Category Archives: Reviews

PERTH FESTIVAL: Scottish Ensemble

The Byre, Inchyra, Perthshire

Had the Scottish Ensemble opened this year’s Perth Festival of the Arts in the manner it was originally contracted, rather than with an on-line concert and no live audience, there is no doubt it would have been an entirely different event. As it happened, and is available to Sunday May 29 via the festival’s website, it sits well in the sequence of concerts the group has filmed during the pandemic, adding another attractive venue to its imaginative list.

Perhaps artistic director Jonathan Morton may also have been less bold in the selection of works that led up to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings to entice Perth to book in person, but the ten other composers to be heard here are sequenced with great skill in an international journey that manages to keep one foot at home in Scotland.

In effect the Serenade’s best known movement becomes the last waltz in an evening of dance music, and there is an atmosphere of the ceilidh in this converted farm building, more than living up to Morton’s promise of a programme of joyful and exuberant music.

The opening movement from Grazyna Bacewicz’s Concerto for String Orchestra certainly fits the bill, and if James MacMillan’s Memento, which follows, is the composer in haunting, folky mode, it is the bridge to the Scottish strain being given full expression in Anna Meredith’s Tullochgorum, not only a Scottish Ensemble commission but also a reminder that MacMillan conducted one of her earliest orchestral pieces during his association with the BBC Philharmonic.

If we might seem to return to Eastern Europe with Dvorak’s Waltz in D Major, that reckons without the trad fiddle session way Morton leads the piece, and something of that style continues in first viola Andrew Berridge’s solo line in a selection from Schubert’s 5 German Dances, rather more lively than its Minuet title suggests.

After that, the music becomes more of a challenge to dance to, for all its rhythmic intensity. The Transylvanian dance of Sandor Veress has the sort of challenging time signature that was catnip to jazz trumpeter Don Ellis with his band, before the biggest geographical leap of the programme takes us to Buenos Aires and “Summer” from Piazzolla’s Four Seasons.

The natural move to William Grant Still’s Danzas de Panama introduces a work that then goes somewhere else entirely, before the adventurous strings cross back over the Atlantic for two pieces by members of the Danish String Quartet, cellist Fredrik Schoyen Sjolin and leader Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen. There may be a nod to Danish court composer John Dowland here, but we are also firmly back at the ceilidh until Tchaikovsky waltzes us all home.

Available to view via www.perthfestival.co.uk

Keith Bruce

SCO: MacMillan / Currie

Perth Concert Hall

Two Scottish premieres provide the entrance and exit to this latest online SCO programme, once again recorded in Perth. In charge is conductor/composer Sir James MacMillan, opening with one of his own works. He’s later joined by Scots virtuoso Colin Currie in a concerto specially written for the percussionist in 2008 by the late Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. 

Both works possess an inner beauty, which gives this entire concert – Sibelius’ Suite No 2 from his characterful music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest provides a connecting bridge – a overarching aura of accessible warmth and glowing humanity. 

Originally written for string quartet, MacMillan’s short opener, Ein Lämplein verlosch (“A little lamp went out”), takes its title from the first song in Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, but surely resonates as a deeply personal response to the early death several years ago of MacMillan’s own granddaughter. This enchanting performance certainly captures a spectral innocence radiating from ephemeral string harmonics, its questioning fragmentation, and a lingering sense that its feet never quite touch the ground.

When they do, briefly, there is a mixture of joy and pain, expressed with Brittenesque clarity and succinctness. MacMillan refers to it as an “instrumental distillation of this grief”, which rings very true in this nuanced performance by the SCO strings.

Nothing could be more contrasted than the huge, bulbous ripe tune that sets the ball rolling in Rautavaara’s concerto, a work subtitled Incantations. It’s as big and brassy as any west end musical signature hit, a surging wave of tonal extravagance deliberately soured by chippy dissonance. No sooner has it made its impressive presence felt than it subsidies, acting more as a blank canvas to which Currie adds spicy detail and characterisations.

Set traditionally in three movements, the opening Pesante lives up to its name, the various internal dialogues asserted by the soloist weighted by the gravitational pull of the orchestra. One brief moment, where the percussionist evokes a mood of utter serenity, forewarns of the ensuing Espressivo, a central movement whose Debussy-like opening heralds a feast of shamelessly indulgent easy listening. 

If Rautavaara’s contribution to the finale appears minimal, to some extent padding, it’s because the dominating feature is Currie’s own mammoth cadenza, as if the composer has handed over the reins and said “show us what you can do”. What transpires is both mesmerising and seamlessly integrated within the prevailing style, and heralding Rautavaara’s eventual sign-off, which is an even more colossal statement of the opening theme. It’s big, bold and conclusive, which the SCO addresses with the required chutzpah.

As for the Sibelius, MacMillan displays an obvious affinity with the unpretentiousness of this theatrically-inspired suite, eliciting the gossamer-like delicacy of the wispy Intermezzo, Grieg-like chunkiness in the brief musical portrait of Prospero, and a gorgeous Palm Court snugness in Sibelius’ magical depiction of the kind-hearted Miranda. A tad more schmalz in the Dance of the Nymphs and less constraint in the final Dance Episode is all that was needed to satisfy the wilder side of this delightful score. 
Ken Walton

RSNO: Gardolińska / Dvorak 7

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

In her debut with the RSNO, Polish conductor Marta Gardolińska begins on home territory. She recalls, in her spoken introduction, the very folksongs her grandmother once sang to her, which Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski incorporates into his Little Suite (Mała Suita) for orchestra. 

As a starter then – indeed as the single indigenous work in a programme filed under the RSNO’s Polska Scotland tag – this delightful Lutoslawski gem from the 1950s finds the emergent conductor, orchestra and music wholly at one. It’s a fine induction for the earnestly fastidious Gardolińska, whose associateship in recent years with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra has not gone unnoticed.

She brings a springlike freshness to Lutoslawski’s occasionally skittish suite, drawing infinite mood and colour from his limitless manipulation of the folk material. Those delicate lyrical strands, variously offset by Stravinskian rhythmic warfare or belligerent or woozy hints of jazz, forever stay refreshed by the persistent polytonal harmonies that spread an even spiciness throughout and give this music its exotic transparency.

