Category Archives: Reviews

Beacon Series / Shibe

Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock

There’s no mistaking the boldness with which Greenock’s Beacon Arts Centre opened its first classical music series. Anyone expecting world-ranking guitarist Sean Shibe to settle for a populist solo recital of, say, Spanish-style lollipops, Bach transcriptions or Elizabethan airs will have misread Shibe’s fearless evangelism, which placed a major modernist Picasso-inspired work, Harrison Birtwistle’s Beyond the White Hand, at the heart of his hour-plus afternoon programme. 

He acknowledged series curator James Waters’ willingness to go for it, proving in his intense and at times edge-of-the-seat performance that it simply takes a master craftsman to make sense of the seemingly impenetrable. The Beacon’s informal performance space, its floor-to-ceiling window views over a windswept River Clyde changing hue by the minute, seemed remarkably suited to Birtwistle’s angular and experimental virtuosity, his fragmented, to some extent heretical, rhetoric.

The rest of Shibe’s programme was easier to instantly digest. He opened with a pair of works by the 16th century Spanish vihuelist Luis de Narváez, their nimble eloquence like stage whispers enticing us into an intimate world. The accompaniment of trickling rainwater from the roof space above seemed strangely appropriate, like some Zen water feature.

Manuel de Falla’s Homenaje pour le tombeau de Claude Debussy (a habanera drawing on quotes from Debussy), even with its uptempo vibe, maintained that sense of reverie, as did Poulenc’s short, serene Sarabande. 

It was only after the ensuing Birtwistle that Shibe injected a more direct sunlight into his programme, firstly in the soulful radiance of Agustin Barrios Mangoré’s Julia Florida (a point, coincidentally, where the clouds lifted over the Clyde to reveal distant Helensburgh), then in five of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ 12 Guitar Etudes, sprayed with splashes of South American effervescence, and finally in Alberto Ginastera’s catchy Sonata. 

The last – dexterous, multi-coloured and exciting – seemed like a microcosmic précis of the entire recital: the internalised austerity of the opening Escordia giving way to a breezy, sometimes weirdly experimental, Scherzo; and after the searching restfulness of Canto, the manic motor-driven Finale.

Shibe attracted a healthy audience for this inaugural concert. Sitting near the back, however, it was difficult to pick out some of the finest details of his playing. Given the flexibility of the room, there is surely scope to try out different audience layouts, especially when such intimate solo instruments are featured. 

(Photo: Christopher Bowen)

Ken Walton

The Beacon’s first Classical Series continues with the Malamatina Guitar Quartet (26 Feb), saxophonist Dean Walker Garrity (March), accordionist Ryan Corbett (April) and ends in June with harpsichordist John Butt performing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Details at 

SCO / Stout & McKay

City Halls, Glasgow

While the SCO’s mission on Friday was fundamentally to operate as a backing band for folk duo Chris Stout (violin) and Catriona McKay (Scottish harp), the whistling and cheering from this Celtic Connections audience must surely have compensated. Rarely does a regular SCO City Halls audience mark its presence with anything beyond polite applause or a stifled cough. In truth, classical music could do with more of this unrestrained encouragement. 

But let’s not kid ourselves. The real focus for Friday’s uninhibited following was Stout and McKay, and a brand of music, rooted in progressive folk and embraced by an unpretentious sophistication that engenders its wide appeal. 

They opened with Seavaigers, written for them ten years ago by Sally Beamish, and ended with the duo’s own musical reverie, Glenshee. In between were equally substantial works based on poetry by Shetland-born Christie Williamson, himself present and involved, plus songs by Irishman Liam Ó Maonlaí that acted more inconsequentially as miscellaneous stocking fillers.

Otherwise the concert bore unified purpose under the overarching title Möder Dy, how Shetlanders describe the ocean’s mysterious undercurrents. There was instant reference to that in Seavaigers, a powerfully expressive scene-setter in which Beamish threads traditional influences through her trademark modernism. Stout and McKay brought it thrillingly to life in a wide-ranging performance that shifted inexorably from whispered mystique to mountainous swells of foot-stamping exuberance.

More substantial were the three lengthy musical responses to Williamson’s poetry that were, on paper, the meat of the programme. Williamson’s own vocal presence, pre-empting each musical moment with the relevant lines from his watery allegory, Waves Whisper, was one of slightly dishevelled informality. Maybe that’s the way of poets, but he should have stuck to the readings and left the casual asides to the more charismatic Stout. 

All three performances were predominantly showpieces for the front line and, to some extent, guest percussionist James Mackintosh, whose feathery brushstrokes on kit were more visually than audibly stimulating. As for Stout (alternating between violin and ruminative viola) and McKay, they commanded exclusive attention through their breathtaking chemistry, each knowing instinctively what nuance or dramatic change of gear the other was implying.

There wasn’t that much for the SCO to do in the Williamson-inspired pieces other than act as wallpaper, albeit peppered with momentary flourishes, but they did so with unstinting professionalism under the alert baton of James Lowe. More refreshing, perhaps, was that eventual escape to what Stout described as “a sonic postcard from Glenshee”, a sequence of contrasting tableaux touched up with rich Highland imagery and plenty of “wish you were here” sentiment.

Stout and McKay had no intention of leaving things there. Anticipating a call for a valedictory “set of reels”, they obliged, now very much in boisterous home territory. They are a dynamic duo, with a stage presence that plays to their distinctive personae: Stout’s rock-fuelled stomp and bad boy cool versus McKay’s matronly insouciance and smouldering sensuality. Maybe they should rebrand as Nigel and Nigella – Kennedy and Lawson, that is, just to be absolutely clear!. 

Ken Walton

RSNO / Søndergård

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

The only scheduled speaking from the stage on Friday night was at the start of the concert, when leader Maya Iwabuchi invited her former violin pupil and now featured young composer, Lisa Robertson, to introduce her premiering work, am fior-eun.

However, music director Thomas Søndergård could plainly not let the evening end without thanking the audience for turning out in such numbers and bringing such vocal enthusiasm. This was an Usher Hall filled to the rafters as the Edinburgh Festival would be delighted to see it, proving that the Celtic Connections festival at the other end of the M8 has no monopoly on January ticket sales.

If the music-lovers came out for the promise of Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto and Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, they brought ears receptive enough to greet new music with cheers of appreciation.

