Category Archives: Reviews

SCO / Labadie

City Halls, Glasgow

Between his arrival in London in 1712 and the composition of the masterly text-setting that is Messiah, Handel learned how to appreciate the possibilities of the English language. The wiser composer, surely, would not have touched the Ambrose Philips text for Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne with a barge-pole.

“Let Envy then conceal her head, and blasted faction glide away. No more her hissing tongues we’ll dread, secure in this auspicious day.” So sang Neal Davies with more animation than the words deserved. It is the nadir of a nine-movement tribute to the wife of George the First that never soars in its libretto but is fascinating as an indication of how swiftly the composer assimilated the musical vocabulary of his adopted country.

The bass-baritone was one of a trio of vocal soloists hymning Queen Anne in Glasgow on Friday evening, with soprano Louise Alder and countertenor Iestyn Davies joining SCO principal trumpet Peter Franks in the luxury line-up of the front-line. The Ode borrows cheerfully from Henry Purcell, especially in some of the writing for the high male voice, which has the biggest share of the work.

There are some exquisite moments in the piece, particularly a soprano and countertenor duet with oboe and string trio accompaniment that gives onto a chorus, and the SCO Chorus had some very lovely music to sing.

The choir were on stellar form all night, laying out their stall with the marvellous vocal entry to Zadok the Priest. The first and third of Handel’s Coronation Anthems framed a programme entitled “Music for the Royals” that preceded the upcoming contemporary coronation by complete coincidence. Devout Monarchists may even have bridled at conductor Bernard Labadie’s characterisation of it as a “fluke”, rather than an act of Divine Will.

The French-Canadian is renowned for this repertoire and takes a relaxed approach in concert not unlike that of Nicholas McGegan, with the work clearly having been done beforehand. It produced the goods in performance with every element of the huge range of sounds coming from the stage (and from the balcony when a sextet from the choir appeared there during the Ode) pin sharp in execution and individually audible.

Handel was breaking new ground at the time he wrote these pieces, so there was a huge variation in the tonal colours from the early work through to the Music for the Royal Fireworks, with its blazing four trumpets. At the other end of the sonic spectrum, Alison Green put in a big shift on contra-bassoon in that piece, but there were fine instrumental performances all over the platform and across the programme, with chamber organ, harpsichord and theorbo joining the strings and winds, and a crucially-engaged turn as orchestra leader from Michael Gurevich.

Those ingredients each had moments of concentration in the Water Music Suite No 1, as Handel shifts focus to the oboes and then the horns in the opening movements before finding different scoring combinations for the well-known Minuet, the Bouree and the Hornpipe, with the reeds very much on point in its speedy later bars.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Oramo

City Halls, Glasgow

The colourful personality and striking originality of South African cellist/singer/composer Abel Selaocoe created a sensation the last time he appeared with the BBC SSO. That – and his growing international reputation – no doubt accounted of the anticipatory excitement that filled the City Halls foyer on Thursday, where notable swarms of young people and the accompanying buzz gathered noisily with the traditional BBC SSO audience. There was certainly something in the air!

Before long, in the main concert hall, that “something” had made its indelible mark, though not initially. Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, in its version for strings and percussion, provided first a softly pungent scene-setter, the SSO initiating an unplanned fresh partnership with the young Finnish conductor Taavi Oramo (son of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor Sakari Oramo). Brought in last minute to replace the advertised Anu Tali, he launched slightly cautiously into the Estonian composer’s hypnotic meditation.   

Oramo seemed a little tense to start with, the oft-repeated string incantations and punctuating  percussive tick tock of the claves rather coldly configured, but later finding a more sublime inner soul, enchantment and ultimate tenderness. 

Against such solemn quietude the ebullient appearance of Selaocoe, oozing rock star charisma, was like a bolt of lightning. Dressed in traditional South African outfit, he acknowledged the crowd as if he was headlining at Glastonbury. He spoke of his latest “release” – the imminent world premiere of his concerto Four Spirits – in which he would combine his own ethnic singing style with virtuoso cello performance, but also incorporating a dynamic inner dialogue with guest percussionist and collaborator Bernhard Schimpelsberger, placed within the orchestra but visually prominent in beanie hat and casual clothes.

What transpired as the four movements revealed themselves was a work of powerful emotional worth and democratic involvement, Selaocoe remaining seated only when issuing kaleidoscopic effects on his cello, but otherwise on his feet to broadcast mesmerising vocalisations ranging from piercing paeans of joy to subterranean rumbles and bewitching chants. 

The score, which explores various aspects of human purpose and community, cast in a language that fuses African and Western idiom, calls on the orchestral players to use their voices. Mention should also be made of orchestral percussionist David Kerr’s matching partnership with Schimpelsberger. And what a gloriously moving peroration as Selaocoe inspired the audience to join in singing the final moments. It all seemed so natural, so visceral, something very different and unforgettable. 

There was no option beyond that but for an encore. Schimpelsberger came front stage to join with Selaocoe in Wake Up, a possibly improvised dialogue that found its natural endpoint in dazzling jazz riffs and dizzy virtuosity.

How do you follow that? The answer here was Sibelius’ Second Symphony, a challenge that Oramo  met with coolness and taut discipline. There was an assuredness in his overall vision of the symphony – from the craggy inevitability of the opening movement and heart-rending intensity at the core of the Andante to the euphoric explosiveness of the Scherzo and radiant heroism of the Finale – but there were moments, too, where judgment erred, whether mis-balancing conversational solo lines or allowing the brass to over project.

But, no matter, for this concert will be remembered almost exclusively for the phenomenon that is Abel Selaocoe. 

Ken Walton 

Russian Opera Double Bill

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow

Moscow-born and UK-based composer Elena Langer had the suite she made of the music for her Welsh National Opera hit Figaro Gets a Divorce performed by the BBC SSO at Glasgow City Halls on the eve of the pandemic, just weeks after it had been premiered by Maxim Emelyanychev in Seattle.

Nicholas McGegan will conduct a performance of that work with the Cleveland Orchestra in August, and the composer’s ongoing connection with the wider Scottish musical community was cemented this week when the Alexander Gibson Opera School presented a beautifully clear and lively staging of her earlier piece, Four Sisters.

Commissioned by Dawn Upshaw specifically for students to perform, the piece borrows three characters (Masha, Irina and Olga) from Chekhov’s play and transplants them to New York City with a Gianni Schicchi-like plot of the lost will and testament of their deceased father.

His was the final coffin in a procession of them in Max Hoehn’s clever staging of three works for the Masters singers at the Conservatoire. If that was tempting fate, the production survived the gremlins and found a serendipitous context.