The contrasting heft of Dvorak’s Symphony No 7, much more elemental in concept to the instant popularity of the Eighth and Ninth, isn’t so initially comfortable in Gardolińska’s hands. There’s a cumbersome stolidity that weighs down the initial outward journey, which lacks the inevitability pushing onwards and upwards to that first gloriously resolute legato melody. Too much maestoso; not enough allegro, perhaps.

It’s not long, though, before the cogs begin to align, and by the close of the opening movement there’s a sense we’re going places, even if the subdued calm of the final bars crave greater amplitude.

Gardolińska’s leisurely amble through the slow movement recalls the folkish hues of the Lutoslawski, with shapely intertwined soloing from all corners of the orchestra. The scherzo sensibly plays itself, and in the finale, the ignited, inexorable passion is more the force of nature it should have been in the very opening bars.

It’s interesting to see the chemistry between Gardolińska and the RSNO grow as the symphony progresses, even though this is a recorded performance. That alone sends a message that she’ll be very welcome back. 

Ken Walton

Available to view at www.rsno.org.uk

SCO / Boyd / Osborne

Perth Concert Hall

It is not a strategy any sane person would recommend, of course, but the long period without performances at full strength has surely produced an audibly re-energised Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Or perhaps that is to do an injustice to oboist and conductor Douglas Boyd, whose direction of this concert shows that every section of the band is within reach of his eloquent arms.

Nonetheless, it is the wind section that shines brightest in the opening performance of Mendelssohn’s Overture: The Fair Melusine, and in particular the flute of Bronte Hudnott and the clarinet of Maximiliano Martin. With natural trumpets and horns, there is a robust period-band approach from Boyd and an appreciation that the narrative of the daft mermaid story is still a tragic one.

This reviewer is not much given to tears, but the performance by pianist Steven Osborne and the orchestra of the Adagio slow movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G brought a lump to the throat. That this achingly melody should have been the last thing Maurice Ravel wrote for these forces is poignant, but the emotional power of the unfolding line – a real challenge for the soloist to express as beautifully as Osborne does here – is all in the notes themselves.

The muscularity that was apparent in the Mendelssohn continues into the first movement’s percussive opening, from orchestra and then piano. This is the richest of early-20th century compositions, full of echoes of dance, jazz and ethnic music, the movement ending as boldly and expressively as it begins. The closing Presto movement goes at full pelt from the off, with Osborne’s lightning work at the keyboard matched by piccolo, E-flat clarinet and impressively zippy bassoon playing. Especially memorable in the online incarnation is the piano’s partnership with the cor anglais of Imogen Davies, given a lovely retro realisation in the vision-mix by film partner Stagecast and director Phil Glenny.

The programme ends with Mozart’s “Paris” Symphony, No 31, and the SCO knows playing Mozart’s symphonies in the way that Rick Stein is worth listening to on cooking fish. This was the composer’s first “full-strength” symphony, new-fangled clarinets and all, even if the instrument is strangely undeployed in the flowing dynamics of the Andantino. The outer Allegro movements were as Boyd’s Mendelssohn predicted, with the timpani-driven march at the start of the finale emblematic of commitment evident across the programme as a whole.

Sponsored by Capital Document Solutions

Keith Bruce

Tectonics Glasgow 2021

City Halls, Glasgow & online

Of all the events having to adapt to online delivery during the past year, none seems a more natural fit than the annual Tectonics Glasgow festival, run by and featuring at its heart the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Following last year’s Covid-related cancellation of this audacious exploration of classical music’s experimental twilight zone, it was back big style last weekend with a two-day programme. Live presence was limited to being featured on BBC Radio 3’s New Music Show from 10pm till midnight on both nights. Otherwise, it was down to digital content uploaded progressively onto the BBC SSO website over the entire evenings.

Casting aside the missing thrill of actually attending in person, it was effectively business as usual, but with added bonuses. There was a resultant globalising of the content.  “We are at the beginning of something that takes away the limitations of ‘space’”, stated Ilan Volkov in an introductory Zoom discussion with fellow curator Alasdair Campbell and BBC Radio 3 presenter Kate Molleson. 

He’s absolutely right. The requirement on this occasion to feed in performances and related conversation on video from around the world completely redefined the experience as something more universal and less intellectually constrained.

Add to that the availability of the entire festival online now for 30 days. Tectonics, through the very toughness of its content, can often induce sensory overload when experienced in real time. Choosing when and how often we listen to it offers a flexible alternative. Even better, once things return to normal, why not maintain and develop both options? 

Ultimately, the benchmark must always be quality, and by and large this 2021 programme succeeded in delivering technological creativity married effectively to the challenging unorthodoxy of the music itself. 

In many cases, such as Frédéric Le Junter’s quirky visual and sound installation Where Am I, there was even something to (unintentionally) amuse. The sight and sound of the madcap mechanised contraptions engineered in his farmyard workshop was bizarrely Pythonesque. German composer and performance artist Frieder Butzmann’s Street Music, filmed on a Berlin street, road-raged to a surreal electronic symphony of assorted traffic noise.

On more traditional grounds, the impressive Glasgow-based inclusive ensemble Sonic Bothy, led by violinist Claire Docherty, performed Verbaaaaatim, an improvisatory score driven by animated visuals – plenty sheep – and live captioning (accommodating the impaired hearing musicians involved), with a sparky, to some extent cartoonesque, outcome.

All in all, the range and scope of the Tectonics programme was comprehensive and engaging, from Listener Music, a reflective lockdown reverie by Scots composer Ian Findlay Walsh for electronics and small ensemble, to the weird giddiness invoked by Angelica Sanchez’s jazz-infused Piece for Piano and Moog, and much more besides.

As for essential premieres, they were plentiful. Australian composer Cat Hope’s The Rupture Exists, played by widely dispersed SSO players, its diaphanous language defined by Hope’s computer-generated “animated notation” and electronic underscore, offered a haunting and reflective festival opener.

Violinist Ilya Gringolts performed two short solo works commissioned by the I & I Foundation he has established with Volkov to help bring young composers into direct creative contact with performers.

Filmed among the lush vegetation of a Budapest botanical garden, American composer Sky Macklay’s Trrhythms, the elemental energising repetitiveness of which treads on minimalist grounds, glowed in the reverberant acoustics. Yu Kuwabara’s Bai and Dharani, which draws beguilingly on her deep interest in Japanese Buddhist music, is a virtuosic showpiece, Gringolts’ finding none of its complex multilayering a task too far. His performance was utterly compelling.

