distinct phase of his life and career. I doubt Igor Levit’s views have changed in any way, but he does seem to have been more singularly focused on the piano keyboard than the one on his phone of late.

Keith Bruce

RSNO / Gray

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Like most conductors, the RSNO’s South Carolina-born assistant conductor Kellen Gray is marking his particular tenure with some of his own passions. In this Wednesday matinée concert his focus was on African American Voices, composers of colour whose names are not so well-known as, say Gershwin or Copland, despite being contemporaries, but who certainly deserve to be heard.

Gray’s enthusiasm was palpable, expressed personably in a spoken introduction, but equally championed through performances that recognised the fluid reverie that is George Walker’s  Lyric for Strings, the showman skills of William Grant Still’s Symphony No 1 “Afro-American” with its single banjo striking up in the hottest jazz moments, and the neatly-integrated stylistic fusion that gives William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony its own self-identifying intensity.

Walker’s sumptuous idyll, its thick-set string writing offset by ever-shifting layered detail, provided a restful opener, Gray unfolding the smooth, mellifluous contours with patience and understanding. It was the least characterised of the afternoon’s music, but its quiescent satisfaction sat well as a post-prandial meditation.

On the other hand, Still’s ebullient symphony would not have been out of place in the dance hall, at least those rumbustious tracts within its four movements that had the RSNO switching to jazz orchestra mode, the swooning muted brass, kaleidoscopic wind embellishments and searing string flourishes adding their own chipper choreography to stomping bass and percussion.

If, as a result, the structure relies more on episodical blocks and bluesy melodies than any long-term organic vision, this performance, full of colour and energy, offered plenty delights to compensate, not lest on the Finale home straight, a cartoonesque menagerie equal in fast-changing narrative to the Tom and Jerry soundtracks of Scott Bradley.

Dawson’s symphony offered something more classically-bound, a language still deriving its song-based thematic soul from African American culture, but doing so within a more obviously symphonic context. Thus it was often hard to distinguish between the actual modally-characterised Spiritual melodies and other invented motifs reminiscent of Dvorak or Tchaikovsky. 

Most notable, though, was the vibrance of this performance by Gray and the RSNO that completed their warm-hearted case for this concert’s attractive, neglected music. If you missed it, and wish you hadn’t, the entire programme is available on the RSNO’s African American Voices disc, out on Linn Records (CKD 699).

Ken Walton 

RSNO / Heyward

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

One of the most exciting aspects of any orchestral concert can be the dynamic struck up between the conductor and the concerto soloist. It can be synergic or combative, thrustful or accommodating; it can result in an explosive sum that is greater than the parts, or a resigned cancellation of opposites that merely produces benign compromise. 

The outcome arising from the partnership of Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin and American conductor Jonathon Heyward in Grieg’s popular Piano Concerto with the RSNO – both late replacements for the advertised Joyce Yang and Edo de Waart – was up there in the starry high ground, Kozhukhin’s feisty unpredictability bouncing off the efficient and alert Heyward in a way that multiplied the enjoyment. 

Mostly, it was a thrill-a-minute roller-coaster ride, Kozhukhin’s dry, side-stepping whimsy close to mischief-making, which the cooler-headed Heyward did well to translate into as tidy an orchestral response as was possible. There were certainly hairy moments where absolute coordination was challenged, but that in itself created an explosive tension that ensured this Grieg was anything but run-of-the-mill.

It was clear, even in the familiar opening piano cascade, that it was to be Kozhukhin’s way or the highway. Reaching deep into the keys, every degree of touch had meaning and intent. The outer movements sizzled with bold and athletic musicality, the central slow movement found him toying with its lyrical quietude. There was possibly more in colour terms that Heyward could have coaxed from the RSNO, but this was ultimately a powerful showcase to which both artists contributed vital thoughts and crackling energy.

Before that, the 29-year-old conductor – newly appointed as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra – had proved his quiet adeptness in James MacMillan’s 2017 orchestral reworking of an earlier 2009 choral setting of the Miserere, now called Larghetto for Orchestra. Given its similarity in character to Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings – that same heavenly lyricism, its unhurried richness and warmth – you wonder to what extent the title is a deliberate allusion.

But it is MacMillan through and through, luxuriously devotional, haunted initially by subliminal references to his own famous Tryst melody (think back to Karen Cargill’s sung performance of that two weeks ago with the RSNO, forming part of the Three Scottish Songs) which finally appears, fully harmonised, in the heart-stopping closing bars. Heyward captured the reflective stillness of the work, but also its moments of heightened sentiment.

He ended with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, choosing to do so without controversy or novelty, simply expressing it in calm, rounded terms. If that was to play down the maximum theatricality of the opening movement and paint the Scherzo in honest unsensational light, there was no lack of individuality in the organic shaping of the Allegretto and exuberant flourishes of the finale.

It’s worth mentioning the encouraging turn-out on Saturday for an RSNO Glasgow series that has struggled with audience numbers so far this season. A very good sign.

Ken Walton

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

It was a bit of a risk for the BBC SSO to programme a Wagner opera, albeit a shortened form of Götterdämmerung remodelled as a “symphonic journey” by the orchestra’s multi-talented chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, given that anything so heavyweight is guaranteed to test the limits of the City Halls acoustics. Then again, this is a venue that, in the 1980s and prior to modernisation, accommodated Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony, so maybe it wasn’t such a crazy idea.