Robertson’s piece may be briefer than the 19th century works that followed, but it is on no lesser scale. Selected from the harvest of the RSNO’s Composer Hub project, it glories in the opportunity to compose for a full orchestra with a score that swooped across the available talent onstage like the eagles near Robertson’s West Highland home that it depicts.

Here was music that not only realised every word of the composer’s eloquent statement of her intention, but was audibly made in collaboration with those now playing it, extended techniques from strings, winds and percussion included. That’s not to say that others will not want to play it – such a colourful depiction of the Scottish landscape is sure to find further performances – but that these musicians set the bar for those who follow them very high indeed.

It was also a perfect appetiser for what Søndergård and soloist Francesco Piemontesi had in store. In the way of current programme typography style shared by the RSNO and the BBC Scottish, there was an adjective on the cover of this weekend’s booklet: “Majestic”. It was no idle boast, because this was a concert that was all about making a big impression, as Lisa Robertson certainly had.

Piemontesi is a pianist who can tailor his performance to every occasion, and this was him giving it large. In collaboration with the conductor we heard Beethoven in all his majesty, and full of drama.

Did Søndergård overstate the transition into the Finale? Perhaps. But could he have asked the strings to push even more in the slow movement? Possibly also true. Certainly, there was no risk of the soloist being overwhelmed by the orchestra – Piemontesi was on fire from the first bar to the last.

The Brahms was just as epic, Søndergård drawing a clear distinction between how a full-sized symphony orchestra should play this music and more modest “period” interpretations, using bold fluctuations in tempo without sacrificing any precision. There may have been swifter Brahms symphonies, but few as rich.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow 

This was a programme that invited multiple layers of curiosity. How does Bach sit full-on, head-to-head with Stravinsky? Is repertoire that uses bits and pieces of a symphony orchestra, but never its full complement at one sitting, an efficient use of resources? Would such a stylised programme from the BBC SSO, augmented by the London-based BBC Singers, pull in the crowds? Under the programme’s originator, SSO chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, these questions were duly answered.

The pairing of Bach and Stravinsky was, indeed, an inspired proposition, especially as the latter was represented by two of his Neoclassical hits – the chilling intensity of the Symphony of Psalms and steely austerity of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments – and Stravinsky’s own arrangement of Bach’s Canonic Variations on “Von Himmel hoch”, originally for organ, here impishly rewired for mixed-bag ensemble and chorus. 

Against that, Bach’s funeral cantata, “Komm, Jesu, komm!”, and his exuberant D major Magnificat offered contrasting visions of a composer whose life’s work was dedicated “to the greater glory of God” – the contemplative genius reaching deep into the human soul, and the unharnessed virtuoso illuminating the famous Song of Mary with inimitable lustre.

It was a juxtaposition well worth savouring and contemplating. Wigglesworth seemed infinitely more at ease with Bach. In the cantata, requiring only a three-man continuo in support of the chorus, he adopted a poetic approach, which certainly gave the singers ample latitude to express the suppleness of the writing. In the wake of the Canonic Variations, a veritable cornucopia of Stravinskian hooliganism, the calming aura of such pure-grained Bach was a welcome touch.

It also cleared the air for the ensuing Symphony of Psalms, now with a larger ensemble in a work that uses near-mystical restraint to power its emotional soul. A cautious start from Wigglesworth had its worrying moments. His grasp tightened as the performance progressed, but not always with enough rhythmic tautness, or that vital sting in attack, to generate the “wow” factor. More a safe performance than a moving one.

Similar issues denied the Symphonies of Wind Instruments the sustained captivation and momentum it crucially needs. Not so with Bach’s Magnificat, though, which earned its place as the evening’s sparkling peroration. Now there was fire in the belly, spirited and stylish Baroque playing from the SSO topped by the nimble virtuosity of the trumpets, deliciously eloquent obligato solos from the woodwind, and a polished, solid performance from the BBC Singers, the solos issued from within its ranks.

So yes, this programme, courageous and ingenious, was also stimulating and coherent. The smooth choreography that eased such extreme switches in orchestration and layout between successive pieces was, in itself, a work of art. And there was enough of an audience to appreciate the boldness of the venture and to play its part in animating the live broadcast on BBC Radio 3. 

Ken Walton 

This programme was repeated in Perth. Listen again on BBC Sounds

SCO / Leleux

City Halls, Glasgow

It is a terrible thing to say of a Frenchman, especially one who cuts a sartorial dash on the podium, but Francois Leleux is not the most elegant of conductors in his gestures. He is, however, supremely eloquent, his intention always clear and his stick hand unafraid to ensure that everyone is on the beat.

So the unusual lack of sparkle in some of the playing from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on Friday night was not down to him, and nor could the blame be laid at the door of the SCO winds, who tend to pull out all the stops for their kindred spirit, whether or not Leleux is actually playing his oboe.

Best guess might be in the absence of familiar faces leading the lower strings, although the guest musicians in their place were all quality performers in their own right. The difference was perhaps marginal, but detectable, especially after the interval with a perfectly fine, but not in any way exceptional, account of Schubert’s Symphony No 4, the somewhat ill-named “Tragic”, and in Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, which preceded it and was less meteorologically dramatic than it can be.

The more interesting music was in the first half, when Leleux was the soloist in fellow oboist Andreas Tarkmann’s recent arrangement for oboe and strings of Mendelssohn’s popular piano pieces, Songs Without Words. Leleux played six of the seven, chosen it would seem for the contrasts they offered. Here was the small double-reed instrument showing off its full range and a dazzling tonal palette. It would be wrong to describe the result as a demonstration of virtuosity, rather it is a showpiece for the capabilities of the instrument.

It is said that Louise Farrenc was acclaimed by Paris in the same era as Mendelssohn for the novelty of her gender as a composer as much as for the quality of the music. Contemporary sexism, on the other hand, simply underrates her if her Symphony No 3 in G Minor from 1847 is any guide. She clearly owes a debt to Beethoven, but there is no plagiarism in her work, rather a shared language and compositional techniques, particularly in the outer movements.