While the orchestral premieres were predominantly reserved for Saturday’s late-night live BBC broadcast, Sunday also featured the pre-recorded world premiere of Marc Yeats’ the importance of events, which dispenses with conductor and full score, relying on the SSO ensemble players to operate individually via the stopwatches on their mobile phones. Yeats relates the desired result to a “wobbly jelly”, where the outward “construct” remains sound so long as the “internal rendering” is adequately controlled.

Remarkably it works, and the inevitable and excitable sense of menagerie that arises was as robust in this instance as it was vibrant. Exceptional, super-confident playing by the SSO turned a hugely challenging concept into a stimulating delight.

Two live orchestral premieres offered contrasting styles. Michael Parsons’ Saitenspiel (Piece for Strings) was a refreshing reminder of how things were in the late 1960s when he was part of the experimental crowd engaged with Cornelius Cardew, Howard Skempton and the ground-breaking Scratch Orchestra. Re-composed as a strings-only version of a piece created previously for a full-scale Berlin student orchestra, Saitenspiel’s simplicity – question and answer phrasing that smacks of applied naivety – is strangely its charm. Does it run out of steam? It certainly ends perfunctorily, mid-flight.

Not so Scott McLaughlin’s Natura Naturans (“nature doing what nature does”), a more ethereal complement to the dry abstraction of Parsons. Scored for clarinet and orchestra, and featuring Heather Roche as a soloist well-equipped to negotiate the multiphonics on clarinet, the basis is still one of simplicity through limited pitch and harnessed dynamics. Under Volkov, the subdued timelessness of McLaughlin’s music was transfixing.
Ken Walton 

Access all Tectonics Glasgow 2021 events (available for 30 days) via the BBC SSO website.

RSNO Chamber: Cello Jewels

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

This showcase for the RSNO’s principal cello Aleksei Kiseliov – in the no less significant company of pianist Alasdair Beatson – is as superb an example of online chamber music in this time-of-the-virus as you will find anywhere. Even the slightly cheesy title that it has been given seems fitting by its end.

As Kiseliov makes clear in the first of his wonderfully lucid and well-expressed spoken additions to the film, it is a carefully considered product of this era. The two musicians had the luxury of proper rehearsal time together to prepare in the venue where they would perform, but the performance itself is presented “as live” with no edits at all. The camera-work is unfussy but brings the listener closer to the players, while the sound, captured by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, is very much of a live event, the microphones not too close to the instruments and the ambient acoustic very much part of the experience.

The programme itself is quite brilliantly constructed and thought through, the story it tells being one of the cello and its virtuosi and the composers who knew them and wrote for them.

Mozart must not have had a particularly close cellist associate, because there is nothing from him for the cello soloist, but Beethoven made up for that with his 12 variations on one of Papageno’s songs from The Magic Flute, Ein Madchen ober Weibchen, for cello and piano. This is the young Beethoven at his lighter, show-off, best (even on the minor-key variations), although arguably it is the piano that has the more sparkling music.

The composer’s Cello Sonata No 5, from 17 years later, is a work of challenging complexity by comparison. Its dedicatee, and Beethoven’s sometime patron, Countess Anna Marie von Erdody, must have been a very fine pianist to partner Schuppanzigh Quartet cellist Joseph Linke for its first performance. Kiseliov and Beatson are an exemplary partnership here, the skipping phrases in the central Adagio answering the piano with perfect poise, and the transition into the Allegro finale simply glorious.

Following that with Richard Strauss’s Cello Sonata in F from 1883 is inspired on many levels, even if the work was entirely new to Kiseliov. The 19-year-old Strauss is audibly still under the influence of Beethoven – as well as Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn – but there are also pre-echoes of his tone poems and the solos for cello in those orchestral works. And in the operatic “singing material” for the instrument that Kiseliov identifies in his introduction, there is a clear link with the work that opens the programme.

The Sonata was written for Strauss’s friend, the Czech cellist Hanus Wihan, then working in Munich, who was also a chum of Antonin Dvorak and dedicatee of his 1894 Cello Concerto, a cornerstone of the orchestral repertoire for the instrument. The short piece sometimes played as an encore to that work, Dvorak’s Waldesruhe, brings this recital to a close. It is the ideal conclusion to the concert’s narrative, and an excellent excuse to hear it in the piano and cello arrangement, with both Beatson and Kiseliov taking the opportunity to fully explore its lyrical charm.

Keith Bruce 

Available to view via www.rsno.org.uk

RSNO / Webster / Iwabuchi

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

The relative self-confinement of orchestras during the past year has thrown up practical but unexpected opportunities. In this latest RSNO digital series concert the current benefits of primarily engaging British guest artists and/or utilising in-house talent once again makes its mark.

In charge of a programme that culminates in Brahms’ meaty Fourth Symphony is the young Angus Webster, barely into his twenties and making his RSNO debut with major international prizes and conducting engagements already under his belt. Guest soloist is none other than the RSNO’s own leader, Maya Iwabuchi, stepping out front – after 10 years in the job – to perform Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto.

Before the might of Brahms and Barber, however, an air of stillness and mystery is established by the two short works that make up Craig Armstrong’s Stac Lee. They were written as part of a Decca project five years ago, resulting in the album The Lost Songs of St Kilda, for which the label asked some of Scotland’s most prominent composers to write new works based on songs from the long-evacuated archipelago that had come to light in 2006 when the resident of an Edinburgh care home started playing then on the piano.

Armstrong’s contributions bear the mark of the successful film composer. He portrays St Kilda’s massive Stac Lee sea stack in two lights, at dawn and at dusk. In both cases the sensitivity to texture and mood is masterful, Impressionism reborn. Webster allows them to unfold with a delicate combination of timelessness and character, the latter faintly feverish with meteorological allusions to the steely indeterminacy of the island weather. 

It acts as a perfect scene-setter for the Barber concerto, a great favourite of 20th century violin repertoire largely for the lyrical breeziness and clean virtuosity that feeds through its fundamentally Romantic framework. And what a showpiece for Iwabuchi, whose dominating presence in this performance colours every moment with focussed animation and that essential fusion of lightning panache and impassioned reflection.

Webster’s unfussy support seems to recognise Iwabuchi’s towering persona – she adopts at times her normal “leader” role with gestures that say “follow me” – so it isn’t until the Brahms that we get to see what he’s really made of. The outcome there is one of generous competence engineered by a pair of steady young hands. 