Wigglesworth’s original motive for creating his 50-minute version was, he claims, to provide a shortened concert alternative to the whole without resorting to what has often been termed “bleeding chunks”. And to a great extent he succeeds, majoring on the prologue and Act 3 music with its critical and conclusive Immolation music, while padding the musical progression out with relevant infill from elsewhere in the massive score. 

So yes, it was Wagnerian heaven, eventually. Wigglesworth has a habit of over-controlling things, which was more evident earlier in the performance, in a safety-first sort of way, than in the later stages, especially once the resplendent soprano Katherine Broderick let rip with those final epic moments as Brünnhilde. Her voice powered through the orchestra, and the heat of the opera suddenly became more ecstatically real.

It was here, too, that Wigglesworth awoke to the drama, the SSO responding in turn with gushing waves of true Wagnerian exhilaration and passion. Then, the cathartic transformation of the closing bars, and a quiet intensity that hung magically in the air. Even so, I was left unconvinced that this is the final say in how concert adaptations of Wagner can best work.

In a shorter first half, Wigglesworth offered another of his pet enthusiasms, music by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen, indeed the UK premiere of his Vers le silence (Towards the Silence), written during lockdown. 

It opened with a shattered glass effect, a shrill tutti that busied itself intently until exhaustion quashed its searing euphoria, revealing a more restful, ethereal landscape. This appeared to be the game plan for the first three movements, each subtly altered in mood, but frustratingly repetitive in concept, only to be extinguished by an uneventful, slow-moving finale. Abrahamsen has a gift for texture, not so much for harmonic warmth. And strangely enough, it was the piccolo-heavy tuttis in this work that challenged the ears rather more than the Wagner did.

Ken Walton

This programme is repeated at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on Sun 20 Nov

The Fairly Relentless Fitkins

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow

The wry title composer Graham Fitkin gave to a programme he curated for himself, his partner Ruth Wall, and pianists Clare Hammond and Kathryn Stott to perform barely hinted at the diverse music within, although it did nod to the fact that some of his own music – which made up around half of it – dated from 30 years ago.

Those early pieces dictated the line-up: eight hands on two pianos. From my excellently positioned seat in the Stevenson Hall, I could often watch six of them at once, and it was mesmerising. Dating from his time studying with Louis Andriessen and sharing much of that influence with the music of Steve Martland, Sciosophy and Untitled 11 are propulsive, funky pieces with rhythmic roots in stride as much as Western classical music.

While the opening bar of the former was counted in by the composer, the Morton Feldman piece that he and Wall played after those is rather music that is counted out, the pedals on the Steinways pressed into service after being irrelevant for his own works.

Hammond and Stott each contributed complementary solos to the evening, Stott opening the second half with John Adams’s China Gates, probably the prettiest music in the recital, and Anna Meredith’s Camberwell Green, a long way from the Mendelssohn that was the reason for its commission, but appropriately close to the sound-world of Fitkin’s catalogue.

That is also true of the music of George Walker, an African American who died in 2018 and whose music evidently needs re-discovering as much as that of William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge Taylor and Florence Price. Hammond followed his vibrant exploratory piano writing with three of the Piano Etudes by Unsuk Chin, virtuoso lightning-fingered stuff.

Fitkin and Wall began Steve Reich’s Clapping Music before the applause for that had died away, in another of the thoughtfully sequenced details of the recital. Less of a party piece than it can often be, here it set up Fitkin’s own I Swear, I Swear, I Swear later on, which adds dialogue to body percussion, inspired by snatches of conversation overheard on a plane.

The other Fitkin piano works, the changing-pace exercise of Flak, and Totti, a tuneful and architectural tribute to the Italian footballer’s club loyalty particularly apt at a time when the “beautiful game” looks very fickle indeed, set up the closing work, Bla Bla Bla, which premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival.

With Hammond and Stott at the concert grands, Fitkin and Wall played lap-tops and sampling and sequencing keyboards, with the composer narrating on a microphone headset in what was a work of impressive technical complexity as well as profound conceptual depth.

The nod to Greta Thunberg in the title was only one of many voices alongside the composer’s own, applying the ecological idea of Shifting Baseline Syndrome to the political and media environment as well as recognising its musical reference. Another (likely younger) reviewer heard echoes of the Pet Shop Boys in June, but I was reminded of the ground-breaking collages on Robert Fripp’s 1979 album, Exposure. Even the exacting Fripp would probably never have attempted to execute this music live, however. It was exhilarating.

Keith Bruce

RSNO / Sondergard

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

There was something very radical about Thomas Sondergard’s first War Requiem with the RSNO.

The ingredients and shape of Benjamin Britten’s perennial concert of remembrance, themselves a mirror of those that made the Edinburgh International Festival 15 years earlier, are so familiar – to many contemporary schoolchildren as well as those of 1962 – that the work seems to require concentration on the structure the composer created.

The RSNO’s music director, however, looked beyond that from the first bars of his War Requiem on Saturday evening.

Of course, all the building blocks were there: the orchestra’s chorus, now directed by Stephen Doughty, in the choir stalls, and the RSNO Junior Chorus, drilled by Patrick Barrett, invisible to most but very audible in the balcony; a packed platform with John Poulter’s percussion at the front of a chamber orchestra led by Maya Iwabuchi stage left, and Lena Zeliszewska the first violin of the bulk of the ensemble on Sondergard’s other side.

