Category Archives: Reviews

Caprices and Laments

Maximiliano Martin/Orquesta Sinfonica de Tenerife/Navarro

Delphian

The centrefold of the  booklet that accompanies this fine new disc of clarinet concertos features one of the most eloquent orchestra publicity pictures you’ll see. With their trousers rolled and hemlines skimming the water’s surface, the shoe-less orchestra of the Canary Islands, in full evening dress, are assembled around a pair of timpani, a line of white surf lapping at their ankles and the famous black sand of Tenerife between their toes. It is an image that immediately makes you want to know what these game musicians sound like. The additional knowledge that they were recorded by the Delphian team in the stunning Auditorio de Tenerife designed by Santiago Calatrava should only further whet the appetite.

The good news is that they are very good indeed. An internationally-recruited outfit, there is a crisp freshness to their string sound, the section that makes up all bar seven players on the disc. The featured soloist is local lad Maximiliano Martin, long-standing principal clarinet of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and stalwart of the SCO’s current programme of digital concerts featuring smaller groups.

For all that this is Martin’s disc, his countrymen are by no means a mere backing track, given the robust repertoire he has chosen to showcase his own virtuosity. The concertos by Copland and Nielsen and James MacMillan’s one-movement Tuireadh are contrasting works, but each has fine scoring for the strings, not excepting the MacMillan, which began life as a work for clarinet and string quartet. Conductor Lucas Macias Navarro is himself a wind player, with the benefit to his role here of having played oboe in concerts and recordings directed by Claudio Abbado, and his feel for the balance between soloist and strings is surely crucial to this album’s success.

Composed as a memorial to the 167 lives lost in the 1988 fire on the Piper Alpha oil rig in the North Sea, Tuireadh is always a harrowing listen, with its borrowings from laments in Scottish traditional music and raw vocal keening. Placed last in this sequence, it is one of the few works that could follow the already troubled late work by Carl Nielsen, the character of which is said to come less from its composer than from Nielsen’s dedicatee, the clarinettist of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, Aage Oxenvad. With no reference recording in existence, Martin creates an image of this turbulent chap, in particular partnership with the snare drum of Juan Antonio Minana, that is a portrait in sound.

Aaron Copland’s concerto was written 20 years later for Benny Goodman, who reportedly – and slightly incredibly – found the score more challenging than he had bargained for. It is a sparkling jazzy opener on this disc, and another illustration of Martin’s command of a range of voices on his instrument, recently demonstrated in the SCO’s excellent performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale.

Keith Bruce

SCO : The Soldier’s Tale

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

WITH the new year lockdown across the UK impacting on the making of concert films already announced – including the SCO’s contribution to Celtic Connections with Pekka Kuusisto and Karine Polwart – it is fortunate that the orchestra already had “in the can” its early acknowledgement of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Igor Stravinsky.

As a full online programme note for the transmission by David Kettle makes very clear, it is not hard to find parallels between the genesis of Stravinsky’s use of Russian folk tales for a small touring ensemble and our own straitened times. In the aftermath of the First World War and in the midst of the global Spanish Flu epidemic, the celebrated composer of The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, then living in Switzerland, created compact works for a small number of musicians as an economic necessity. In fact, as the leader of the group for this performance, violinist Siun Milne, points out in her spoken introduction, the tour was then abandoned when the musicians contracted the disease.

In that context, the players involved here eloquently illustrate the strength-in-depth of the SCO’s current squad, with sub-principal violin Gordon Bragg stepping up to conduct, and Milne herself, a back desk SCO first violin, a sparkling soloist on the instrument around which much of the narrative is formed. Her partnership with Nikita Naumov is one aspect of the bassist’s work, his other eye on a rhythm section role alongside Louise Goodwin, whose playing of an orchestral drum kit is quite outstanding. The octet of performers also includes Maximiliano Martin demonstrating a huge range of tone on clarinet, and the cornet of Peter Franks a shimmering presence throughout.

If all the instrumentalists show vibrant versatility over the hour long duration, that is matched by actor Matthew McVarish, far more than the mere narrator of the story. There are many ways to perform this modernist fable, and McVarish uses the restrictions of social distancing to his advantage here, adding as many varieties of tone and accent to his cast of characters, from a stationary position.

This is an absolutely compelling re-telling of the familiar story of the consequences of trying to do a deal with Auld Nick which finds form in many cultures, and McVarish brings plenty of his own cultural background to the party in a Scots-accented tale that makes the most of the vocabulary available.

In that, it departs considerably from the source English version, by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black, made for an Edinburgh Festival performance of the mid-1950s that featured Robert Helpmann dancing the part of the Devil, and recorded by the SCO thirty years later with narration by Christopher Lee. That’s some legacy to follow, but McVarish and the SCO team make The Soldier’s Tale very much their own.

Available on the SCO’s YouTube and Facebook channels until February 7.

Keith Bruce

Image: The SCO’s Siun Milne and Nikita Naumov

Maxwell Quartet : Haydn / Scots Trad.

Linn 

Listen to just the first two chords on this new Linn release by the Maxwell Quartet and you might be forgiven for thinking a good old Scottish ceilidh was about to spring into action. But these “gathering notes” are not the typical call-to-attention we associate with a traditional reel or jig, they are heralding the first of Haydn’s Op 74 string quartets, the spinal column of this cheerful new album featuring all three of the 1793 set.

How fortuitous is that primitive cadential opening to No 1, when the other side to this Classical offering is an interspersion of Scots folk music? The Maxwell’s have made a thing of mixing in their own arrangements of the latter in their live concerts. This Caledonian sprinkling is just as refreshing and invigorating in the recorded context.

But let’s start with the triptych of Haydn quartets, the Op 74 set, that fully complements the three Op 71s featured on the Maxwell’s Linn debut disc a couple of years ago, which also contains Scots fiddle tune arrangements. Both Haydn sets resulted from his first highly-successful London trip of 1791, where his experience of dedicated chamber music concerts (as opposed to the more restrained drawing room practices of his native Austria) elicited a spring-like creative response from the sexagenarian composer.

The Maxwells capture that buoyancy in all three works. The first C major quartet’s unquenchable exuberance, delivered with an enlivening grainy tonal edge, is tempered by moments of deep thinking, even probing darkness, such as the psychologically offsetting key shift that establishes the opening Allegro’s more plangent development. 