His approach to this symphony, its shades of melancholy tempered by the robustness of its architecture, is largely to let it happen, which it does with Webster setting safe tempi, allowing the music, its phrases, paragraphs and chapters, to breathe at every level. There are issues with balance. In the opening tutti, for instance, the wind and brass butt through the texture with occasionally boorish inconsistency, but otherwise Webster’s gestural simplicity reaps intelligent, musical rewards. His development will be intriguing to follow.
Ken Walton

Available to view on www.rsno.org.uk

SCO / Swensen

Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Swensen

Perth Concert Hall

Given his remarkably prodigious output, it is not so astonishing that French writer Jules Verne set his 1882 romantic novel The Green Ray in the West of Scotland. Over the course of his career he ran through a vast number of global locations in his work, as well as those that were out of this world.

Composer Gavin Bryars borrows the title of the book, and to some extent its subject matter, for his 1991 saxophone concerto, originally written for John Harle and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta. It was played here, at the centre of a concert conducted by Joseph Swensen, by Jess Gillam, the young virtuoso of soprano and alto saxes who has her own Saturday series on BBC Radio 3 and is the presentational face of this year’s BBC Young Musician finals, a competition in which she was a runner-up.

The was her debut with the SCO, and the work presented a side to her personality that contrasted with her engaging ebullience as a broadcaster. On an instrument, the soprano sax, that can be shrill, Gillam had a beautifully mellow tone throughout a score that is played as a continuous sequence and in which the soloist rarely has a break. It is not by any measure a virtuoso showpiece, however, with no flashy cadenzas or lightening fingerwork. Instead the sax has a lead role in the ensemble, perhaps depicting that rarely glimpsed, but ever-present, shaft of verdant sunlight seen at sunset in certain latitudes. The piece has a lovely arc to its construction, which Swensen clearly appreciated, underpinned by bass clarinet and contra-bassoon, with a significant orchestral piano part (played by Michael Bawtree, briefly credited on screen but mysteriously missing from the downloadable programme) and ending with an unmistakeable echo of the pipes.

It also shares some sonic elements with the work that preceded it, Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, most obviously the tubular bells but also in the string writing and deliberate pace. Part may never have met the English composer, but this is an exquisite eulogy, and also as perfect an encapsulation of the Estonian’s method: using the simplest materials to make the most profound music.

Arguably Beethoven was at something of the same game with his First Symphony. The opening bars of his symphonic odyssey can still sound startling 220 years on, and they did so here. With natural trumpets and baroque horns, there was a clear historically-informed approach from Swensen with brisk tempi and crisp playing across the orchestra. It was far from straight-laced, though, the brief third movement full of rhythmic playfulness, and clearly anticipating the finale of the Fifth and the dancing Seventh.

Sponsored by Pulsant

Keith Bruce

Scottish Ensemble: First Light

The Engine Works, Glasgow

If you are, like me, a little tired of hearing about “light at the end of the tunnel”, it may caution your approach to the new online offering from the Scottish Ensemble, under the guest leadership of violinist Max Baillie.

However, not only had the string group and its composer/director conceived this programme before that phrase became quite such a tired cliché, but there is also a delicious ambivalence in the way they have chosen to see the idea of First Light. Yes, the prevalent tone is one of optimism, and a new dawn, but don’t rule out the possibility of an on-coming train.

Filmed in Glasgow’s newest post-industrial arts-space, The Engine Works in Maryhill, once again the ensemble and its partner, Flux Video, sets the standard for online presentation. With projections on the walls and a dazzling, but not distracting, range of camera shots, First Light is a beautifully edited piece of film-making. No-one else, in Scotland at least, has made such consistently compelling use of tight close-ups alongside the more familiar perspectives on chamber musicians. The sound, doubtless very much through the input of Baillie himself, is exemplary, and not without its own clever trickery.

The choice of works, and their sequencing, is in some aspects typical of a Scottish Ensemble programme: a balance of early music with contemporary composition, although with the input of new arrangements of the older scores. Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in G Minor, which opens the recital, is, however, played “straight” and its central Adagio – exquisitely clear and precise – is movingly timeless.

Jessie Montgomery’s brief Starburst, which follows, is the most vivacious, life-affirming work, the mix of pizzicato and bowed string sounds she employs finding echoes later on. There is as much exuberance in Haydn’s “Fifths” Quartet, here arranged for the larger ensemble by Baillie and Iain Farrington, but it is leavened with the darker tones of late Haydn as well as the playful rhythms.

A burst of Bach in Baillie’s minimalist, ethereal arrangement of the chorale O Lord let thine ear incline, precedes the violinist’s own Mirrors in Time, featuring himself on five-string electric violin and an ominous bass drum pulse. There is something ritualistic in his use of rhythms borrowed from African music as well as the Baroque and the dancefloor, and the sound and vision mixing is at its most sophisticated here. The richness of the ensemble strings disappears to leave Baillie alone in the space for his extended cadenza, before returning for what is a slightly querulous conclusion.

It is a big piece, but it is ultimately outshone by Steve Martland’s Eternity’s Sunrise. Like the late composer’s entire oeuvre, here is a work that is quite shockingly under-performed, demanding though it is. Taking its title from William Blake, here is a “First Light” as scary as it is to be welcomed. With sharp staccato playing as well as pizzicato pitched against legato lines, this is characteristically percussive, rhythmic Martland writing, propulsive and mesmeric in its subtly unfolding variations.

The band is rearranged physically for this, facing one another in a circle, doubtless for practical as much as presentational  reasons, but that speaks visually of the connectedness required of all of us as we face the future. A lovely visual metaphor to accompany the superb playing of a brilliant composition.

Keith Bruce

Available on the Scottish Ensemble’s You Tube channel until August 7.

RSNO / Lewis

RSNO Centre

Although on the face of it unlikely in the current circumstances, it is conceivable that Scotland’s national orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra synchronised online presentations so that, just a week after reuniting a full orchestra in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, the RSNO chose to broadcast a chamber recital that was filmed six months ago on the same weekend that the SCO fielded its full band in Perth, under the baton of Joseph Swensen.

Or it may simply have been a coincidence that the bigger outfit seemed to be trying on the clothes the chamber orchestra has been wearing so successfully at the same time as it donned its grandest gear. Either way, this recital was very much in the fashion of the bulk of the SCO’s online offerings, and arguably slightly mis-sold in the suggestion that pianist Paul Lewis is more central to the programme than he is.

