Category Archives: Reviews

Scottish Opera: Opera Highlights

Linlithgow Academy

It would be a challenging assignment to compile a programme for one of Scottish Opera’s regular four-singers-and-a-piano tours that did not favour the women with the more dramatic music. Such is the nature of the artform in repertoire ancient and modern.

Soprano Zoe Drummond, one the company’s current cohort of Emerging Artists, certainly had the best of it here, with solos from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden and Gounod’s Mireille in the first half of the programme. Mezzo Shakira Tsindos had her share of the spotlight too, but her voice seemed less suited to Handel and Gluck than it was to Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia later on, although her Bertarido blended well with Drummond’s Rodelinda in their duet.

The two men in the line-up, baritone Christopher Nairne – like Tsindos making his Scottish Opera debut – and tenor Osian Wyn Bowen, another Emerging Artist, did have the crowd-pleaser before the interval, however, in their duet from Les pecheurs de perles.

The established formula of these programmes was intact here, Scottish Opera’s Head of Music Derek Clark mixing rarities with favourites and a brand new work (Told by an Idiot by Toby Hession) opening a second half which then tended towards lighter music nearer the end. Director Emma Jenkins, who also contributed the text to Hession’s composition, resisted any linking storyline, working instead with scenic devices by designer Janis Hart.

These were diverse, and variously successful. If a theme of “love” linked the music – offering plenty of scope – 1970s (rather than 60s) costuming was not an immediately obvious choice. The subject matter of each scene was captioned on a blackboard and easel stage left, as in the music hall variety shows – and television’s The Good Old Days – but the titling was in the style of episodes of the rather more recent TV hit, Friends.

That blackboard device was continued in Hart’s modular staging, which the cast was required to decorate with chalk drawings, with varying degrees of accomplishment. Occasionally effective, it was more often distracting from the performance in front.

The period elements did gel for Hession’s “Scene for four voices and piano”, which was a clever bite-sized encapsulation of some of the ingredients of Macbeth in the style of a television drama. Nairne was Mac, Drummond his wife Beth, Wyn Bowen his boss Duncan arriving for dinner, and Tsindos the witch Hecate, whom only Mac can see. As clever musically as it was conceptually, it was one of the most successful of these commissions, and fitted better into the programme than many of its predecessors.

It was also one of the few occasions on which all four of the cast appeared together, which was a shame. Elsewhere they combined well in duos and trios and each had successful solo moments, even if Tsindos was hampered in her dramatic roles by being dressed rather like a children’s TV presenter.

Pianist and musical director Kristina Yorgova – also an Emerging Artist – favoured the music hall side of the staging in her costume of silver dress and bowler and she won Linlithgow’s most enthusiastic ovation for her expert accompaniment, and occasional conducting, of the vastly varied programme.

Keith Bruce

On Tour across Scotland to October 29

RSNO / Søndergård

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

There have been several notable examples in modern times where composers have found a means of giving the old harpsichord a bold, contemporary voice, rather than viewing it as a musty museum piece suited only to the airing of early music and in small intimate settings matched with its restricted dynamics.

What Poul Ruders has done in his Concerto for Harpsichord, written two years ago for the explorative champion of the modern instrument, Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, is both daring and impressive. This, its UK premiere, was the centrepiece of an intriguing RSNO programme, framed by neoclassical Stravinsky and heart-warming Saint-Saëns and holding its head high alongside such colourful and illustrious company.

Ruders, first of all, challenges the historical purists by prescribing artificial amplification for his soloist, an effect that triumphed on several counts: mostly it gave the harpsichord sufficient volume to compete with a full symphony orchestra; but it also introduced new sound possibilities, notably a cutting synthesiser-like timbre that allowed Esfahani to conjure up spells of darkness and a weirdly resonating density in contrast to the tinkling, workaday busyness more readily associated with the instrument.

That said, and through necessity, much of this concerto fed on the seeds of tradition, its outer movements driven by a determined, underlying moto perpetuo. Esfahani responded with nimble finger precision and punchy articulation, his role a defining one in establishing the obstinate persistence that drives this work. 

But the amplification also enabled him to explore a whole new sound world, moments in the slow movement characterised by beguiling otherworldliness – think 1970s’ Hammer Horror soundtracks – and a growling exchange with lower strings in the finale that eventually erupted in more supersonic virtuosity. The RSNO, under Thomas Søndergård, responded with crystalline sparkle in a work that is as charming as it is provocative.

The other huge success of the evening was a performance of Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No 3, the “Organ” symphony, that treated this post-Lisztian warhorse as if the ink was still wet on the score. Søndergård was meticulous in his attention to detail, every integrated melodic line given due prominence, every detail oozing character yet judiciously woven into the whole. Respecting that was organist Michael Bawtree, who found just the right colours on this digital instrument to edge over the soft orchestral cushioning of the Poco adagio, and judged his options well in administering the chordal explosions that ignite the homeward journey.

