Category Archives: Reviews

SCO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

Mozart wrote his “Posthorn” Symphony – or rather modelled it out of existing music from an earlier Serenade – during his younger Salzburg days. Shostakovich’s Symphony No 14, on the other hand, is a product of a composer at the opposite end of his life, written in 1969 while he was recovering from a second heart attack and clearly – given its all-pervading theme of death – consumed by thoughts of mortality. Programme these two works together and the outcome is stark, challenging and thought-provoking.

All the more so when the spectre of Covid still dictates social practices and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra continues to deliver its shortened programmes without an interval. Conductor Mark Wigglesworth took full advantage of this juxtapositional opportunity inspiring performances that expressed the perfection and precision of both works, but equally capitalised on their differential elements to striking effect.

That’s not to say that the Mozart, originating from music originally composed to celebrate the end of the academic year in Salzburg, is all joy and rapture. Right from the start Wigglesworth shaped its gathering moments with thoughtfulness and finesse, its phrases lovingly shaped and gently insistent. There was always a spring in the SCO’s step, though, a light-footed Italianate joie-de-vivre which reached its ultimate outlet in the exuberant finale.

The contrast with the opening bars of the Shostakovich could hardly have been more marked. For this, the orchestra, pared down to strings and percussion, was joined by soprano Elizabeth Atherton and bass Peter Rose, whose reading of this unconventional symphony – effectively a song cycle to texts contemplating the cold reality of unnatural death, but with enough organic cohesion to justify its nomenclature – was laced with palpable emotion, energised containment and neatly-gauged interaction.

The scene was set in an instant, the strings eliciting Shostakovich’s gaunt, austere opening textures with chilling simplicity, amplified by the rich sonority of Rose’s first utterances, Lorca’s De Profundis in Russian, to which the lowest strings issued a sombre undercurrent. The allusions to Britten are tangible, not surprising given he was the work’s dedicatee. But while his shadow looms persistently, Shostakovich’s progressive voice remains singularly probing and magnificent throughout. 

Atherton’s performance identified the symphony’s visceral core, emotionally and visually provocative. Rose cut a more stoical, trenchant persona. Both were acutely reactive to the concentrated brilliance of the orchestral backdrop, a canvas swarming with virtuoso solos and highly-evocative percussion effects. Wigglesworth’s cool control had the effect of heightening the dramatic tension and, at key moments, its iridescent flights of ecstasy. A moving performance, all the more so for the context it appeared in.

Ken Walton

Red Note Ensemble

Perth Concert Hall

It may be unhelpful to say so, but there are certain tropes of the illustration of the climate crisis that are now in danger of becoming just more “blah, blah, blah”. Images of a collapsing glacier wall or plastic bottles bobbing in the ocean are now so familiar that the horror of them has long since dissipated.

Both were present and correct in the film that accompanied this premier of a new composition that is Red Note’s contribution to the artistic activity around COP26. At first the music sounded ominously at risk of going down the same route: fluttering harmonics and percussive use of the bodies of the string instruments and then chords of ambient disquiet from the entire nonet.

Fortunately, this far from unattractive but strangely familiar opening was merely the introduction to sub mari by Martina Corsini and Manuel Figueroa-Bolvaran. For Corsini, who is Weston-Jerwood Creative Fellow with the ensemble following her music studies at the University of the West of Scotland, this was a debut commission, and the singer-songwriter incorporated a showcase for herself at the heart of what was more a 30-minute suite with five distinct sections.

If her song, backed by young choir from Chile (Coro Allegro, directed by Francisco Espinoza) on film and Levenmouth Academy in Fife (directed by Alison Fleming) on tape, made the most immediate impact, it had also given the producers the biggest headaches. With plans for a live appearance by the young Scots scuppered by pandemic restrictions, Red Note artistic director John Harris revealed, in a discussion after the concert, that some pop music auto-tune trickery had been required to bring all the ingredients to the same pitch.

If that accounted for a slight stiltedness in the central section, it was more than made up for by the liquidity of the playing from Red Note’s professionals around it. The work’s inspiration lay in the scarcity of water in Figueroa-Bolvaran’s native Chile, compared to the threat it poses in Crosini’s adopted home of Scotland, and there was a parallel international landscape of sound in the music. Highlights included a memorable combination of Joanna Nicholson’s clarinet, Emil Chakalov’s violin and percussionist Tom Hunter’s floor tom, flautist Ruth Morley soloing over a backbeat of tribal drumming (again involving the strings as percussion instruments), and Malcolm MacFarlane’s gorgeously fluid Hawaiian-flavoured electric guitar.

The final movement, featuring the full group again, had a questioning tone that seemed absolutely correct, and the corollary to all the cliches that have become part of the environmental debate.

The work has further performances at Wellington Church, Glasgow on November 8, at 6pm, and in the Laidlaw Music Centre in the University of St Andrews on November 9, at 3pm.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: John Harris by Wattie Cheung

Vital Signs of the Planet

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

I am unconvinced that it added up as a concert programme, but there were some fine ingredients in the contribution of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to COP26 in Glasgow.

Created in partnership with the Global Climate Uprising Festival invented by the LakeArts Foundation of the US, and supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, it was a showcase for a huge student orchestra of some 110 players under the baton of conductor Emil de Cou, and for half a dozen eloquent young activists from Africa, South America and Scotland whose testimonies separated the musical items.

Those young people would not be born when the first UN “Earth Summit” was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. A film from that event prefaced this one, and prompted the thought that the youth of that era are the generation now being berated for their lack of action on the environmental crisis.

Bannockburn’s Natalie Sinclair, in her role as a National Geographic Explorer, gave an account of her research into whale song as the first of the spoken contributions, after Scots violinist Andrea Gajic was the soloist in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Accompanied by a string orchestra from within the huge forces on stage, it was a performance that grew in rhythmic assurance as the year unfolded, the hesitancy of Autumn more or less dispatched by Winter.