The conductor was also flanked by tenor Magnus Walker and baritone Benjamin Appl, while soprano Susanne Bernhard, as is now customary, was amongst the musicians and nearer her choral partners in the score.

That chorus, though, began its Requiem Aeternam almost at a whisper, and without standing. And when Walker, an on-the-day dep for the indisposed Stuart Jackson, intoned Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth, it was entirely without tolling bells or rattling guns, but as a quiet cry of despair. The “pity of war” was no memory here – it was a lamentable presence in the hall.

If this was startling and disconcerting – this is not how Britten’s War Requiem is supposed to begin, surely? – it was also incontrovertibly true. We live at a time where war in Europe is no history lesson, but on our televisions daily, in a way that it was not when the composer’s work premiered.

Sondergard’s War Requiem played out in real time as an operatic soundtrack. It was as slow as I have ever heard it, and more integrated as a piece of through-composed music. Anyone without a libretto on their knee would have been pushed to identify all the switches from Latin liturgy to 20th century verse, and the contrasts between those elements, as sung by the choirs and soprano on the one hand and the male soloists on the other, and played by each of the teams of instrumentalists, were never a distracting part of the mechanism of the performance, where that is often the crucial engine of an interpretation.

Instead, from that disconcerting opening, where listeners familiar with the work might have struggled to find their path, the 90-minute score blossomed as a debate and dialogue between all those instrumental and vocal ingredients. If you share the faith expressed in the words of the “In paridisum” towards its end, there is comfort there, but the message that little has changed in our own age was stronger, and the final prayer for eternal rest for those who have fallen and will fall held Saturday’s audience in solemn silence at the work’s end.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Susanne Bernhard by Christine Schnieder

SCO / Schuldt

SCO / Schuldt

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Getting the best out of Schumann is not as easy as one might imagine. There’s something about his orchestral music in particular that tells of an ardent and instinctive creative mind working hard to express the fullness of its fruits, but where an overabundance of his own self-criticism looms menacingly, threatening to suffocate its natural flow. Get the right conductor, and the threats dissolve. Clement Schuldt is one such exponent, something he proved beyond doubt in an SCO programme that began and ended with Schumann.

It was in the final work, the Symphony No 3 known as the Rhenish, that the distinctive character of Schuldt’s approach was most forcibly illustrated. He is a gestural conductor, who paints vivid pictures with his hands and which an orchestra as responsive as the SCO latches onto with stimulating results. 

This was by no means a pristine run-of-the-mill Rhenish, in that a certain riskiness gave this performance ample biting edge and spontaneous thrills. Dubiety of pulse in the opening bars instilled an unsettlingly mystifying ambiguity, resolving quickly to assert the extremes of pomposity and brooding melancholy that frame the first movement’s stormy polemic. 

The moderately-paced Scherzo was both weighty and fluid; the third movement meaty and mellifluous; the final two moments sombre and vivacious respectively. Informing all of this was a richly-flavoured SCO – its bold winds, punchy brass and brazen strings emphasised in the immediacy of the Queen’s Hall acoustics.

Compare that to the Scottish premiere of Julian Anderson’s Cello Concerto “Litanies” which preceded it, its shimmery impermanence a million miles from the gravitational solidity of the Schumann. Performed superbly by Alban Gerhardt, its dedicatee, Anderson’s originality sat to the fore, lacy textures bearing an almost ephemeral appeal and exhilaration, Gerhardt fully absorbed in the music’s translucent charm, sympathetic to the ingenuity of orchestral flavourings punching the air around him. 

The work which opening the concert – Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale – presented the composer in uncommonly high spirits, reflected by Schuldt’s vibrant, cheery realisation. It was a performance that danced on air, oozed theatricality and languished in heart-felt lyricism. Yet it resisted any temptation for anodyne complacency, Schuldt’s vigorous precision keeping it fresh and dynamic at every turn.

Ken Walton

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

Anyone unfamiliar with Leos Janacek’s Sinfonietta will still have suspected that something big and exhilarating was on the cards for this well-attended afternoon concert – Bohemian Rhapsodies – by the BBC SSO under its chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth. The clue was in the expectant line of music strands splayed across the rear balcony, a sure sign that an additional grandstanding phalanx of brass would be appearing anytime soon.

But way before that, Wigglesworth opened with something rarer and altogether more populist by Janacek: his Lachian Dances, which arise out of the same rustic nationalist genre as fellow Bohemian Antonin Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances. They are tuneful, picturesque, with exuberant rhythmic surprises that thrill, moodily countered by curious modal colourings that frequently cool the ardour. 

That didn’t prevent the SSO homing in on the music’s overarching optimism, plentiful in the swarthy, celebratory Pozehnany and swaggering Celadensky (Country Bumpkin’s Dance). Wigglesworth generally let them speak for themselves, though a further reining in of the wind and brass would have warranted a better-balanced presence by the strings.

Then came the highlight of the programme, a diversion into the whimsical world of Hungarian composer Erno Dohnanyi and his tongue-in-cheek concerto treatment of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, more quaintly known as his Variations on a Nursery Song. With its sidestepping jibes at all the greats – Liszt, Richard Strauss, Brahms, Bruckner and others – the satirical impact was made all the more effective by the clean, unfussy, matter-of-fact virtuosity of pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, pitted against Dohnanyi’s sparkling orchestration.