It all seemed a world away from the mischievous belligerence of Stravinsky’s Jeu de cartes, his 1937 ballet score based on the choreographed personification of a poker game, which opened the concert. Søndergård’s approach was cool-headed, a performance variously purposed to tease with understatement and dazzle with inflated exuberance. From sensuous waltz to pompous march, and shameless parodic references to Handel, Ravel and Rossini, the RSNO revelled in its riotous irony.

Ken Walton

SCO / Emelyanychev

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

There has been nothing very chamber-sized about Maxim Emelyanychev’s concerts launching the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s new season, with large orchestral works bracketing Nicola Benedetti’s premiere of a new James MacMillan concerto last week and then the SCO Chorus in the choir stalls for Haydn’s Creation.

The Creation seems to be having a moment, as the secular elements that made it problematic for the church in the past chime with the environmental worries of the present. It is good to hear a big work by “Papa” Haydn with more regularity ­– he does a great deal with those first six days in the book of Genesis. While the work’s most famous hymn tune, The Heavens are Telling the Glory of God, is given to the chorus, the orchestra and all three soloists have some fine meaty music to showcase their capabilities.

That trio had a late substitution, with German soprano Lydia Teuscher coming in for Sophie Bevan, who is ill. As we were actually hearing Die Schopfung, the German text version of a work that was composed with both that and English as options, she was an appropriate choice, and proved a very fine singer. When she forsook the role of Gabriel for that of Eve at the start of Part Three, Hanno Muller-Brachmann (now Adam rather than Raphael) led her by the hand to the centre of the stage in a gesture that fitted the sense of mutual enjoyment that emanated from the stage on Thursday evening – and was all the better for being initiated by the more mannered bass-baritone.

For natural fluency, in German as well as in the music, it was tenor Andrew Staples (Uriel) who set the pace. He did not do anything particularly theatrical as he moved from his chair at the side to centre stage to sing, but every syllable was filled with meaning and purpose. The opening of Part Three, when a duo of flutes prefaced his softly sung introduction of Adam and Eve, was exquisite.

In the more descriptive music, with the orchestral writing at its best, the other two soloists had their share of the limelight. Haydn is at the peak of his powers with the evocation of birds and animals at the start of Part Two and Teuscher’s aria with the SCO woodwind soloists taking turns to partner her was simply gorgeous.

That is immediately followed by Raphael’s finest moment, the recitative of whales in the deep matched to a sextet continuo of the lower strings – one example of the many variations Haydn introduces to standard structural practice, with a string quintet taking that role early in Part Three.

Elsewhere continuo is in the more predictable hands of harpsichord and first cello Phillip Higham, but this being Emelyanychev, there were plenty of unscripted flourishes when he switched his attention to the keyboard. The beautiful, and clearly audible, instrument onstage was another element in his conductor’s armoury, and he occasionally added an extra left hand chord to the mix even as orchestra and chorus were in full flow.

The quality of the sung German from the front of the stage was paralleled by the diction of the chorus behind, although their crisp beginning to phrases was not always matched by their conclusion of them. Chorusmaster Gregory Batsleer has this choir beautifully calibrated, and the conductor was evidently quite comfortable with that part of the whole ensemble even when he felt it necessary to bring in the soloists.

Not only was Emelyanychev alive to all the details of the score, he also shaped the entire narrative of the performance. Certainly the composer makes that easy with the meticulous structure of the work, but it is not often that The Creation story is told with the clarity the conductor and his team brought to the job here.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Lydia Teuscher by Shirley Suarez

Cumnock Tryst: Arta Arnicane

Dumfries House

From its first announcement, back in October 2013, Sir James MacMillan’s intention for The Cumnock Tryst has been that it serves and reflects the community where he was raised. Inevitably there have been times, however, when the programme of music performed by professional visitors and the inclusion of contributions from local amateurs have seemed some distance apart.

On the last day of this year’s programme, in the august surroundings of the restored splendour of Dumfries House, that was emphatically not the case.

On Sunday afternoon, in the lovely recital room in the house itself, Latvian pianist Arta Arnicane fulfilled a promise to herself and to an amateur composer from nearby Troon when she played a recital that featured the music of Douglas Munn alongside that of Debussy and Martinu. Munn, who died in 2008, and his wife Clare, who was present, had supported Arnicane as a student and now she is returning the favour in championing his compositions, which also feature on a recently-released recording.

She opened with Martinu’s Butterflies and Birds of Paradise, a trio of pieces that would also be unfamiliar to many listeners, but a glorious discovery. Akin to French Impressionism at the start, the final work also had hints of Mussorgsky’s Pictures and segued beautifully into a Nocturne by Munn from 1944, written when he was just 15 years old.