The third movement of Debussy’s La Mer and the broad-palette orchestration of the third movement of the Sinfonia Antartica by Ralph Vaughan Williams gave rein to the full forces on stage, when there were impressive contributions from horns, brass and on the hall’s digital organ.

The revelation of the programme, however, was  a piece the conductor had brought with him. Advent, by film composer Michael Giacchino, was commissioned to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moonlanding. Post-graduate student Claire Lumsden had the starring role here with the wordless soprano solo throughout the work.

It was an evening where young Scots women like her were consistently in the spotlight. At its start a small group of pipes and drums had been notable for the precision and power percussion of its smallest, and sole female, member, and at its end pop star Natasha Bedingfield’s re-written and fully orchestrated version of her hit Unwritten was distinguished by the backing vocals of Rachel Lightbody, Cariss Crosbie and Emilie Boyd, collectively known as Little Acres.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Claire Lumsden

SCO / Whelan

City Halls, Glasgow

Lasting under an hour from start to finish and with around 45 minutes of actual music, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra has certainly played longer programmes than this one directed, initially from the harpsichord, by its former principal bassoon Peter Whelan. It is unlikely, however, that anyone felt short-changed, such were the riches within it.

Entitled Hidden Gems, the music would perhaps more accurately be described as “neglected”, although composed by Bach, Mozart and Haydn.

Mozart provided the concert’s show-stopper in the second of two concert arias sung by Anna Dennis. It is probably fair to say that Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio! (Let me explain, o God!) is rarely heard because few sopranos are able to sing it with confidence. Written for his sister-in-law Aloysia Weber, to be dropped into another composer’s opera as a showpiece for her talents, it requires a huge range and features some extraordinary interval leaps from the mezzo range to stratospheric top notes. Dennis was in spectacular voice, and ably supported by the duetting oboe of Michael O’Donnell, although his part did not include the same pyrotechnics.

The other song was also written by Mozart for his wife’s sister, and why it is not more often heard is more of a mystery, as Nehmt meinen Dank, ihr holden Gönner! (Accept my thanks, kind patrons!) is a delightful address to the audience about the musical life. With crisp diction from Dennis and some lovely wind playing, it came across as an 18th century precursor of Abba’s Thank You For The Music.

The Bach in question was Carl Philip Emmanuel, son of J S Bach, a composer more revered in his day than he probably is now, and a trailblazer of his time. That boldness was audible from the start under Whelan in a first movement of his Symphony in F that is more about rhythm and dynamics than tunes, especially in the string parts, with what melody there is lying with the winds. After a brief slow movement, the violins regained the upper hand in the bright finale.

There were wonderfully balanced forces on stage for that work, and for the Haydn symphony, No 102, that ended the concert when the 22 strings (six in the first and second fiddles, four each of violas and cellos and two basses) were joined by four pairs of wind instruments and two natural trumpets. The singular voice was that of Louise Goodwin behind the timpani, in a score that gave the percussionist very little time to sit on her hands.

Throughout the piece she was providing crucial punctuation in a work that is Haydn at the absolute zenith of his powers as an orchestrator, full of variety in its combinations of instruments and ear-catching voicings. After what might be called a book-keeper’s opening bar – there was a distinct double-entry – the musicians responded with enthusiasm and precision to Whelan’s clear direction.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Anna Dennis

BBC SSO: Widmann

City Halls, Glasgow

Jörg Widmann is a human dynamo. When he appeared last season with the RSNO, we had a glimpse – albeit in recorded film format – of that bundled energy, single-minded flamboyance and multi-talent. As clarinet soloist, composer and conductor rolled into one, it was very definitely the Widmann Show, highly idiosyncratic and pretty damn good.

On Thursday, he adopted the same formula with the BBC SSO, this time before a live audience in the City Halls. The performance style was every bit as sparky, spontaneous and eccentric, but this time many of the risks led into trouble waters and what transpired often seemed more skin-of the-teeth than edge-of-the-seat.

There was no greater illustration than the opening concerto, Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No 1, which by the very nature of its frenetic opening movement requires a steady hand on the tiller. Widmann, doubling as soloist-director, concentrated more on the former than the latter, leaving the orchestra, after pressing the initial on-switch, to second guess his edgy, sidestepping interpretational whims and respond accordingly. 

That was no easy task, and plaudits go to leader Laura Samuel for keeping the ship on course, to the extent that a gradually settling SSO elicited more comfortable support in the ensuing movements, particularly the sweet-flowing Adagio, which also revealed a more reflective playing style from Widmann, whose tone at times in the outer movements veered occasionally to the wrong side of harsh.

Widmann’s own Con brio, heard here in a reduced version of an original short concert overture commissioned in 2008 by Mariss Jansons as a partner piece to Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, also seemed like a direct embodiment of his hi-energy persona, the flashing references to Beethoven’s themes exploding on impact, hardly recognisable amid the aftershocks defined by surreal effects on the woodwind and timpani. There’s a bit of overkill in this piece, but it was performed with just the right amount of unbridled panache.

There were idyllic moments in Schumann’s Second Symphony, such as the movingly understated fugue in the Adagio, and clarity of texture in the finale that opened up often undisclosed back-references to the slow movement’s central theme. These were powerful, natural responses to the symphony. But Widmann chose also to take uncomfortable liberties of tempo, and to allow the brass an over-prominence that occasionally masked the tunes that mattered.

For Widmann and the SSO to find a more sustained and successful synergy they need to get to know each other better. And that they will do, now that news has emerged of Widmann’s appointment as the SSO’s artist-in-residence. He’ll be back for two more concerts this season. Sparks could fly.