Nonetheless, this is a value-for-money concert, with three substantial pieces, two of them showcasing recently appointed principal clarinet Timothy Orpen, the third with Lewis as soloist, and a splendid miniature for principal oboe Adrian Wilson.

The latter is a world premiere and part of the orchestra’s Scotch Snaps strand. Composed by Michael J Murray, one of the Ayrshire composers mentored by Sir James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst, it is an imagination of the interior musical world of a “silent disco” busker who is a presence in Glasgow City Centre. A highly original work, as beguiling as it is unusual, Wilson’s fluid articulation certainly seemed to suggest that is was a rewarding challenge to play. The interesting question was what had prompted the composer to make the oboe his instrument of choice?

Aaron Schorr is at the piano for the first work of the programme, Mozart’s Kegelstatt-Trio, with Tom Dunn completing the line-up. The focus is certainly on the clarinet, with the similar range of the viola in a supporting role, but the stringed instrument is buried in the sound-mix here.

The balance for Weber’s clarinet quintet is also less than ideal. Movements of this work are hugely popular clarinet party-pieces and Orpen plays beautifully, with lovely rounded tone and perfect phrasing, but the string quartet is too quiet, especially in string-led moments like the opening of the second movement Fantasia. Put that to one side, however, and the playful dynamics of the ensemble in the Menuetto, when the combination of instruments is at its most theatrical, is a delight.

Paul Lewis precedes his performance of a chamber version (two violins, viola, cello and bass) of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No12 K414 with what amounts to a caution against over-rehearsing with players of this calibre, and there is certainly a sense of the RSNO quintet – and indeed Lewis himself – being very relaxed and “at home”.

Lewis is superb, from the opening bars that sound so akin to the 40th Symphony, and particularly in the hymn-like central Andante. Although the balance is better (this piece was filmed and recorded a month after the others, with the BBC’s Andrew Trinick producing), one might still wish for a little more presence from the strings.
Keith Bruce 

Available to view via www.rsno.org.uk

Scottish Opera Live

SCOTTISH OPERA: Live from South Lanarkshire
Rutherglen Town Hall

On 14 March last year, Rutherglen Town Hall hosted Opera Highlights, the annual tour by Scottish Opera in which a small concert party of singers and pianist present a structured selection of operatic numbers to community audiences around smaller Scottish venues. It was to prove Rutherglen’s last public event before lockdown. Thus their delight in hosting a filmed “night at the opera”, Live in South Lanarkshire, now available to view on Scottish Opera’s website.  

It features two of the company’s Emerging Artist singers, soprano Catriona Hewitson and mezzo-soprano Margo Arsane, with head of music Derek Clark at the piano. The programme is more compact than usual, extending only from Mozart to Puccini, and the ensemble is halved in size from the familiar quartet. But where it loses in scope, variety and that all-essential platform intimacy, it gains from the charming personal introductions by the artists to each and every song.

Both singers carry that charisma into their individual performances: Hewitson’s ringing contributions moulded with shapely conviction in Mozart, Puccini (the ever-popular “O mia babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi) and Reynaldo Hahn; Arsane’s mezzo voice producing a broodier, deeper tessitura contrast in numbers from Bizet’s Carmen, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and more Mozart.

When they get together – in duets by Offenbach, Delibes (the famous Flower duet) and Humperdinck’s “Brother, come and dance with me” as a gleeful finale – the synergy is delightful, and Clark’s empathetic pianism always a reliable mainstay. While it’s not the all-embracing Opera Highlights we’re used to, it’s enough to keep our mouths watering for the eventual return to the real live experience.
Ken Walton

Available to view on www.scottishopera.org.uk

Image: Margo Arsane in Live in South Lanarkshire. Scottish Opera 2021. Credit Beth Chalmers

BBC SSO / Brabbins / Osborne

City Halls, Glasgow

The story goes, told in a radio broadcast by Aaron Copland himself, that the spelling of his family name resulted from the edgy twang of the Glaswegian patois. A Clydeside border official mistakenly took Kaplan – the family name his migrating Lithuanian parents gave when alighting in Glasgow en route to a new life in New York – to be Copland, which it can so easily be when expressed in the Glaswegian tongue.

Copland’s musical accent, in such evocative works as Appalachian Spring and Quiet City, could hardly be more different. There’s no harshness in these contrasting evocations of wide open landscape and urban isolation, just a quietly intense optimism expressed through lucid, transparent colours and purified, fresh air harmonies. 

These represented the softer side of this Radio 3 broadcast by the BBC SSO, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, against which the subversive Soviet wit of Shostakovich offered the perfect counterbalance. Two of the latter’s works – the ebullient Piano Concerto No 2, with Steven Osborne as soloist, and the pithy concert suite compiled from his music for Shakespeare’s Hamlet – were the acid content.

If it took a moment or two for the atmospheric layers of Appalachian Spring to bed in, what followed was the very stuff of sentimentalised American pastoralism. But Brabbins never allowed sentiment to over-dominate. The emerging wind solos remained suffused with charm but laced with intent. There was sparkle as well as glow in the vivid folksy references, innocent passion in Copland’s human characterisations, and honest magic in the signature appearance of the famous Shaker melody, Simple Gifts. 

The shift to the Shostakovich concerto was all the more incendiary as a result. Short and snappy – it lasts just over 20 minutes – its outer movements are like delirious fairground rides to the sumptuous lyrical calm of the central Andante. Osborne played cautiously with his tempi, relying on disciplined, needle-sharp articulation and feverish insistence to create the thrills. His slow movement, so moodily Rachmaninov, was meltingly luxurious, the SSO equally aglow.

After the interval, in which presenter Jamie MacDougall added a track from Osborne’s superb new CD duetting with fellow pianist Paul Lewis, it was back to Copland and the sublime reflective tranquility of Quiet City, the dreamlike solos of Mark O’Keefe (trumpet) and James Horan (cor anglais) raptly interwoven within Brabbins’ seamless reading.

Shostakovich had the final word, and how bizarre was that for those of us used to the British view of Hamlet? Having written the original incidental music for a 1932 Moscow production by the avant-garde director-designer Nikolai Akimov, whose intent was to turn a tragedy into an absurdist satire, the eventual concert suite retains every ounce of that anarchy. 

