Category Archives: Reviews

EIF: Chineke! Orchestra

Old College Quad & Edinburgh Academy Junior School

Scheduled to appear at the Queen’s Hall during last year’s cancelled Festival, the chamber group drawn from the Chineke! Orchestra brought a shorter programme to the Old College Quad, and it did Ralph Vaughan Williams few favours. He disowned his early Piano Quintet in C minor and it is undoubtedly less played now than the Nonet by a teenage Samuel Coleridge-Taylor of a decade earlier, which has been championed by Chineke! and recently played by members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and pianist Tom Poster’s Kaleidoscope Collective.

Even without some poor balance in the sound mix for the quintet, it would have suffered from the comparison, the nonet having better tunes, and more sparkling rhythms. It was also clear that a few of those on the stage have a real passion for the piece, with some great playing from the winds, which included Sasha Rattle, son of conductor Sir Simon, on clarinet.

The 2021 Festival programme also brought a visit by the Chineke! Orchestra itself, although it was a very small version of it, with only double the number of players seen in the ensemble. The concert it played, under conductor William Eddins, who has a longer association with EIF, was still something of an occasion. Both works were premieres – one brand new and the other, I think, for Scotland and by Scot Judith Weir – and the composers were in the audience to acknowledge the applause.

Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s Blush, commissioned by Chineke! to accompany Weir’s woman.life.song, might almost have been marking the recent 50th anniversary of the score to the film Shaft. There were not only hints of movie score about it, but also the flavour of orchestration of the early 1970s jazz orchestras who played them. The composer made full use of a three-piece Latin rhythm section and the ensemble’s flautist had most of the lead lines.

The group expanded only slightly for the song-cycle Jessye Norman commissioned from Weir and writers Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It is not unfair to acknowledge that mezzo Andrea Baker does not have the magisterial presence of Norman, and the shifts of tone and style over the sequence make considerable demands.

Angelou’s thoughts On Youth and On Maturity frame the work and the finest poetry comes in the middle, from Toni Morrison, and is set to the most distinctive of Weir’s music. Pinkola Estes supplies the early light relief with Breasts!, the words of an “innocent wild-child” anxious to grow, set to something akin to a show-tune, with jazzy acoustic guitar, and then the later devotional texts on motherhood, its vexations rather than consolations, and the pain of losing the one who brought you into the world.

There are no passengers onstage with Weir’s score, which constantly surprises, and Baker has a lot of power at her disposal even if her singing sometimes lacked the nuance the work demands. The slightly random points at which the audience chose to clap also suggested the overall shape of the work was less apparent than it might have been. For all that, I’d still be keen to hear it again.

Keith Bruce

EIF: The Story of the Violin

Old College Quad

If it seemed surprising that the Festival was still advertising tickets for sale for Nicola Benedetti’s solo turn at this year’s event on the day before the performances, then that was possibly because it was not what I had expected. It may be my mistake, but I had assumed that “The Story of the Violin” would be Nicky in her education persona with a family show about the history of her instrument and its pivotal place in the development of music. Instead, and not in any way second-best, the title masked a recital of solo repertoire, virtuosic stuff that spanned 250 years of composition.

It was, in fact, exactly the sort of thing a festival’s “artist in residence” might be expected to perform, between her concerts of early Italian repertoire and music by anniversary year composer Igor Stravinsky. There was no script and very little narrative, and, as she admitted at the start, the real “story of the violin” was a much bigger and longer one than she could attempt to tell in an hour.

It was, nonetheless, A Story of the Violin, illustrated with examples of how far four composers have pushed the instrument and the skills of players. Benedetti was hardly idle during lockdown, but it is not fanciful to imagine that she spent some of her time at home honing these demanding solo pieces, and they did have a story to tell.

She began with a Passacaglia from Biber’s Rosary Sonatas, which Rachel Podger memorably performed complete in St Cecilia’s Hall at the last live Edinburgh Festival in 2019, juggling a selection of instruments in different tunings. Virtuoso playing notwithstanding, and sensibly in standard tuning, it was really just a warm-up for the epic Bach Chaconne, from the Second Partita, that followed. It is one of the pinnacles of the violin repertoire, but Benedetti did not treat it as in any way a technical demonstration, being just as concerned with communicating the design of the whole piece.

There was a music stand on stage, but the violinist consulted it very sparingly during her recital, and not at all during the 20 minutes or so of the Bach. This was a programme that has to be memorised and in the fingers to be performed at all – reading the music is not really an option.

That is just as true of the Paganini that followed, the first and last of his 24 Caprices, the final one the most re-used (and sometimes abused) works in the whole history of music. Its violinist composer may indeed have been the “trickster and dramatist” Benedetti described, but she was concerned to let us hear this tune in its original authentic form, not as a mere party-piece. And if Niccolo Paganini really did invent the “Good Evening, Friends” musical sign-off at the start of the 19thcentury, I am not sure I’d appreciated that before.

Concluding with the solo Sonata No 5 in G by Eugene Ysaye from a further century on, and about 100 years ago, was to demonstrate how the techniques Paganini pioneered were put to the service of a new sound world that we are exploring yet. It also showed that the Belgian invented the “unsquare dance” a long time before Dave Brubeck took five.

Keith Bruce

EIF: RSNO/Chan/Gabetta

Edinburgh Academy Junior School

Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta is something of a favourite in Edinburgh, having wowed Festival audiences in chamber music and orchestral settings and appeared in the Usher Hall’s international orchestral seasons. This was probably her first time in a tent in the capital though.

She was also in familiar company with RSNO principal guest conductor Elim Chan, as the pair have worked together at Chan’s Antwerp Symphony Orchestra – and with the Cello Concerto No 1 of Saint-Saens. Like Steven Isserlis, she has championed the Frenchman’s work, and here – and not for the first time – it did seem baffling that the piece is less often heard than those of Elgar and Dvorak. It is a flowing delight of a work with some sparkling fast-fingered passages for the soloist to demonstrate her virtuosity and beautiful tone. Only on the opening page did the tricky sound issues in this venue leave her temporarily swamped by what was a small RSNO.