The second F major quartet has its own mysteries to fathom, its subtler nuances to shape, not so much in the two straightforward central movements as in the outermost ones, the boisterous finale in particular applying Mozartian trickery through mischievous structural and harmonic surprises, as if Haydn was honouring his recently deceased compatriot. The opening bars of the final G minor “Rider” quartet, the best known of the set, conjures up an enigmatic spirit more akin to – or rather preemptive of – Beethoven, which the Maxwells latch onto craftily, setting a high bar for a truly exhilarating performance.

Against all that are the Scots numbers, beautiful and wholesome arrangements by the ensemble itself, from the gracious father-son “classicism” of Niel and Nathaniel Gow (the latter’s melting air, Coilsfield House, raptly arranged), to the gorgeously lilting Fear a’ Bhàta, a frisky Shetland jig Da Full Rigged Ship and haunting swagger of The Burning of the Piper’s Hut, anonymous and thought to date back to the Highland Clearances. 

The magic of this album is the way these two musical traditions knit so effectively together. Haydn never visited Scotland (although he did arrange Burns’ songs for the 18th century Edinburgh publisher George Thomson) but if he had his music would have had Enlightenment Scotland dancing in the streets.
Ken Walton

Paisley Abbey : A celtic Prayer

Priory

With church choirs effectively silenced this year due to Covid, the release of a new album by Paisley Abbey Choir is definitely something to celebrate. The music is fresh and inspiring – Scottish composers old and new – which the performances abundantly reflect, albeit from a smaller Abbey Choir than was once the norm.

A Celtic Prayer, conceived under the directorship of George McPhee – now heading towards his 58th year as Abbey organist – was recorded last January. McPhee’s own compositions feature prominently, including three organ works that provide occasional respite from a substantial package of sacred choral music.

The earliest written are two settings by the Renaissance Scottish composer Robert Johnson (c1470 – 1554), a noted precursor of the great Robert Carver. The smooth-grained a cappella polyphony of Gaude Maria Virgo – intimately sung by a small sub-group of the main choir – contrasts with the fuller, more hymn-like declamations of Benedicam Domino.

Then there’s a leap to the 20th/21st centuries and a spread of repertoire representative of a wide range of Scottish compositional voices. There is no Rose reveals a gorgeously ruminative side to the late Thomas Wilson, the magical diminuendo on “Gloria in excess deo” utterly breathtaking. Cedric Thorpe Davie’s two anthems, The Lord is He and Come Holy Ghost the Maker complement each other, the first gritty and institutionally rousing, the second a true gem in its sublime expressiveness and arching power, both meatily accompanied by organist David Gerrard.

Mater salutaris is one of the late Martin Dalby’s most inspirational works, intrinsically pure and simple, deliciously coloured by soft-spun complexities of texture, the power of its understatement neatly captured in this performance. 

Indeed, how often do we find composers like Dalby and Wilson, whose instrumental works frequently explore more dissonant channels of communication, reset to calmer harmonic solutions in their choral music? There’s combined evidence of that in Stuart MacRae’s beautifully original setting of Adam lay ybounden, its powerful juxtaposition of golden a cappella verses against the freer, wilder organ responses giving potent new meaning to these 15th century words.

Not everything is as wholly inspired. Owen Swindale’s Trinity Sunday is charming in its simplicity, but a little too like composition by numbers. A resulting matter-of-factness informs the performance. 

Little danger of that in James MacmIllan’s Chosen – written in 2003 for McPhee’s 40th anniversary as Paisley organist – initially dour in character, its weeping ornamentation challenging the tuning of the uppermost voices, but rising to tumultuous heights. More unusual, refreshingly so, is Eddie McGuire’s Three Donne Lyrics, settings of words by John Donne for choir and bass flute (Ewan Robertson) that combine primitive wistfulness and solemnity with dreamy snatches of free-flowing post-Impressionism.  

The title track, A Celtic Prayer, is by McPhee himself, one of two choral pieces written with his Paisley Abbey Choir in mind. It boasts allegiance to Leighton and Howells, its mellifluous sung line, modal at heart, bolstered by the restive fluidity of the organ writing. The liturgical Benedictus es Domine provides a lusty contrast.

McPhee performs his own organ music: two endearing “Preludes” on well-known Christmas hymns, Bunessan (“Child in a Manger”) and Quem Pastores, before signing off with his fruity Trumpet March on “Highland Cathedral”. Who would dare deny the veteran Paisley Abbey organist such a joyous indulgence?
Ken Walton

RSNO / Meister / Dego : Beethoven 7

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

The musicians of the RSNO do a nice line in practical observations in their pieces to camera introducing the music of this digital season concert. It is not so much about demystifying their work as making the audience at home aware of some of the challenges they face. So Chris Hart’s brief guide to playing a natural trumpet and Adrian Wilson’s warning of the trap Beethoven set for unwary oboe players are incidental joys of the last of the series in this troubled calendar year.

For all that the format is well-worn, there are also practical considerations behind a concert programme that runs overture/concerto/symphony, and this is a classic example of its success.

The symphony is Beethoven’s Seventh, the favourite of many, and conducted here, without a score, by Cornelius Meister in the manner of a man with very individual opinions on how it should go. If you only heard the stormy Finale, full of forceful dynamics and taken at an impressive speed, the chances are you would not guess that the first movement is bright and light, but far from as brisk as it is often played these days. And the swift segue from the first straight into the pulse of the Allegretto would not lead anyone to predict the contemplative pause Meister takes between the other movements.

Although the presence of four double basses hardly makes for a huge symphony orchestra, this is as large a band as any of us has seen recently, with the socially-distanced RSNO players filling every corner of the available space in the orchestra’s excellent rehearsal room. It has a superb acoustic, and the recorded sound is full of detail and ensemble richness, with Linn’s Phil Hobbs and the BBC’s Andrew Trinick sharing production duties.

The mature Beethoven is preceded by two distinct phases in the short life of Mozart. His final Violin Concerto, No.5, is known as “The Turkish” for the supposed ethnic influence on the last movement, so preceding it with the Overture to his (later) Turkish-set opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio, makes musical sense. However,  after giving the programme that suitably energetic opening, with Hobbs at the controls, the conductor took a break.

Italian-American violinist Francesca Dego will be recording the Mozart Concertos for Chandos with the RSNO and Sir Roger Norrington, and that team performed the Fourth in February of last year. Here, however, Dego shared direction of the orchestra with leader Sharon Roffman, herself no stranger to working without a conductor, and the resulting creative balance (with Trinick on the desk) is quite magical.