Partnering the Langer in the double-bill was Cesar Cui’s A Feast in Time of Plague. Setting a short Pushkin play about London’s 1665 Plague with a group of hedonists partying in the face of the pandemic and in defiance of religious disapproval, it has had a few revivals around the globe prompted by the Covid emergency. That this one played as Boris Johnson faced a parliamentary committee could not have been planned, but that was perhaps some recompense for the wave of illness that afflicted the cast during rehearsals.

That resulted in Masha in Four Sisters being sung from the wings by Northern Irish soprano Rebecca Murphy while an indisposed, and masked, Rosalind Dobson walked the part on stage. Perhaps that prompted the rest of the cast to work a little harder through their own chest infections, but they certainly rose to the occasion. Megan Baker and Hannah Bennett, in the mezzo roles of Irina and Olga, and baritone Ross Cumming as their father’s executor, Krumpelblatt, were a fine ensemble and took their solo arias well, although soprano Marie Cayeux almost stole the show with the Maid’s anti-New York song.

Cumming – as strong a performer here as in the Nyman/Bryars double-bill last year – was the key character in A Feast in Time of Plague as the “President” who sings of the encroaching disease and death as an impetus to enjoy life to its fullest extent. Both pieces mix ensemble work with solos to rewarding effect for the casts, and returning graduate Wiktoria Wizner had the pastoral aria as Mary, while the Gothic visions of Louisa were in the hands of Cayeux.

In the pit, guest conductor Lada Valesova found all the colours in both scores, including some fine harp in the Cui and stretching to swanee whistle in Langer’s fun music. There was a prologue to the double-bill in the form of Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes during which tenors William Searle and Sam Marston and baritone Pawel Piotrowski demonstrated their mime skills with a little narrative of the relationship between old music and new. 

Like everything else in this inventive hour and a half of clever work, it spoke as lucidly as it was played, acted and sung, in an evening that was chock-full of parallels and resonances.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Marie Cayeux by Duncan McGlynn

RSNO / Chan

City Halls, Glasgow

YOU have to have been a follower of Scotland’s national orchestra for a great many years to recall the RSNO’s last run of concerts at the City Halls, the current return there necessitated by Glasgow City Council’s rather unexpected finding of funds for the refurbishment of the Royal Concert Hall.

Had the RSNO management known that was coming, the season’s programme may have been shaped differently. However, it transpired that the last concert conducted by Hong Kong’s diminutive and much-loved Elim Chan as the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor was transplanted to the Merchant City, while the same programme – a big colourful opener by Anna Clyne, a Mozart concerto with pianist Steven Osborne, and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony – would surely have sold out the larger hall.

A quart in a pint pot it may have been, but Chan’s last hurrah was an evening crammed with delights. Clyne’s This Midnight Hour has nothing to do with either Thelonious Monk or Wilson Pickett but rather the imagery of Jiménez and Baudelaire in their musical poetry, and the specific character of the strings in a contemporary French orchestra. The RSNO strings, especially the violas, had some tricky stuff to play, but the conductor clearly relished the huge palette of colours that Clyne, characteristically, calls for. The composer is an orchestrator par excellence, and the details in the percussion parts and specific deployment of the trumpets make for a terrific fun piece.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 12 is the middle one of three he wrote for the Viennese market when the newly-wed composer settled there in the 1780s. There is a tribute to the recently-deceased Johann Christian Bach, the “London” Bach, whom Mozart had met as a child, in the central slow movement and that was the focus of Osborne’s reading of the work, which was quite firm and precise in its outer sections, and intensely emotional, and a long way from languid, in the middle.

There was a much smaller RSNO on stage, but the pianist’s spare approach to the music might have been reflected in further reduction in the string numbers, particularly in a hall of this size and for a work its composer undoubtedly saw as chamber music.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 5, on the other hand, was intended to be a work of scale, even if Tchaikovsky was plagued by self-doubt at the time. Although it ends with a huge resounding rebuttal of its “Fate” motif – first heard in first clarinet Timothy Orpen’s lower register statement at the start – most modern listeners have found that bold finish unconvincing, a judgement perhaps coloured by the “Pathetique” Sixth Symphony that followed. Chan seemed to take the work more at face value, and the orchestra players – not excepting the guest principals in key positions – gave her big, generous performances in return.

There was a small presentation to the conductor by leader Maya Iwabuchi at the start of the concert, and Chan had dressed very stylishly for the occasion. As popular with audiences as she clearly was with the musicians, she will be much missed as her career focuses increasingly on the US as well as continental Europe.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Kuusisto

City Halls, Glasgow

That he styles himself “Fatboy” on social media, and persists with facial hair that is more shipwreck than seafarer, speaks of a character that does not take his vocal ability too seriously, but tenor Allan Clayton’s talent is immense, even if his girth hardly measures up to his Twitter handle.

That employees of Scottish Opera turned out for his appearance with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Finnish violinist and conductor Pekka Kuusisto also spoke of the regard in which he is held in that field. Some of the audience currently packing out that company’s Puccini triple bill would have found tickets available had they ventured to Glasgow’s City Hall on Friday, and heard one of the finest tenors in the world currently.

Kuusisto had provided him with a wonderful programme too. It culminated in Britten’s Les Illuminations, the young composer’s settings of Rimbaud which may have been sung by a soprano originally but clearly reflected his own relationship with tenor Peter Pears. There was a range of colours in Clayton’s delivery of Rimbaud’s free verse that a singer of any voice would have struggled to match, and his French diction was immaculate throughout, even in the slightly startling staccato of “Marine”, which is a long way from chanson.

That is true of much of the snatched phrasing of the poetry, but elsewhere Britten gives it more melodious context. The instrumental Interlude clearly pre-figures those of the opera Peter Grimes and the following Being Beauteous had the bonus for SCO devotees of a solo from cellist Su-a Lee. The dubious optimism of the closing Départ was delivered with such poise that applause almost seemed vulgar.

With Kuusisto’s usual panache, the programme had begun with a more recent work that reflected, if not directly referenced, the Britten. Nico Muhly’s Three Songs for Tenor and Violin uses more recent French poetry in translation, with the middle one an instrumental interlude, a sort of fiddle obligato. The SCO strings had a great deal less to do here, but the drone accompaniment was just as precise as Clayton’s measured vocals.

Muhly’s violin concerto for Kuusisto, entitled Shrink (which may or may not be a US psychotherapy reference), is a very different side of the composer, even if acquaintance with his minimalist predecessors is still audible. The 17 string players in the orchestra for the work are deployed with fascinating precision, the third cello, for example, sometimes playing with the basses. With little or no repetition in either solo line or accompaniment, the musical material, based on three different harmonic intervals, is constantly evolving from the first bar to the last, Kuusisto clearly revelling in his own role.