Ophelia is given the cabaret treatment, the Requiem – complete with Dies Irae theme – reeks of the macabre, as if Brecht’s Berlin of the 1920s has been transported to 1930s Russia. This performance got the translation, and accent, spot on.
Ken Walton

Available to listen to on BBC Sounds

SCO / Swensen

Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Swensen

Perth Concert Hall

If it was a treat to see the RSNO back to max strength for last weekend’s concert of Polish repertoire, it is no less exciting to see the SCO performing with a full line-up, however thoughtful has been its exploration of a wide range of chamber music for most of its digital offerings.

With former principal conductor Joseph Swensen on the podium and leader Stephanie Gonley as featured soloist, this is an all-Schumann programme, two works by Robert bracketing one by his wife, Clara. Like Thomas Sondergard with the RSNO, Swensen is clearly delighted to be working with a full band, and the swagger he and they bring to the Overture to Schumann’s sole opera Genoveva is superbly captured in the recording in the Perth Hall’s fine acoustic. Here, as in the Spring Symphony later, the wind soloists have plenty share of the spotlight, and there are some lovely performances, but it is the ensemble sound, and the vigour of it, that is the real treat.

Clara Schumann’s Three Romances were originally written, in 1853, for herself and the couple’s violinist friend Joseph Joachim to play, and this orchestral arrangement by the conductor has been performed by the SCO with Swensen himself as soloist. There is a cumulative emotional effect to the three short movements, and a suggestion in the Allegretto and Romance that Clara might have found a home on Broadway if she had been working a century later. Stephanie Gonley revels in the colour that is in her solo part, and that is mostly matched in Swensen’s orchestration – only in the last movement is the loss of the percussive quality of the piano something of a regret.

When Robin Ticciati conducted and recorded the Schumann symphonies with the SCO, his opening to the first of them was a deal crisper than Swensen’s account of it here, but there is such an energy to the development of this first movement that it more than makes up for that. From the opening trumpet fanfare, this is a sumptuous, full-blooded, account of a work the composer dashed off in days. There is a longed-for richness, rather than any solemnity, in the entry of the three trombones at the end of the Larghetto, and if the singular rhythm of the Scherzo lacks some buoyancy initially, the shaping of the whole work towards its joyous conclusion is emblematic of the season in full flower.  

Keith Bruce

Available to view online until Saturday May 22

RSNO: Søndergård / Benedetti

RSNO: Søndergård & Benedetti
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The story of Poland is a volatile one. So it is inevitable, even in the very first programme of an intermittent Polska Scotland mini-series which runs through the RSNO’s new digital summer season, that some of its music should reflect that historic turmoil.

The opening concert, which now sees the orchestra relocated to the de-seated stalls area of the main Glasgow Royal Concert Hall auditorium, enabling the  deployment of a larger contingent of socially-distanced players, is a welcome sight and sound. Moreover, it paves the way for more expansive programming. 

In this case it is music by Mieczysław Weinberg, Karol Szymanowski and Andrzej Panufnik, a strange but intriguing mix of style and influence (musical and political). In charge is RSNO music director Thomas Søndergård, with Nicola Benedetti as soloist in Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No 1 (she returns for the second concert at the end of the series), the piece that secured her the career-launching 2004 BBC Young Musician prize.

That was 17 years ago, and it’s a more musically mature Benedetti who garners every ounce of lyrical passion and glistening heat this time round. There is also a wonderful air of composure in her performance, no better illustrated than the floating, timeless initial entry that instantly becalms the orchestra’s restless introduction.

Thereafter, the journey is one of mercurial fascination, expansive eloquence, crisp virtuosity and melting, poetic beauty. Søndergård exerts his own authority where the opportunity presents itself, from rip-roaring orchestral climaxes to the breathiest of moments, where time stands still. But this is triumph of partnership, no better illustrated than in the ethereal melting away of the final bars.

The east-west tug-of-war affecting Poland in the 20th century sent artists in various directions. For Weinberg, after fleeing the Nazis in Poland, the ultimate draw was Moscow, encouraged there by Shostakovich whom he admired greatly. There’s no mistaking the latter’s influence, nor Weinberg’s Jewish heritage, in the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, which opens this programme.

From its growling lugubrious opening there is a lingering shadow of nostalgia, even where Weinberg opens the floodgates and unleashes the full orchestral might. That hint of suppressed rapture permeates this mostly trenchant RSNO performance, with only a suggestion of nervousness from the exposed violins in their opening bars.

For Panufnik, the escape route from Soviet-run Poland led west, defecting to the UK in 1954 and leading a successful life as a conductor and composer up to his death in 1991. His Symphony No 3, Sinfonia Sacra, was written in 1963 to mark 1000 years of christianity in Poland. The RSNO gave the Polish premiere in Warsaw in 1968.

Based on the earliest-known Polish hymn, the Bogurodzica plainsong, there are two parts to the symphony: Three Visions and Hymn. With the RSNO brass standing aloft like heraldic warriors, their impact here possesses a thrilling undercurrent of menace. Søndergård plays on that, but equally on its haunting mysticism, at its most sublime in the quiet strings of the second Vision. He also shapes the drama in this powerful symphony with unstinting, ultimately overwhelming intent.
Ken Walton
Available to view via www.rsno.org.uk

SCO Winds/DAniel

SCO Winds/Daniel: Caplet, Clyne & Dvorak

Perth Concert Hall

If the programmes, and combinations of instruments, that have featured in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s digital response to the pandemic have been abundantly filled with rare treats from centuries of repertoire, this concert still stood out as an absolute classic.

Over the years the SCO has been distinguished by the quality of its wind soloists, and the current membership continues that tradition. Here, guest directed from the oboe by Nicholas Daniel, are ten top players with three works for double wind quintet, one a world premiere.

That new work stands out in the midst of some exquisite music. The SCO’s associate composer Anna Clyne has described the chance to write for these forces – effectively replacing the scheduled UK premiere of a work co-commissioned with three other orchestras – as “an opportunity to refine my craft”. In fact she has created a superb ensemble work that makes the most inventive use of the instruments. Not only that, but it works with very carefully defined musical material in endlessly fascinating fashion, passing short motifs between flutes, oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons.

Beginning and ending with unusual use of the pair of oboes, Overflow is full of atmosphere, like a film score in miniature – and it will be no surprise if it turns up in exactly that context in future.