The orchestra makes a full statement of its own sound before the soloist’s first entry, but it is only after appreciating the sophistication, lightness of touch, clarity and precision of Dego’s first movement cadenza that it is possible to appreciate how those qualities stand for the whole of this performance. Even better, both musicians clearly appreciate the slightly sleazy playfulness in much of the music that follows; those up-and-down chromatic phrases are rarely so teasingly phrased while appearing so elegant.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Bacewicz / Bach / Beethoven

Queens Hall, Edinburgh

In referring to the three “B”s in classical music, we usually mean Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. This SCO strings-only programme went two-thirds of the way, replacing the Romantic Brahms with the more modernist voice of the 20th century Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz. 

Not that she is as obscure as was probably the case before Covid. Social distancing has given some of her more economically-scored works a practical and convenient attractiveness that goes beyond their intrinsic musical charm. The latter quality was in full view in the 1949 work chosen to open the programme, the Quartet for Four Violins.

It belongs to that period in her compositional journey, post-World War II, when Bacewicz embraced neoclassical principles, in her case owing much to the influences of folk music. It’s not long in this three movement quartet, beyond the wiry austerity of the eerie opening Allegretto, before the music changes gear and rustic ribaldry sets in.

The echoes of Bartok are unmistakable, yet with a stamp of individuality and beautifully crafted string writing (Bacewicz was, herself, a notable violinist) set on edge by the electrifying synergy of four violins. This quartet of SCO fiddlers formed an incisive ensemble, evenly matched and harnessing as a result the work’s full dynamic potential, from the sustained soulfulness of the slow movement to the razor-sharp energy of the finale.

If the SCO’s remarkable versatility is surfacing with regularity in these Thursday night chamber music releases, here was another example, as the music switched from Bacewicz to Bach, and a breathtaking medley from Bach’s Art of Fugue. In four of the Contrapuncti leader Benjamin Marquise Gilmore led a string section that adopted a convincing Baroque performance style.

It wasn’t simply the technical absence of vibrato, but a more deep-rooted purity of tone that gave these performances such a richness of texture more often associated with the best of period bands. Every strand of Bach’s increasingly complex counterpoint bore its own personality and sense of place without ever destroying the gorgeous combined homogeneity. The chorale prelude “Vor deinen Thron tret’ich hiermit” – applied to the collection when it was posthumously published by Bach’s son – was a heavenly way to bring such a sublime musical offering to a close. 

The peacefulness was immediately shattered by a full string version of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, a monstrous masterpiece conceived as the original finale to Beethoven’s Op 130 String Quartet. To hear it filled out like this is to witness an exaggeration of its anger and intensity, which was both gripping and fearsome. The downside was some raggedness of attack and intonation, particularly within the first violins. Just one weak moment, however, in an hour’s worth of delights.
Ken Walton

Scottish Ensemble: Reflection

Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh

Its seasonal Concerts by Candlelight, like annual pantomimes in Scottish theatres, are the events at which the Scottish Ensemble could expect to play for its largest audience, touring to venues across the nation and attracting people less likely to buy tickets at other times of the year.

It is to be hoped that a good number of them make the leap to online concert-going for this year’s offering, simply titled Reflection and filmed and recorded in Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirk, because they will hear a beautifully-structured programme, immaculately played.

There is, truth to tell, very little about Yuletide, the Solstice and the Nativity in it, until the closing arrangement by violinist Daniel Pioro of the Ukranian Carol of the Bells, unless George Crumb’s God Music, from Black Angels, somehow qualifies.

As that inclusion may suggest, this is as far from a recital of festive favourites as you will hear this year, and perhaps rather more brave than artistic director and leader Jonathan Morton would have felt able to be if it was to have been performed live.

Two 14-minute pieces composed in the past decade are the most substantial works. Appropriately in the middle of the programme – the works on either side of it each reflections on one another rippling outwards – is Edmund Finnis’s The Centre is Everything. It had its premiere (played by the Manchester Collective) in July 2019, and is a compelling listen, with very quiet music from the full string ensemble building in intensity and richness before falling away to a gentle, rustling noise again.

There is also a pleasing arc to Anna Clyne’s Prince of Clouds, from seven years earlier, but it is rhythmically bolder, with contrasting forces at work. In that aspect it is paired, tellingly, with Steve Reich’s 1994 Duet, written from the same combination of two violin soloists and string orchestra, and dedicated to Yehudi Menuhin. Clyne’s is a much more complex piece, but the Reich also sits crucially next to the opening Ricercar from Bach’s Musical Offering in a juxtaposition that hints at the clever parallels and reflections to come.

Both in repertoire of the Kronos Quartet, Arvo Part’s Summa, a choral movement he re-scored for strings, parallels the Crumb, which features cellist Alison Lawrance accompanied by bowed wine glasses. She also partners Morton in the final fragment of Bach, from the Art of Fugue, and one of those inspired moments where director Richard Watson deploys split-screen technique to fine effect. Here the interweaving lines of the two players are rendered in a composite “graphic score” above them, an eloquent representation of the composer’s method.

Unlike the Ensemble’s recent Cottier concert film, Flux Video’s contribution here is entirely in the service of the music, the “Reflection” of the title never over-played visually, as it is so skilfully expanded in the music.

Keith Bruce

Scottish Opera / Così fan tutte

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

How best to avoid the pitfalls of Mozart’s Così fan tutte? It’s an opera that can appear absurdly glib at face value – two women tricked by their betrothed into an unlikely switch of allegiance when the latter fake their absence and reappear as tempters in disguise, all just to teach the girls a lesson. Farce by any other name.

Or there’s the concept approach, not least those attempts by many 19th century productions to corrupt the storyline and neuter the misogyny by making the girls secretly aware of the ruse, stringing their fellas along just to teach them a lesson. 

Either way, and somewhere in between, the trick is to be guided by Mozart’s music. Look no further than the wistful charm of the Act 1 trio, “Soave sia il vento”, one of opera’s most transformative, humanising moments. Miscalculate moments like that and the magic is gone. 

It’s to director Roxana Haines’ credit that her new staging of Così for Scottish Opera, film directed by Jonathan Haswell, avoids usurping the music’s charm. Her modernising concept is to depict these unlikely shenanigans as the filming of a reality TV game show. Don Alfonso is the conceited host whose concerns for the “contestants’” wellbeing are way secondary to his precious screen image.