Haydn’s Symphony 104, the “London”, the last of both the twelve he wrote there and of his vast canon, may be from over two centuries earlier but it was more than just a token piece of familiar music in the programme. When this orchestra plays music of that era, the natural horns and trumpets come with an awareness of all the music that flowed from the composer’s innovations. The wind soloists sparkled as usual, but Kuusisto seemed to find a spaciousness in the string sound that was very much his own.

Keith Bruce

Glasgow Barons / MacAlinden

Pearce Institute, Govan, Glasgow

There was a note at the end of the printed programme for this concert that encapsulated what the Glasgow Barons are all about. “Please feel free to applaud as you feel,” it read.

The audience, arranged in a curve of seating around the players and close enough to see every note realised by the players, did not need asking twice. There are assuredly those who would have sniffed disparagingly, but the Govan Music Festival ticket-buyers clapped every movement of Anna Clyne’s cello concerto, Dance, and filled all the available gaps in Sibelius’s Symphony No 2 with applause. Did that impair the performance or our enjoyment of it? Not a jot.

The rest of the programme for the week-long festival is diverse indeed, with folk and rap, school choirs and the launch of a hip-hop album, but it all springs from the work of Glasgow Barons artistic director Paul MacAlinden. The conductor’s own concert sensibly opened with something that many in the audience would already know, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

Like composers of yore, Barber re-used the hit tune from the slow movement of his string quartet many times but this was the best-known version, and a perfect opener in the way it uses the sections. There was some variation in the use of vibrato within those – and more consistency in the lower strings – but MacAlinden was more concerned with the overall balance and shape of the piece.

It turned out to be the best possible work to preface the Clyne concerto, with Bartholomew LaFollette as soloist, because the composer’s sound palette for the opening movement is very similar, before the cello enters at the top of its range, joined by the similar frequencies of flute, oboe and bowed percussion. The elegiac melody of the third movement also seems to owe a little to Barber’s influence.

Each section of the work is named for a single line from a verse by Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet whose work has inspired many composers. That’s particularly clear in the second movement, “If you’ve torn the bandage off”, when LaFollette had a great deal more to do and the orchestral music was full of Eastern sounds, rhythms and accents. The fourth movement, “In your blood”, looks to earlier Western music, beginning with the structure of a canon and then subverting it with wind machine, gong, timpani and tuba.

Dance is a big piece, as much an ensemble work as a virtuoso showpiece, although LaFollette brought a compelling intensity to his part. MacAlinden and his team deserve huge credit for giving the Clyne its Scottish premiere.

There were a lot of good things about the Barons’ Sibelius 2 as well, although it was sometimes a little over-powering in the venue, and the conductor could perhaps have done more to keep the sound at a sensible level. Having said that, the first pizzicato crescendo was right on the button and sitting in the firing line of brass and timps on one side and five horns on the other was often rather thrilling.

Keith Bruce

Scottish Opera: Il trittico

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

When Scottish Opera first announced its 2022/23 60th anniversary season, the plan was for Sir David McVicar to stage all three short operas of Puccini’s Il trittico on the one set with an ensemble cast. At some point along the line that bold notion fell by the wayside, and only one singer – soprano Francesca Chiejina, making a memorable company debut – appears in all three pieces (as does actor Keith MacPherson in small silent roles, including the lively corpse of Buoso Donati in Gianni Schicchi).

The set designs, by Charles Edwards, who is also working with Scottish Opera for the first time, are grand and bespoke for each story, to the impressive extent of a moving barge docking at the quayside at the start of Il tabarro (The Cloak), and the splendidly angular tapering perspective of the cluttered room where Donati dies and Schicchi tricks his family out of the juiciest cuts of his estate.

In between sits the problem piece of the trio, Suor Angelica, the convent-set story of an unmarried mother, a child given up for adoption, another family legacy and the mortal sin of suicide. As mezzo Karen Cargill – terrific in the piece as Angelica’s domineering aunt, “The Princess” – promised in her interview with VoxCarnyx, McVicar manages to redeem Sister Angelica with an inspired staging of the work. Alongside Cargill there are characterful cameos from Chiejina and Scottish Opera Emerging Artist Lea Shaw, and Edwards and McVicar have created what is one of the best uses of a staircase in music theatre since The Sound of Music.

The other crucial ingredient is the performance of Korean soprano Sunyoung Seo in the title role. Another company debut, she is a real find, with a glorious voice across her range, quite thrilling at the top and full of emotional heft, combined with a magnetic stage presence and acting skill. The ending of Suor Angelica has been condemned as sentimental nonsense, but she, and the young lad playing the ghost of her dead child, made it genuinely moving in McVicar’s staging.

She is just as effective as Giorgetta in the soap opera love triangle of Il tabarro, for all its cliches of melodrama. Her complex characterisation matches that of Roland Woods as her barge-skipper husband Michele, and her voice is well paired with that of Russian tenor Viktor Antipenko as Luigi (yet another company debut).

There are no weak links in the vocal casting in those first two operas at all, and that high standard of musicianship on stage is paralleled in the pit across the whole evening, where conductor Stuart Stratford steers a huge orchestra, including some exotic instrumental colours, through a terrific account of a score that is Puccini at the very pinnacle of his powers.

Where Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica are immaculately paced by McVicar and Stratford, Gianni Schicchi comes roaring out of the blocks like a whippet on speed – a riot of colour in set, costumes and sound, and delighting in its hectic ‘70s sitcom aesthetic. That frantic activity builds to Lauretta’s showstopping aria O mio babbino caro (the best-known music in the whole four hours and Francesca Chiejina’s big moment) and then runs out of steam. Woods is fine as Schicchi, but not as funny as some of the Donati family clowning around him, and marooned upstage for too much of the time.

It is an odd lapse by McVicar, who is a master of naturalistic theatrical narrative in opera, but the broad comedy of the most often seen part of this trilogy fails to communicate as confidently as the tragedy of the two earlier tales.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Chauhan

The Sage, Gateshead

It’s always refreshing to have a change of scenery, and that applies as much to orchestras like the BBC SSO who were on Tyneside – literally – on Friday to repeat the all-action programme it had delivered the previous evening to its home audience in Glasgow and live across the nation on BBC Radio 3. A healthy turn-out greeted the visitors to Gateshead’s smart riverside Sage venue, where the SSO’s outgoing associate conductor, Alpesh Chauhan, addressed the swashbuckling adventurism of Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote alongside the questioning euphoria of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.