Unlike some of the other pieces on the Toccata Classics album, it was not revised by Munn after his retiral from a stellar career as a mathematician, so any minor corrections to the score were the pianist’s own. The teenage composer was clearly modelling his work on Chopin, but his own talents were considerable.

Following three of Debussy’s Estampes – La soiree dans Grenade played with special finesse and the Ayrshire rain returning to the grounds of Dumfries House for Jardins sous la pluie – Arnicane played three of Munn’s Preludes. The most substantial of these, in D major, could, as the pianist said, equally have been entitled “Ballade” and dates from the end of his years composing, before the maths took over, when he was still just 18. It and its predecessors are the work of a young man with a remarkable gift for melody who must have been a pianist of considerable technical prowess himself.

Sir James MacMillan and Ayrshire Symphony Orchestra

The “Pavilion” at Dumfries House is a semi-permanent structure so far from being a marquee that gilt-framed mirrors and pictures hang on two of its walls. Alongside the function suite at Cumnock’s Dumfries Arms Hotel, where the Tryst’s closing ceilidh would happen, it gives the festival a fine new space, large enough to accommodate the amateur Ayrshire Symphony Orchestra and the Cumnock Tryst Festival Chorus.

They were joined by a second choir of members of the Cumnock Area Musical Production Society – a music-theatre group with the best acronym ever – for the Scott Riddex Memorial Concert, celebrating one of their members. Sir James shared conducting duties with the orchestra’s conductor John Wilson in a programme that was as diverse and entertaining as it was deeply moving, beginning with a movement from Greig’s Holberg Suite and concluding with a 28-minute version of Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet that included all the singers and players.

With principal oboe Joanna Senior the soloist in Ennio Morricone’s music from The Mission soundtrack, the orchestra’s first violin was a crucial instrumental voice in the two new songs by MacMillan that the chorus premiered. Part of the Tryst’s evolving celebration of the area’s mining heritage, Blackcraig Hill and A Fire of Ages set poetry by a soprano, Maggie Broadley, and a bass, Allan McMillan, from within their ranks. Those, and the Bryars that followed, were the sound of the Tryst making its own precise, individual and remarkable mark – and a nonsense of any distinctions between music-makers of all ages and commitment.

Keith Bruce

Pictures by Stuart Armitt

Cumnock Tryst: Ancient Voices

St John’s Church, Cumnock

Journalists are frequently minded to avoid the temptation not to let the facts get in the way of a good story. There’s no doubt that the tale of the ancient carnyx is a story worth telling. This 2000-year-old Celtic instrument, with the fearsome head of a boar and wavering tongue, was originally discovered as buried fragments two centuries ago in Scotland by archaeologists. In more recent years a multi-disciplined team of enthusiasts has reconstructed the carnyx, not once, but several times. The question is, does the reality of its musical quality equate to the sexiness of its origins and its striking, physical beauty?

There have been previous opportunities to test that on single examples, but on Saturday at the Cumnock Tryst festival we heard for the first time three of these instruments played simultaneously in a new work by John Purser, the composer, historian, playwright and poet whose mammoth radio and book project of the 1990s, Scotland’s Music, gave birth to the carnyx project.

Gundustrup Rituals was the final destination in this hour-long presentation, Ancient Voices, performed by the man whose expertise as a trombonist enabled him to join forces with Purser and metal craftsman John Creed and conceive the all-important performance techniques that would bring the recreated carnyx to life. 

He was joined in Cumnock by two other trombonists and carnyx acolytes, Patrick Kenny and Ian Sankey – the trio collectively known as Dragon Voices – in a quasi-dramatic show-and-tell that extended the instrumental armoury to giant conch shells, cow horns and Irish bronze age horns. The music running up to the grand finale was largely by Kenny himself, with a fanfare by the eccentric French film composer Francis Chagrin incorporated within an opening, initially antiphonal, sequence for modern trombones. Well, that’s why that the printed programme told us; it was hard to distinguish it if you didn’t know it.

Then Kenny’s attention turned to the primal menagerie of ancient blown instruments, a series of short pieces designed to demonstrate the awesome potential of their primitivism, performed with the younger players constantly shifting up and down the aisles, each segment prefaced with punchy verses from Purser’s poetic pen. Largely improvisational in style, with call and response in abundance, and the odd shock of a sudden piercing fortissimo, this quasi-dramatic part of the concert was like a teasing, preparatory warm-up to the main event.

When it came, Purser’s new work was a vision and sound to behold, three gleaming carnyces (with a fourth alongside looking like a sub on the bench) issuing a sonic repertoire that extended from subterranean gargles and sombre, low-lying pre-Brucknerian close-harmonies, to high-pitched triumphalism and those hair-raising moments where cacophony gave way to the golden perfection of a major triad.