The heart of the work is a beautifully-shaped, if melodically unmemorable slow movement, with first clarinet Maximiliano Martin in the lead role, and a terrific Scherzo, which trips along at pace and has the better tune.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Böhm

Ayr Town Hall

So many times in the past, a programme by the BBC SSO geared primarily for its Glasgow City Halls’ home has either proved unsuitable for its repeat in Ayr, or is downscaled to suit the acoustical constraints of the smaller venue. This programme, however, was already of perfect dimensions and may even have benefitted more from the intimate warmth this bijou municipal venue favours. 

The larger-scored of the works – Prokofiev’s feverishly sweet Violin Concerto No 2 and Schubert’s crystalline Fifth Symphony – are hardly symbols of orchestral brute force. Instead, Prokofiev’s concerto, played here by the characterful Dutch-born violinist Rosanne Philippens, pits a zestful protagonist against a mutable kaleidoscopic spray of orchestral colour, its spiced delicacies only marginally threatened by the irksome persistence of the bass drum. Schubert’s Fifth looks back to Beethoven and Mozart, lithe and cheery, softened by the composer’s instinctive lyrical genius.

The young Austro-Spanish conductor Teresa Riveiro Böhm was in many ways a refreshing presence on the rostrum. A few years ago she spent time at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland  on a Leverhulme Conducting Fellowship that included mentorship via the BBC SSO, and has recently been appointed associate conductor at Welsh National Opera. On this latest evidence she was a visibly safe pair of hands, clear and precise with a decisive spring in her step. 

That certainly helped energise the Prokofiev, which was rhythmically catching and where conductor and soloist shared a mutual spark. Philippens was the prominent driving force, her fiery outer movements dancing to the music’s sardonic pleasures, contrasted in turn by the bittersweet tensions of the central Andante. Böhm’s handling of the orchestral balance wasn’t always as acute as it could have been, some of the most sensitive delights lost to what seemed a textural free-for-all. Philippens endorsed her dazzling persona with a Romanian folk-inspired encore by Enescu. 

Böhm’s Schubert did her far greater justice. Elegance and crispness underpinned her vision, as well as a far greater control of motivic interaction as the directional force. The slow movement may have underplayed Schubert’s prescribed “con moto”, but there was ample poetic soul in the lingering, lyrical lines to give it meaning and bearing. It was the expressive heart of a performance whose opening and closing Allegros harnessed natural, life-giving energy, and whose Menuetto was as naturally breezy as it was tightly disciplined.

Both works alternated with refreshing curiosities by female composers. The opener was by Bacewicz, her Divertimento for string orchestra, written four years before her death in 1965. Its combination of beguiling modernism, as influenced by fellow Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, with the pragmatic austerity of, say, Bartok or Hindemith, had clearly reached a point of magical synthesis by this stage in her life. The SSO strings captured that well in an incisive performance, clinically assertive in the outer movements, conjuring up an air of unworldly suspension in the central Adagio.

The Schubert was prefaced by the UK premiere of Lera Auerbach’s Eterniday (a linguistic elision of “eternity” and day”), which the American composer wrote in 2010 in response to the loss of her sketches the previous year in a fire at her New York studio. Formatted like a Baroque concert grosso, the central solo quintet vying with the larger surrounding ripieno, it represents, according to the composer, “something everlasting and fragile, yet blended together into one”.

Sure enough, the sound world is outwardly translucent with a heated density countering its natural inclination to float away into the ether. There’s drama in the series of fearsome, coruscating crescendos, abruptly shut off as they reach deafening point to reveal awesome punctuating silences. The impact of a glistening celeste diametrically opposed to the menacing cipher of the bass drum adds a signature surprise. 

Like everything else on Friday, it was of a scale that blossomed in this compact venue. 

Ken Walton

Glasgow Bach Cantata Project

St Margaret’s Church, Newlands

It’s well known that Bach, during his 27 years as cantor in Leipzig, wrote his weekly church cantatas like cars coming off a production line. This gave little time for rehearsal, so goodness knows what the performances were like – we have precious little on written record to gauge that by – but the music itself, as history has proven, was top drawer.

So there is an exciting relevance in the way the Glasgow Bach Cantata project has structured its initial series of concerts, driven by project coordinator Geraldine Mynors and co-directed by Michael Bawtree and Frikki Walker, and its dual objectives of raising money for the Glasgow City Mission (which provides much-needed grassroots help for the city’s homeless) and celebrating such uplifting music.

This was Concert Number 4 in an ambitious series that has already raised around £1500 for the Mission. It took place within the Neo-Romanesque elegance of St Margaret’s Church Newlands, on Glasgow’s south side, and featured three resplendent cantatas written specifically for this New Year period of Epiphany. Michael Bawtree directed a chorus and orchestra brought together on the day who offered their services free of charge, simply for the love of taking part. The performances reflected that glowing, instinctive enthusiasm and dedication.

It’s a fact that Bach, when he really wanted to make a joyful noise, employed three trumpets unrelentingly scored at their dizziest heights. Such a presence on Sunday – three gallant and exceptional students from the RCS – lit up the majority of performances that most certainly embraced the spirit of the music, ably negotiated the perils of Bach’s challenging writing, even if the chorus struggled at times to carry comfortably over the orchestra.

That was a diminishing issue as the programme progressed, so that the final work, the Epiphany section (Part 6) of the Christmas Oratorio, bore all the lustre required to send us into the cold Glasgow night with a satisfied inner warmth.

Bawtree’s practical and precise direction elicited nimble, eloquent support from a cast that drew its soloists from within the ranks. Soprano Aisling McCarthy applied fresh assertiveness to the aria Nur din Wink, with Rona Macleod’s plaintive oboe d’amore as a ravishing supportive presence. In the foregoing cantata, Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange (BWV 155), written during Bach’s earlier employment at the court at Weimar, and with its emphasis on solo numbers, the duet Du must glauben proved a highlight thanks to the mellifluous interaction of alto Emily Hodgkinson and tenor Peter Cooper.

If the opening work, Jesu, nun sei gepreiset (BWV 41), took time to settle in terms of balance, its success lay, as with the entire programme, in an unrelenting spiritedness that never once allowed Bach’s music to wallow or sag. 

Yes, there were dicey moments where minimum rehearsal presumably played its part, especially in the tricky accompanied recitatives, and having the choir repeatedly shift between the choir stalls and performance area was visibly messy and probably unnecessary. But this was ultimately a commendable exercise, delivered with all the right intentions and favourable musical outcomes – and all for a great cause.