Chan’s programme opened with a work by the current hippest name in US composition, Caroline Shaw, the 39-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner from North Carolina whose contact book includes collaboration with Kanye West. There was not a lot of hip-hop in her Entr’acte, a piece for strings that toys playfully with neo-classicism, references Haydn, and teeters teasingly on the edge of losing its way before culminating in a solo for the RSNO’s guest first cello.

Perhaps that looking to the work of earlier composers was intended to be echoed in Beethoven’s Symphony No 1, a work that period bands and chamber orchestras speed through as his tribute to his predecessors. In Chan’s hands, however, it was more a statement of intent for what was to come. It was a point at times too deliberately, even ponderously, made in her reading, but not without its rewards. The arc that the conductor drew from the work’s distinctive opening bars to the beginning of the finale could not have been clearer, although she did seem to be holding the orchestra on a tight rein until the dynamic pace of that closing movement.

Keith Bruce

EIF: BBC SSO/Alsop

Edinburgh Academy Junior School

The huge welcome the Festival audience gave to US conductor Marin Alsop for her guest appearance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra speaks volumes. Yes, she has been a trailblazer for women conductors as well as an admired musician across the Americas and in Europe, but such attributes have not always translated into popular acclaim and such obvious affection.

Many in the 8.30pm audience at the EIF’s big classical music tent came well prepared for variable Edinburgh weather, with Tattoo garb of quilted jackets and travelling rugs, but the chillier air did not affect their enthusiasm. Moreover, it was not limited to the reception for the big work of the evening, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  Before they heard that, Alsop’s programme included half an hour of newish music that few in the audience were likely to have heard before.

The concert opened with Jessie Montgomery’s Strum, the New York violinist’s work for strings that makes much use of pizzicato playing, as the title suggests. First cello Rudi de Groote and leader Laura Samuel are first to swap to their bows, and all players are required to demonstrate both skills with the second violins in particular having some impressively swift switches between the two. As the score develops it seems to encompass both widescreen pictures of the Mid-West and staccato minimalism of America’s seaboard states with something of a country barn dance at its climax.

Montgomery is a winner of American music publishing’s Leonard Bernstein Award, and there was something of Bernstein in the work that followed, A Spell for Green Corn by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Would that comparison have occurred under a different conductor? His protégé certainly seemed to bring out the drama in the piece, commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in 1993 to mark Max’s 60th birthday. Laura Samuel had the soloist’s role here, as the folk fiddler enticing a good crop. Details of the scoring grew around her, from her fellow strings and the winds through to the explosion of brass and percussion. Both Maxwell Davies and Leonard Bernstein knew how to make the sound of a party happening.

Whether it was because the BBC had a hand on the sound-desk, or because my seat was nearer the players, the orchestral sound for that work and the Beethoven that followed was the best I’ve heard in this temporary venue. Directing the musicians without a score, Alsop was all over the orchestra throughout the symphony. The first movement was big, beefy and at pace, the second full and lush, and the crescendo from the scherzo into the finale quite magnificent. The SSO played superbly for Alsop and the audience roared its approval.

Keith Bruce

EIF: Benedetti Baroque

Edinburgh Academy Junior School

Who knows what caused Nicola Benedetti to fight back the tears as she introduced the first of the two repeat Saturday shows that opened her Edinburgh International Festival residency this week. It was certainly out of character. Benedetti is known for her confident, commanding stage presence. She seemed lost for words before proclaiming: “I don’t know what’s come over me.” Best get on with the music, advised a voice from the audience. She did, and the atmosphere settled.

This was Scotland’s first sighting of the Ayrshire violinist’s Benedetti Baroque Orchestra, which recently released a new disc on Decca and has subsequently been performing its mostly-Vivaldi programme south of the border. The orchestra, specialists in the period instrument field, are few in number – a mere dozen including its eponymous star – with some recognisable Baroque veterans among its ranks. So Benedetti, as “frontman”, had potentially solid back-up.

From the outset – Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso in D minor (its moniker “La Folia” crediting the Corelli Sonata it is based on) made for a lusty opener – the stylistic ambition of this group was self-evident. It’s about the heart and soul of the Italian Baroque. For Benedetti – whose mother, she informed us, was from the same region that reared Vivaldi – that’s “about the people”. There was certainly a feisty humanity informing the animated performances that variously laughed, cried, danced, took risks. 

Three successive Vivaldi concertos followed the Geminiani: the D major Concerto, RV211, ablaze with Baroque laissez-faire even in its central lilting siciliano-styled Largo; the B minor, RV386, more richly emotive but still with a sunny countenance; and one of the famous Four Seasons, appropriately “Summer” – apparently requested by the Festival – to take the programme to its official conclusion. 

In each of these Benedetti’s personality was the driving factor, visually balletic, rhythmically electrifying and full of idiosyncratic surprises, from the provocatively sensuous bending of phrases to improvised cadences that defied expectation, and much to the thrill of the unsuspecting listener. That her errant hairband chose to adopt a life of its own, leading to another impromptu announcement, merely added to the spontaneity.

That said, a niggling discomfort pervaded this programme. Benedetti, herself, suffered moments of technical insecurity, with iffy upper intonation in key exposed passages, and a tendency, now and again, to lose firm focus in her tone. Her orchestra, super-efficient and ever-watchful of its director, seemed mostly content to play a back-seat role when the opportunity was there to throw in its own characterful surprises, more amorphous than distinctive. That seemed a missed opportunity.