The comic set-up – a growling opening right out of the Wagner-Liszt camp – made its mark, power-driven by Wigglesworth only to be slapped down by the smirky fausse naïveté of Kanneh-Mason’s nursery theme entry. The partnership remained frivolously alert throughout.

The second half opened with four of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, their natural ebullience captured equally in spirit and lively content. 

Finally, the massed balcony brass lined up for Janacek’s Sinfonietta, a daring challenge for the City Halls’ limited acoustics, but one well met by the molten, tumultuous quality of the brass ensemble and the overall orchestral spectacle this work exudes. Momentary untidiness in attack and balance issues aside, the overall impression was one of awesome spectacle. For that alone, it was worth waiting for.

Ken Walton

Picture: Isata Kanneh-Mason

RSNO / Hahn 

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall 

The day after a scratch orchestra had played film music to a reportedly packed house in a concert organised by a commercial promoter, it was disappointing that the RSNO was greeted by a half-filled hall for a programme of equally attractive concert music with the bonus of a Scottish premiere from the country’s best-known living composer performed by an international star. 

That soloist was mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill and the Three Scottish Songs were new orchestrations by Sir James MacMillan only previously heard in March this year, when the singer was Ian Bostridge and the orchestra the Britten Sinfonia. 

Superficially, they make an odd trio, the first two in Scots and intimate words of love and loss composed by MacMillan to sound akin to folk songs of an earlier era. The third, The Children, also sets words by William Soutar, but written in English and a harrowing evocation of the war-time loss of innocent lives, written during the Spanish Civil War. Its sound-world is entirely different, distinctly in the composer’s style, and as explicit as the text. 

There is, however, a consistently spare style to all three, Cargill beginning the first two unaccompanied and singing solo for most of the first stanza of The Children after an initial chord. The composer uses only strings and percussion, and the instrumental silences are often as eloquent as the music in his arrangements, with the focus always on the singer, at least until the cataclysmic percussive conclusion. 

Who knows how Bostridge, whose Englishness makes him a great interpreter of Noel Coward’s songs, coped with the linguistic transition inherent in the set, but it presented no difficulty to Cargill and there was in her interpretation a clear line from the personal to the universal. What links all three of William Soutar’s poems is the veracity of their emotional truth and MacMillan and the mezzo masterfully communicated that. 

The concert was to have been conducted by Maestro “Sasha” Lazarev, the orchestra’s Russian Conductor Emeritus, whose presence was impossible because of the global situation. Perhaps his absence was linked to the number of empty seats, but if so, those who stayed away missed a debut on the podium that was worth witnessing. 

Austrian conductor Patrick Hahn is still in his 20s, and already has a list of senior posts in Germany on his CV, and apparently sings cabaret songs and plays a mean jazz piano as well. Taking over the existing RSNO programme this week, the spare essence of the MacMillan was bracketed by huge orchestral stuff – three movements from Khachaturian’s ballet Spartacus, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4. 

A diminishing number of folk must now hear the former and see a tall ship in full sail battling the waves, thanks to its use in the BBC TV drama The Onedin Line, and that will certainly not be the case for the young conductor. That theme was presented here at the centre of a suite that started quietly but swiftly unleashed the full power of the symphony orchestra and concluded with a triple-time section to rival the Armenian composer’s other great waltz, which the touring RSNO played as an encore under conductor Peter Oundjian, and a great brass climax. 

Tchaikovsky 4 also featured in an Oundjian touring programme. Hahn took the work at his own very measured pace, a quietly deliberate way with the dramatic opening that paid dividends later. I don’t think I have heard the orchestra play quite so quietly before the first clarinet’s entry. There was a very precise ebb and flow in the pizzicato Scherzo too, and a full range of contrasts and dynamics in the Finale – and another huge finish. I’d wager that the whizz-kid from Ganz will be back. 

Keith Bruce 

SCO / Marwood

City Halls, Glasgow

Any journey that ends with Kurt Weill’s 1924 Violin Concerto – the work of a young man yet to form his career-making partnership with Bertolt Brecht – is worth embarking on, but the Scottish Chamber Orchestra took a circuitous way there under the direction of violinist Anthony Marwood.

During its composition, Weill’s teacher Federico Busoni died and that is reflected in the work’s sombre opening. It does lighten in tone in the three-part central movement, however, when the soloist finds foils among the percussion, brass and winds in turn, before becoming a real virtuoso piece in the fast finale. Marwood took a very measured approach to the work, leaving plenty of room to make the conclusion especially dramatic.

The might possibly be said of the whole programme, which leapt about chronologically and in scale. Immediately before the concerto was the only work that could really be seen as its precursor, the Three Dances from Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. Here was the SCO as a cabaret band and closer to the music that Weill would go on to write, and Marwood clearly relished his devilish part in proceedings.

The programme had begun with music that would not be played until after the Second World War but was written before the First, Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question. The American maverick may have predicted a direction in which music would go, but he was alone on that path in the first decade of the 20th century. It was followed by a singularly playful statement from exiled Russian Alexander Raskatov, Five Minutes from the Life of W A Mozart, from the first year of the 21st.

Haydn’s Symphony No 8 “Le soir” was just – like the Weill – the work of a composer in his 20s, and recently employed by the Esterhazys. After the parody of the Raskatov, here was music both baroque and pictorial, played with sparkling joie de vivre.