A minimally adorned Theatre Royal stage is the perfect setting, multiple shooting angles facilitating the juxtaposition between general action and to-camera moments. If there’s an inkling that this could so easily lead to over-trivialisation, the concept’s one weakness – its ultimate insignificance – perversely becomes its strength. You can take it or leave it.

So it’s left to the cast to inject the all-consuming lifeblood, and this young sextet – mostly current or former Scottish Opera Emerging Artists – set about their task with invigorating elan. The two toyed-with couples are as well-matched in ensemble as they are distinctive in character. 

Shengzhi Ren’s searingly passionate Ferrando, tiring momentarily but quickly recovering in Act 2, finds willing partnership in baritone Arthur Bruce’s more laddish, vocally composed Guglielmo. Where Margo Arsane’s Dorabella is deliciously sweet and flighty, Charlie Drummond brings composed femininity to her glowing portrayal of Fiordiligi. 

As chief manipulator, Michael Mofidian’s Don Alfonso is colourful and frenetic. Together with Catriona Hewitson’s bubbling versatility as Despina, they are the most obvious manifestations of the game show idea. The chorus, spread around the circle balcony for obvious Covid reasons, offers hints of an audience presence, but various visual cameos arising from that are a little too contrived to work convincingly.

No lack of conviction from Stuart Stratford and his Scottish Opera Orchestra, caged in at the rear of the  stage – similarities, perhaps, to the penned band in that other TV favourite, Strictly – and offering a spirited Mozart performance that encompasses the extremes of frivolity, passion and tenderness implicit in this all-embracing score.
Ken Walton

Available to view on www.scottishopera.org.uk

BBC SSO / van Soeterstede / Isserlis

City Halls, Glasgow

Viola player-turned-conductor Chloe van Soeterstede has a forward schedule that many musicians may currently envy, with concerts in her native France, Germany and England all upcoming early in 2021. This packed hour-and-a-quarter programme for BBC Radio 3’s Afternoon performance strand suggests that it is built on an appetite for hard work to tight deadlines.

Only the Schumann Cello Concerto, for which the orchestra was joined by the silver-maned Steven Isserlis, appears in the repertoire she lists on her website. It was bracketed by two delicious pieces of orchestration by women composers, with a less-often-played Mozart symphony, No 34 in C, rounding things off.

Isserlis gave as masterful a performance of the Schumann as you might expect. His stated intention to be a conduit for the composer to tell his own story may have sounded like the sort of thing all soloists say, but in this case it was demonstrably true from the opening anguished bars. There was no bathetic self-indulgence in the finale either, a movement in which the soloist’s communication with the conductor and her strict tempo was very evident.

Van Soeterstede is both rigorous and lucid in her beat, disciplines essential for the brief Reckless by Sally Beamish, which is punchy in the way of the animation scores of Carl Stalling and Raymond Scott, but with terrific orchestration. The scoring was also what distinguished the opening Concert Overture by Elfrida Andree. This terrific work had its second performance in 1998, well over a century after its premiere, and it alone suggests that the Swedish composer, who was chief organist in Gothenburg for most of her life, is another woman whose work is ripe for rediscovery. Beautiful writing for the winds had the finest realisation by the SSO’s principals, and a lovely silky string sound was provided for van Soeterstede’s crisp direction.

Mozart’s last Salzburg symphony before he escaped to the bright lights of Vienna is an unfinished work of three movements, but it stands happily in the catalogue in that form. The central Andante is the young composer at his most elegantly pared-back, but the fast outer movements were the stars of the trio here. There was an immediate chamber orchestra energy to the first one, and the finale, built around the orchestra’s pair of oboes in close harmony, was most definitely the sound of a young man on the move.

The young woman on the podium is surely going places as well.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Emelyanychev / Higham

Perth Concert Hall

Never underestimate the individual virtuosity of orchestral musicians who sit more anonymously, week after week, amid the wider ranks of their respective bands. Here was a typical illustration: SCO principal cellist Philip Higham breaking ranks to feature in his orchestra’s latest digital presentation from Perth Concert Hall as soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme.

Tchaikovsky’s balletic concert piece – it’s the closest he got to writing a full-blown cello concerto – is exquisite and fanciful, as the title suggests. But that shouldn’t imply anything lightweight or superficial. As the opening orchestral gambit of this iridescent performance under SCO principal conductor Maxim Emelyanychev asserted, here also is music of infinite character and substance. 

It offered the perfect interpretational springboard for Higham, whose entrance established all the perfection, agility and poise that was to inform the ensuing variations. The nimble, airborne simplicity of the main theme, the natural zest that followed, even the sumptuous calm in Tchaikovsky’s more contemplative moments, were all effortlessly captured in a performance notable for its visual grace and instinctive musicality.

It was the centrepiece of a concert bookended by Schubert, whose music, Emelyanychev reminded us, should have been a focal theme in the originally-planned SCO season. A pairing of Schubert’s Symphony No 5 and the Entr’act No 3 from Rosamunde was telling proof as to why that was always such a good idea.

In a symphony indebted in its lyrical, spirited zeal to Mozart, Emelyanychev seemed in seventh heaven, light-footed and with delicate gestures that inspired the freshest of results from his players. There was spring-like effervescence in the opening Allegro, eliciting affectionate playfulness from the conversational woodwind. The free-flowing Andante con moto and breezy Menuetto then set the pace for a finale the went like the clappers and embraced dramatic turbulence as chilling as Mozart’s Don Giovanni. 

No such pungency in the Rosamunde excerpt, which was all about eloquence and charm. There’s a gloriously ambient ring to the empty Perth hall acoustics that was fully embraced in this performance, evident in the poetic sheen and settled composure that coloured its every moment.
Ken Walton

NYCoS / Until We Meet Again

Signum Classics

We may not have had the thrill of experiencing the National Youth Choirs of Scotland (NYCoS) live this year, but the successive release during 2020 of four recordings on Signum Classics has kept the vision espoused by Christopher Bell’s brilliant young singers well and truly alive.

The latest issue (released on 10 December) is the apposite and timely Until We Meet Again, a heart-lifting EP of Christmas songs, gift-wrapped in sophisticated piano-accompanied settings that show off the wholesome perfection of Bell’s choristers and give a fresh lick of paint to some familiar seasonal tunes.