Ken Walton 

RSNO / Sondergard

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

It is a matter of small debate whether Igor Stravinsky was Diaghilev’s third choice for The Firebird for his Ballets Russes, or the fourth composer to be asked. It is also a score that shamelessly plundered the work of others, not solely folk sources and Rimsky-Korsakov, but also Scriabin and Debussy. All of that is by-the-by, however, when one of the best showcases of the range and power of a symphony orchestra is played with the precision and panache that the RSNO displayed under music director Thomas Sondergard at the climax of their season-opening programme.

If the source of the ingredients is not an issue in a work that is quintessential Stravinsky – music that established his name and precipitated his move to Paris, where it was first performed – the opportunity it presents as one of the concert hall’s most exciting prospects is undiminished. The clarity of the playing across the whole ensemble here, from leader Maya Iwabuchi to the trio of off-stage trumpets, was exemplary. Sondergard’s command of the tempo gradations and dynamic variations of the work was masterly, in a performance that was by turns both hugely moving and terrifically exciting.

Even better, it came at the end of a genius programme that progressed by delicious increments toward the symphonic ballet score. The concerto element at the end of the first half was Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, with the first cello of the Berlin Philharmonic, Bruno Delepelaire as soloist. A player of immaculate poise and fluency, he was matched by string ensemble that incorporated the elements of Baroque crispness and Romantic fluidity that the work demands.

The concert also had the luxury of two opening works, Shostakovich’s Festive Overture itself preceded by Matthew Rooke’s The Isle is Full of Noises!, a world premiere in the orchestra’s “Scotch Snaps” strand.

It is a little gem that is surely certain to be heard regularly, its folk themes predicting those in the Stravinsky later and its filmic quality close kin to to the Shostakovich that followed. The Festive Overture may have been music swiftly written for state purposes, a crowd-pleaser and perhaps Stalin appeaser, but the grand orchestration is of a piece with the whole tone of this evening – announcing the full-scale return of a mighty musical force.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Bruno Delepelaire

BBC SSO: Volkov / Evans

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

This was foreign territory for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, decamped from its home at Glasgow’s City Halls to the Royal Concert Hall due to essential repair works at the former, but in this case it was a helpful move. For there was much in this curious journey into the hinterland of late-20th/21st century American music  – neatly packaged as “States of America” – that could have done serious damage to our ear drums in the smaller City Halls.

It wasn’t so much the loudness of the music – in fact much of it was intensely suppressed in volume – as the unrelenting obsessiveness contained in these four works by Courtney Bryan, Talib Rasul Hakim, Eleanor Hovda and Lucia Dlugoszewski. Two of them – Bryan’s White Gleam of our Bright Star and Dlugoszewski’s Abyss and Caress – were UK premieres.

Needless to say, this was devised and conducted by Ilan Volkov, whose unquenchable thirst for difficult, offbeat contemporary scores has long made Glasgow concert-going the adventure into the unknown it so often is. Once again, he communicated his astute and precise understanding of complex ideas to the obliging SSO, whose realisation of the seemingly impossible was, at times, mind-blowing.

Bryan’s short opener, commissioned by the Colorado Springs Philharmonic in 2016, was relatively easy listening. The density of its colours, shaded with a ghostly fragility, reflects the composer’s preoccupations with “themes of sister/brotherhood, freedom and equality”, heightened by an excessive climax whose dissonance seems to shatter the cosiness of the traditional American big band sound, which it alludes to, and from which softer questioning emerges, still tainted by mildly troubling contradictions.

Hakim’s Visons of Ishawara dates back half a century, and boy does it smack of the grim aesthetic of the 1970s. From the very outset it’s as if we’re thrown into the furious melodrama of a period TV horror soundtrack: the ritualistic pounding of the bass drum; the lugubrious idealism of the wilting flute melody; a febrile hyperactive narrative that tries too hard to keep up with the action. It will have been a trip down memory lane for listeners of a certain vintage, trip being the operative word

If there was promise of calm to follow in the hushed tones of Hovda’s Fields 87, its dynamic and timbral containment ultimately led to an uncomfortable sense of sensory asphyxiation. Operating at a micro level, its journey is an almost imperceptible metamorphosis that, despite one momentary outburst, remains stifling to the end. Nonetheless, the SSO furnished it with the utmost sensitivity.

The single post-interval work provided a much-needed release: Dlugoszewski’s 1975 Abyss and Cares for trumpet and orchestra, which is frankly barmy. Not once does its frenzied tempo let up, nor does its crazed language – superhuman trumpet techniques allied to weird string effects and wind players that double on swanee whistles – offer a moment of conventional respite.

It was superbly performed, the astounding New York trumpeter Peter Evans negotiating Dlugoszewski’s boundless demands with uncanny proficiency, from whispered stratospheric heights to guttural grunts and snorts, and all at twice the speed of sound. Volkov instilled an unrelenting volatility in a performance that could so easily have been the soundtrack to a crazed convention of cartoon heroes. 

Ken Walton

This concert was recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds

OPERA: Utopia, Limited

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

If added value is what you were after this week with Scottish Opera, it was there in spades with Wednesday’s minimally-staged performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia, Limited, inserted as a one-off addition to the current Glasgow run of The Gondoliers (reviewed separately in VoxCarnyx).  

It’s a work usually confined to historical reference books – even then it can be hard to find – given that it never quite grabbed the attention of opera companies generally more tempted by mainstream G&S favourites. Scottish Opera wanted to make a case for its worth, and did so with considerable conviction by editing its notorious prolixity down to an acceptable two-and-a-half hours and utilising the lively cast that was already in town for The Gondoliers.

Economical creativity even saw Dick Bird’s picture-book set for the mythical Barataria scenes in The Gondoliers reutilised as the permanent backdrop for the equally mythical island of Utopia. Yet there was nothing remotely static about his performance, Stuart Maunder’s shrewdly imaginative direction giving his cast plenty scope for expression without embracing a full theatrical presentation.