The two works on either side of the interval fitted even less well into the already opaque scheme of things: the Adagio from Bruckner’s epic String Quintet and Elgar’s five-minute string work Sospiri, which sounded very dated next to everything else in the second half.

Marwood’s title for this selection box was From Darkness to Light, which did not really help clarify the programme. It was great to hear the Weill, but the route there did seem a little random.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Lintu

City Halls, Glasgow

For the second week running, the BBC SSO came up trumps with a conductor it instantly warmed to, and a programme that pulled in the crowds. The latter was significant on a day that saw the surprise announcement of a new UK-wide Head of Orchestras and Choirs, the current BBC Philharmonic boss Simon Webb, whose stated objectives include building audiences for all the BBC orchestras at a time when the BBC as a whole is undergoing a serious critical debate about its future.

On the basis of Thursday’s buzzing concert – a substantial complementary pairing of Shostakovich’s edgy Violin Concerto No 2 and Rachmaninov’s spine-tingling Second Symphony – you’d think the SSO had little to worry about. Under Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu, both performances bore a responsiveness and virility that was instantly engaging: very different in each case, but together symptomatic of an orchestra that clearly wanted to give its best.

Added to the mix was the formidable American-born Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä, whose unshakeable, coruscating presence in the Shostakovich injected fire, obstinacy, tenderness and pathos into a complex, at times harrowing, late work, which the composer fills hauntingly and fleetingly with reminiscences of his earlier music. 

Such a vital concoction of responses filled this riveting performance, the gathering storm of the opening movement powered by the orchestra’s swelling presence, but also a piquancy arising from delicate interchanges between the soloist and orchestra principals, like a chattering dialogue with the piccolo, or endearingly with the flute in the central Adagio.

But it was in the finale that Vähälä found every opportunity to showcase her combative energy and stimulating musicality. Like a mischievous child, she threw truculent pronouncements at the orchestra, whose matching responses were just as incendiary and belligerent. Lintu played both fellow protagonist and artful arbiter in this electrifying trading of insults, forging a synthesis that held things together while maintained the inexorable swagger.

All was very different in the Rachmaninov, a reading by Lintu that was as sweeping as it was elemental. He made that clear in the opening minutes, a slow fashioning of strength that eventually blossomed and ceded at the broadest level, yet centred on delicious minutiae. He breathed radiant energy and sparkle into the scherzo, filled the Adagio with a timeless, but never laboured, expansiveness, and in the frenetic finale wrapped up a wholly satisfying programme with a rip-roaring send off.

Ken Walton

RCS / Opera Double Bill

Alexander Gibson Opera School, RCS, Glasgow

This wasn’t an evening of rip-roaring thrills and spills, as opera so often is. Instead, a small student cast and instrumental ensemble from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, in the flexible intimacy of the Alexander Gibson Opera School, took on the audacious challenge of a double bill of introspective chamber operas by Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars in which darkness and subdued intensity are the connecting thread.

Neither work – Nyman’s pseudo-Freudian The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Bryars’ melancholic Marilyn Forever – is over-concerned with narrative, musical highs and lows, or even time-stopping vocal showpieces. Instead, the focus, driven by Nyman’s trademark minimalism and Bryars’ smoky jazz-standard proclivities respectively, is mostly on the moment, a pertinent thought or turn of phrase phrase turning in on itself musically, and all the more potent for it.

Nyman’s work deals with the strange case of Dr P, a singer suffering from visual agnosis, which makes it impossible for him to recognise everyday objects, unable even to recognise his own wife, yet he can still sing and play chess. His devoted wife joins him in consultation with Dr S (the opera’s title comes from a book of the same name by neurologist Oliver Sachs in which he describes many such cases). Caroline Clegg’s production, with stage designs by Finlay McLay and lighting by Davy Cunningham, places the action simply and unpretentiously in an elegant domestic drawing room, the six-piece ensemble visibly raised side-stage.

Scots baritone Ross Cumming brings curiosity and humour to the role of the patient, whimsically unaware of the worry he loads on the doting Mrs P (sung with charming resilience by French soprano Marie Cayeux). There’s a suspicion at times that he might just be playing the doctor, which bounces pertinently off tenor Sam Marston’s lean, self-satisfied Dr S.

It’s not the easiest score to keep sizzling for a full hour, being typically Nyman with its fundamentally lugubrious demeanour, slow-shifting sections and imprisoned cellular detail. Yet conductor William Cole sculpts a performance that carries plenty cut and thrust by dint of meticulous discipline and sensitively-balanced dynamics.  

In contrast, the sultriness of Bryars’ Marilyn Forever – imaginary scenes based on the last night of Marilyn Monroe’s life to a libretto by Marilyn Bowering – opens the door to more decadent, expressive vistas. There’s an alluringly seedy quality to it, the tragic actress (sung with pouting conviction by mezzo-soprano Megan Baker) sprawled on her bed, men grubbing around, the humid strains of a jazz trio within the larger wraparound ensemble painting a louche musical backdrop.

It’s all about Marilyn, such is the symbolism of this production’s ubiquitous face masks and the actress’s mirror obsession; and Baker’s performance, demurely sung, lives up to the self-imposing fragility of the troubled American icon. Cumming, this time, excels in a constant state of metamorphosis as “The Men”, at one point as her incompatible husband Arthur Miller, at another tempestuously suggestive of previous partner Joe DiMaggio, but mostly he’s a shifting cipher of the species. 