These are not recent performances, captured originally in 2013 for a televised Watch Night service on the BBC, but as newly packaged recordings they maintain their compelling immediacy. The Bell fingerprint – a hotly-disciplined, full-blooded choral sound from both the flagship mixed choir and amalgam of its children’s choirs – informs every bar of music. On piano, Oliver Rundell is a super-efficient linchpin. 

Seven tracks are on offer, from the seething restlessness with which Thea Musgrave underscores Boris Ord’s famous melody for the advent carol Adam Lay Abounden, to Kenneth Hesketh’s well-seasoned treble voice version of Three Kings, the full-fat extravagance of its piano writing almost inviting the same giddiness one gets from too much Christmas pud.

That the latter follows John Duggan’s artful pseudo-medieval colouring of the Angel Gabriel, the mellifluous nursery rhyme charm of Christopher Robinson’s Infant King, and a Silent Night in which arranger James Whitbourn offsets the calm simplicity of its melody with a strangely intoxicating Brahms-style accompaniment, places it in perfect context.

Which brings us to perhaps the most beautiful, and certainly most sentimental, of the tracks, Paul Mealor’s enchanting I Pray, which craftily weaves Silent Night through an original setting of his own words. Featuring the popular Scots tenor Jamie MacDougall, it’s a magical Christmas moment, unashamedly dewy-eyed, with a poignant message – thoughts of absent friends – for these pandemic times. 

Recognising its commercial potential, NYCoS has also released I Pray as a Christmas single.
It’s not the final number in this excellent album. That honour goes to Richard Allain’s upbeat jazz makeover of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and a rip-roaring performance that lifts the spirits, but also reminds us what we’ve lost in the muzzling of choirs this year. 
Ken Walton

Earthtones Trio / Christmas Single

Fancy a dash of sophistication with your easy listening? Something warm and Christmassy to cosy up to after a traumatic year? Maybe it’s time to discover the golden strains of the Earthtones Trio. 

They are familiar faces to Scots classical music audiences – principle flautist Katherine Bryan and associate principal cellist Betsy Taylor from the RSNO with cross-genre pianist and composer Euan Stevenson – and they’ve just released a couple of red-hot Christmas crackers as a double A-side single.

The melodies are perennial favourites, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and the normally syrupy O Holy Night. But it’s Stevenson’s classy arrangements that add gilded veneer to what would otherwise constitute routine seasonal fare. Void of sentimentality, energised by the piano’s liquid moto perpetuo and the silken interplay of flute and cello, they elicit irrepressible charm with ne’er a cliched moment.

While Stevenson’s jazz inclinations are most palpable in God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, they are neither out of place nor overstated. The rippling piano opening, spiced with pseudo-impressionist harmonies, its rhythmic stresses dreamily out of kilter with the first glimpse of the tune on flute, are just a gateway to a track that radiates autumnal joy. Echoes of Chick Corea inform soft multicoloured harmonies. The cello’s mellowest range is predominant, the flute taking flight with short improvisational bursts. The emphasis is on cool.

If this is the Yuletide claret, O Holy Night is the mulled wine. Sleepier arpeggios from Stevenson set a moody tenor for Taylor’s expansive, rich-roasted unfolding of the theme. With Bryan’s entry – a magical, near-imperceptible presence – comes a blossoming dialogue between the two that is genuinely moving. Tears will be shed, for all the right reasons..
Ken Walton

Full information on how to purchase or stream Earthtones’ Christmas single is at www.earthtonestrio.com

RSNO: Meister / Gough

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Lurking beneath the high-level collective performance prowess of most orchestras is a surprising plethora of subsidiary individual accomplishments. Among RSNO players of recent years, for instance, there has been a novelist, a Magic Circle magician and two church organ builders. Not surprisingly, there have also been composers, one early example (1900-1904) being a certain second trombonist, Gustav Holst.

The latest compositional voice to emerge from the RSNO ranks is its current principal horn, Christopher Gough. He spent most of last year studying abroad on sabbatical for a masters degree in scoring for film, television and video games at the Berklee College of Music Valencia, winning an Outstanding Scholar Award for his troubles, despite the interruptions caused by the pandemic.

It’s clear, from the world premiere of his Three Belarusian Folk Songs – performed in the RSNO’s most recent digital concert and featuring its dedicatee, principal cellist Aleksei Kiseliov, as soloist – that Gough has an instinctive penchant for this particular idiom. Cast in three movements, with a language drawing freely on recognisable influences, cleverly assimilated and recast to serve his own expressive purposes (think John Williams), here is a craftsman who naturally understands the orchestral palate and its ability to express profound thoughts in vital, communicative terms.

On the surface are the three folk tunes successively defining each movement and forming the basis of the solo cello’s rhapsodic discourse, its mood supported and expanded upon by the surrounding strings and percussion. Kiseliov – who performed extensively as a young Russian soloist in Belarus – offers what seems a wholly natural affinity for their beguiling traditional intonations, sometimes weepingly plaintive, at other times dazzlingly rustic.

Gough pulls on a menagerie of musical references, from febrile Bartok and sumptuously dense Vaughan Williams to chiming percussive frissons reminiscent of, say, Lutoslawski or Orff, all craftily woven and ultimately serving their purpose in illuminating the real message of the work, a reflective, soulful response to the oppressive political situation in Belarus. 

Kiseliov’s performance was breathtakingly moving. Gough’s other RSNO colleagues, working under conductor Cornelius Meister (replacing the absent Thomas Sondergard), also did him proud. It will be interesting to see where he goes now with his compositional aspirations.

Where this work signalled the launch of the RSNO’s occasional Scotch Snap series (music by Scots composers), this programme, in opening with Krzysztof Penderecki’s evocative Adagio for Strings, also marked the first in this season’s Polska Scotland series, celebrating 500 years of friendship between the two countries.

Re-crafted from his Third Symphony as a stand alone concert work in 2013, the Adagio is representative of the composer’s later style, a retrenchment away from the harsh modernism of his younger years to a more retrospective tonal language. Under Meister’s urging lead, the RSNO strings evoked its eerie aching serenity, a gauntness that harks back to Shostakovich.

Coming online on a day that Edinburgh was reeling from its thundersnow onslaught, Beethoven’s Symphony No 6, the Pastoral, which closed this programme, might have seemed like small change in meteorological terms. Meister’s view was very different, though, his answer being to apply pressurised containment as a means of heightening its protean narrative. 