Such intense repertoire was subjected to inquisitive exploration, at times probing originality, by Chauhan. Where he sought restless irascibility in the Strauss, the focus of his Shostakovich was surely its tangible dichotomy, a work written “in response” to Stalin’s personal attack on what he saw as increasingly “non-Soviet” tendencies in the composer’s music (chiefly in his opera The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District), but which has nowadays come to represent a stinging, concealed expression of intellectual, if not political, dissent.

The latter was the most thoroughly convincing of the evening’s performances, all the more for the horrifying relevance it harnesses right now as the west faces up to – and maybe Russians themselves begin to question – the humaneness of one man’s repressive, dictatorial will. Chauhan elicited an all-important steeliness: those endless aching melodies that take flight in the opening movement offset by a chillingly spare dehumanisation; the throwaway curtness brutally exaggerated in the Scherzo; the breathtaking sumptuousness of the slow third movement soaked in irony as a deceptive foil to the agonising, empty ecstasy of the finale.

There was an unpredictability to Chauhan’s tempi that enhanced the boldness of the message, which the SSO responded to with fearsome exhilaration, the richness and focus of the ensemble as thrilling as the exceptionalism of the passing solo contributions. 

Where the Shostakovich was spine chilling, the concert opener – Don Quixote – seemed happier just to tickle the senses. The former bore the 3-D vibrance of an oil painting defined by the physicality of its bold brushstrokes, whereas the latter conveyed more the pallid self-contentment of a pretty watercolour.

This wasn’t so much an issue with the soloists, guest cellist Pablo Ferrández playing the starry-eyed eponymous hero against flamboyant support from SSO principal viola Scott Dickinson (in evocative conversation also with orchestra leader Laura Samuel), and prominently featuring tenor tuba, bass clarinet and ravishing oboe. And for the most part, Chauhan captured the cut and thrust of the music, its stormy abandon, wild cameos and generally restive abandon.

What it missed in places was a more piercing precision, sharper orchestral colourings to bring the narrative more vividly to life. There were plenty rosy moments, those characteristic Straussian eruptions filling the hall with wholesome enchantment, but such curious cacophonies as the discordant bleating sheep needed greater confidence in themselves to make a convincing musical point. 

That aside, this substantial pairing went down a storm with the local audience, making the SSO’s day trip to Newcastle in such unpredictable weather a more gladdening experience than it might otherwise have been.

Ken Walton 

RSNO / Wilson

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Among the other ingredients they had in common – most obviously the shared influence of music outside the Western classical sphere from the other side of the Atlantic – the compositions conductor John Wilson chose for the RSNO to perform this weekend had interesting links in their titles.

While Copland’s Clarinet Concerto was always going to be alliteratively just that – that was what its commissioner Benny Goodman was paying top dollar for, after all – both George Gershwin and Sergei Rachmaninov changed their minds.

The Russian was probably correct that Symphonic Dances was a more sellable name than Fantastic Dances (in 1941 at least), but Gershwin’s Cuban Overture might have had more performances if he’d stuck with the original title, Rumba, given the USA’s subsequent troubled relationship with the Caribbean island.

The three works – written within two decades of the last century – share a lot of DNA, and prefacing the Rachmaninov with the American composers was highly instructive. What Wilson asked of the RSNO players in the Symphonic Dances was U.S. Marine Band precision – this was dance music that was as much Strictly Ballroom as it was refracting the composer’s perennial debt to the liturgy of the orthodox church though a Romantic lens.

The plangent quality to Lewis Bank’s saxophone solo in the opening movement often sounds more pastoral than it did here, while the waltz of the Andante was one that had heard American dance bands. And while the melodic material of the last movement may be identifiably old Russian, the small significant details of the orchestration – not least in the percussion – were of the contemporary West.

The RSNO percussion section was even more to the fore in the Gershwin, in music built around the collection of instruments he brought back from Havana. What a construction he made from his fascination with Latin music. More of a tone poem than an overture, it is a piece full of deliciously complex scoring and cameos for solo instruments both familiar and alien to the Cuban bands he’d heard.

The exacting approach that John Wilson brings to his rehearsal of any orchestra matched the compositional rigour with which Gershwin used his inspiration and that also applied to the way Copland incorporates stride piano, jazz bass, and Dixieland into his Clarinet Concerto.

RSNO first clarinet Timothy Orpen was the star soloist for the work, and he clearly revels in the way it unfolds, with all those influences appearing well through the work, which is also quite beautifully constructed.

In what is an exquisite showcase for his instrument, Orpen gave full emotional weight to the spacious first section, with its spare and specific orchestration, and gave a masterclass in pin-sharp articulation after the cadenza. The interplay between the soloist and his colleagues in the orchestra as the work unfolded was quite joyous, and the climax of the work irresistibly smile-making.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Kuusisto

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Vermont-born Sam Amidon, who is now settled in the UK with his singer wife Beth Orton, has impeccable taste in collaborators. His relationship with the contemporary classical world dates from early in his career when composer Nico Muhly supplied string arrangements for the American folk songs he recorded. His was the only male voice on the Kronos Quartet’s Folk Songs project, and his own albums have featured guitarist Bill Frisell and one of the last recordings by trumpeter Kenny Wheeler.

Partnership with the similarly-discerning Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra therefore makes perfect sense, even if their collective plan – mixing up four Appalachian folk songs featuring Muhly string arrangements with the four movements of Janacek’s “Kreutzer Sonata” Quartet in an arrangement for string ensemble – looked less than exciting on paper.

In fact it worked rather well, and any damage done to the Janacek was more in the expansion of the forces from the edgy abrasive sound of the quartet to the fuller strings, rather than the introduction of the songs into the mix. The dark tone of the Czech composer’s response to Tolstoy’s story was certainly matched by two murder ballads, a crucifixion hymn and slavery-era children’s game chant, even if the latter, and the concluding banjo-driven ballad were rhythmically comparatively up-beat.

Muhly’s music will be more thoroughly explored in the programme Kuusisto directs next week, but his arrangements – supplemented by some vocalising from the instrumentalists – were the bridge between Amidon’s archival trawl and the Janacek here and that set the theme for the whole evening.

Kuusisto directed the strings from the violin in the first half and had his own virtuoso solo turn immediately after the interval. Missy Mazzoli is best known in Edinburgh for her opera Breaking the Waves, seen in an acclaimed 2019 International Festival production by Scottish Opera. Her solo violin work Dissolve, O My Heart takes its title from an aria in Bach’s St John Passion and its inspiration from the famous Chaconne in his Partita in D Minor. While it swiftly departs from the music of the Partita, it never loses site of it in the rear-view mirror, even if its glissando techniques and use of muted strings are a long way from the 1720s. In much the same way that solo Bach is a staple of the violin soloist’s encore repertoire, this is a work regular concert-goers can surely expect to hear again.