Ken Walton

The next Glasgow Bach Cantata concert is at St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Glasgow on Sat 11 March.

SCO / Swensen

City Halls, Glasgow

The slightly cheesy title, “Musique Amerique”, that the Scottish Chamber Orchestra gave to its first season programme of 2023, should not detract from what was one of the most fascinating concerts given by the band’s Conductor Emeritus, Joseph Swensen, in recent years.

Its conceit was the traffic of musical ideas between Europe and America in the earlier part of the 20th century, a trade that not only brought US composers to the fore on this side of The Pond but radically transformed the practice of those in Russia and Germany as well as France.

The focus here was on Paris, with two members of composers’ collective Les Six, Milhaud and Poulenc, opening and closing the evening. Poulenc’s four-movement Sinfonietta, from 1947, was the most conventionally-shaped score in the concert, and the only one to employ a recognisably entire SCO. The musical material within that structure, however, was very much of its era, with a recognisable debt to film music from behind the Iron Curtain as well as Hollywood, and echoes of the cabaret and music hall stage – but then Francis Poulenc was very much a man of the theatre.

Darius Milhaud’s La creation du monde was composed for what may have been a fascinating ballet that mixed quasi-African creation myths with elements of the book of Genesis, but perhaps more limited to its time. Half a century before Steve Reich’s work of that name, however, it is “Music for 18 musicians”, and the fact that Milhaud taught Reich (as well as Philip Glass, Burt Bacharach and Dave Brubeck) may be no coincidence.

It is a terrifically colourful suite, full of early jazz influence and often sounding even more modern, with an arco bass solo paving the way for the first brass interjection and many attention-grabbing duo combinations: flute and cello; oboe and horn. The closing section is built around a riff that starts in pizzicato low strings before involving the whole band, and is ripe for rediscovery by a contemporary jazz ensemble.

The heart of the evening lay across the Atlantic, with the SCO’s principal clarinet the featured soloist. Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto is meat and drink to Maximiliano Martin, even if Benny Goodman, who commissioned it, found the score the composer delivered trickier to play than he’d anticipated.

It was followed, after the interval, by an orchestration of Bernstein’s precocious Clarinet Sonata, composed during his student years at a Tanglewood summer school when he was being mentored by Copland. Martin has played the piece a lot in recent years, with pianist Scott Mitchell and the man behind the piano for the SCO, Simon Smith, but I had not previously heard this orchestration (strings, piano, and some very effective and often subtle tuned and untuned percussion from Tom Hunter).

The arrangement is the work of Sid Ramin, who died in 2019 aged 100, a collaborator with Bernstein on West Side Story, and then orchestrator of musicals by Sondheim and others. Written in 1994, after Bernstein’s death, it softens the work in places and makes it less obviously a virtuoso clarinet showpiece, but was nonetheless well worth hearing as part of a very thoughtful and immaculately-performed programme.

Keith Bruce

RSNO: Viennese Gala

Perth Concert Hall

The challenge with any traditional orchestral Viennese Gala is to make it more than just a routine January roll out. There’s not much you can do with the music itself – it will always be a core diet of Strauss family favourites, otherwise what’s the point? So it boils down to a presentation and performance format that will give the evening the necessary zing factor. This Perth performance by the RSNO was the first in a line of repeat presentations heading around parts of Scotland till next weekend.

By the time it reaches Saturday’s final destination in Greenock I suspect this particular Viennese Gala will be as svelte as any Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Day broadcast, but with more of a homely flavour as befits an audience probably reared on the couthy fireside charm of The White Heather Club. 

Thanks then to Scots broadcaster and versatile tenor Jamie MacDougall for doing not so much his Andy Stewart, but a creditable Bill McCue in peppering this tinselly sequence of Strauss perennials with an engaging mix of song and patter.

This was welcome in periodically whisking us away from the stylised 19th century Vienna populism so monopolised by the Strauss family business. MacDougall unleashed his inner John McCormack in the glorious sentimentalism that characterises such schmalzy numbers as pre-World War II German film composer Werner Richard Heymann’s Ein blonder Traum, Rudolf Sieczyński’s one-hit wonder, Vienna, City of My Dreams, or one actually made famous by McCormack, Charles Marshall’s I Hear You Calling Me.

The only detraction from these was a seemingly low-set amplification level, which left MacDougall partially unheard in the earlier songs. Correction made all the difference in the second half, making such further gems as Juventino Rosas’ The Loveliest Night of the Year and the more melancholy hue of Paolo Tosti’s L’ultima Canzona easy listening in every sense.

If MacDougall livened up the continuity, the conductor David Niemann – in his RSNO debut – responded with equally lithesome musical direction, evident straight off in the opening Overture from Johann Strauss II’s popular opera Die Fledermaus. For the most part, he garnered a rich response from the orchestra, at their best in the same composer’s febrile Thunder and Lightning Waltz, the more reserved ebullience of the Emperor Waltz, and in a quirky novelty piece, Künstler-Quadrille, that pieces together snatches of themes by other composers, almost too many to count.

Things weren’t so refined in the famous Blue Danube, where Niemann’s excessive temporal deliberations seemed to fox the players. Among the non-Strauss works, the same issue imbued Delibes’ Pizzicato Polka with a few stray plucks, unlike the hearty confidence exhibited in the foregoing Brahms Hungarian Dance. 

Other Strausses featured: brother Josef’s Ohne Sorgen! Polka, with its additionally notated guffaws from the players; and Johann Strauss I’s rousing Radetzky March as a programmed encore that very nearly didn’t happen. Niemann lingered overlong on his return to the stage, resulting in the audience applause fading prematurely. He made it, just in time to make it happen. 

Having served Dunfermline and Langholm since, and with Inverness and Musselburgh to come this week en route to Greenock, this enjoyable programme will probably be running like clockwork now.

Ken Walton

Further performances at Eden Court, Inverness (12 Jan), The Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh (13 Jan) and Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock (14 Jan)

ERCU Messiah / MacMillan

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

TO the ears of those who have heard John Butt whisk the Dunedin Consort through Part One of Handel’s Messiah in well under an hour, Sir James MacMillan’s conducting debut of the work will not have sounded very pacey at all.