The overall vision was sweeping and cohesive, within which lay a world of infinite contrast. The RSNO strings were expansive and as smooth as silk in the “Scene by the brook”; the “Thunderstorm” raged with unpredictable seismic ferocity; the “Shepherd’s Hymn” evoked reassuringly those final moments of peace and contentment.

Ken Walton
www.rsno.org.uk

Image: RSNO Principal Horn Christopher Gough

SCO: Adams/Mozart

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

There have been some delightful threads to follow through the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s digital chamber music concerts, with its subtly changing cast of musicians, uniformly excellent sound mixing and evolving style of careful visual presentation.

The modern element of this programme is a selection of three of the 12 movements of John’s Book of Alleged Dances, a Kronos Quartet commission from John Adams that dates from 1994. In its original version, it references the work of John Cage in the use of a prepared piano rhythmic backing track, which proved a bit of a challenge for even the technologically-adept American group for whose individual members particular passages were specifically written.

This SCO quartet – Stephanie Gonley, Marcus Barcham Stevens, Felix Tanner, and Donald Gillan – neatly side-steps that problem by playing only movements 5, 3 and 8, none of which requires the rhythm track. They are each quintessential Adams though, particularly the first, and by far the longest, “Pavane: She’s So Fine”. It both celebrates and subverts an earlier form and the formal roles of the members of a string quartet. Gillan deserves particular praise for his playing of the very high cello part, written to showcase the Kronos’s Joan Jeanrenaud.

The briefer joys of “Toot Nipple” and “Stubble Crotchet” – classic Adams titles – displays his signature rhythmic style, the latter an encapsulation of his practice in miniature that can’t help but bring a smile. Dancing to any of this would surely be a challenge, but one that choreographers have risen to since the work was composed.

More specific to the narrative of this season is the sextet that follows, Mozart’s Grande Sestetto Concertante. With Gonley again leading, Philip Higham replacing Gillan, and violist Brian Schiele and bassist Nikita Naumov joining the group, the piece often sounds very little like Mozart. That  was also true of the Mozart Adagio and Fugue, which was included in the Queen’s Hall concert of November 12 (and still available to view until Saturday December 12), although that work consciously looked backwards. The more obvious reason this time around is that Mozart didn’t actually write it. The score is an arrangement of his Sinfonia Concertante, published almost 30 years later and the work of an unknown hand.

Cast your mind back to the days of audiences in concert halls, and the original work was in the last programme played by the SCO in March, with Nicola Benedetti and Lawrence Power as the soloists. If it sounded like scaled-up chamber music then, this might have been expected to be a back-to-basics exercise, but the arranger has had no particular urge to employ Mozartian building blocks.

More influenced by Beethoven, the music shares the solo lines around the members of the group, with Higham and Naumov providing the propulsion in the Presto finale. The opening movement loses none of its Maestoso in this reduced orchestration, and the moving central Andante seems to acquire a more Mediterranean feel in its flow, but is no less moving.

sco.org.uk, available to Sunday January 3 2021

Keith Bruce

Image: The SCO’s Philip Higham & Nikita Naumov play Mozart

BBC SSO / Gourlay / Kanneh-Mason

City Halls, Glasgow

IF conductor Andrew Gourlay was inspired to pursue his career when he was playing trombone with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester under the baton of Claudio Abbado, he has clearly retained a love of good music for his original instrument.

The first half of this programme was a celebration of the USA’s Thanksgiving Day in 20th Century American music and the slide trombone was to the fore at the start and end of a very thoughtful sequence. Carl Ruggles, an associate of Charles Ives, started proceedings with three ‘bones joining four trumpets in the choir stalls, the sections led by the SSO’s top rank principals, Simon Johnson and Mark O’Keeffe. Far from a fanfare, “Angels” sounded distinctly Ellingtonian on the muted instruments, and, like the work that followed, seemed to have more to say than its brevity allowed.

Ruth Crawford Seeger has been rediscovered as a composer recently (as opposed to Pete and Peggy’s mom) and her arrangement of a string quartet’s slow movement as the Andante for String Orchestra might have been taken to ape Barber’s famous Adagio, if it did not pre-date it by five years – which begs an interesting parallel question. Again, it seems to suggest more than it delivers.

The African-American Julia Perry was a generation younger, but her Short Piece for Orchestra defies easy dating in its soundworld. Here were more thoroughly developed ideas, alongside the introduction of rhythm to the evening’s programme, as well as brass, winds, percussion and celesta. A student with both Boulanger and Dallapiccola, her vast catalogue is surely ripe for investigation; this was a chamber orchestra version of her score, but it was still full of vibrant detail and colour.

A further generation on, Alvin Singleton’s Cara Mia Gwen was commissioned by the Florida Orchestra to mark its 25th anniversary, but personal in inspiration, a memorial to his sister. The trombone had the first and last word here in a work in which the orchestral sections each had their own distinct role, and the chordal voicings again brought to mind the big band arrangements of Duke Ellington.

Perhaps only the SSO, even among the BBC’s orchestras with their varied diets, would have played that first half as a precursor to working with a fashionable young soloist on a repertoire classic. With her own Clara Schumann album selling well, pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason is recognisably more than the cellist’s older sister. Her way with Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto was a bit of a roller-coaster, but an enjoyable one. Her stated intention to be more playful than portentous was certainly fulfilled, and there was a great deal of interpretative individuality in her phrasing, as well as visible attentiveness to conductor and orchestra, rewardingly reciprocated.

There was also some technical imprecision however, alongside the lightness of touch in the faster passages, and a lack elsewhere of the dynamic nuance she had brought to the first movement cadenza.
Keith Bruce

SCO / Clyne & Britten

Perth Concert Hall

What a welcome sight. Thursday’s filmed concert by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, introduced by cellist Su-a Lee, returned this week to Perth Concert Hall, its stage floor area extended over the front stalls to accommodate the fuller string complement required for Benjamin’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. 

The setting also inspired the theatrical positioning of tenor Allan Clayton and horn soloist Alec Frank-Gemmill as spotlit protagonists out front, looking inward to the ensemble, which the camerawork in Mark Parkin’s film direction inventively captured.

Directing from the leader’s chair was Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, who confessed to not ever having encountered Britten’s 1943 wartime song cycle while growing up in Finland. Evidence of that emerged in a performance entirely in tune with its movingly refined ecstasy, but much more interestingly coloured by a fresh-faced objectivity.