Clegg couches the action in postwar movie terms, the tragic and predominant central focus on Marilyn offset by the pseudo-vaudeville presence of The Tritones, two agile sharp-suited misfits (tenor James McIntyre and bass-baritone Ryan Garnham) with more than a hint of the sinister, who might easily be mistaken for the comedic gangsters in Kiss Me Kate.

It would be charitable to say that Bryars’ score is anything beyond the ordinary. He’s at his best in jazz territory, which is where these RCS players, again tight-knit under Cole’s cool-headed direction, effect a sumptuous, atmospheric response, and where this opera really finds its niche.

You don’t often get to hear this repertoire. Well done the RCS for providing such a slick opportunity.

Ken Walton

Further performances on Wed 2 & Fri 4 Nov

Picture credit: Royal Conservatoire of Scotland / Robbie McFadzean

Scottish Opera / Ainadamar

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

This is absolute fresh territory for Scottish Opera. Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar: the Fountain of Tears may claim itself an opera, and by literal definition it is, but that is perhaps to diminish the uniqueness with which it eschews idiomatic purity, embracing most notably the hypnotic charisma of Spanish flamenco dancing, the laid-back sensuality of Latin American rumba, the feral intensity of authentic flamenco singing, and an all-pervading theatrical earthiness that could easily bag Ainadamar legitimacy on the Broadway stage.

I doubt if anyone witnessing the opening night of its UK stage premiere in Glasgow, the first directorial venture into opera by Brazilian-born choreographer Deborah Colker, cared a jot. For this is, purely and simply, genuine entertainment, heavy going in its emotional reminiscences on the life and untimely execution during the 1930s’ Spanish civil war of poet and playwright Federico Garciá Lorca (expressed through the lens of those who adored him), but realised here – the Argentine composer himself was present in the audience – with such ardent physical fluidity, unceasing visual stimulation and musical intoxication as to signal the ecstasy and optimism central to Lorca’s legacy.

Colker is a dynamic presence, amusingly witnessed in her animated opening night curtain call appearance. She also, understandably, places the importance of movement foremost on her agenda, materialising here in an uninterrupted hour-plus piece that flows with bewitching organic unity. A cast of disparate parts – key characters, a genuine flamenco singer (Alfredo Tejada as the Falangist officer Ruiz Alonso), flamenco dancers and supporting ensemble – come together under her influence as one swaying mass, like underwater reeds dancing to the rhythm of the tide. 

That, in itself, serves to gel the musical extremes at play in Golijov’s untamed score. What begins as a primeval-sounding orchestral prelude and mournful ballad, courses variously through hi-octane foot-stomping flamenco, rapt verismo-style eulogies, a steamily-enacted Cuban excursion (Margarita tried to lure Lorca to safety there), and those spine-tingling interjections by Tejada of genuine Andalusian cante. Under music director Stuart Stratford, a virile Scottish Opera Orchestra, spiced with dazzling onstage Spanish guitar (Ian Watt) and traditional cajón (percussionist Stuart Semple), are the chief energisers in this riveting presentation.

Colker’s creative team are wholly on message. Jon Bausor’s ever-morphing stage design simple and effective, soaked in the emotive darkness of Paul Keogan’s shadowy lighting, and enlivened by well-integrated video and sound production from Tal Rosner and Cameron Crosby respectively. 

It’s a credit to this cast that the key characters achieve a powerful balance between prominence and coalescence. As Margarita Xirgu – Lorca’s actress of choice, close friend and key protagonist in this theatrical lament – Lauren Fagan counters reverential passion with glowing sincerity. As Lorca, a role scored unexpectedly but effectively for female voice, mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey argues convincingly a warm and affectionate slant on the volatile poet. Julieth Lozano’s innocent portrayal of Nuria, the student of Margarita destined to carry on Lorca’s legacy, is a potent symbol of truth and hope. 

There’s no denying that Ainadamar, first performed in 2003 in Massachusetts and revised for a Santa Fe production in 2005, has minor questionable traits: the last ten minutes or so, for instance, that seem to unnecessarily prolong the final denouement. But this is a grand achievement for Scottish Opera in its 60th anniversary season, a reminder of the bold principles that governed its founding in 1962. 

Ken Walton

Further performances in Glasgow (26 Oct & 5 Nov); and at Edinburgh Festival Theatre (8, 10 & 12 Nov)

Ainadamar is produced by Scottish Opera in collaboration with Opera Ventures and co-producers Detroit Opera, The Metropolitan Opera and Welsh National Opera

Photo credit: James Glossop

RSNO & Dunedin Consort/Chan

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

The first noise of Friday night’s performance of Beethoven’s Fifth by the RSNO and Elim Chan was not those famous four notes, but the stomp of the diminutive Principal Guest Conductor’s boot on the podium as she laid down the beat.

I imagine she may regret that, but it was an early indication of how she would serve the symphony: at pace, with a rigorous precise rhythm, and utterly magisterial control of the dynamics of the work.

The way the conductor presented the Beethoven, including a last-minute reduction in the size of the orchestra from the strength in the published programme, was the result of the musical discussion the concert was all about. It was the first in a new three-year partnership between the RSNO and Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort, so ticket-buyers heard two bands for the price of one.