Truth to tell, the older members of Edinburgh Royal Choral Union – a choir that now boasts a healthy number of younger faces – have probably been asked to sing their annual New Year staple faster in some pre-pandemic performances. But if the unhurried approach MacMillan took denied his stated intention when he spoke to VoxCarnyx before the concert, that was probably for the best. What we heard was a very expressive, but never bombastic, Messiah where the story-telling took precedence over any darker liturgical message.

The choir can take a great deal of the credit for that, dispatching the trickier choruses with panache, only coming apart slightly in Part Two’s penultimate one, Let us break their bonds, but recovering quickly. Edinburgh’s Pro-Musica Orchestra were also a crucial factor in the light touch, fielding RSNO and Scottish Opera players alongside the freelances under the leadership of the Grit Orchestra’s Greg Lawson, and with ERCU director Michael Bawtree at the harpsichord and John Kitchen in a telling supporting role on the Usher Hall organ.

But the key ingredient for many in the completely filled hall on Monday afternoon was the quartet of young soloists, three of them – soprano Catriona Hewitson, mezzo Catherine Backhouse, and baritone Paul Grant – born in Edinburgh, and, alongside Royal Scottish Conservatoire-trained tenor Kieran White, all representatives of a new generation of highly-accomplished young voices.

For them, the old distinctions between big choral society Messiahs with hundreds of singers and historically-informed chamber choir recitals of the work are ancient history. What they have learned to do is give their own best performance of the oratorio, individually and collectively, in the most communicative way possible.

That is exactly what happened for the rapt audience in the capital from White’s gently-crooned “Comfort ye my people” onwards, Grant upping the ante with his sharply-enunciated shaking of all the nations, before Backhouse’s run of arias foretelling the birth of Christ, rich in her lower register with a delicious flourish at the end of Malachi’s “refiner’s fire”.

The narrative stepped up another notch with the shift to the Gospel texts and soprano Hewitson, who delivered the story as if she was announcing the good news for the very first time to an intimate circle of friends.

The flow of nice interpretative detail continued after the interval in Backhouse’s He Was Despised and the sequence of choruses from the same chapter of Isaiah. This choir demonstrates a dynamic range that is a rare skill among large amateur choruses, and MacMillan made full use of that.

Hewitson’s How beautiful are the feet was a little jewel amongst those choruses, and both she and Grant – on Why do the nations? and The trumpet shall sound – gave excellent accounts of the best known arias in Parts Two and Three.

With all the usual cuts to the full score, this was not an epic Messiah, and nor was it an especially “authentic” one, but it was a performance that everyone in the capacity house savoured from start to finish.

Keith Bruce

RSNO Messiah / McGegan

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Messiahs come in all shapes and sizes, from old-fashioned, heavily-populated Edwardian-style marathons that take forever and a day, to the meatless extremes of the ultra-purists who favour briskness and a cast-size that would just about fit into a lift. Thankfully the music is mostly indestructible.

With bouncy septuagenarian Baroque specialist Nicholas McGegan in charge of Monday’s traditional New Year performance by the RSNO, Handel’s evergreen oratorio came as a sleek, svelte and stylish package. What really mattered, though, were the alluring intimacies, theatrical subtleties, refreshing surprises and the quietly overwhelming unity he brought to a work that many of this sizeable audience could easily have sung along to.

Some did, like those around me unable to resist joining in the Hallelujah Chorus, clearly imagining a sound in their head far removed from the tuneless grunts that actually emerged. But maybe that’s what Classical Music is missing, that spontaneous urge to go at it Glastonbury-style if the urge takes you. Next we’ll be waving our phone lights to For behold, darkness shall cover the earth.

In truth, it merely reflected the personableness of McGegan’s vision, brought seamlessly to life by a nimble RSNO Chorus, the sprightly bite of a Baroque-sized RSNO, and a superbly matched solo quartet notwithstanding the unexpected presence of Peter Harvey as a last-minute replacement for the advertised bass-baritone Stephan Loges, who was ill.

The latter group were a star act. Tenor Jamie MacDougall set the scene with his opening Comfort ye and Every valley, his eyes fixed firmly on the audience rather than the score, immediately establishing a warm and vital connection. 

From hereon in, the narrative was foremost, whether issued through the gorgeous willowy countertenor of William Towers (magically enhanced by the delicate darting incision of the strings in For he is like a refiner’s fire), the seraphic purity of Mhairi Lawson’s soprano (thoughtfully changing her garb from angelic white in Part 1 to a more demure black in Parts II & III for such golden reflective moments as her I know that my redeemer liveth), or Peter Harvey’s triumphant The trumpet shall sound.

The chorus, trained by Stephen Doughty, echoed impressively that charisma, negotiating Handel’s contrapuntal trickery with effortless precision. And I did like McGegan’s mischievous quirks in getting them to stand up amusingly at key moments in the soloist’s texts – “The kings of the earth rise up,” for instance. 

They presented a neatly balanced front, beautifully blended, words clear as crystal, intently responsive to McGegan’s nuanced direction. As did the lithesome RSNO, pert and essential in its role, quietly supportive yet crucial and characterful at every turn. 

Perhaps the most satisfying outcome of this Messiah was the success with which McGegan’s limited forces managed to fill the vastness of this 2000-seater hall, not just with actual sound (there were, to be sure, odd moments where a greater explosion of sound might have been welcomed), but with an expressiveness that genuinely pierced the soul. Granted, there were one or two unsynchronised glitches in Part II, but only passing ones and never so much as to undermine the compelling spirit of this sprightly performance.

Ken Walton

St Mary’s Christmas Concert

St Cuthbert’s, Edinburgh

At the start of 2022, VoxCarnyx was a partner in the campaign by St Mary’s Music School to inform the wider public, particularly in Edinburgh, of plans to transform the historic Royal High School at Calton Hill into a new home for itself and a public concert venue.

As the year comes to a close, approval for the development is in place and work will begin on the site next year. It is likely to be 2026 before the school has relocated from its current home in the west end of the city, but there was nonetheless a real sense of celebration at the school’s year-end concert that the 50th anniversary of St Mary’s starting instrumental teaching in Edinburgh has been marked by such a decisive step forward.

The younger pupils who performed on Monday evening – and the Junior Strings included a trio of girls from P5 – will see and soundtrack that move. Here they opened the instrumental programme with Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, a work paralleled by the Handel of the older players in the Early Music Group, directed by the Dunedin Consort’s Hilary Michael and featuring some round-toned oboe from Alasdair Cottee.