In all but a very few moments, it worked. There was a dryness in the string tone and articulation that underpinned Blake’s Elegy, for instance, robbing us of its blanket warmth and forward momentum. But in every other sense this was a truly compelling performance, set magically in motion by Frank-Gemmill’s pitch-perfect playing (even the jarring natural horn harmonics) of the solo Prologue, and sung throughout with candescent poise by Clayton.

Clayton – whose wild beard and distressed hair make him look as if he’d just walked off the final scene of Peter Grimes – is no vocal clone of Peter Pears, for whom the work was written. Nor does he ever pretend to be, allowing instead the more rounded purity of his tenor voice to express its own persuasive response to Britten’s masterpiece. 

His partnership with Frank-Gemmill was compatible in every sense, generating musical dialogues capable of capturing the serene and thoughtful and the demonic and triumphant with equal conviction. The inexorability of the Dirge, unleashing those cascading horn counterpoints at its height, marked a thrilling moment, just as Ben Jonson’s Hymn elicited infinite expressive colours. And finally the horn Epilogue bringing the whole work full circle, this time offstage, its final dying note echoed by the emotive dimming of the lights.

Before the Britten, a smaller string contingent performed SCO associate composer Anna Clyne’s Within Her Arms, a heartfelt tribute to her late mother, written for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009.

The caressing Perth acoustics served to amplify its tenderness and unhurried quiescence, and from the strings a glowing warmth inhabited every gentle, keening bar, whether expressed through the gradually intertwining sighs of the opening lament, the ensuing glassy Tippett-like washes of polyphony, or the exhaustive bass drones that reset the opening calm.
Ken Walton

See this concert free at www.sco.org.uk

Image: SCO at Perth Concert Hall, credit Ryan Buchanan

Dillon / London Sinfonietta

Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival

In the manner of everything at this year’s 3-day Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the closing concert – a 70th birthday tribute to Scots-born composer James Dillon – was a remote experience. It’s been impossible, due to Covid, to enjoy things in the truly live sense, but the mixture of the Festival’s own digital streaming and BBC Radio 3 broadcasts kept this year’s event, curated by its Scots artistic director Graham McKenzie, alive. 

These two Dillon world premieres on Sunday evening came to us courtesy of Radio 3’s New Music Show. Even that was supposed to be a live broadcast, but recent increased restrictions meant that the ensemble piece Pharmakeia had to be recorded earlier “as live” in London’s Royal Festival Hall, played by the wonderful London Sinfonietta. The new solo piano work “echo the angelus” also materialised as a pre-recording, this time from Broadcasting House in London, performed by the composer’s partner Noriko Kawai.

Pharmakeia lasts over 50 minutes, and rather typically of Dillon’s individualistic music represents a journey that challenges mainstream modernist thinking. The title is from the Greek meaning sorcery, and from the outset the images are intoxicating and beguiling. There’s a deliberate sense of ritual, too, in a simple opening unison incantation twisted by punctuative spectral distortion on the trumpet, an effect that weirdly humanises its presence. It’s a gently provocative invitation to a work that, throughout its four movements, encompasses the dizzy, the hallucinogenic, the ethereal and the demonic.

The musical journey, as we’ve become used to in Dillon’s music, is something we have to make up our own mind about. The destination “is anyone’s guess” declared the London Sinfonietta’s conductor Geoffrey Paterson in his pre-performance interview. “It symbolises something, goodness knows what.” 

But that’s also its fascination. This performance, supremely performed by a 16-part ensemble with two pianos and percussion at its heart, captured a glorious sense of the epic, but equally found endless riches of colour and intricate detail that are the lifeblood of this work. Where Pharmakeia undoubtedly possesses daunting complexities and tough technical demands, they are a means to a tantalising hyper-expressive end. 

From primitive archaism to melancholic modernism, manic extroversion to blissful introversion, with moments even as serene as Mahler, Dillon’s language is essentially non-categorisable, but that is its magic, or should that be its sorcery. 

To then hear that fusion of the monumental and the momentary translated into piano terms in “echo the angelus” was a powerful and winning complement. At its heart are textures as delicate as fine porcelain, but not without force and presence.

Kawai, in her lustrous performance, found plentiful wit, frivolity and magical threads of impressionist-like haze. But in addressing the key compositional components – Dillon’s preoccupation here with cascading finger gestures, solid harmonic underlay and thrilling resonances that surface as a result — she captured an overall compelling elusiveness that so movingly ends with the sublime image of tolling bells.

Dillon’s music has been castigated so often in the past for its alienating quality. Here was plentiful reason to challenge such a view.
Ken Walton

Listen again on the BBC Radio 3 website
A filmed version of Pharmakeia will be released soon on the London Sinfonietta website.

Seven Deadly Sins

Leeds Playhouse

However cavalier people can be about social distancing in the real world, it has had a profound effect on the way this year’s specially-created online opera offerings have looked, with directors and performers coming up with ingenious ways to exploit the restrictions creatively.

The creative minds behind Opera North’s first staged show since the shutters came down have not only been singularly inventive, they have also made a very lucid production of a work that is a challenge to stage. There is a wealth of subtext in Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s last collaboration, but the surface narrative is of two Annas – explicitly twins in this production – who spend seven years touring to seven cities in America in order to make the money to build their family a home in Louisiana, encountering each of the Seven Deadly Sins at their stops along the way.

Director and choreographer Gary Clarke and designer George Johnson-Leigh have built seven separate platforms in the playing area of the Quarry Theatre space at Leeds Playhouse for their Annas – singer Wallis Giunta and dancer Shelley Eva Haden – to journey between. Conductor James Holmes and the 15-piece band have a podium behind, which is often, but not always, also the home to the four men of the family chorus. Onstage signage helpfully indicates the year, location and vice of each episode, leaving the viewer/listener free to enjoy the music and performances.

And what a company Opera North has assembled for this return to live work, with names that will be familiar in Scotland to lovers of opera, and even more so of dance.

Clarke brought his own company to Stirling’s Macrobert with a powerful elegy for the mining industry, COAL, and was due to return on March 20 with its sequel, Wasteland, when the venue closed its doors. He also won a Herald Angel Award at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe for The Troth, his work with Akademi about Sikh soldiers in the First World War. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, Shelley Eva Haden was a member of choreographer Rosie Kay’s company for 5 Soldiers, her work based on the Army’s training regime, which came to Glasgow’s Tramway in 2016.