At the heart of the programme was the work that had given birth to the collaboration, Echo-Fragmente by clarinettist Jorg Widmann, the orchestra’s “Musician in Focus” this season. Written for celebrations of Mozart’s 250th anniversary in Freiburg, the score calls for a modern orchestra tuned to current pitch of A=440 alongside a period band playing at baroque pitch, with the virtuoso clarinet soloist (Widmann himself here as well as at the 2006 premiere) using extended multiphonic and note-bending techniques to straddle both worlds.

If that sounds demanding, it is not the half of it, with all sorts of aural adventures in the work’s fragmentary structure – and much of it a great deal less tiring to listen to than that probably sounds.

Widmann’s own playing was extraordinary, but his writing is just as original. The work began with an unlikely trio of himself, Pippa Tunnell’s harp and Dunedin guitarist Sasha Savaloni on slide mandolin, and used all sorts of interesting combinations of instruments in its 20 minutes, those three joined by Lynda Cochrane’s Celeste and Djordje Gajic’s accordion in a central unit between the RSNO players and the Dunedin on either side of the stage.

Specific moments seared themselves into the consciousness, including the soloist’s combining with four RSNO clarinets, including bass and contrabass instruments, in a resonant chorale, and his virtuosic soloing (sounding like more than one player himself0, accompanied by the low strings of the period band.

The four natural horn players of the Dunedin were required to become a big band trombone section in tone at one point, which was in marked contrast to their earlier appearance in Haydn’s Symphony No 39 in G Minor. In the Consort’s performance which opened the programme, they stood with their instruments vertical, bells upwards, as contemporary images suggest was 18th century practice. Directed by first violin Matthew Truscott, the smaller group filled the Usher Hall with beautifully textured sound, lovely string phrasing in the Andante second movement, and skipping dance beats in the Trio before the stormy Finale, which surely prefigures Beethoven.

Likewise, Chan’s attention was on every detail of the Fifth, with the dynamics of her interpretation turning on a dime. That was obvious from the first movement but rarely does the Scherzo become quite as sotto voce as the RSNO did here, the tension palpable before the explosion into the Finale.

It is often noted that the work of historically informed performance groups like the Dunedin Consort has in turn informed the way modern symphony orchestras go about playing music of previous centuries. With this new collaboration, audiences can hear exactly what that means in one evening. There are other fascinating works in the pipeline for them to present together in an exercise in mutual appreciation that is a win-win for audiences as well.

Keith Bruce

Repeated this evening (Saturday, October 29) at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Rehearsal picture by Jessica Cowley

BBC SSO / Muñoz

City Halls, Glasgow

Despite the last-minute change of conductor and soloist, it was heartening to witness a decent-sized audience at the City Halls, the first in a long time for the BBC SSO, and the sense of occasion and excitement such numbers duly generate. That the programme – music by Clyne, Chopin and Bartok – had a drawing power of its own easily mitigated the change of personnel. Even so, conductor Tito Muñoz (in for Joana Carneiro) and pianist Eric Lu (replacing the advertised Russian soloist, Zlata Chochieva) brought their own distinguished qualities to the performances.

Muñoz, the current long-standing music director of the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra in his native America, made his mark in an instant. He’s a no-nonsense conductor, with a whip-like beat that immediately pulled us into the murky world of Anna Clyne’s high-energy This Midnight Hour. 

The composer – an Edinburgh University graduate most recently known to Scots through her stint as associate composer of the SCO – calls it “a visual journey expressed in sound”. In that respect, its cinematic flow – a restlessly unceasing soundtrack to what could easily be an imaginary film noir – is self-explanatory. The frenetic narrative changes gear at the drop of a hat – adrenalin-charged propulsion gives way to smoky cabaret ballad gives way to hymn-like calmness – but there’s rarely a moment’s breath en route.

Muñoz nailed every change of tempo and mood with resolute insistence and conviction. It was perhaps a mistake to ask the two onstage trumpeters to step out of the orchestra at such a quiet point in the score and make their way up to the rear gallery for a final offstage coup de théâtre. It provided an unnecessary distraction, even if the final result was thrilling.

Fellow American Eric Lu’s performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1 immediately reduced the temperature. His first bold entry signalled an approach that favoured care over caution, and indeed, what followed was a deliberately contained exposé that steered clear of effusive gesture or extrovert indulgence, instead harnessing the natural energy of Chopin’s writing and allowing its filigree meanderings to speak instinctively for themselves. 

Where the opening movement enjoyed limitless free-flowing pianism set against a robust structural framework, the slow movement shone a more intimate, nocturnal spotlight on the young Lu – it’s only four years since the 24-year-old won the Leeds International Piano Competition – only to be thrust aside by the rhapsodic delights of the finale.

The focus shifted back to Muñoz and the SSO for the closing work in the programme, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and one of the 20th century’s most virtuosic orchestral masterpieces. The symmetrical relevance to Clyne’s opening work was not lost, once again dark features, sardonic references and blazing euphoria variously at play. 

Muñoz’s pacing was masterfully gauged, moulding the organic volcanism of the opening movement, the pithy playfulness of the scherzo, the eery “night music” of the Elegia, the edgy lampooning of Shostakovich in the Intermezzo, and the whirling finale into one glorious aural spectacle. He certainly had the SSO playing their best so far this season.