A violinist in that group, India Reilly, would lead the senior orchestra in the concluding performance of Haydn’s Symphony No 56, while Sixth Form viola player Daisy Richards was the soloist and director of a nonet of strings for Hindemith’s Trauermusik. There was an admirable autonomy in that bold decision, but the lack of a steering hand from a conductor was audible in both cases. The inclusion of a pair of alto saxophones in the orchestra would have surprised the composer, but I’d suggest probably please him too.

The first half of the concert was bracketed with singing, from the St Mary’s Cathedral Choristers at the start and the school’s Senior and Junior Choirs at its end. Californian composer Frank Ticheli’s Earth Song was a highlight of the latter, while Manhattan-domiciled Norwegian Ola Gjeilo’s very traditional Sanctus showcased the pure tone of the young sopranos.

The premiere of the night was by school alumnus Simon David Smith, and the latest in St Mary’s Seven Hills Project. Working with a collection of poems written by Alexander McCall Smith, who read his “Corstorphine Hill” before the performance, the project celebrates the capital’s topography with seven composers commissioned to write music in response to the words.

Smith’s work had prominent roles for John Hall’s soprano saxophone, Daisy Richards and her viola in the pulpit and Carlo Massimo on St Cuthbert’s fine organ. Although its title, A Shared Mystery, came from the last line of McCall Smith’s poem, in fact the writer was musing on the hill’s supposed links with the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, while the composition seemed more interested in the process of creation, and the freedom its structure gave to the players.

Fascinating stuff, and possibly more than idly reflective of the long journey St Mary’s has embarked on during its 50th anniversary.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Manze

City Halls, Glasgow

Throughout the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s near half-century existence, one of the greatest joys has been the orchestra’s intimate connection with Mozart. It was present once again in this final 2022 programme, which featured the classy South Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 27 in B flat, and flashed up pleasurable memories of the complete Mozart concerto series performed with the same magnetic poise by pianist Mitsuko Uchida with the SCO way back in the 1980s.

Eum Son’s delivery had the same honesty and purity about it, lightning finger work precisely placed, an evenness of tone informing crystalline phrase, and a composure that allowed the music to express its intentions with natural elan. That conductor Andrew Manze – whose violin-playing days were once equally notable for their clean-cut Mozart – was of the same mind, brought a satisfying unity of purpose to the performance.

It was clear from the unending applause that Eum Son had no option but to deliver an encore, and boy did she oblige with the chattering brilliance of Moritz Moskowski’s Etincelles (Sparks) Op 36 No 6, like Scarlatti on steroids and offering a pyrotechnic glimpse of the pianist’s showier persona.

All this came immediately after the Concerto for String Orchestra by another amazing woman, Grazyna Bacewicz. As a pioneering female Polish composer in mid-20th-century male-dominated Europe, who had previously established herself as a celebrated violinist, it’s clear from this gutsy work (and others that have increasingly crept into concert programmes in recent years) that she was a voice to to be reckoned with.

Bullish, ultra-confident and instantly arresting, the opening movement was one unstoppable adrenalin rush, Manze drawing visceral heat from his eager, belligerent players. The wrestling complexity of the Allegro, a sizzling cauldron of thematic conflict, gave way to the more restful, rich-textured Andante, before the hi-octane finale, with its rhythmic twists and turns, produced a relentless, resolute dash to the finishing line. 

Manze completed his programme with music more often reserved for larger entities than the SCO, Dvorak’s Symphony No 7 – some may recall a BBC SSO performance a couple of weeks ago under Portuguese conductor Nuno Coelho. What transpired, though, was a refreshing reconsideration of its expressive potential. Where the string numbers were limited, the quality of sound was so alive and intense it captured details in the textural world of this heated symphony that are rarely heard.

As is standard with Manze, this was a programme brimming with refreshing thoughts, studiously intelligent on the one hand, passionately revealing on the other.

Ken Walton

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

BBC SSO / Volkov

City Halls, Glasgow

When the weather outside is frightful, the music can be delightful – and under the baton of Ilan Volkov it needs no garnish of tinsel and holly.

It was admirable how the BBC Scottish put some promotional muscle behind this typically bold programme from the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor, which he enthusiastically commended to music-lovers who don’t feel the need to tuck in to the usual seasonal fare at this time of year. The result was a good attendance, doubtless including some who savour the taste of Volkov’s Tectonics weekend at the same venue in May.

The audience’s reward was a brilliantly-crafted concert, both in its planning and the way the different works – all from the last century but spanning six decades – spoke to one another, and in its execution by the musicians.

The earliest work was Debussy’s Jeux, composed to a Diaghilev commission at the same time as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, but now as likely to be heard for a revival of the tennis court love triangle ballet as in the concert hall. It requires a vast orchestra (there were a few familiar faces from other Scottish outfits as well as freelances augmenting the SSO) and has a huge range of tonal colours. The perhaps predictable harps and flutes feature alongside an extended cor anglais solo and late interjections by the trombones.

What made all the details of the score leap out was the fact that Volkov had preceded it with the rarely-heard Xenakis work, Atrées. More by coincidence than design, the five movements of that piece, composed as the 1950s blossomed into the early 60s, utilised some similar instrumental techniques, picked out in detail by a very specific chamber octet, plus percussionists.

Long before the late Johann Johannsson’s career-making exploration of early IBM computing in Iceland, Xenakis was working with IBM France on music that explored probabilities and referenced mathematical thinking of three centuries previously. The result is a work that exploits the sonic range of each of the instruments as well as the orchestral possibilities of their combination, developing over its 15 minutes in a unique and compelling way. It demanded much of the players, but Volkov’s direction of them could not have been more lucid and precise.

Some of those sounds – especially the use of glissando and pizzicato – would be explored after the interval as well, when Bartok’s masterpiece Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste was prefaced by Ligeti’s Ramifications for strings, from the later 1960s.

Both works require mirroring symmetrical set-ups on stage, with the 12 stringed instruments in the Ligeti in two groups tuned a quarter-tone apart, a dissonance that is sometimes corrected by the fingering. Again it seems unlikely that Ligeti is specifically referencing the Bartok in any way, but Volkov had identified elements of shared language and common reluctance to settle for any conventional notions of harmony. Just as importantly, the exercise of listening to the Ligeti prepared audience ears to appreciate a stonking performance of the Bartok which was full of foreboding in its opening movement and gloriously expressive in its dancing finale.