As such, the focus on the music was intensified. Sullivan clearly took the opportunity in this late collaboration with Gilbert to expand his stylistic fingerprint. Yes, lighter-weight tra-la-las are aplenty, but so too are moments where the composer effuses with a depth and glow that is almost, if not quite, Wagnerian. The juxtaposition is, paradoxically, both strength and weakness, as are the whimsical snatches of popular reference – a recurring Rule Britannia motif, for instance – that colour the score.

But accepting Utopia, Limited for what it is – a satire on the pompous protectionism of the British Empire and hypocrisy of its political establishment, which rings an ironic bell today – there was  much to be enjoyed in this slick, refined version. 

The cast gelled magnificently, no doubt inspired by their current collegiate familiarity as the Scottish Opera Gondoliers team. Ben McAteer, now the main man, presented King Paramount of the mythical Pacific outpost that so desires “Anglification” as an endearingly hapless survivor. Elie Laugharne glowed brilliantly as his daughter Princess Zara, alongside the complementary charm of sisters Nekaya (Catriona Hewitson) and Kalyba (Sioned Gwen Davies). 

Yvonne Howard embraced the glowing sophistication of Lady Sophy with knowing composure. Arthur Bruce and Richard Suart were a dream double act as Utopian wise men Phantis and Scaphio, Suart’s snarling nonchalance neatly countered by Bruce’s winning, agile impatience.

Among the British advisory delegation, the so-called “Flowers of Progress”, the we-know-it-all mantle was gloatingly assumed, Mark Nathan as Mr Goldbury and William Morgan as Captain Battleaxe key among its numerous personnel. 

A solid chorus and a Scottish Opera Orchestra much enjoying the frequent opulence of Sullivan’s music under the baton of Derek Clark were equally at ease in this judiciously edited performance of an opera that may have undoubted flaws, but which, in time-honoured G&S spirit, sets out chiefly to entertain.

Ken Walton

Scottish Opera’s Utopia, Limited is repeated at Edinburgh Festival Theatre on 5 Nov. Full information at www.scottishopera.org.uk

SCOTTISH OPERA: Gondoliers

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

While Scottish Opera’s decision to mark its return to full-scale live production with Gilbert and Sullivan will likely raise legitimate questions about the company’s artistic priorities, there’s no questioning the boldness of Stuart Maunder’s directorial approach in this brand new, all-guns-blazing version of The Gondoliers. 

The mirth and excitement oozing from the first night audience said it all: it’s just great to be back in a real opera theatre, guffawing at the sheer escapism of a ridiculously silly story hammed up amid colourfully extravagant sets and costumes, and in the case of one gentleman near me, humming to the tunes he knew, and some he clearly didn’t.

From the outset, Maunder’s unspoilt vision is laid unapologetically before us: a panoramic Venice (Dick Bird’s elaborate picture postcard sets) filled with frolicking maidens and on-heat Gondoliers, from which unfolds a typical Gilbertian tale of relational complexities, unwitting entanglements and a conveniently convoluted denouement that, in the blink of an eye, sorts everything out.

And here is a cast that enters fully into the spirit, tweely exaggerating its comical naivety, caressing its gentle satire, and proving Sullivan’s melodic invention to be so much more than musical doggerel. 

A gleeful Ellie Laugharne and mellower Sioned Gwen Davies bring complementary charm to the playful roles of Gianetta and Tessa, affectionate matches for the boyish exuberance of their respective Gondolier hubbies, the excitably delicate William Morgan as Marco and firm-footed Mark Nathan as Giuseppe. Dan Shelvey as Luiz and Catriona Hewitson as Casilda come late to the party, but make their presence firmly felt. 

There’s vintage G&S bluster from veteran D’Oyly Carter Richard Suart as the spluttering Duke of Plaza-Toro, and Yvonne Howard as his Duchess, splendidly regal, but dressed in so vast a panniered dress one assumes its extensive wingspan conceals wheels to facilitate accompanying its wearer. Ben McAteer, as the pompous Grand Inquisitor, Don Alhambra, completes the ‘establishment’ line-up.

But this is ultimately a triumph of team work, right down to many other incidental roles, the flamboyant choreography and vocal animation of the chorus, and an orchestral performance under music director Derek Clark that bristles with sunshine and character. There were minor hesitancies on opening night, but nothing that can’t sort itself out as this fine production beds in.

Ken Walton

The Gondoliers runs in Glasgow until 23 Oct; Edinburgh 28 Oct – 6 Nov; Inverness 10-13 Nov; London 30 Mar – 2 Apr. Full details at www.scottishopera.org.uk  

CENTER: String Quartets

Toccata Classics 

There’s a unison theme in the opening bars of Ronald Center’s String Quartet No 1 that sums up the impressions of the Aberdeenshire composer often given by those who knew him. It’s a plaintive 6-note motif filled with thoughtfulness and seriousness, mildly unorthodox and kindly, but masking potentially darker thoughts that lurk under the surface. 

As the instruments divide, the harmonies develop an angular complexity before releasing a cautious joie de vivre. At this point, propulsive rhythmic ostinati are the engine room of a music steeped in early 20th century European influence. Bartok and Shostakovich come immediately to mind, which is why Center (1913-73) was so often referred to as “the Scottish Bartok”. It’s a fair and unarguable comparison, but to pigeon-hole him simply as an imitator is to underestimate Center’s genuine individuality. 

A number of years ago that might have been difficult to illustrate. But with Toccata Classics now adding the second volume to its survey of Center’s music, this time featuring the three string quartets (the first was of his piano music), we have greater opportunity to assess its worth. The performers are The Fejes Quartet, led by RSNO assistant leader Tamás Fejes with musicians connected to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

These three works belong to Center’s maturer years, the 1950s and ‘60s, by which time he had given up a brief career school teaching in Huntly to concentrate on private tuition and composition. There is a dry, almost formulaic strain running through the First Quartet that makes it the least personable of the three, as if Center hasn’t yet fully mastered the art of self-regulation, allowing ideas to outstay their welcome. Where he allows wit to enter the equation (the scherzo-like pizazz of the second movement), or expresses himself with such haunting sorrow as in the slow movement, a truer, more probing personality emerges.