Traditional music from Kuusisto’s homeland runs like a stream through the Third Symphony of Jean Sibelius, a work rarely heard outside of performances of the full cycle of symphonies. Not least because of the delicious melody in the slow movement, this is a shame. More compact in every way than other Sibelius symphonies, it suits the SCO well, even if its more expansive moments probably sounded much better in Friday’s performance at Glasgow’s City Halls. What was crucial in the context of this concert was how Kuusisto the conductor emphasised the folk elements in the opening movement and masterfully managed the finale’s incremental build-up to the final C major chord.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Sam Amidon

RSNO / New

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Whatever the full house in Edinburgh’s big hall came for on Friday evening, they surely got it in spades. It may have ended at a very respectable half past nine in the evening, but the music began at 6pm, with the RSNO providing a showcase for young musicians from St Mary’s Music School as it marks its 50th birthday.

The pre-concert concert stole a march on the symphony orchestra by having an opening just as sonically bold as the Ligeti we would hear an hour-and-a-half later, as sixth former Carlo Massimo let loose the might of the Usher Hall organ on Olivier Messiaen.

That was a precursor to a varied bill of chamber music that included a senior string quartet playing a movement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, but shone in the duos. Those nearing the end of their studies at the school gave us Rautavarra (violinist Anias Kroeger and pianist Alexander Kwon) and Sorensen (fiddler Hester Parkin and Kirsty Grant on accordion), but the star turn was a Tchaikovsky Nocturne by first year cellist Paul Oggier and his attentive S3 piano partner Michelle Huang.

The RSNO’s opening salvo was the Prelude and Intermezzo from Gyorgy Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre, a rather grand title for the madcap fun of three members of the percussion section employing hands and feet to parp a dozen old-school bulb horns for a fanfare that, apparently, parodies Monteverdi.

It was a skilled, if bonkers, start, and the best joke was that it preceded Gershwin’s An American in Paris which famously features the same “instrument” to soundtrack the bustling traffic of the city.

There are fewer car horns required for that work, but they are as crucial as the trumpets, trombones and tuba in the overall sound of the work. This was an evening in which the brass section shone throughout the programme, first trumpet Chris Hart the most obvious soloist, but tuba player John Whitener, and trombonist Davur Juul Magnussen, doubling on euphonium, not far behind.

Making her debut as conductor, New Zealander Gemma New, whose grandmother was once an RSNO violinist, was the other crucial ingredient in the vibrancy of the music. A musician who clearly delights in the power and majesty of the symphony orchestra – and especially one garnished with extra instruments like saxophones – she drew superb work from everyone on stage.

Also making her RSNO debut was the night’s soloist, saxophonist Jess Gillam, and a dynamic duo the two certainly were on Gillam’s pair of pieces. Those came from the 1930s, in an exclusively 20thcentury programme: Glazunov’s Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Strings and Milhaud’s Scaramouche, which has given Gillam the theme music for her award-winning Radio 3 show, This Classical Life.

The sax may have been in its early years as a soloist in classical music, but both are splendid virtuoso pieces, the Milhaud arguably having the edge in its application of the possibilities of the instrument.

Colourful though Gillam and her music were, there was even more to come in this busy night. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a popular work in any of its incarnations and the RSNO enhanced the Ravel orchestration with actual picture-making by artist James Mayhew.

If there was a suspicion that all this might become a bit much, all credit goes to conductor, musicians and to Mayhew, who made the whole thing work so well. The work was as varied, big and bold as it can be, and the artistic skill with which it was illustrated, in time with the score, was quite remarkable.

Using the titles from Viktor Hartmann’s works that the composer deployed in tribute to his friend, Mayhew created ten swift, literal, images of as much vibrancy and colour as the music. It was a multi-media triumph every bit as old-school as those car horns.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Emelyanychev

Perth Concert Hall

SCO chief conductor Maxim Emelyanychev furthered his reputation in Perth this week as a musical maverick, conducting an all-Mendelssohn programme that sought to illuminate our understanding of the composer without recourse to gimmick. Nothing extreme, but he offered performances driven by the profoundest integrity, coloured by unceasing curiosity that unearthed gem after gem of interpretational insight.

That was even the case with the evergreen incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, some of it particularly familiar (the storybook Overture, luxurious Nocturne and jaunty Wedding March), some of it less so, not least those chorus and solo contributions that humanised the Song with Chorus and Finale. The presence of sopranos and altos from the SCO Chorus, joined by solo sopranos Hilary Cronin and Jessica Cale, were a warming presence on the ample Perth stage.

Emelyanychev’s vision of the music was light and playful, ever conscious of the natural sparkle springing from Mendelssohn’s textural complexities. The “once upon a time” opening bars echoed Shakespeare’s Puckish mischief, their angelic chords sweetly nurtured by the flutes, immediately countered by the scuttling catch-me-if-you-can strings whose later comical donkey impersonations – are these a reference to Bottom’s whimsical alter ego as an ass? – erupted with infectious irreverence.

What seemed like a conscious choice to minimise string vibrato added to the overriding picture of a magical landscape, and in the brass the rounded, retro-presence of the ophicleide in combination with natural horns created an ethereal glow. The joy of this performance was enough to offset periodic mishits by the trumpets and horns.

Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony was the perfect aperitif, altogether more grounded than the gossamer sensitivities of the incidental music, but hardly without its own lustrous persona. Emelyanychev’s irrepressible enthusiasm made its mark immediately, both in the sprightliness of the tempi and the scintillating detail he visibly elicited. There was never a dull moment, not even when the ensemble’s absolute togetherness wobbled, as it did once or twice. Clearly Mendelssohn’s visit to Italy, which inspired the symphony, saw that country in its most dazzling light. 

Ken Walton 

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow

It is an issue some are understandably loath to raise, but a year on from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is significant that calls for blanket sanctions against the aggressor’s people and its culture have diminished, in the UK at least. Many in the neighbouring Baltic states and in Poland take an entirely different view of course.

The coincidence of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra featuring a Moscow Conservatoire contemporary of Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev as soloist for the Violin Concerto of Johannes Brahms on that anniversary, was therefore unremarked – and it would have been a great loss, certainly, to have been denied the result.

Perhaps as a consequence of his friendship with Aylen Pritchin, this was a visibly more relaxed Emelyanychev than we are accustomed to seeing. The exuberant early-music man who struts a band of travelling players around the City Halls foyer was replaced by a statesman for Romanticism, the authenticity of gut strings for soloist and ensemble balanced by a deliberate pace to the music that often meant it actually seemed slower than we are used to hearing it played.