It is hard to imagine anyone but Volkov delivering such an immaculately-structured programme, and ensuring that it was executed with such precision and finesse. Approaching two decades on from his arrival at Glasgow City Halls as a preciously young Chief Conductor, he still exacts the pinnacle of performance from the members of the BBC SSO.

Keith Bruce

RSNO / Chang

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

IT is not going too far to say that Han-Na Chang’s take on Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony will be one against which to judge other performances of this crucial work by Scotland’s national orchestra. Whether it remains a favourite may, however, be a matter of personal taste.

It was certainly highly individual and impossible to listen to without complete attention, and that in itself is remarkable for such a familiar war horse of the Western classical canon. The South Korean, who has become the toast of Trondheim in Norway, where she is Artistic Leader and Chief Conductor of the symphony orchestra and opera company, conducted from memory and created a performance of Beethoven’s Third that played by her own rules. There were period band elements in there – most obviously in Paul Philbert’s smaller timpani – and a light chamber music touch to the strings in the first movement, albeit with the heft of six double basses.

Where there was muscle from the low strings, Chang asked for a featherlight touch from the violins and the balance at the start of the second movement Funeral March was quite remarkable. Instead of being dense and doomy, there was so much space in the sound. Details of the score were sharp and clear because they seemed to be floating in the ether.

If that airiness was often unlike other Eroicas, so too was Chang’s pacing. After the two opening chords, there were none of the brisk tempi we are now accustomed to hearing in the composer’s early works. Even the Scherzo was taken at a quite deliberate pace, and the entrance of the horns was comparatively muted.

But it was the Finale that seemed especially bold, finding rhythmic echoes of the funeral march but also seeming quite remarkably quiet and very slow indeed. Whether that was actually the case is almost beside the point – it was an absolutely compelling listen.

Chang’s conducting style is a mix of big gestures and surprising immobility at times, but it is clear that she gets her intentions across, and misses none of the detail. A cello soloist before her conducting career, she also gave us an Elgar Cello Concerto that was refreshingly free of cliché.

That was clearly also the intention of Bruno Delepelaire, the French first cello with the Berlin Phil, who was the soloist here. Although he had told RSNO leader Maya Iwabuchi, in a pre-concert talk, that seeing the famous film of Jacqueline du Pre playing the work had made him want to learn the instrument, his approach was intense and precise and very much his own – and not at all demonstrative. Nothing was overplayed or overstated, as it often is, and another oft-heard work sounded all the fresher for it.

The same might be said of the concert opener, Rossini’s Overture to William Tell. Everyone knows it for the brass charge at the end, whether it is military cavalry or a Wild West posse that springs to mind, but Chang’s William Tell – again conducted without a score – will be remembered as much for the precision of the cello section in its opening bars.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Jessica Cowley

SCO / Whelan

City Halls, Glasgow

When the main man pulls out, you’re snookered. It was, of course, nobody’s fault that violinist Colin Scobie had to call off his solo appearance in last week’s SCO programme, but that’s not the main man being referred to. 

As a consequence of Scobie’s unfortunate withdrawal, the Violin Concerto No 3 by the hitherto unsung 19th century Edinburgh-based, Polish-Lithuanian emigre Felix Yaniewicz had to be pulled – a bit of a blow when the whole programme was designed around the composer’s symbolic and significant inclusion. 

The original intention was a selection of music representative of Yaniewicz’s time and influence as a key mover and shaker in post-Enlightenment Edinburgh, where he was organiser of the illustrious Edinburgh Musical Society concerts, and co-founder in 1815 of the short-lived Edinburgh Musical Festival, a notable precursor to the annual August jamboree the city enjoys today.

With the main orchestral works remaining in place, and the last-minute services of Irish mezzo soprano Tara Erraught secured to sing a single song by Yaniewicz contextualised alongside others by Tommaso Giordani, Mozart and JC Bach, much of that intention was maintained. We were reliving something of the presentational style and content that 19th century Edinburgh concert-goers would have experienced.

How that might have appealed to a Glasgow audience rather spoke for itself. There was a pitiful turnout, but those who did make the effort witnessed something that was daintily charming in parts, thrillingly virtuosic in others, though when it came to the A-list composers, true class proved its worth.

At the helm was former SCO principal bassoon, Peter Whelan, now making significant headway internationally as a conductor, especially in earlier repertoire. He made an immediate impression in the opening overture from Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, the incessant, chirping piccolo and Janissary-style percussion glittering like exotic musical bling. 

Erraught’s first set was initially disappointing, a rather hesitant and inconsistent Caro Mio Ben by Giordani followed by a more settled performance – for all the music itself is routinely crafted – of Yaniewicz’s Go Youth Belov’d. These are intimate songs, a quality Erraught strived hard to sustain, but she seemed infinitely more at ease in Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate. Its dazzling, extrovert acrobatics found Erraught in her natural, opulent comfort zone. 

Returning in the second half for Giordani’s Queen Mary’s Lamentation and JC Bach’s classy arrangement of the traditional Scots song, The Broom of Cowdenknowes, Erraught found something of the composure that had escaped her initial performances. The latter song, in particular, had a melting appeal that earned an emotive sigh from an appreciative audience.

Whelan, meantime, upped the temperature in a couple of orchestral curiosities of the time: the flamboyant Overture in C (essentially a miniature symphony) by Thomas Erskine, the 6th Earl of Kellie, a Fifer known as much for his drinking prowess as his carefree adoption of the musical principles of the Mannheim School, vividly demonstrated in this hearty performance; and Mozart’s modernising arrangement of Handel’s Overture to Alexander’s Feast, lovingly shaped by Whelan and the orchestra.

The concert ended with Haydn’s “Military” Symphony, its bullish eccentricities integrated tastefully within a bright, zestful, at times deliciously poetic interpretation. By which point, any lingering disappointment over the programme changes were resolutely dismissed.

Ken Walton

Su-a Lee / Dialogues

(Sky Child Records)

Fiddler, and founder of the Elias String Quarter, Donald Grant hits the nail squarely on the head in his contribution to the booklet with cellist Su-a Lee’s debut album: “The first time I met Su-a it felt like we’d been pals for years. Perhaps everyone feels the same way?”