Clyne took her inspiration from the Emily Dickinson poem By the Sea and Jelaluddin Rumi’s Where Everything is Music, so it was fitting that the premiere was prefaced by Andre Caplet’s three-movement Suite Persane. It dates from 1901, the year the Frenchman won the Prix de Rome (beating Maurice Ravel), and it must have been absolutely a la mode at the time in its use of Eastern-sounding melodies. It is the outer movements where that is most obvious, while the lush Nihavend in the middle could only be French, until the flute figure of the final bars, even if the title refers to a Persian scale.

Like the Clyne piece that followed, however, there is a wonderful democracy about the work, a real showpiece for a section of the orchestra working together as a team, disdaining any hierarchy. The social distancing required between the players only seems to enhance that impression, as well as the clarity of the sound.

That is also true of every detail in the arrangement of Dvorak’s Czech Suite, which closes the concert. His travels may have been ahead of him, but the composer’s folk music borrowings and dance rhythms often sound from a tradition altogether more local to this venue, bagpipe drones and all.

Keith Bruce

Susan Tomes / RSNO Winds

Perth Concert Hall

One of the great advantages for a pianist teaming up with key wind principals from a single orchestra to form the required ensemble for Mozart’s and Beethoven’s only Quintets for Piano and Winds is its diminishing of the risk factors regarding coordination.

For pianist Susan Tomes, therefore, spearheading this pairing of works for the last of Perth Concert Hall’s engaging week-long Easter Lunchtime Concert Series, the integration here with her RSNO friends is akin to a joining of two minds rather than five. The unified, easeful enjoyment of these performances translate as such.

What didn’t happen as planned was Friday’s associated BBC Radio 3 broadcast, given that the BBC turned over its entire radio network to coverage of the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, so the concert’s only current availability is via the film version purchasable via the Concert Hall’s website.

It, too, has its unplanned moments, such as the false start to the opening of the Beethoven: a strangely unedited moment (uncorrected at the time of writing), but at the same time offering a touchingly human moment that could easily have happened in any live context. Such are the vagaries of these uncharted times.

That aside, these are both exceptional works that are a joy to experience anytime in any way, and when the essence of chamber music is adhered to – no place for egos here – the music truly sings. Not even in the Beethoven, who places more soloistic emphasis on the piano than Mozart, does Tomes feel any need to play the prima donna. She is, and always has been, a naturally sensitive chamber musician.

Her interaction with the RSNO players – Adrian Wilson (oboe), Timothy Orpen (clarinet), David Hubbard (bassoon) and Christopher Gough (horn) – is both generous and empathetic; their familiarity with each other in return gives a natural homogeneity and precision to the complementary wind unit.

Nonetheless, the real joy of these performances are those moments where self-expression shines through – a penetrating horn melody perhaps, the surprisingly bullish emergence of the bassoon, or of course the many opportunities for the piano to capitalise on concerto-like opportunities. 

It’s in the slow movements where the most melting musical moments arise. The lyrical warmth of Mozart’s central Larghetto and Beethoven’s Andante cantabile find Tomes and her colleagues at their most spontaneously and most comfortably expressive. The outer movements vary in consistency. 

Should a slight hesitancy of attack in Mozart’s opening Largo – Allegro moderato concern us? Only when the initial mist clears to reveal a crisper, more vital team spirit. And are the solo piano openings to both the Mozart and Beethoven finales deliberately understated? Again, the instant shifts of gear as the winds enter in each case leave you wondering. 

But there’s no escaping the unique brilliance of these hybrid works, the fascinating sound world they explore, and the powerful affection and instinctive musicality elicited in these genuinely inspired performances. 
Ken Walton

Available to watch via www.horsecross.co.uk

Dunedin Consort / Hebrides Ensemble

Dunedin Consort/Hebrides Ensemble: Passio

St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh

If, as originally planned, this collaborative performance of Arvo Part’s 1982 setting of the Passion from the Gospel of St John had toured Scotland, the opportunity to hear it sung and played in different acoustics would have been very enticing.

Instead, there is just this single outing, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and filmed for streaming from April 17. In lieu of the tour, the radio transmission certainly whets the appetite for the opportunity to watch. How are voices distributed in the vast Cathedral? And how much of the extraordinary depth to the sound is down to clever sound-mixing and microphone placement rather than the natural reverberation?

A liturgical work quite unlike any of the others heard in the Easter season, the Estonian composer asks for a very particular set of forces. The Evangelist is portrayed by a vocal quartet and an instrumental one of violin, oboe, cello and bassoon, Christ by bass Matthew Brooke, fresh from the same role in the Dunedin’s Bach St Matthew Passion, and Pilate by tenor Hugo Hymas. The St Mary’s Choir and the Cathedral organ add crucial punctuation to the narrative.

Those last elements are often in the audio foreground when they arrive, while the solo characters, while clear enough, sound some way off, as if speaking from history. The complex narrative voice of singers and instrumentalists sits in the centre, combining in different combinations. It is not clear why Part chooses certain vocal ranges and instrumental timbres to express particular Biblical verses – although emotional impact may be key – but there is a detectable technical method in his use of pitches among the players and singers in the pursuit of his “tintinnabulation” process.

If the first impression is of music that springs from the earliest chants of Part’s adopted Orthodox faith, it swiftly becomes clear that something much more contemporary is going on, even if the complexity of its harmonic structure is well-hidden behind the sometimes glacial pace. This is music that has little in common with the American minimalists with whom the composer is sometimes bracketed, altogether less showy and much more reliant on moments of silence throughout the score. The rests in the notation are as important as the notes, particularly when the role of the church’s acoustic is taken into account.

All this is beautifully measured in this performance, conducted by William Conway of the Hebrides Ensemble. The work asks a great deal of its singers, with some particularly challenging leaps in the lines sung by Hymas’s Pilate, but there is an almost studied lack of drama by comparison with the operatic Passions of Bach, even in choral interjections like the command “Crucify him!”

Part’s style of theatre requires concentration, as he homes in on a very precise definition of what constitutes the Passion story, culminating in the last uttering of Jesus on the cross “It is finished”, after which the choral response is in an altogether changed register and tone, more akin to the Lutheran chorales of Part’s upbringing. It is, however, a very understated moment of catharsis.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Farnsworth

Perth Concert Hall

One of the most exhilarating aspects of the online experience we are currently enjoying in response to Covid is the freedom it has given for experimental concert presentation, none more informative and characterful than when the very players themselves are given screen time to offer their own illuminating introductory thoughts on the music.