More importantly really, this was far from the virtuoso showpiece the concerto can often be, especially in its outer movements. Pritchin is a superb player, and his first movement cadenza, for example, was both deeply expressive and remarkably fresh. However, he was as eloquent as part of the overall sound as he was with the pyrotechnics. The Brahms concerto has had its detractors as well as admirers since its premiere on New Year’s Day 1879, but this performance could not only claim authenticity with how that must have sounded, but also advocacy for a work that has been criticised for not being sufficiently about the soloist.

An encore of Bach – what else? – gave the audience a bonus of the warmth in Pritchin’s playing. He and Emelyanychev regularly work together as chamber musicians and with the conductor’s other band, Il Pomo Doro, so we can surely look forward to a return visit.

Emelyanychev’s most recently-released recording is of Mozart with Il Pomo Doro, and the tasty pairing of that composer’s first and final symphonies has been widely acclaimed. Although the SCO’s catalogue already has definitive accounts of the Brahms symphonies by Mackerras and Ticciati, he made an eloquent case for a further set with his approach to Symphony No 1.

Famously, it took Brahms a lifetime to write although it was followed relatively swiftly by the others, and the conductor launched into its bold opening with characteristic vigour. Thereafter, though, the story unfolded in the unhurried manner of the concerto, and often very quietly indeed as he impressed restraint on the strings. This was a big SCO, of course, with four basses, five horns and trombones, but the softness to the string sound, both bowed and pizzicato, was often quite startling – so much so that the wind soloists (all on sparkling form) occasionally seemed to be projecting too much.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Christopher Bowen

RSNO / Qian

New Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Wednesday’s RSNO afternoon programme was a strange concoction. By far its most exciting concern was the early musical travelogue of Richard Strauss, Aus Italien, styled by the German composer in 1887 as a symphonic fantasy, but in essence a precursor the the rich string of tone poems that were later to seal his distinctive reputation.

That was the meatiest part of a concert directed by the orchestra’s former assistant conductor Junping Qian, which had opened with the sure-footed pragmatism of Nicolai’s Overture to his one-hit operatic wonder The Merry Wives of Windsor, followed by the strangest of inclusions, music for strings by the award-winning Glasgow-based film composer Craig Armstrong.

Armstrong’s music, of course, stretches way beyond one hit, but most of it is geared towards the silver screen. There were two examples here: the shimmering Balcony Scene music written for Baz Lurmann’s 1996 movie, Romeo and Juliet; and the mundanely titled Slow Movement for String Orchestra, material from which also found its way into the Romeo and Juliet soundtrack.

The problem with both is that they don’t hold well on their own right. It’s not necessary to fill a piece with melodic interest and self-reliance when it’s just part of the complete cinematic experience. Present it in sole isolation, however, and it can seem lifeless.

Qian did what he could, but no silk purse emerged. Yes, he could have suppressed the Balcony music to a whisper, which might have captured more of the magic it elicits on screen, and the longer Slow Movement, again more atmospheric than characterful, needed much more in the way of nuance to be convincing. Their inclusion, as part of the RSNO’s regular Scotch Snap series, seemed more token than fulfilling.

Especially when they came in the wake of The Merry Wives overture, its super-abundance of themes vying for position, skilfully intermeshed, and performed with enriching persuasiveness, from the gorgeously resonant cello opening to the glitter and excitement of Nicolai’s opulent scoring.

But it was Strauss’ Aus Italien that finally established a powerful sense of substance. Each of its four “scenes” possessed sunny countenance, varied according to the subject matter addressed: the humid pastoral glow of Auf Der Champagna, the passionate charms depicting In Roms Ruinen, the glistening ecstasy of Am Strande von Sorrent, and the unchecked Neapolitan exuberance of the dizzy finale.

In all of this, Strauss could be heard experimenting with ideas destined to characterise his daring musical maturity. Qian recognised that in a performance itching to take flight, but adhering equally to the gravitational pull of influences the composer was clearly itching to pull free from. 

Ken Walton

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

There is a suggestion that Bach’s 1738 harpsichord concerto in E major, BWV 1053, has come down to us as a keyboard work having begun life as an oboe concerto. Whether or not that is the case, it shares melodic material with two cantatas Bach wrote for Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, so the sense of a singing solo line is understandable. It is not always in the hands of the soloist, however, with the strings – who would have been the composer’s music college students at the first coffee house performances – having their share of the tune, especially at the start of the Siciliano slow movement.

Played here on a modern concert grand piano by the SSO’s Chief Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, this was more the kind of performance one might hear in this hall from Maxim Emelyanychev and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, but the ever-versatile BBC Scottish proved equal to the challenge of leaping across the centuries in the second of Wigglesworth’s interesting programmes pairing Bach with Stravinsky.

When Bach created a concerto for the keyboard he was at the cutting edge of musical development, and that was certainly one thing that linked the work with that of the Russian composer on Thursday evening, although logistical considerations meant it preceded the two Stravinsky works rather than being the filling in the concert’s musical sandwich as originally intended.

In the 1953 score for Balanchine’s Agon Stravinsky is concerned with stripping things back to their essence for a work that is all about the number 12 and its divisions. That was the size of the company of dancers from New York City Ballet when it was premiered in 1957 (memorably re-created by Scottish Ballet at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival) and it is also the number of the notes in the chromatic scale and the structure for using them proposed by Arnold Schoenberg.

Stravinsky playfully combines the twelve-tone row techniques of serialism with classical forms (Sarabande, Galliarde, and Bransle rather than Siciliano here) in twenty minutes of music that is less austere than it at first appears. Exotic combinations of instruments, with percussion and brass joined by a mandolin as well as solo violin, are featured over the twelve movements, but the large orchestra never plays as an ensemble.

Just as Balanchine made work on his dancers very differently from Nijinsky, so the music of Agon is very different from that of The Rite of Spring, from four decades previously. Wigglesworth’s Rite was not riotous in the least, and much more about precision than passion. If it lacked the excitement of some performances of the work, it would undoubtedly have served the purpose for which it was composed very well indeed. As we had heard in Agon before the interval, the conductor never forgot that this was music composed for dancers.

Keith Bruce

Available for 30 days on BBC Sounds

BBC SSO / Sanderling

City Halls, Glasgow

Musical dynasties can be problematic for some, but not, it would seem, in the case of conductor Michael Sanderling, son of Kurt and brother/step brother of fellow conductors Stefan and Thomas. He proved his independent worth, without question, in the driving seat of the BBC SSO last week.

The former cellist – and one of considerable, international prizewinning note before he picked up the baton full time just over a decade ago – established instant chemistry with the orchestra in a relatively youthful symphony by Mozart, his 13th, written mostly in Milan at the age of 15. Sanderling wasted no time sourcing a stylish bite from the players – just horns and oboes in addition to the reduced strings – that captured the music’s exuberant decency.