Suddenly, though, all cylinders fired in the expected encore, the gorgeous Largo-Andante from Tartini’s A major Violin Concerto. Not in an all-guns-blazing way, of course, for this is one of those hushed, sun-baked Italian Baroque slow movements that flow with instinctive purpose and floating inevitability. Benedetti, wholly at ease with its natural melodic thread and inspiring melting support from her colleagues, now seemed perfectly at home.
Ken Walton

Image: Nicola Benedetti credit Ryan Buchanan

EIF: Malcolm Martineau & Friends

Old College Quad

With consummate timing, pianist Malcolm Martineau assembled his pals – singers Elizabeth Watts and Roderick Williams, violinist Sijie Chen and cellist Ursula Smith – to mark Sir Walter Scott’s 250th on the eve of the great writer’s actual birthday. More immediate matters of synchronisation then presented further challenges.

This was a Queen’s Hall concert par excellence, regrettably not at the Queen’s Hall, but in the Festival’s temporary “polytunnel” in the courtyard of the oldest part of the University of Edinburgh half a mile down the road. Needs must, and an impressive response to pandemic restrictions, but the habitual broad smile of baritone Williams disguised the fact that his accompanist was clearly struggling to hear the voices, at least at the start of the recital. For someone as sensitive and attuned to nuances of vocal delivery as Martineau this must have been excruciatingly frustrating.

From an audience point of view, however, the uncertainty of tempo at the start of the programme was swiftly overcome, and easily ignored. There was so much of fascination in this programme, alongside gloriously familiar music given an unforgettable performance.

That piece was Schubert’s Ave Maria, surely as well-ridden an old war-horse as there is in the repertoire, and one where the piano accompaniment is as firmly lodged in the mind as the melody. No matter what set up of microphones and monitors Watts and Martineau were having to cope with, their rendition of the song was superb, the soprano in heart-stoppingly glorious form and the pianist immaculately responsive to her phrasing.

It is an ill-divided world, and Watts had the best of this inventive programme, with Williams’ solos almost punctuation between her finest moments, an impression not contradicted by the fact that he, unlike her, was using a score. In the Schubert settings from The Lady of the Lake, the character of Ellen has the best songs, and Watts had already let us hear Mendelssohn’s less grand setting of the prayer to the Virgin.

Of the less well-known songs, it was the baritone who was called upon to demonstrate facility in a range of languages in songs by Glinka and Meyerbeer, the latter’s La pauvre Louise neatly juxtaposed with Watts singing Parry’s Proud Maisie.

There are no intervals during this year’s concerts, but the pair ended what would have been each half of a Queen’s Hall recital with a duet, and the strings took part in the opening Haydn and closing Beethoven sequence. The Monks of Bangor’s March is probably the meatiest of Beethoven’s Scott settings, which few would argue are essential elements of his canon.

Williams had the last word, however, with what he described as a “musical bon-bon” that he had composed as an encore by the whole ensemble. Like a rediscovered parlour song, it captured, precisely, the ambivalence of the contemporary reader – and student – to Sir Walter’s works. Reverence is always better for being tempered, even on a 250th birthday.

Keith Bruce

Image: Malcolm Martineau credit Ryan Buchanan

EIF: RSNO

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
Edinburgh Academy Junior School

“Hey ho, the wind and the rain”. Shakespeare might have welcomed a downpour during Twelfth Night, but for A Midsummer Night’s Dream he’s more likely to have wished for something comparable to a summer’s day. That wasn’t to be on Wednesday, as the earlier of two performances by the RSNO of Mendelssohn’s incidental music to the latter play played almost entirely in an accompanying rainstorm.

That’s the risk this Festival, where concerts are effectively under canvas therefore exposed to the niceties of the Scottish weather. In the end, it dampened neither the performance, which flowed with seamless momentum, nor our own enjoyment of it. If anything, RSNO music director Thomas Søndergård’s flexible insight opened our eyes fully to the utter exuberance of Mendelssohn’s musical imagination and sophistication.

This wasn’t just about the music, of course, though with the RSNO in such receptive form there was no escaping the central role it played, striking up the anticipatory joys of the magical Overture before unfolding a musical narrative that shifted effortlessly between autonomous evocation and supportive underscore. Little risk of the well-worn Wedding March sounding hackneyed. It was as it should be: bright, breezy and fresh as a daisy. 

The Nocturne glowed, the Dance of Clowns frolicked, the Scherzo captured the essential sparkle. And in those brief moments where Mendelssohn calls for singers, soloists Rowan Pierce and Kathryn Rudge were a sepulchral delight, backed by selected offstage voices from the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. 

But key to the success was actor Dame Harriet Walter, whose narration was a masterclass in  theatrical poise, a compelling stylishness that required no histrionics, just force of personality and instinct for perfect timing. She and Søndergård worked in perfect harmony. The weather may have had mischief in mind, but mischief has its part to play in A Midsummer Nights Dream. Like Puck it comes in unexpected guises.
Ken Walton 

EIF: Steven Osborne

Old College Quad

This year’s Festival music programme, given it’s a semi-outdoor experience, is as much a challenge to the listener as to the performer. So yes, in Wednesday’s lunchtime recital, pianist Steven Osborne no doubt had to acclimatise his own thoughts and actions to a performance space – the gazebo-style tent in Old College Quad – infiltrated by the everyday sounds of midday traffic and screeching birds. But equally, as an audience, we had to assimilate such conflicting stimuli and take what we could from the resulting melange. 

I found it strangely invigorating, the urban soundscape adding a risky unpredictability to the usual hemmed-in security of the concert arena. That’s not to say Osborne’s bold programming was ever intended to be an easy, comforting listen. That is never his style. And how could it be, with Schubert and late Beethoven sandwiching the unconventional experimentalism of American composer George Crumb and the frenetic ecstasy of Tippett’s Second Piano Sonata?

Nor did he present these as a serving up of disparate courses. There was overriding structural continuity that allowed one work to play off the other: sometimes made easy for us, as in the uninterrupted shift from Schubert’s plain-speaking Impromptu in F minor, D935 No 1, to the elusive resonance (conveniently opening on a whispered note F) of Crumb’s 1984 Processional, rather like an instant transportation from the real world to the Twilight Zone; at other times through subliminal connections, as in the rhetorical turmoil common to both the Tippett and opening movement of Beethoven’s ultimately tamed Sonata No 32 in C minor.