In the Second Quartet from the early ‘60s an even greater freedom of expression makes its presence felt. The Vivace second movement alone is a joy, with fiery references to Scots jigs and hornpipes, but equally conversant with the comforting pastoral harmonies of, say, Vaughan Williams. The finale is wonderfully rumbustious, its dry stabbing Celtic exuberance ridiculed brilliantly à la Shostakovich.

The String Quartet No 3 (1967), rather like Beethoven’s Op 131, is set out on seven shorter moments. It is also the most condensed musically of the three quartets, Center now applying far greater self-discipline to the pace and development of his thematic material, and the impact is immediate. There is real emotional bite, a sense of completeness in its relative terseness, and a trenchant resoluteness in the pounding drones of the final evaporating bars which this performance fully embraces. The case for Center is well made.

Ken Walton

SCO / Zehetmair

City Halls, Glasgow

The violinist-cum-conductor Thomas Zehetmair has, and always has had, an arresting stage charisma. It’s a mix of unshakeable natural talent (especially on the violin) and a strength of personality that eschews outright showmanship though making up for that with an almost pugilistic belief in his own interpretational beliefs.

Look no further than the opening work in this SCO programme – Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor – in which he wielded outright control as soloist/director. The latter role is seldom needed with this orchestra, which has an innate ability to propel its own destiny. But in this instance, it was Zehetmair’s way or the highway. And it was strangely discomforting.

All began well, a crisp, nimble momentum informing the opening bars, but then – where the soloist ventures into flowery offshoots of its own – Zehetmair began to tease his collaborators with extraneous rhythmic liberties that often overstepped the limits of free speech. They rocked the boat, and suddenly the SCO sounded nervous, as if trying to second guess the next move, but doing so with mild signs of panic. 

The slow movement’s lengthy discourse was much more settling, Zehetmair’s greater discipline now steadying the ship, and the jig-like finale was only marginally afflicted, but the performance never completely recovered from its earlier eccentricities.

You could call Zehetmair’s own completion of an unfinished 1790 String Trio Fragment by Mozart equally eccentric, but his approach in giving performance life to the 100 bars of exposition Mozart penned during the last year or so of his life is genuinely fascinating. 

Zehetmair’s solution, premiered last month in Geneva, is to create an extended “response” as opposed to a literal extension. Thus the string orchestra picks up from the opening one-to-a part string trio – petering out as they exhaust the original music – as if on a rescue mission to bring the wanderers home. If that encouraged compositional liberties on Zehetmair’s part, this performance applied them sensitively, just enough to address the strong hints of wild adventure in the extant Mozart material, but careful to preserve stylistic integrity in the new material.

The final two works in this 70-minute programme threw the spotlight wholly on Zehetmair the conductor/interpreter. In Mendelssohn’s 1834 overture Die Schöne Melusine – a work of real worth unearthed by the SCO in one of last season’s streamed concerts – he elicited playing that etched out every minutiae of the drama, from exquisitely-sculpted melodies to dizzying heights of expression.

Haydn’s “Oxford” Symphony bears its own eccentricities, not least an opening finale theme that toys mischievously with natural expectations. In that sense, it was right up Zehetmair’s street, and there was no mistaking the fun embodied in this spirited performance. It wasn’t the SCO at its most refined, Zehetmair demanding brusqueness and brittle edge to the detriment of poise and poeticism. 

If it was rough and ready at  times, it was striking nonetheless, portraying Haydn in a spirit of high exuberance and laissez-faire, much of it to be enjoyed if not necessary approved of.

Ken Walton

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow 

However inspiring he is to work with, it can be an exhausting experience just watching and listening to the SCO’s Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev. This concert paired him with another Tiggerish Russian in violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky, whose similarly wide artistic practice embraces conducting and counter-tenor singing.

On more than one occasion on Friday evening it was less than clear who was in charge on stage. All credit to the players for seeming entirely unperturbed by the multiple waving arms, like a willow in the wind.

Journalist David Kettle supplied a very useful and comprehensive programme note to guide the listener through some very unfamiliar music, gathered under the title “Baroque Brio” – and there was plenty vivacity from both Sinkovsky and from Emelyanychev at the keyboard. Even tuning was quite theatrical, with the violinist sharing his pitch by walking around the platform and “Maestro Maxim”, as the soloist called him, finding it necessary to tweak the harpsichord from time to time.

The programme mixed early music by Leclair, Locatelli and Vivaldi with 20th century work that took inspiration from the era by Poulenc and Hungarian Ferenc Farkas. The latter’s Five Ancient Hungarian Dances, in an arrangement by Emelyanychev that called for the largest ensemble of the evening, was arguably the most interesting inclusion, but moved to the penultimate slot in the sequence it was a little lost, and immediately overshadowed by the Vivaldi concerto that followed, with its arresting opening and flamboyant cadenza for Sinkovsky at the end.

Poulenc’s Suite francaise, composed to soundtrack Bourdet’s extravagant stage version of the Dumas novel La reine Margot, is a very witty sparkling seven movements, but the eight movements of Locatelli’s Concerto Capriccioso, which apparently tells the Ariadne auf Naxos story, seemed a long row to hoe.