It was a neat touch reducing the Menuetto’s trio section to solo strings, giving added intimacy to this airborne movement, and in the broader context of a performance that packed no shortage of musical surprises and delights, from the teasing tunefulness of the Andante to the rhythmic dash of the outer movements.

Mozart featured again in this affable afternoon concert, as seen through the thicker lens of heavy-duty German Romantic composer and academic Max Reger, his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart. The theme in question is the siciliano-like opener from the A Major Sonata, which in Mozart’s hands was already subjected to exhaustive variation. Reger, as you’d expect, deals with it in more circumspect, a times torrid, terms. 

Sanderling never once allowed dark clouds to assert their presence, instead giving a fleetness of foot to Reger’s restless harmonic contortions – some pretty ingenious ones at that – and therefore freer flight to internal chromatic meanderings that, in less-intuitive hands, might so easily have muddied the momentum. Such, too, was the refinement and grace of the orchestral colourings that the journey towards the concluding fugue, and its exultant closing restatement of the Mozart theme, was one of several thrills and much overall satisfaction.

Coming back to musical families, the afternoon’s solo spot was filled by one of the many prodigious Kanneh-Mason siblings currently in circulation. This was Isata, a pianist of growing stature and musical maturity, as witnessed in recent previous appearances in Scotland. She featured this time in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, noted for its bristling energy and dynamic physicality, but also for the quintessential mysticism that offers some spellbinding contrast in the central movement.

Kanneh-Mason’s performance was beautifully poised and not without fire. She doesn’t yet have the full shoulder power to fully address the ferocious dimensions of this concerto, but the fiery agility of her finger work compensated, and where gentle reflection was called for she delivered it with poetic perfection.   

Ken Walton

Dunedin Consort / Whelan

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

The manifestation of the Dunedin Consort, as presented last week, was intriguing in itself. Many will be able to cast their minds back to the Consort’s early days as an a cappella choir in the 1990s, happily flirting with Josquin to Stockhausen and all that lies between. 

Successive refits, not least by current artistic director John Butt, saw the introduction of a regular supportive instrumental wing, a superlative period band filling the gap left by the defunct Scottish Early Music Consort, and which is already a noted entity for its five-star performances at home and abroad.  

What we witnessed in Glasgow on Saturday (between its Perth and Edinburgh dates) represented a further nudge towards genre self-identification as the Dunedin instrumentalists, under bassoonist-turned-conductor Peter Whelan, shifted their focus to early Haydn and CPE Bach. This wasn’t unfamiliar music – the three linked Haydn symphonies, Le matin, Le midi and Le soir, plus a cello concerto by JS Bach’s most prominent son – but when presented with such flirtatious gamesmanship the deep sense of musical adventure and discovery was deliciously infectious.

There was showmanship, too: the natural horn players standing ceremoniously, their instruments held vertically, the bells pointing skywards; a wicked double bass solo driven by the same spotlit panache you’d expect from a rock guitarist; but more than anything, a palpable buzz arising from performances fired by a sense of daring interplay and energising intimacy. 

Whelan’s nimble direction was as authoritative as it was liberating. He fired out pointed signals from the harpsichord when necessary, but generally left the detailed initiative with the players. Thus the slow “awakening” in Le Matin generating a potent vulcanism of its own (think on to Haydn’s later, more expansive representation of Chaos in The Creation) and a launchpad into that symphony’s breezy optimism; the more stately mannerisms of Le midi, whose operatic flourishes nonetheless filled this performance with heady rapture; or the extremes of light and shade that swept towards the tempestuous finale of Le soir.

In every case, there was sparkling virtuosity: the gentle fruitiness of the flutes, the jostling debates among the strings, the martial resplendence of the horns, and an all-round, stylish excitability that allowed key solo elements to emerge and retreat with seamless relevance. This was teamwork par excellence.

Even Jonathan Manson’s solo presence in CPE Bach’s Cello Concerto in A major was democracy at work. The Edinburgh-born cellist – with a memorable history of consummate Baroque performances for Dunedin – rose to the challenge with playing that was dexterous, crisp and articulate, yet rounded by gorgeously supple, expressive polish, and an awareness that not every moment depended on him. The interaction on stage was intoxicating, the entire evening a cocktail of delights.

Ken Walton 

Scottish Opera: The Verdi Collection

City Halls, Glasgow

Although it is, for some obscure reason, lousy at labelling them – the non-mainstage strands of its activity are often lumbered with the most prosaic of titles – Scottish Opera has long been highly adventurous in the different ways it goes about selling the artform to the widest public. Those who moan about the reduced number of fully-realised productions it can afford to mount rarely give the company proper credit for that.

If it is “opera in a car park” you want, and apparently the Arts Council of England is particularly keen on that, Scottish Opera blazed a trail during the pandemic. It was also ahead of the game with filmed work, and its work with young people, the mentoring of emerging singers, and outreach into the wider community, has decades of productive history – making last year’s astonishing Candide not the one-off wonder it seemed to some.

Since the arrival of Stuart Stratford as Music Director, there has also been the addition of regular concert performances of rare gems – particularly lost works by Puccini and Mascagni – that are also important in showcasing the strengths of the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, restoring its profile after the musicians were given part-time contracts as a cost-saving measure.

The Verdi Collection is the latest development of that strand, four dates in the current season following a one-off Puccini gala in Dundee’s Caird Hall in December 2021. It would not be unkind to say that the format currently falls between stools as it tries to both please seasoned opera-goers and entice new audiences.

As Stratford introduced it, the programme was an exploration of the mature work of Giuseppe Verdi, from La traviata to Otello, although not in that order, as well as being a celebration of “the beating heart of the company”, its orchestra. In that latter aim, it was a magnificent success. There is a warmth to the string sound of the opera orchestra that is all its own, and there were some high quality solo turns from guest first cello Thomas Rann, clarinettist Kate McDermott and the always-distinctive oboe of Amy Turner. Only once – although regrettably at the climax of Violetta’s aria in Act 2, scene 1 of La traviata – was the onstage orchestra too loud for the singing to be heard properly, and Stratford’s balance of his ensemble was generally impeccable.

That extract, however, highlighted both the strengths and the weaknesses of the concert. The opera’s titular “fallen woman” was sung by Japanese soprano Eri Nakamura in one of many company debuts among the soloists. If this was in preparation for her featuring in Scottish Opera’s future plans we shall be fortunate indeed. In partnership with tenor Peter Auty and, especially baritone Lester Lynch in that piece, as Amelia in an aria from the end of Un ballo in maschera, Leonora in La forza del destino, and, supported by Edinburgh mezzo Katherine Aitken’s Emilia, as Desdemona in Otello, Nakamura revealed a dramatic assurance paired with a superbly articulate and versatile voice.