Osborne’s delivery was one of tempered intensity, which allowed Schubert’s tunefulness to breathe easy within the confines of a taut interpretational overview, and graced Crumb’s growing agitations with a polarity that made haunting sense of its reflective sound world. It was almost impossible to hear the final hushed notes over the gentle circling breeze, but the gestures alone bore an imagined significance.

Tippett’s music has been both friend and foe to Osborne, but these days he is master of its challenges. There is something slightly unhinged about the Piano Sonata No 2, a surface randomness in the feverish juxtaposition of its jousting ideas, which Osborne tamed without losing its essential clarity. Nor did he attempt to make anything more of the curiously exasperated ending than it is what it is – something of an enigma.

Few can beat Osborne when it comes to Beethoven, which he proved yet again in the composer’s final sonata. At the heart of the opening movement, the powerhouse fugue thundered its confident message, answered sublimely in the final Arietta with its all-encompassing variations, during which a nearby butterfly ceased its fluttering and rested motionlessly on the floor as if enthralled. Art and nature as one.
Ken Walton

Image: Steven Osborne credit Ryan Buchanan

EIF: Mari Eriksmoen & Daniel Heide

Old College Quad

No matter what the Norwegian Consulate contributed in support of soprano Mari Eriksmoen’s debut appearance at the Edinburgh Festival, it probably wasn’t enough. In her enthusiasm for the music and landscape of her homeland, she is an enviably eloquent ambassador, and her distinctly Scandinavian physical charisma is self-evident.

More to the point, though, she has an extraordinary instrument in a voice that not only soars to the heights of the soprano range with a beautifully rounded tone but is strong, rich and secure at the bottom as well. Yes, there is a purity to her voice, but also just a touch of vibrato and an effortlessness that would surely embrace Broadway as readily as art song.

She began, of course, with Edvard Grieg, and the eight songs of his Haugtussa, Opus 67, setting Arne Garborg’s verse of a maiden in love, and of nature. The singer and her German accompanist Daniel Heide have this cycle honed to perfection: her poise comes with a theatrical enthusiasm for story-telling and it is matched by his bluesy pianism on the second song and then traditional ballad approach to the third. Her communication of the emotion in the lyrics defied any language barrier, with the sixth, Killingsdans, a demonstration of that vocal range.

Grieg’s exact contemporary, and friend, Agathe Backer Grondahl, may be much less well known outside Norway,  but the five children’s songs from her Barnets Vaardag were no less of a delight, more picturesque and less of-the-mind, and rounding off here with a beautiful lullaby.

From that point on, Eriksmoen proved herself just as comfortable in the mainstream repertoire with leider by Schumann and Wolf. This may be a recognisably different musical world, but the soprano brought real emotional heft to the Schumann, and wit to the Wolf, which returned us to the same era, her German diction clear and precise.

Performers at this venue have to contend with, or rather simply ignore, extraneous sirens and seagulls. It was of a piece with this whole recital that an avian contributor at the end of her encore was both in time, and in pitch.

Keith Bruce

EIF: Zehetmair Quartet

Edinburgh Festival

Old College Quad

A colleague’s description of the EIF’s temporary venue at Edinburgh Academy Junior School as a “glam polytunnel” might more precisely be applied to its smaller sibling at the University of Edinburgh. While Monday’s chamber recital reportedly had to compete with the rain beating on the plastic roof, in the early afternoon of Tuesday fruit would have ripened nicely as the sun cooked the human occupants. Such are the vagaries of August in Edinburgh.

From the first bar of Thomas Zehetmair’s measured exploration of the first two quartets of Brahms with his quartet, it was evident that amplification was an issue. Comparison with the Queen’s Hall, where this programme would have been heard in normal circumstances, are unfair though, and the ear quickly attuned to the thicker sound use of microphones and loudspeakers inevitably creates, and appreciated the immaculate internal balance of this group nonetheless.

As with his symphonies, Johannes Brahms took his time to reach the point when he was happy to let the world hear a string quartet of his composition, but when he arrived there, the creative tap was switched on. Of these two Opus 51 quartets, the first, in C Minor, shows the most obvious consciousness of the shadow of Beethoven on the composer’s shoulder – or his benign influence.

That seemed particularly true of the ensemble in the Finale here. In the slow movement the individual talents of the quartet shone through: the singing tone of Christian Elliott’s cello in the upper register, and the lovely combination of second violin Jakub Jakowicz and Ruth Killius on viola.

The A Minor quartet sounds more Brahmsian from the start. If the acoustic compromises here had harmed the attack of the opening of the first work’s final movement, there was no damage to the intimacy the players achieved at the opening of this one. The plangent theme alternates with flurries of drama, leading beautifully into the Andante where there was no lingering on the phrasing and a sense of purpose pushing forward all the time.

The “Quasi” minuet and last movement that follow may employ dance rhythms, but only intermittently, the third movement’s woozy, swooning changing gear as it ups the pace and the players finding a querulous tone on the journey to the work’s decisive last bar.

It was perhaps to underline that longed-for feeling of resolution that the leader chose the Scherzo from Schubert’s E-flat major quartet as a sparkling encore to send us out into the capital sunshine.

Keith Bruce

EIF: A Grand Night For Singing

Edinburgh Festival

Edinburgh Academy Junior School

If you are a person who likes concerts of show tunes, you would likely know the singers onstage at this Festival venture into that sphere, the addition of Glyndebourne-domiciled Australian opera star Danielle de Niese apart. However, only the most devoted aficionados of the catalogue of songs by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II would be familiar with the repertoire they performed.

This UK incarnation, by pianist and MD Wayne Marshall and singer Kim Criswell, of a review premiered in New York almost three decades ago, has its own narrative, linking familiar songs from Carousel, Oklahoma!, The King and I and The Sound of Music with comparative rarities from Allegro, Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream and Cinderella. This cast – Criswell and de Niese joined by Anna-Jane Casey, Damian Humbley and Richard Morrison – more or less ignored that, however, referring to one another by their own names rather than those of the characters listed in the programme, and introducing asides to excuse non-PC lyrics and reference online dating apps and social distancing.