Here is a prime example – a gorgeous cornucopia of relatively peripheral Baroque music selected by violist Brian Schiele and harpsichordist/organist Jan Waterfield, introduced by them and baritone Marcus Farnsworth, and played by a stylish coterie of fellow SCO players. Yes, the music itself is rendered with lively affection and stylistic panache, but the intervening introductions are what bring the connection up close and personal. We shouldn’t lose this factor when things get back to the so-called new normal.

It’s to the early Baroque that this programme turns first, a lush and stately Pavan à 6 by Johann Schop, the late 17th century Lower Saxon who made his name in Copenhagen and Hamburg. Foremost in this performance is the clarity of texture emanating from the purity of tone, particularly the fruits of inner detail issuing from the second violin and violas. 

It sets an anticipatory atmosphere for Telemann’s Devil-slaying solo cantata So grausam mächtig iso der Teufel, which Farnsworth, as solo protagonist, imbues with determined and triumphant fervour. Then to Sperantis Gaudia from Florilegium 1 by the much travelled Georg Muffat – a composer, we are informed, whose Scottish grandparents fled 16th century Catholic persecution to mainland Europe – and an instrumental work enriched by the multiple viola presence and consequentially soulful inner voices.

If anyone set Baroque string writing ablaze, it was surely Bohemian-born Heinrich Biber, famous for the often extreme literalism of his instrumental effects, heard here in much more tempered vein, though no less rewardingly, at the core of his Serenata “The Night Watchman” – that dramatic moment when Farnsworth appears on stage with an apparently authentic 17th century nightwatchman’s song, to the serenading accompaniment of a pizzicato string band.

Then a palate-cleanser, Waterfield’s crystalline solo performance on harpsichord of Froberger’s Toccata III – crisply disciplined finger-work with neatly-judged expressive fluidity – before an unexpectedly reflective finale from the pen of Johann Christoph Bach, uncle and one-time guardian of the younger Johann Sebastian. 

Again, Farnsworth is at the forefront as soloist in this mesmerising lament, Ach, dass ich Wassers g’nug hätte,  and the Bach signature is unmistakable: aching musical sighs that penetrate to the very core of the texts (taken from Jeremiah and the Psalms) and a musical offering as consummate as any of the more famous Bach. If Farnsworth’s interpretation very occasionally eschews complete focus, the bigger picture wins out. The ending is magical.

Ken Walton  
Available to watch on www.sco.org.uk

Maxwell Quartet

Perth Concert Hall

How very well chosen were this pair of crucial works of the string quartet repertoire, complementary in their forging ahead with the form, well short of two decades apart in their composition, and each utterly emblematic of the voice of the composer.

Just as significantly, Haydn’s “Rider” Quartet, Opus 74 No 3, and Beethoven’s “Harp”, his 10th String Quartet and also, curiously, Opus 74, are works for an experienced group to explore fully. Just as they are mature works by their respective composers, they are pieces for a well-established quartet. The Maxwells are that group, no longer youths who met at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and won their first international recognition at the Trondheim competition. Even the flowing lockdown locks and bushy beards cannot disguise that.

The crisp and vibrant opening Allegro of the Haydn made that intent immediately obvious, but it was the rich, blended sound in the Largo that follows that confirmed it, with first violin Colin Scobie on special form on top. The short Menuetto began and ended with as much flourish before the Finale that gives the work its nickname through its galloping rhythms. This is Haydn at his most playful and smile-provoking, and there were smiles all round to confirm that.

If it is possible that Haydn indeed had horse-riding in his mind, it is less likely that Beethoven was in any sense trying to mimic the harp with his pizzicato writing in the opening movement of his Opus 74. Although the composer was already battling encroaching deafness, the first movement is all about the particular character of the plucked string resonance on these instruments, a responsibility that is passed around the ensemble and was sparklingly played and recorded here. Once again, Scobie was on fine robust and lyrical form with his lead line.

As in the closing Allegro of the Haydn, the Adagio second movement is as much about the spaces between the notes as the notes themselves, and here again the Maxwell displayed their mature, unhurried but decisive, approach to the score. The Finale is a very close rhythmic cousin of the opening of the Fifth Symphony, which Beethoven had premiered only a year earlier, and that was made very clear in the quartet’s coherent attack from bar one. Classic performances of two pivotal pieces.

Keith Bruce

Available to watch via horsecross.co.uk

Martin / Mitchell

Maximiliano Martin/Scott Mitchell

Perth Concert Hall

During the entire duration of this live concert hiatus, opportunities to hear Maximiliano Martin have not been rare at all. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Principal Clarinet has popped up in many a chamber music series, he has his own new concerto album out with an orchestra from his native Tenerife, and been a mainstay of the SCO’s stream of digital transmissions from Edinburgh, Perth and St Andrews.

The final work in this recital of sonatas in the company of pianist Scott Mitchell was, in fact, a feature of one of those, in October of last year, with Simon Smith at the piano. Leonard Bernstein’s two-movement Sonata for Clarinet and Piano is the sound of a young composer finding his own voice, and quite compelling for that reason: the first movement in the academic mode of 1941, the second exploring the jazzy showbiz style that would take him to Broadway and Hollywood.

As the presenter of this concert on BBC Radio 3, Tom Redmond, pointed out, chamber works for clarinet are associated with the final years of Mozart and Brahms as well as two of the French composers that made up the bulk of this programme. However, the first of them, Ernest Chausson, was also represented by a piece from the tail-end of his student years at the Paris Conservatoire. The explosive Allegro of his Andante and Allegro is a real showpiece for clarinet and was a great sparkling start here.

The Saint-Saens sonata that followed is a wonderfully-constructed work, no less flashy in places but with a deliciously sombre tone in the middle that then leaps from the bottom of the clarinet’s range to the higher register before a piano-led segue into the last movement.

In what was a compact history-lesson in works for these instruments, it was the perfect bridge to the meaty fare of Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata. Commissioned by Benny Goodman, its composer died before he could play the piano part with the King of Swing, so a young Leonard Bernstein stepped up. It is a big work that is also, like those on either side of it, full of variation, with an ear-catchingly repetitious song-like slow movement and a cinematic rapid car chase of a finale.

The video presentation from Perth’s Easter Festival was characteristically understated, marred only by a minor captioning error and occasional vision-mixing glitch. Radio listeners were treated to a brief Debussy encore. 

Keith Bruce

Available to watch via horsecross.co.uk

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