Ken Walton 

Available to listen to on BBC Sounds

Scottish Ensemble: Breathe

Engine Works, Glasgow

The way in which the presentation of music – and specifically “classical” chamber music – has evolved to present practice (now taught in many a conservatoire) might make an interesting research topic, but the main takeaway is that it works. This 75-minute serving of contemporary music, with a side-order of Beethoven and a little garnish of La Monte Young, attempts to do something different and, regardless of the high quality of the performance of some excellent music, is less successful.

The inspiration for the recital, we are told, is the work that the Scottish Ensemble has been doing with patients in Maggie’s cancer care support centres, but we learn little of what that involves, or the relationship between those visits and the music that Ensemble and BBC SSO viola player Andrew Berridge has chosen for the Breathe programme. Music is a multi-faceted experience, and if there is surely a crossover between its therapeutic value and a concert performance, this evening doesn’t really get to the nub of it.

More seriously, the Glasgow date’s audience seemed a little discombobulated by Breathe, and unsure what was expected of them. Not only was there no applause when the musicians appeared, everyone sat on their hands until, inevitably, after the Finale of the last of Beethoven’s Razumovsky Quartets, the antepenultimate piece. Along the way Berridge offered gentle guidance on how we should be listening to the music he has selected, but when asked to describe their reaction to the pieces, individuals reached for comfortable, ambient, relaxing words rather than expressing engagement or concentration on the compositions. Put an audience on the spot, unrehearsed, and this is what you should probably expect.

For most, I suspect, these opportunities for interaction were a distracting interruption to the music, which began with the folk-influenced Solbonn by Norwegian Gjermund Larsen and ended in a similar vein with a trio playing Taladh (Lullaby) by Donald Grant of the Elias String Quartet, which Berridge has recorded with another ensemble, Perpetuo.

Apart from the Beethoven, the meat of the sequence came from three composers around 40 years old who are hip names to drop: Daniel Kidane, Nico Muhly and Caroline Shaw. Kidane, the only Brit, provides the title piece, which borrows heavily from early music in its longer central section, and leans on the 20th century examples of Vaughan Williams and Maxwell Davies in that.

Muhly and Shaw are both in the business of interrogating the form of the string quartet in his Diacritical Marks and her Ritornello 2.sq2.j.a. As with the Beethoven, the most impressive ingredient of the evening was how these were arranged and performed by the larger ensemble. The unity of the performance of the conclusion of the Razumovsky produced wide smiles in performers and listeners alike, while the eight short movements in the Muhly – some richly melodic – were batted back and forth by two quartets, opposite each other but not at all oppositional.

At a little over a quarter of an hour in duration, Shaw’s Ritornello was the biggest work, and the showstopper. Expanding it for the dozen musicians only underlines the technical challenges in its pass-the-parcel pizzicato passages, overlapping bowings, delicious glissandos and a mid-way peak of an accelerating seven-note rising figure. The ensemble richness of the performance was every bit as exciting as the more familiar Beethoven.

In the end it is the fascinating way the composers and performers deal with the possibilities of music written for the string quartet that makes Breathe worth the ticket, rather than the more vague, and highly personal, question of how the audience listens to it.

Keith Bruce

Repeated at Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms tonight, Thursday, October 27, and Steeple Church Dundee on Friday, October 28.

Picture: composer Caroline Shaw

RSNO / Reif

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The recent trend among orchestras to rediscover music by composers of African-American heritage, especially females, has unearthed some forgotten gems: not always, but assuredly so in the case of Julia Perry. Born in Kentucky in the 1920s, she died at the age of 55 in 1979, but in her curtailed lifetime studied at New York’s prestigious Julliard School and later with the go-to European teachers of the time, Nadia Boulanger and Luigi Dallapiccola. The RSNO opened last weekend’s programme with one of her 1950s’ works, A Short Piece for Orchestra.

It is, as it says on the tin, short, but within its seven-minute span it reveals a red-hot creative focus and intent, which this performance under German-born conductor Christian Reif vividly illustrated. Structured in five concise and continuous sections, it wasted no time in making its point, Perry’s stylistic language progressive and bold. Reif exerted incisive control on its initial explosiveness, a cascading torrent of aphoristic soundbites ripe for the picking, variously calming the mood (a delicious flute-led second section) or revelling in ecstatic adrenalin rushes along its journey.

As such, it functioned as the perfect springboard for Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D, a sumptuous assimilation of the composer’s Hollywood epic film score style and influences derived from his native Vienna upbringing, echoes of Mahler and Strauss. If that demands a soloist of big personality, then American-born violinist Philippe Quint, making his RSNO debut, was a solid choice.

Visually, he was a commanding presence centre stage, with a physicality responsive to the music’s flamboyant cut and thrust. His tone was assertive and passionate, his agile facility at the topmost end of the fingerboard (there’s a lot of that!) bright and thrilling, and where Korngold luxuriates in golden lyricism, Quint’s realisation was gloriously rapt. Occasionally such all-consuming fervour distorted the perfection of the intonation, but it was a performance – along with his solo encore version of Charlie Chaplin’s famous melody Smile – that was both engaging and enthralling.

There wasn’t quite the same sustained intensity in Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony, which certainly had its triumphant moments, but which, under Reif’s busy direction, lacked sustained compulsion and the sharpest of responses from the orchestra. The opening two movements seemed weighted, sluggish even, made up for by a welcome zest in the Scherzo and ultimate flourish in the Finale. 

Ken Walton

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