What’s left of Walter Bobbie’s original show, and indeed the musical arrangements of Fred Wells and “orchestration” by Michael Gibson and Jonathan Tunick, is anybody’s guess. Marshall directed a sextet of bass, cello, drums, percussion, harp and a flute and reedsman, and three of them had a fair amount of down-time, ensemble instrumental passages less memorable than the piano trio and sax for South Pacific’s I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair, with all three women applying the shampoo.

There were some great solo turns too. De Neise brought her dazzle to Cinderella’s Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful? in the first half and Something Wonderful, from The King and I, later on, Humbley made something rather different of The Sound of Music’s Maria, and Casey did the splits and high-kicked through the song of theatrical transformation that is It’s Me (from Me and Juliet).

It was the inclusion of numbers like that, the four from 1947’s Allegro, and five from the Julie Andrews TV vehicle Cinderella of a decade later, that make this a worthwhile journey of discovery for all fans of musical theatre.

Keith Bruce

EIF: Falstaff

Festival Theatre

For those in the audience for whom this was a longed-for return to live opera in front of an audience in a theatre, to cavil at all is absurd, but the truth is that Sir David McVicar’s new production of Verdi’s last opera sat much more comfortably in a car-park. The director’s own designs took full advantage of the environment at Scottish Opera’s technical centre in Glasgow’s Edington Street, and will doubtless do so again when the show reaches the semi-outdoor space of US co-producer Santa Fe Opera.

From the absence of the ribald sleaze in the arrival of Sir John’s busy bed onstage at the opera’s opening to the closing pageant of costumes and puppetry in Windsor Park, making still-magical stage pictures but lacking the spooky edge of happening in the real outdoors, this was a contained version of the show that opened a month ago. Rather than rebuilding a Shakespearean theatre, the set is an image of one within a proscenium arch.

That said, there are obvious advantages to being back in the opera house. This production has become a sort-of-tribute to the late Graham Vick, who died from complications of Covid-19 after it opened. The company’s controversial director of productions in the 1980s, he commissioned both Amanda Holden’s English libretto and Jonathan Dove’s reduced orchestration when he founded Birmingham Touring Opera in 1987. Both are displayed (surtitles included) to much better advantage this time around, with the orchestra behind the singers and set on the Festival Theatre’s huge stage (although still, I think, amplified). The balance between voices and instruments is more or less perfect throughout, and the detail of Verdi’s music, which was already very well played, even more clearly audible. The same goes for the clarity of the text, and Holden’s superb choral cry of “Apotheosis!” ranks with Kid Creole’s Coconuts singing “Onomatopoeia” in the canon of Great Backing Vocals of the 1980s.

That chorus is now located in the wings, and where the canal-side trees were revealed behind the set in Edington Street, the orchestra is now revealed to the audience in the last act. The singing of the cast remains as fine as ever, and it is a particular joy to hear Roland Wood’s full-voiced characterful baritone without a microphone in the title role. His is a very considered and rounded portrayal of Falstaff, even in the broadest slapstick-comedy moments. When he sings of the “harvest of my late summer” it is impossible not to apply that to the work’s composer as well, and Scottish Opera does that achievement proud in this staging.

Keith Bruce

EIF: Opening Concert

Edinburgh Academy Junior School

It hardly seems credible now, but in the early 1980s the permissive attitude of the licensing authorities in the capital permitted striptease – by women who would most kindly be described as semi-professional – in a number of city bars, including The Pivot in Infirmary Street, which is now The Royal Oak. It is probably safe to assume that this grubbier side of the history of the hostelry is not referenced in the world premiere from composer Anna Clyne that opened this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

PIVOT is a brief, punchy work that it is easy to imagine will as readily find a place in the repertoire as Clyne’s BBC Proms commission Masquerade. Beginning, appropriately, with a brass fanfare, it quickly introduces the echoes of Scottish traditional music sessions that Clyne has picked up from the heritage of the licensed premises just off “The Bridges”. Many have been the composers who have found inspiration in Scottish folk down the years but there is something particularly Max-esque about the way Clyne uses layering and underscoring with those rhythms and her other themes over the five minute duration of the piece.

That re-purposing of older musical material was the thread that connected all of the music in the Opening Concert of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, given – as the first performance of the Royal Albert Hall Proms season had been last week  – by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under its Principal Guest Conductor Dalia Stasevska.

There will doubtless be those who say otherwise, but the Festival has surely acted only as responsibly as it should in maintaining social distancing and other precautions of the pandemic era at the three special venues it has built to house its 2021 programme. The Edinburgh Academy one, between Ferry Road and the Royal Botanic Gardens, is a most impressive structure, safe and quite comfortable, and save a few seats, full for the opening concert. A compact edition of the BBC SO filled the sizeable stage, and both orchestra and, later, the singers were amplified.

There were some issues with that for Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, a work of 1920 that is more often heard in its orchestral suite incarnation. With the vocal contributions of mezzo Rosie Aldridge, tenor Filipe Manu and bass-baritone Michael Mofidian it is at once a more substantial and more complex beast. It is easy to hear why Stravinsky’s response to the scores of Pergolesi and his contemporaries that he was given to work with has been dismissed as pastiche. Under Stasevska, however, it assumed a more exploratory character so that the instrumental music around the arias in the third movement and the Allegro and Tarantella of the fourth are Stravinsky at his original, pulsating best. Although it is impossible not to smile at the scoring of the Vivo, and the part written for principal bass Nicholas Bayley in particular, it was characterful rather than simply comic.

The singers were better individually than together, their first ensemble in that third movement rather ragged, and Aldridge made the strongest impression, more or less disregarding the microphone in front of her.