The singing Anna, Wallis Giunta, was Dodo in Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves for Scottish Opera at the 2019 Edinburgh International Festival. That work was an adaptation of a Lars von Trier film, and Clarke and Johnson-Leigh are clearly referencing another, the self-consciously stagey Dogville, which starred Nicole Kidman, here.

The gangsters in Seven Deadly Sins are, of course, the forces of capitalism and moral corruption in the West, and the world of Hollywood is ever-present in this production, not just in the Los Angeles section with its emblematic movie-camera. Haden’s cropped-headed appearance is bound to call to mind Rose McGowan, redoubtable instigator of the #MeToo campaign.

She is a compelling presence throughout, but so too is Giunta, who delivers the demanding vocal narrative in a deceptively casual fashion, despite some awkwardness in the scansion of Michael Feingold’s translation. The instrumental arrangement by HK Gruber and Christian Muthspiel is superbly played by the small orchestra and the family quartet – Stuart Laing, Nicholas Butterfield, Campbell Russell and Dean Robinson – are a precisely-pitched barbershop chorus.

If Brecht is perhaps more faithfully served in the staging than the libretto, that is probably fair enough, as Seven Deadly Sins was hardly a work into which he poured his soul. Holmes and the cast do Weill proud, though. This is a crucial work in his canon, the pivot between his early German success and America, and the score is vibrantly realised here.
Keith Bruce

Image: Seven Deadly Sins credit Tristam Kenton

RSNO / Widmann

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

He’s a conductor, a composer and a virtuoso clarinettist, so Jörg Widmann came as the complete package to an RSNO digital programme that combined Mozart’s much-loved Clarinet Concerto, Mendelssohn’s robust Reformation Symphony and Widmann’s own capricious Fantasie for solo clarinet.

It also meant that Widmann’s charismatic personality fed through every morsel of this filmed concert, not least that side of him – obvious from his affable pre-performance chat – that is undogmatic, free-spirited and spontaneously musical. If that meant pushing the letter of the score to some extremes in the Mozart and Mendelssohn, eschewing absolute adherence to tempi in favour of greater expressive freedom, it was done with such self-belief that it invariably triumphed.

What that required, in the Mozart, was an RSNO capable of engineering its own coordinated support, as Widmann’s direction was largely gestural and minimal. For the most part, the response was intuitive and beautifully symbiotic, the band instantly reactive to the teasing elasticity which he exercised in many of the work’s unforgettable themes.

Nor was it surprising to witness the smiling Mozartian brio of Widmann’s precision playing, warmed by the gritty tonal personality of his instrument, echoed in an orchestral ensemble fully signed up to his articulate, clear-minded vision. Where ensemble glitches occurred they were minor, the uppermost strings occasionally appearing thin and scurrying, but these were incidental in a thoroughly engaging, thought-provoking performance.

Widmann had the stage to himself in his own Fantasie, a madcap virtuoso concert piece conceived as a one-man musical reimagining of Commedia dell’Arte. Multiple “characters” interact with surreal, often cartoon-like wit, the manic agility of the clarinet writing – even a manufactured 4-part chord – central to its savage cut and thrust. A mesmerising performance.

Nothing quite brings you back down to earth like a Mendelssohn symphony, especially the “Reformation”, written in 1830 to celebrate the tercentenary of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, complete with the gravitational “mighty fortress” presence of Martin Luther’s chorale tune ”Ein feste Burg” as the mainstay of its final movement.

As with the Mozart, but now solely conducting the orchestra, Widmann’s approach was hungry and personal. That same resistance to rigidity opened up intriguing expressive possibilities: slow, punctuating breaths that gave added weight to new phrases; a persuasive energy that fuelled the unstinting momentum; shudders in tempo that sailed close to the wind in the Andante, but never so much as to knock it off course; and solid, brazen tuttis that ripened fully in the final moments.
www.rsno.org.uk
Ken Walton

Image: Jörg Widmann

How Lonely Sits the City

Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh

Newly-appointed Associate Director of Dunedin Consort Nicholas Mulroy and Head of Artistic Planning David Lee have been at great pains to stress that this thoughtful all-vocal programme, which is available to watch until December 19, was dreamed up before the pandemic changed all our lives.

It is not difficult to see why, because although this selection of work, ancient and modern, could hardly be more appropriate for our times, to have conceived it as such might invite accusations of miserabilism.

The early music pillars of the recital are the three-sections of Orlande de Lassus’s five-part setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and a two-part motet by William Byrd, also concerned with the allegorical Christian interpretation of the destruction of Jerusalem in the Old Testament. The 1945 work by Rudolf Mauersberger that found the same textual inspiration, and which gives the concert its title, sits in the middle.

Alongside are two works from 2009, Cecilia McDowell’s I Know That My Redeemer Liveth and James MacMillan’s Miserere, and a brand new commission in Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade’s Vigil 1.

Intended to be heard live or not, this is the choir performing together for the first time since March, and the resonance of many of the words they were given to sing must have contributed to the commitment audible from all twelve singers, four of them young new recruits. Superbly recorded by Matthew Swan, with album-release quality balance between solo voices and ensemble in every configuration required across the concert, the Dunedin has never sounded better, and that is a high bar to reach. The blend of the men’s voices in particular on the closing Miserere was beautifully captured.

While the MacMillan is already a contemporary classic and the Byrd a favourite of professional choirs, other memorable moments came in the shorter modern pieces. Although designed to sit alongside Brahms and echo Handel, there are resemblances to the popular contemporary choir staples of Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen in the Edinburgh-educated McDowell’s setting of the Messiah-familiar words from the book of Job. In the Mauersberger, composed after the destruction of the chorus-master’s home city of Dresden, the technical attention to detail is particularly noticeable, both in the vocal balance and in the careful selection of camera shots to match the music. The Consort’s video partners, Arms & Legs, do another fine job here.

The Cruttwell-Reade commission will surely quickly find a place in the repertoire. Both intricate and accessible, it too looks back to earlier forms (Lutheran chorales) and has the superb device of using both the original German text of the Rilke poem and an English translation, with the ensemble split into three SATB choirs. The singers’ clarity of diction here, and indeed throughout, was faultless.

The new concert is accompanied by a 20-minute conversation between Nicholas Mulroy and Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade on the Consort’s YouTube channel. It is an exemplary introduction to a new piece of music and well-worth any music-lover’s time.
dunedin-consort.org.uk
Keith Bruce

Image: Nicholas Mulroy and Dunedin Consort at Greyfriars Kirk

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