Again, words played their part in translating the images that inspired this piece – one of these depicts three figures playing carnyces simultaneously – into such a spunky, ritualistic performance. “We are three”, chanted the players, a kind of post-Dumas declaration of unity. I, for one, enjoyed the spectacle; and yes, the facts spoke for themselves.

Ken Walton

Picture: Stuart Armitt

Glasgow Cathedral Festival

Artistic Director Andrew Forbes and his small team achieve a minor miracle each year with their long weekend of diverse and often bold and experimental music in the superb environment of Glasgow Cathedral. Saturday evening’s programme was a good indicator of that range, and the unique atmosphere the building provides.

Cellist William Conway’s Hebrides Ensemble brought a programme that was diverse in itself, beginning with a quartet by Mozart and ending with a work for the same forces by Krzysztof Penderecki – the Polish composer to whose memory Sir James MacMillan has dedicated his new violin concerto.

Although Conway himself played in all but one of the five works, much of the focus in the recital was on Yann Ghiro and Scott Dickinson, principal clarinet and principal viola in the BBC SSO, with violinist David Alberman the other member of this edition of the versatile group.

Mozart’s Adagio for Basset Horn and String Trio might only have become such in the hands of German musicologist Ernst Lewicki, but its melodic material is familiar from the composer’s repurposing of it and the lead instrument is one for which he had a demonstrable enthusiasm.

Penderecki’s Quartet exploits the similar tonal range of the clarinet and viola in its opening and closing movements as the cello and violin add single note “drones” to the sound. The clarinet is also to the fore in the sprightly and slightly bluesy Scherzo; only in the third movement Serenade is there a more democratic share of the lead line.

The other curiosity by a big name was Leonard Bernstein’s Variations on an Octatonic scale, five bite-sized miniatures that fuelled his Concerto for Orchestra. They were performed here by Conway and Ghiro, and the fourth, with its staccato clarinet and pizzicato cello was a particular delight.

The programme was completed by two newer works from composers living or working in Scotland, David Fennessy and Helen Grime. Almost the definition of minimalism and restraint, with much use of harmonics, Fennessy’s Changeless And The Changed is a duo for violin and cello that takes a single musical idea, botanical in inspiration, and explores it thoroughly. To See The Summer Sky, by Grime, pairs violin and viola with the lower instrument often taking the lead, especially in the faster sections of the score.

If the Hebrides’ package presented an opportunity to hear music that rarely has an outing, the event that followed was a one-off delight. De Profundis: A Tribute to Scottish Miners began life at the East Neuk Festival five years ago, performed in smoky half-light in The Bowhouse, the former agricultural building that has become the festival’s main large venue.

This revisiting of the work by John Wallace, his professional brass-playing colleagues in The Wallace Collection, and Tony George, the tuba-playing director of the Tullis Russell Band who is now working with The Cooperation Band, also involved Renfrew Burgh Band. The massed brass also included, unbilled, a few players from Fife who simply wanted to be involved again and were prepared to travel to do so.

If the pit-invoking haze was less dense this time, the lighting and use of the building was twice as spectacular. The score Wallace has created, mining material from settings of Psalm 130, Out Of The Deep, ranges from classic brass band sound to choral polyphony, constantly in flux and with the glorious punctuation of a virtuosic trumpet solo from on high and a robust percussion interlude. From the quire of the cathedral, Brenda Craig recited the four poems that are part of the piece, one of them miner/writer Joe Corrie’s The Image o’ God.

Word had clearly got out that this was a spectacular not to be missed and the Cathedral Festival team were rewarded by a very good attendance for an occasion that will live long in the memory.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Hebrides Ensemble by David Lee

Cumnock Tryst: King’s Singers

Trinity Church, Cumnock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Walton 

RSNO / Sondergard

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keith Bruce

Picture: Stefan Jackiw

BBC SSO / Pintscher

City Halls, Glasgow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keith Bruce

SCO / Emelyanychev

Perth Concert Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Walton

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

Songs from the Last Page

Wigtown Book Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keith Bruce

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

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Walton 

RSNO / Berman

RSNO Centre, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Walton

Dunedin Consort / Butt

Perth Concert Hall 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keith Bruce 

Portrait of Lucy Crowe by Victoria Cadisch

Lammermuir: SCO / Poska

St Mary’s Church, Haddington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keith Bruce

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

Picture of Kristiina Poska by Kaupo Kikkas

Lammermuir: Hammond & Uttley

Dunbar Parish Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keith Bruce

Portait of Clare Hammond by Philip Gatward

Lammermuir: NYCoS Chamber Choir

Loretto School Chapel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keith Bruce

Picture by Stuart Armitt

Lammermuir: Jeremy Denk

Dunbar Parish Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keith Bruce

Lammermuir: Therese

St Mary’s, Haddington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keith Bruce

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

Pictures by Sally Jubb

Sean Shibe: Lost & Found

Pentatone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keith Bruce

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