Between Clyne’s new piece and the Stravinsky, Respighi’s Trittico Botticeliano sat well in its use of the ninth century antiphon Veni, Veni Emmanuel to evoke the Renaissance painter’s Adoration of the Magi, even if its evocation of Advent was oddly timed. The first bassoon led the way in a splendid performance by the winds on that movement, while the pastoral feel of the opening Spring was mirrored in the closing Birth of Venus, with the gentle sounds of harp, strings and flute punctuated by a glorious Wagnerian swell. The orchestrating genius of Respighi revealed that the sonic character of this custom-built alternative to the Usher Hall will be a happy compromise for these difficult times.

Keith Bruce

pic of curtain call from EIF/Ryan Buchanan

BOOK REVIEW: Lowering the Tone

Raymond Gubbay

Lowering the Tone

Quiller, £18.99

The long-serving music critic of The Herald, Michael Tumelty, and myself probably amicably disagreed on as many topics as those on which we were in accord, but our unfashionable respect for promoter Raymond Gubbay was mutual.

With the not always entirely comprehending acquiescence of a series of editors, we disregarded the snooty dismissal of Gubbay’s popular season of Christmas concerts at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and ensured at least a selection of them were reviewed in the paper with the same attention as performances by the subsidised companies that we all pay for, whether we go to see and hear them or not.

Our reasons were probably slightly different, however. For me it was mainly about the audience, many of whom would attend a Gubbay gig at Christmas but rarely, if ever, go to an RSNO season concert – people I would like to draw to the Herald’s arts pages. Tumelty was chiefly interested in the economic contribution that the series made to sustaining the crucial freelance sector of Scotland’s music-making. Akin to pantomime’s importance to theatre, the scratch orchestra assembled by the “fixer” Gubbay contracted for the promoter’s season was an important boost to the annual income of the players onstage.

The fact that Gubbay operated entirely in the commercial world was both the fascination and the reason for that snobbishness about his concerts, and he himself was well aware of that. Although there is lots of interesting, and sometimes deliciously indiscreet, stuff in this memoir, it is less outspoken on the question of subsidy than the man has often been himself. There is no call for the death of the arts council and its successor bodies in these pages, and I remember that being the tenor of some of his more controversial utterances in the past. But then he is now retired, having sold his business for a substantial sum, and with no more tickets to sell.

He does have a book to sell, though, and its title is the first tool in that task. It is, in full, Lowering the Tone & Raising the Roof. Obviously, Gubbay’s argument is that he more often did the latter, than the overheard dismissive criticism he has chosen to precede it with. But then “Lowering the Tone” is a much more intriguing title, is it not?

Gubbay is, of course, a very cultured man, from a comfortably-off family, whose immigrant journey to London is unfolded in careful and compelling detail in the second chapter. On the back of The Herald’s relative enthusiasm for his promotions I secured an interview with him in the 1990s  during a trip to the capital, when he treated me to a very good lunch and was charming company. He was also careful to give me some juicy quotes about subsidy-junkies like the Royal Opera to ensure the piece had a good show in the paper.

In the same way, this memoir is spiced with some rather good stories. Although the promoter is probably more closely associated with the Royal Albert Hall, the venue in which he is pictured on the cover, it was the Barbican that really launched him as a force to be reckoned with. His work there in its early days also did a great deal to put the much-criticised building on the map, and his insider’s view of the years after it opened, and the political interference in its running, is well worth the reading.

But that section is also distinguished by his recollections of working with former Prime Minister, Edward Heath, who was conducting on a less-than-successful short tour with a young cello soloist. A flavour of the author’s wry humour can be tasted in that story’s closing line: “I never quite fully understood why Mr Heath had wanted to conduct the handsome young cellist in the series of concerts and nobody ever explained.”

Alongside stories of dealings with musicians, including Menuhin and Lloyd Webber, Gubbay also has a nice tale of the soap opera of the Royal Family, when Princess Diana was still its star turn, albeit estranged from “The Firm”. That story does involve the Royal Albert Hall, the particular ownership of the seating there, and specifically the Royal Box. It is one that is sure to be co-opted by the Diana industry, and re-told in many a feature article and hagiography.

Few of them will be as readable as Raymond Gubbay’s trot down memory lane. His is not the most sparkling prose, but it is never gauche, and often droll. And his organisation of his material begins more successfully than it ends, as he squeezes in names he is determined to include. Just like a Gubbay gig though, the main purpose of the book is to reliably entertain, at a competitive price.

Keith Bruce

SEVEN HILLS: St Mary’s / Capperauld

Stockbridge Church, Edinburgh

More than most schools in Scotland, the pressure last term was on St Mary’s Music School to get its music performance function back on track at the earliest opportunity. That’s primarily what the specialist Edinburgh music establishment exists for, so Covid restrictions were an especial concern. 

Resilience, determination, ingenuity and ambition paid off, and this end of session concert, now online, is a glorious musical achievement in the harshest of times. Central to it is the premiere of Ayrshire composer Jay Capperauld’s Theory of the Earth, the first of seven unfolding commissions by the school designed to celebrate its upcoming 50th anniversary in 2023.

The number seven is key. In hatching the project the school’s director of music Paul Stubbings sought to connect the school to the community by taking Edinburgh’s seven hills and poems by Alexander McCall Smith as the inspiration for the new chamber works, and for related activity that would align with St Mary’s expanding outreach initiatives. Besides the seven commissions, Sir James MacMillan will write a major celebratory work for orchestra and choir.

Meanwhile, Capperauld’s latest premiere marks the start of the process from a public perspective, and a highly impressive achievement it is. Written for string quartet, piano and percussion, Theory of the Earth is performed by mostly students under the direction of head of strings, Valerie Pearson. The inspiration is McCall Smith’s poem Arthur’s Seat and Geology, who reads it prior to the performance.

As for the resulting music, Capperauld has latched on to the poet’s reference to James Hutton, the 18th century founder of modern geology, who confirmed, especially through his analysis of Arthur’s Seat, that the earth’s geological evolution was a constant process of renewal and decay over millions of years – “no vestige of a beginning and no prospect of an end”. In doing so he debunked traditional religious notions. 