South Korean bass Jihoon Kim will also be welcome back anytime. He stepped in here to replace Brindley Sherratt, having been part of the entirely different cohort of singers in November’s performances of The Verdi Collection in Aberdeen and Inverness. He has an enormous vocal instrument for his compact frame, and although less mobile than either Nakamura or Auty, used it very expressively.

It is plain that the aim of these “Collections” is to go beyond the gala concert of showpiece arias without their context, and impart a sense of the drama and storytelling of the artform by presenting longer extracts, but that does mean the conductor and his team are trying to cover a lot of bases. Perhaps there was more of a sense of the whole of La traviata than of any other work in the programme, but it did take up a lot of the evening. And the whole concert may have been a value-for-money ticket, but it clearly exceeded the attention-span of some in the audience, who elected to slip away.

Lots of good stuff, then, but sometimes it is true that less is more.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Runnicles

City Halls, Glasgow

If Sir Donald Runnicles proved anything in this unmissable reunion with his former Scottish orchestra (he is, of course, still connected to the BBC SSO as conductor emeritus), it was that great conductors have an innate ability to connect viscerally and impulsively with the players, even when they’ve been apart for some time. 

As such, there was a deep-rooted nostalgia hard-wired into this thrilling performance of one single, monumental work – Mahler’s Ninth Symphony – in which the Edinburgh-born maestro reminded us just how electrifying and passionate the SSO can sound working in response to such magnetic charisma.

Mahler’s last completed symphony, written in the final years of his life, takes us on a journey of initial despair – the so-called “faltering heart beat” – and elemental frustration, to the all-but- Bacchanalian frenzy of its central escapism, and to the grim acceptance of a finale that fades to nothing yet powerfully encapsulates the unquenchable rapture of inner peace.

It all looked so easy for Runnicles, a robust mainstay of a figure on the podium whose economy of gesture gave all the signals necessary to mine essential and complex detail, while also allowing the big picture to unfold with inexorable potency and organic inevitability. What resulted was a spine-tingling awareness of the SSO working with him, not for him: moments where little was asked for but absolutely every telling morsel was delivered.

Capturing that big picture is so important when much of Mahler’s writing in this symphony is like an endless tapestry of broken threads, dizzy intertwining snatches of signature, recollected material that collide in mid-air, often abruptly dismissed, yet making such unquestioning sense in this all-consuming performance.

The Andante comodo was marked by virtuosic savagery at its height, but in the course of its steady progression combined molten resignation with the penetrating incision of multiple competing motifs. The inner movements oozed Mahlerian grotesquerie, tantalising and mischievous in the deliberate Ländler-like awkwardness of the second movement, endlessly high-spirited and ultimately brutally dismissive in the Rondo-Burleske. Runnicles’ finale was truly breathtaking, its prime thematic cell – essentially a drawn-out musical turn – single-mindedly dominating the overriding, at times crushingly euphoric, solemnity. The dissipating ending was met by stunned silence. 

There are moments when we are drawn so deeply into a performance that the world outside ceases momentarily to matter. This was one of them.

Ken Walton

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available to listen to on BBC Sounds. It was repeated in Aberdeen (10 Feb), with a final performance on Sunday (12 Feb) at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh 

BBC SSO / Volkov

City Halls, Glasgow

If anything marks the BBC SSO out as distinctive in Scotland – and there have to be certain benefits to that in a climate where strangulation of the arts is an existential threat – it is surely its commitment to the most challenging outposts of contemporary music. No other orchestra would or could place such unapologetic emphasis on it, let alone take the commercial risk.

Thursday’s programme was specifically designed, and recorded, for BBC Radio 3’s New Music Show, yet it was also a weirdly entertaining revelation for a sizeable audience curious to discover who composers Stefan Prins and Øyvind Torvund were, and how a concerto for electric guitar and a reworking of 1950s pop “exotica” might brighten up a drizzly Glasgow evening.

It probably wouldn’t have done so without SSO principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov, whose track record in exploring and communicating the wilder horizons of the contemporary landscape is second to none. With a few words of welcome, and an invitation to enter a psychedelic twilight zone, madcap ideas were transformed into stimulating sonic experiences.

Both performances were UK premieres, and both were delivered with utter commitment and consummate skill, right down to violinists bowing over aluminium foil-clad fingerboards in Prins’ 2021 concerto, under_current, or the simultaneous virtuoso whistling that cast an anarchic, playful mystique over the opening of Torvund’s The Exotica Album. 

Such were the bracing novelties of these substantial works. The visual power of under_current was awesome, electric guitarist Yaron Deutsch using his instrument more as a generator of effects facilitated by the pedals, cables and signal processing units surrounding him, and the totemic presence of a towering thunder machine centrally positioned behind the large orchestra.

There wasn’t a melody, hardly even a motif, in sight. With guttural explosions from the guitar, wailing responses from the orchestra, Prins’ 40-minute work consciously defies conventionality, perhaps over too long a time scale. But so visceral and purposeful was the playing that Deutsch silenced the audience during the final applause to say this was the best orchestra he’d ever played with. It was a tough gig for all of us, but Volkov’s self-belief turned this seeming jumble of nuts and bolts into something organically akin to a kinetic sculpture.

Where Prins’ music is uncompromising, Torvund’s The Exotica Album (Sinfonietta with modular synthesiser and saxophone) is a triumph of exaggerated nostalgic indulgence. Taking its lead from the origins of late-1950s “exotica” – Martin Denny’s album Quiet Village – Torvund sharpens the concept of seriousness versus kitsch to such the point it transmits as the musical equivalent of an LSD trip. 

Set in ten short movements – with titles like Starry Night, Wind up Paradise Birds, Rainbow Crystal and Jungle Alarm – the overriding sensation was one of escapism, where soaring Hollywood-style strings vied with synthesised birds and frenetic electronic bloops, courtesy of Jørgen Træn on “modular synthesiser and noise”, and the pungent, provocative sax of Kjetil Møster. 

It was enormously pleasant to listen to, those whistlers in the opening Ritual 1 initiating a prophetic sense of the surreal, later moments where you might imagine noted bird-enthusiast Messiaen encountering the Clangers, the occasional confectionary spillover into wacky cartoon land, the sassy honking polyphony of Jungle Alarm, but altogether a feast of titillating excess that proved the perfect complement to the earlier concerto, and transformed a journey into the unknown into an invigorating night of discovery. 

Ken Walton

Recorded for later broadcast on Radio 3’s New Music Show, then available for 30 days via BBC Sounds.

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