There is something of another Maxim, Maxim Vengerov, about Sinkovsky, who is a sensational player, but his party-piece Vivaldi solo concluded a performance of the work that was actually more spacious and less bustling that one might have expected, and all the better for it. It mirrored the Violin Concerto in D Major by Jean-Marie Leclair that had opened proceedings. Leclair, whose artistic career included dancing and virtuoso violin as well as composition, was perhaps the most apt inclusion by the concert’s multi-disciplined (but also slightly undisciplined) protagonists.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Dmitry Sinkovsky

RSNO / Macdonald

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

A fortnight ahead of its official season-opening concerts under Music Director Thomas Sondergard, the RSNO is covering a lot of ground with its pre-season fixtures to celebrate the return of live music before a real audience.

Following Sunday’s appearance by a fully match-fit RSNO Chorus, singing Haydn’s Creation in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall under the baton of Gregory Batsleer, here was a showcase for the orchestra’s new principal clarinet, Timothy Orpen, and Scottish conductor Rory Macdonald – a programming also visiting Dundee and Aberdeen.

The headline attraction was Mozart’s perennially-popular Clarinet Concerto, played by Orpen on the basset instrument with its extra notes at the bottom. The composer was working at the cutting-edge of technology at the time, helping develop a new instrument that was already notable for its range, and in recent years it has become much more common to perform it on the precise instrument intended, or at least a modern equivalent.

With a little ornamentation by the soloist, this was a beautifully-measured, precise, but quite unemotional performance of an old favourite. Orpen is a terrific player and Macdonald kept a very steady pulse in the strings under the lovely melody of the slow movement. He is a conductor of the clearest intentions who would surely brook no impression of vagueness of interpretation, and there seemed a slight tendency to see the work as a laboratory demonstration of the clarinet’s capabilities – but then that may well be exactly how Mozart saw it.

The works around the concerto in the programme were far from obvious choices, but both were beautifully orchestrated for an edition of the RSNO only slightly larger than required for the Mozart. It was a real delight of this concert to hear that range of musical colour in the bright acoustic of the orchestra’s new space in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall complex.

The Overture to Sibelius’s Karelia Music, his first major work, is less often heard than the Karelia Suite he later condensed from the whole thing. The suite makes more of the Intermezzo melody that everyone knows – the only original tune in the whole work – but it does appear here. What was just as audible in this performance was how fully-realised the orchestration skills of the composer were, with his symphonies years in the future.

The Fifth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams sits half way through his varied orchestral output, but in 1943 many saw it as a valedictory work. In 2021 it is hard to say where his works sit in the canon, aside from the regular poll-topping victories of The Lark Ascending as a popular favourite.

Macdonald and the RSNO made the most persuasive case for the Fifth. The third movement Romanza is most recognisable as the work of The Lark’s composer, with its opening solo for Henry Clay’s cor anglais and, more obviously, leader Lena Zeliszewska’s violin at its end.

Elsewhere, though, it is a complex, fascinating work, mixing modernism and the pastoral, with the spotlight falling on every section of the orchestra at one time or another, and rich combinations of them in the scoring.

It is easy to hear why, after the brash Fourth, the wartime audience heard its successor as some sort of summing-up. In fact Vaughan Williams would continue to confound expectations of his orchestral writing until shortly before his death, fifteen years later.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Rory Macdonald by Robin Clewly

Cumnock Tryst: Historical Fiction

St John’s Church, Cumnock

Saxophonist Christian Forshaw describes his approach to his latest album, Historical Fiction, as being “the same kind of process authors of the genre use, where they’ll take a skeletal framework of history and then weave their own narrative around that.” 

The result, on disc, is mesmerising, the crystalline purity of Grace Davidson’s soprano performance in music ranging from the medieval Hildegard of Bingen to Baroque masters Handel and Purcell working hand on glove with Forshaw’s improvisatory dialogues and the composed links that give seamless continuity to the entire performance.

Presenting it live as part of last weekend’s Cumnock Tryst Festival, with Libby Burgess on organ instead of the original Alex Mason, proved more of a challenge. The venue, the Ayrshire town’s modest St John’s Church, seemed a tad too claustrophobic for a concept that cried out for both physical and acoustical opulence. 

There was still ravishment and a quintessential purity in Davidson’s pitch-perfect singing of Purcell’s Fairest Isle and Gibbons’ beautifully evocative The Silver Swan among others, around which Forshaw’s responsive commentary cast an illuminating halo. But all of that, even Forshaw’s own set pieces, seemed locked firmly within the apsidal chancel of the church, confining the resonating glow that the nave-seated audience would love to have fully shared.

That same containment went against the ritualised nature of the performance. The idea was sound, from Davidson’s solitary plainsong entrance to the chess-like shifting of positions by her and Forshaw, dependant on where the spotlight should focus, that animated the flow. They simply required more room and fewer obstacles to negotiate. The killer blow was a power cut minutes from the end, leaving the organ impotent, and sabotaging the final idyllic Dowland song, Come Heavy Sleep.

In the right place, a cathedral perhaps, this would have been a much more moving experience. Historical Fiction, it seems to me, belongs to a more mystical, ethereal setting. And a more reliable power supply.

Ken Walton

Glasgow Cathedral Festival: Sean Shibe

As part of what he called his “Drive to [19]85”, some years before Sean Shibe was born, the King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp used to speak of one of his side projects as “a small, mobile, highly-intelligent unit”. Only oldsters like myself are likely to look at Shibe and see a Fripp de nos jours, but that description fits him rather well.

Of all the many returned festivals and seasons across Scotland this autumn, the live reappearance of the Glasgow Cathedral Festival, with a very diverse programme that crossed genres with style and featured established names alongside the freshest new talents, was a particular achievement by the handful of young people who made it happen. Their resources are slender by comparison with some of the other events you can read about on VoxCarnyx.

Shibe’s one-man international journey was therefore an ideal Saturday night headliner, revisiting his back-catalogue under the title Disjunctions, rather than promoting his new Pentatone recording, Camino. The bulk of the programme was taken from his soft/LOUD project, which became his second Delphian album. The quieter part is taken from lute manuscripts in Scottish collections, which show the pan-European outlook and communications of the country in the 17th century.