Capperauld responds with a piece that seems as timeless as it is contained. From a single, insistent note on piano vying motifs emerge, some nostalgically modal, others more abstract and ethereal. The combined result is almost statuesque, an invigorating minimalist mix of movement and stasis. 

It’s a language these young players easily understand and are technically on top of. They negotiate its variable aleatoric elements with unflinching confidence, and are persuasive in shaping the big picture, with its gradual build to biting climax and ultimate evaporation. If this is the bench mark for the ensuing commissions, it will be quite a collection.
Ken Walton

Available to view at https://vimeo.com/577725596/4d207a3f83

Scottish Opera: Baroque Masters

40 Edington Street, Glasgow

Another corps of string players from the Orchestra of Scottish Opera joined leader Anthony Moffat for the last of the outdoor lunchtime concerts on the set of the current production of Falstaff, offering a programme of early music with one short nod to the band’s operatic repertoire.

That anomaly, Puccini’s Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums) sat less uncomfortably among the Purcell, Vivaldi and Bach than you might think. Stylistically from another era, and with very different melancholic chords, the ensemble sound was not so far from the slow movements of two of the Italian composer’s Four Seasons: Spring and Summer.

And ensemble sound was what it was all about. This was no virtuoso excursion for Tony Moffat, and if your favourite recording of the Vivaldi warhorse is the one by Nigel Kennedy, you may well have been left disappointed.

This Spring was a very understated one, and none the worse for that. It was very precise and measured and not at all splashy. And although the Presto finale of Summer was not short of pace, it was kept on a pretty tight rein. Those who come to the same venue on Sunday or Monday for the Scottish Ensemble playing the full year of Seasons may expect to hear something less placid.

The dynamics and tempo perhaps took their cue from the opening work, Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of Henry Purcell’s Chaconne in G Minor. Britten wrote this work in his mid-30s, revising it 15 years later, and there is something of the schoolmaster and the Young Person’s Guide in the way the ground bass drops out to expose the upper strings and then returns with a bit of a bang.

All of which meant that the final piece, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, made the most impact in the hour, as the addition of solo flute, oboe and trumpet alongside Moffat at the front of the stage perhaps always made likely. With Kirstie Logan on oboe and guest flautist Taylor McLennan, the man to watch was the orchestra’s new first trumpet Paul Bosworth. He made light work of the stratospheric, nimble-fingered part, particularly in the opening of the last movement.

Although there had been a couple of lapses in intonation earlier, the ensemble strings made a rich sound here, and the propulsive continuo from Derek Clark at the keyboard with Martin Storey and Marie Connell on cellos and Peter Fry’s bass added a bit of welcome oomph.
Keith Bruce

Dunedin Consort / Bach

Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh

“It is the old Old Covenant. Man you must die!” These words, set as a grim fugue in Bach’s cantata “Gottes Zeit its die allerbeste Zeit (Actus Tragicus)” BWV 1043, have perhaps a natural resonance in Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirk, where the signing of the National Covenant took place in 1638, and where the Dunedin Consort marked the start of its 25th Anniversary celebrations with a welcome return to performance before a live but limited audience. 

There’s an overriding calm about this work which translated into a gorgeous, relaxed warmth in Dunedin’s hands. The scoring for strings and two recorders also cut a tonal picture of softness and serenity, the focused purity of the voices colouring the cantata’s sometimes dismal message with hope and lustre.

It was a vintage Dunedin performance, director John Butt creating a magical cohesive entity out of the constituent sections, yet finding so many moments to let the music breathe, and signing off with a suitably accepting throwaway gesture. Musicality and spirituality combined in the most natural and enchanting ways, simple details such as the delicious woody quality of the chamber organ distinguishing this captivating presentation.

Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins introduced Dunedin regulars to the ensemble’s new leader, Matthew Truscott, who teamed up with Dunedin veteran Huw Daniel for the joint solo roles. Here was another inspired meeting of minds, each playing instinctively off the other, weaving the two-way musical conversation seamlessly, slickly underpinned by minimal ripieno strings. Either side of the central Largo, its artfully spun-out message loaded with unfussy sentiment, the outer movements were stylish, effortless perfection.

Against the funereal reticence of the opening cantata, the Pentecostal “O ewiges Feuer” BWV 34, with heraldic Baroque trumpets, provided a fiery, but ever-polished finish. There were gorgeously tender moments – the sublime central alto aria sung with utterly melting eloquence by Jess Dandy – but this was ultimately a statement of unquenchable optimism, as expressed in the outer choruses. The perfect message for such a heartening occasion.
Ken Walton

Available to view for 30 days at www.dunedin-consort.org.uk

Scottish Opera: Falstaff

40 Edington Street, Glasgow

There can be no great mystery why Verdi’s last opera has proved so popular in recent years, with productions at New York Met, by Laurent Pelly in France, and most recently with Bryn Terfel singing the title role at Grange Park. What can it be in a work about an over-weight amoral acquisitive sexist boor who gets his come-uppance that resonates so clearly in our times?

Thankfully Sir David McVicar’s new production, destined for Santa Fe Opera via an Edinburgh International Festival run, is not just caricature, and carries a conviction that even if the ensemble sings that life is farce, it has its serious side too.

From a rambunctious start with Roland Wood being rolled to the front of a stage in a bed he is sharing with an improbable number of others alongside his Doll-for-the-night, this is a boisterous, busy show where it pays to keep an eye on all corners of McVicar’s elegant tiered timber set. But all that choreography (by Andrew George) goes alongside some fine characterisation. From his first scene address to Bardolph and Pistol (Jamie MacDougall and Alastair Miles) about ‘honour’, there is a dark malevolence to Wood’s Sir John Falstaff that means he is never a mere figure of fun. That aria also marks the first pinnacle in what is a towering vocal performance, very possibly the baritone’s finest in a career that has already made him a Scottish Opera favourite.

There are a few of those in this cast, including Sioned Gwen Davies from Flight and Nixon in China, who is Meg Page, and Elizabeth Llewellyn, Mimi in the fine Boheme that played this same car park in rather less lavish style last September.

Technically, this Covid-era production at the Scottish Opera Production Centre is a big step up. It is obvious in the staging and audible in the sound, with the orchestra and conductor Stuart Stratford under cover in the building next door but every detail of the orchestration audible through the PA, and perfectly mixed with the voices, solo, ensemble, and chorus, arranged by gender on either side of the stage. Occasionally some words of Amanda Holden’s witty English translation of the libretto may be lost on the wind, but for the most part everyone is clearly audible in a cast of singers without a single weak link, and some other quite exceptional performances, including Gemma Summerfield as Nannetta.

Verdi’s sympathies with the women of Windsor, as opposed to the devious, pompous and sometimes hapless men, are never in doubt. McVicar adds his own sumptuous gloss to that in their costuming: the plot may have the men constantly dressing up to disguise or seduce, but the director gives his female cast members more changes of frock than Beyoncé.

Even that cannot rival the theatricality, all scrupulously in period, that he then unleashes for the final scene at Herne’s Oak in Windsor Park. Verdi’s score famously culminates in a fiendish fugue for all the principals, lined up across the stage, and this staging precedes that with a glorious spectacle of puppetry and costumes that makes Bardolph’s ultimate duping of Caius and Ford in the cause of young love all the more believable.

Keith Bruce

Scottish Opera: Dvorak, Stravinsky

40 Edington Street, Glasgow

Music director of Scottish Opera Stuart Stratford brought the affable and informative presentation style familiar from the company’s orchestral concerts at the Theatre Royal to what he called “the most exciting car park in Glasgow” on Tuesday lunchtime.

The winds and brass of the Orchestra of Scottish Opera moved to the front of the temporary stage built for the company’s production of Falstaff for the second of the musicians’ showcase concerts as part of the company’s Live at No.40 season. The third is on July 16, after a run of performances of Verdi’s Falstaff and a Citizens Theatre production of The Comedy of Errors.

Whatever stylistic playfulness directors Sir David McVicar and Dominic Hill bring to those, the composers featured in this recital had their own to display. Although from different eras and with different instrumentation, they all used form and styles to inventively explore and entertain.

The most familiar work, Dvorak’s Serenade for Winds, was led by the beautifully-rounded tone of Amy Turner’s oboe. What was especially notable, however, was the crucial role in the orchestration played by the two string players, Peter Fry’s double bass and especially Martin Storey’s cello. It was not until the second movement Minuetto that the horns settled into the groove, but the overall ensemble sound by the counterpoint of the Finale was very rich indeed.

As is the combination of instruments in Stravinsky’s 1923 Octet, with the composer’s use of muted brass and exploitation on the clarinet’s lower chalumeau register crucial to the colours. As conductor Stratford introduced it, there are indeed “classical” references in the modernist composer’s writing, but there are also suggestions of minimalism to come in the repetitions of some phrases, in what is a tricky and fascinating piece.

Enrique Crespo’s Suite Americana No.1 also has considerable difficulties for the players of the brass quintet, and its exploration of five dance forms would also be a challenge to actually dance to.  The shifting rhythms of the bossa nova, oompah waltz, and soundtracky samba are all great fun though. This evocation of South America almost brought the sun out.

Keith Bruce

Scottish Opera: Serenades & Idylls

40 Edington Street, Glasgow

How wonderful it is to see orchestral musicians back on stage, and just as welcoming to be part of the live audience watching them perform with Sir David McVicar’s imposing set for the company’s current production of Verdi’s Falstaff as an adorning backdrop.

This was the first in a series of lunchtime concerts by the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, part of the company’s Live at 40 series. And even with the weather somewhat soggy, and the auditorium a wall-less marquee in the grounds of Scottish Opera’s production centre, it was a happy atmosphere.

If the programme, divided equally between separate string and wind ensembles, reminded us of anything, it was that winds have always been a better outdoor bet than strings. The former also benefitted from a conductor – the company’s Emerging Artist Repetiteur Toby Hession – while the strings took the conductor-less route with associate leader Katie Hull directing from the front violin desk.

As an opener, Elgar’s Serenade for Strings was a great idea, a work full of seasoned passion but with a willowy leisureliness perfect for this time of day. It may just have been that the semi-outdoor acoustic allowed the fruitiness of the ensemble to dissolve into the wider ether, but much of this performance seemed distant and self-contained. Where the central Larghetto had a summer evening stillness about it, the sun was missing. It was all a bit featureless.

More intriguing was Hull’s own arrangement for string orchestra of Frank Bridge’s Three Idylls, which effectively amplifies the original string quartet version into something much rounder and richer. Even then, the opening two idylls cried out for more exaggerated expression, vindication of which came in the final Allegro con moto, invigorated by a cello springboard opening that instantly incited greater alertness, character and swagger from the players.

After a full and lengthy stage switch, the winds opened with Gounod’s Petite Symphonie, something of a trifle in symphonic terms, but enjoyable for its operatic leanings and, beyond a stern opening Adagio, its joie de vivre. Hession’s unfussy direction harnessed a confident rhythmic assuredness from the outset. The gorgeous flute solo (Eilidh Gillespie) in the Andante cantabile was quintessential arioso, the Scherzo a sprightly captivating gallop. This performance connected well with the unconventional space.

For the most part, so did Richard Strauss’ E flat Serenade. Early signs of the composer’s penchant for ripe horn melodies were wonderfully evident, and Hession never got in the way of the music’s natural flow, from the chorale-like solidity of the opening, through its modest surges and on to its restful conclusion.

There are more of these concerts to come. They are a great idea and invaluable for instrumentalist who have suffered considerable concert deprivation over the past year. There’s inevitable city noise all around, but somehow it adds to the occasion.

Ken Walton

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