The bulk of them were from Wemyss Castle and Balcarres House in Fife, but it is not where the music has been found now but where the tunes originated that speaks of Scotland’s cosmopolitan past. Performing them on a modern classical guitar, Shibe can exploit the full range of melodies, rhythms and tonal colour to be found in the notes.

Before switching to his Fender Stratocaster for louder electric music from living composers, the guitarist included an “intervention” from his third Delphian disc of the music of Bach, his most recent award-winner. The brief suite not only underlined the recital’s international message, it also  set up his encore performance of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Farewell to Stromness, prefaced, as Shibe likes to do, with a reminder about its ecological message.

Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint is a contemporary classic, and Shibe has become one of its foremost performers. The complexities of its rhythms and the technicalities of performing live over several pre-recorded tracks of his own playing now appear second nature. Those whose record collections also include the African-inspired sonic experiments of David Byrne and Brian Eno, with and without the band Talking Heads, will recognise similar sources to those Reich explores, and Shibe’s performance made the most of them in the reverberant acoustic.

That was even more audible in the last work on his programme, LAD by Bang on a Can composer Julia Wolfe. A memorial work, composed for nine bagpipers and consequently not often performed, Shibe has made this a personal showstopper, using multi-tracking, sustain and slide to adapt it to his electric instrument. Heard in isolation, especially booming in a big space, it might have come from anywhere in the world and any era – and that was possibly exactly the point.

Keith Bruce

Cumnock Tryst: Lewis/Osborne

Trinity Church, Cumnock

When a couple of ace pianists get together and sound indistinguishably as one, the outcome is pure magic. Not that we needed Saturday’s keynote recital at James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst Festival by Steven Osborne and Paul Lewis to discover that. Their recent Hyperion recording, French Duets, is already a testament to their unique symbiosis as duettists. Hearing the same music in the flesh, however, took us to another level.

Osborne and Lewis are serious-minded musicians, Lewis especially, whose brooding stage persona generally conveys an intellectual intensity void of whimsy or idle chit-chat. It fell to Osborne – more comfortable perhaps with audience repartee – to sweeten the load through introductory thoughts and anecdotes, and the odd jokey interchange with the unexpectedly mischievous Lewis.

All of which set a suitably relaxed context for music that variously sang sweetly, touched on the sensuous and exotic, bristled with biting irony, even evoked the subtlest perfumes. Both took it in turns to handle the upper part, not that it made much difference to the outcome. When it comes to music, Osborne and Lewis share the same intuitive sensitivity of touch, melodic shaping and rhythmic nuance.

Applying it to Fauré’s tuneful Dolly Suite they turned this favourite of fumbling amateurs into a masterclass in lyrical ingenuity. Simple on the surface, there are treasures within, melodies that defy expectation, inner thoughts that deserve to be heard just enough to make their presence felt. What a joy to hear these so effortlessly revealed and yet so meaningfully contained within the broadest frameworks.

Poulenc’s belligerent Sonata for Piano Duet signalled a sudden change in delivery, the emphasis now on terse detachment and pounding dissonance, yet mindful of the bittersweet charm that pervades its calmer moments, and balanced neatly by a later performance of Stravinsky’s Trois Pièces faciles, just as edgy and acerbic, but with leaner, sharper textures. 

It would hardly have been a representative French programme without Debussy and Ravel, and it was here that Osborne and Lewis really took our breaths away. The sense of mystery and potency of colour conveyed in Debussy’s Six Epigraphes antiques was spellbinding, the contrasting piquancy of the Petite Suite illuminating and jewel-like. Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite seemed the perfect finale, its fairy-tale imagery captured magnificently in a performance that summed up in one the previous triumphs of a great evening.  

Ken Walton 

Available to stream via the Festival website, www.thecumnocktryst.com, until 8 October

Cumnock Tryst: Tenebrae / Forshaw

Cumnock Old Church

Before a simple, effective – and almost unbearably moving – arrangement of the hymn Abide With Me was performed as an encore by the six singers of Tenebrae and saxophonist Christian Forshaw, the choir’s director Nigel Short acknowledged the inspiration of the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek in this combination of talents.

Much though I love the ECM recordings Garbarek and the Hilliards made – and Officium is now closing in on 30 years old – there was more warmth, and a quite distinctive sound, to the world premiere of this sequence by Tenebrae and Forshaw, under the title of the Orlando Gibbons hymn Drop, drop slow tears.

This was the choir’s debut at Cumnock Tryst – 2021’s alternative to the absence of Harry Christophers and The Sixteen perhaps – and part of Forshaw’s residency at the festival. James MacMillan has helped foster a collaboration that sounds very much as if it has legs, not least because the arrangements the saxophonist and Short brought to the project seemed very much cut from the same cloth.

Not all the music was presented in an altered state. The hour or so began with the Gibbons sung “straight” and ended with a Short arrangement that sounded close kin to Forshaw’s earlier treatment of Thomas Tallis’s O nata lux. Short also brought some creative use of the acoustic of the space, a high soprano delivering Hildegard von Bingen from “off-stage” and he himself instigating a semi-processional Incipit Lamentatio Gregorian chant.

Forshaw, who mostly performed from the pulpit but joined the singers to replace the contralto with alto sax on later Tallis, added compositions of his own to the mix. The modern language of Renouncement was nicely answered with Victoria’s Reproaches and In paradisum gave a rare showcase to the bass-baritone of the group.

In Garbarek fashion, Forshaw often favoured the soprano instrument, sometimes in dialogue with the choir’s soprano, but as well as alto he also added some subtle bass clarinet to the mix. Yes, Tenebrae and Forshaw owe a debt of recognition to the musicians who sold so many albums of sax and early vocal music, but Drop, Drop Slow Tears takes the recipe in a direction that is all their own.

The sound on the streamed version of this concert, which is available until Friday October 8, is superb, and the camerawork limited and unshowy, so not distracting. It is possible, however, that the Tryst may wish it had been able to devote more budget to the filming when the programme becomes more widely appreciated.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Emelyanychev


City Halls, Glasgow
It was impossible not to pick up the eagerness with which Maxim Emelyanychev and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra launched into their first season concert in Glasgow in almost 20 months. The smiles on the players’ faces as they tuned was already indicative of their undisguised pleasure in having a live audience, as was the palpable emotion in chief executive Gavin Reid’s welcome back speech. But it was the moment Emelyanychev rushed to the podium to deliver a vicious, impatient downbeat that the power of live music made its visceral mark.
This was Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto, a work that can be what you like it to be, blustery and bombastic with the central slow movement as an oasis of relative calm, or a tempered approach with the emphasis firmly on harnessing its extremes to create a more organic, though no less volcanic, survey.
Emelyanychev and his soloist, the Russian-Lithuanian Lukas Geniušas, chose the former, the brusque and challenging opening exchange a clear indication of what was to come. In many ways it was an uncomfortable ride. Emelyanychev played freely with the tempo, placing gestural rhetoric at the forefront of his stormy vision. If that felt forced at times, there was no denying the resultant unpredictability and excitability that made every precious moment an edge-of-the-seat one.
Everyone was up for it, including the equally invigorated Geniušas, and it was this singularity of purpose that won the day. The colossal opening movement was explosive, shock tactics heightening its language of extremes; the slow movement eschewing over-sentiment in favour of rich-veined lyricism; the finale resuming the struggle but with exhaustive victory firmly in sight. Geniušas proved a pugnacious match to the exuberant Emelyanychev, to which the SCO responded with matching complicity.
This interval-less concert ended with Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony, and a performance that, once again, shaped its own destiny. While this symphony may not have quite the same instinctive charm as Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony – which the BBC SSO had performed in the same hall 24 hours earlier – Emelyanychev played to its strengths, some of which proved to be unexpected delights. 
There was an abundance of clarity, enabling unexpected colours to emerge, such as those moments where a low-set clarinet shadowed the strings, or where Mendelssohn’s complex counterpoint danced with boyish lustre. And there was a life-giving buoyancy that ensured this programme ended on the same high with which it began.
Ken Walton

Sean Shibe: Camino

Pentatone

Sean Shibe’s mantlepiece must be getting mighty crowded. As his fourth album, and first for Pentatone, is released, its predecessor, of Bach lute suites and his third on Scotland’s Delphian label, has just won the Instrumental category in the Gramophone magazine awards.

Blazing his own trail, and in such clear control of his own career, the Edinburgh guitarist might seem to have made the most obvious album of his career with this new release. There is repertoire indelibly associated with his instrument in the public mind, and tunes by Erik Satie and Maurice Ravel that everyone knows.

We are in the borderlands of France and Spain over its hour duration – guitar country for sure – but there is a freshness about Camino that defies any familiarity. Partly that is due to the most-featured composer being Frederic Mompou, rather than the Frenchmen, or Manuel de Falla or Antonio Jose, whose compositions are also included.

The Catalan composer’s six-movement Suite compostelana gives the set its title, and is a product of Mompou’s close association with Andres Segovia. His Cancio I dansa, two of which are included here, were more often for piano. That those tracks impress in such company more than vindicates Shibe’s championing, but the real achievement of the album is the sequencing of the whole. From the selection from The Three-Cornered Hat that opens the disc to the Poulenc Sarabande that closes it, this is a flowing recital where every detail counts. It demands to be listened to entire – and often.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Leleux

City Halls, Glasgow

One of the curious outcomes of the past 20 months, where orchestras have trawled the catalogues for music suited to restricted numbers, has been the emergence of obscure repertoire and neglected composers. Now, slightly perversely, these composers are surfacing repeatedly. One example is the 19th century French composer Louise Farrenc. She came to light last season courtesy of the SCO. Here she was again, in the company of Mendelssohn and Mozart, in a concert by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

It was short and sweet, her brief but bullish Overture No 1 in E minor lasting a mere 7 minutes, but how well it held its head high in such illustrious company. Helping make its point was French oboist-cum-conductor François Leleux, whose flirtatious charisma secured a shapely, directional performance. If there are clear echoes of Beethoven in Farrenc’s motivic shape and structure, there is also a suppleness of invention that is nearer to Schumann and preemptive even of Wagner. Like so much of this programme, the SSO was in a resilient mood.

This was in a second half that ended with Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony, delivered with the same illuminating clarity that had already made such a distinctive impression prior to the interval. Leleux had opened with the same composer’s overture for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, failing for a brief moment to pull the strings convincingly together in the scurrying fairy dust opening. But it was a transient issue, cancelled immediately in a performance notable thereafter for its delicious textural subtleties and gripping expressiveness.

Then a piece of virtual theatre. Leleux, now armed with oboe, took on the dual role of soloist and director in his own suite of arrangements of six operatic arias by Mozart, selected from The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni. This was the jewel of the evening, facilitated as much by the skilfulness of Leleux’s virtuoso adaptations – from thrill-a-minute ornamentation of the melodies to mischievous quirks in which he pinched instrumental snippets for himself – as by the extraordinary, often whimsical, versatility of his dazzling technique. Needless to say, encores were demanded and duly delivered.

There was a sense in Leleux’s relationship with the SSO that the chemistry between them was increasing by the minute. So when it came to the closing Mendelssohn symphony it simply breezed along. Again, irrepressible energy and tight-knit detail informed the performance. But there was a natural sweetness in the Andante, and an effortless elegance in the minuet that countered the Mediterranean tang of the outer movements.  

Ken Walton

This concert will be broadcast on Radio 3 and BBC Sounds on 14 October, thereafter available to stream or download for 30 days

« Older Entries Recent Entries »