That straightforward observation would undoubtedly be echoed by all the musicians who have contributed to the musical partnerships that are recorded here – only the final track (the Burns song Ae Fond Kiss) features the cellist on her own. But those 14 collaborators are just the tip of the iceberg. As a long-serving member of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, as a founder of the ground-breaking spin-off group Mr McFall’s Chamber, and in innumerable other contexts, she has been a supremely approachable and generous player, always happy to find time to speak to members of the audience. From South Korea, by way of New York, Su-a Lee has become a crucial part of the Scottish musical infrastructure.

This lockdown project sees her teaming up with a few of those she has worked with in the past – singers Karine Polwart and Julie Fowlis, fiddlers Duncan Chisholm and Pekka Kuusisto, pianists Donald Shaw and James Ross among them – on very carefully chosen repertoire, all quite immaculately recorded and presented as thoughtfully in a visually handsome package.

The three tracks described as “The SetUp” (followed by sections called “The Development” and “The Resolution”) make for a very strong opening, with Shaw’s Baroque Suite followed by duos with bandoneonist Carel Kraayenhof and cellist Natalie Haas. Which excursions are highlights after that will be entirely a matter of personal taste, but Su-a’s collaboration with her husband Hamish Napier is certainly a standout, and his Strathspey and Reel two of the loveliest melodies on the album.

If there is a reservation to be made about Dialogues, it is that the diversity of those opening tracks is not sustained over the whole album, which – not excepting Kuusisto’s contribution – is mainly folk and traditional music-flavoured. Very fine though all the conversations here are, those who have followed Su-a’s eclectic practice over the past three decades know that she is as fluent a player alongside those who work in the jazz and rock fields, and in contemporary classical and so-called “world” music.

Ultimately, then, this volume of Dialogues offers the listener a rich serving of one facet of the versatile Su-a Lee. It therefore makes an eloquent case for further volumes.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Coelho

City Halls, Glasgow

Last-minute changes of conductor have become a regular occurrence these days, so Thursday’s replacement of the indisposed Tabita Berglund by Portuguese conductor Nuno Coelho registered as little more than a minor, necessary alteration. Coelho, a diminutive figure with a massive presence, made only one change to the programme – Dvorak’s Othello Overture for the advertised opener, Johan Svendsen’s Zorahayda. Otherwise, the advertised works by Rachmaninov and Sibelius remained in place.

Few will have regretted either substitution, for not only did Coelho demonstrate an instant rapport with the orchestra, but this particular Dvorak overture – the last of three he composed in the 1890s – provided the perfect vehicle. 

It’s a work crammed with subtleties of colour and emotional extremes, in this instance breathtaking from start to finish. Coelho’s insistence on a succulent warmth from the strings made for a captivating opening, a gorgeous hymn-like scene-setter beyond which the musical characterisations raged between the wistful and tender to forthright and menacing. 

It certainly set the bar high for Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 and its chief protagonist, the now-knighted pianist Sir Stephen Hough. For two-thirds of the way it certainly didn’t disappoint. Hough played steady composure against surprise in the opening movement, a thoroughly comforting vision heightened by frequent pressing gestures that suddenly, like rocket boosts, upped the energy and fired the momentum. The slow movement was sublime, Coelho by then perfectly attuned to the pianist’s persuasive idiosyncrasies and moulding an alert and endearing response from the SSO.  

Things didn’t go so well in the finale, where Hough’s previous reliability gave way to moments of near panic as he seemed to wrestle with accuracy and tempo. Ever the professional, he pulled things together, with some mesmerising pianissimos that challenged the orchestra to follow suit, flashes of revelation where melodies and often underplayed countermelodies interacted mischievously, and a glorious finish that was, understandably, as defiant as it was resolute.

Coelho ended the programme with a wonderfully rugged, at times vividly rustic, performance of Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite, each of its four constituent tone poems ravishingly sculpted, from the opulent bravado of Lemminkäinen and the Maidens to the triumphant sunburst of Lemminkäinen’s Return. Yet again the SSO responded with rhythmic brilliance and expressive warmth to Coelho’s ever-meaningful precision. And once again, the SSO found itself totally inspired by a conductor it never expected in the first place.

Ken Walton 

Recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds

The Mahler Players / Leakey

Inverness Cathedral

It would be bold to attempt to predict where the ambitious Tomas Leakey might next lead his Highland chamber orchestra, The Mahler Players.

The conductor has already tackled about half of the symphonic repertoire of Gustav Mahler before moving on to Richard Wagner for the group’s first CD, an arrangement of the composer’s late sketches by Matthew King, entitled Richard Wagner in Venice: A Symphony, teamed with the Siegfried Idyll.

It was King, in partnership with Peter Longworth, who supplied the re-orchestration for this weekend’s concerts of Tristan und Isolde in Inverness and Strathpeffer, with a luxury line-up of vocal soloists.

Opening with the orchestral Prelude to Act 1, the performance included all of Act 2 and finished with the opening of Act 3 and the ravishing Liebestod. Of the voices out front, only Frederick Jones, singing Melot, was not a seasoned Wagnerian, with Peter Wedd as Tristan, Lee Bisset as Isolde, and the venerable Sir John Tomlinson as Konig Marke. Laura Margaret Smith, who was a late replacement as Brangane, came into the role with seasons of chorus work at Bayreuth under her belt alongside her adventurous experience of singing new work in Scotland.

Wedd and Bisset have mutual hinterland in the roles and it showed, although the fresher partnership of the opening scene with Brangane and Isolde had already revealed the depth of characterisation that enlivened this concert performance. These were beautifully measured performances, finding a fine balance with the instrumentalists in the cathedral acoustic.

Tomlinson has the finest entry line, though – the sceptical “Tatest du’s wirklich?” [“Have you indeed?”] directed at the untrustworthy Melot. The bass gave us a far from ruthless King Mark, his disappointment in the disloyalty of the others almost palpable, and the rich power of Tomlinson’s voice deployed only sparingly.

King and Longworth’s editing job preserved the emotional heart of the narrative as well as the musical heft of the score. There was no hiding place for these players, required to perform full-on for much of the near two hours of music. Leakey was across all the detail as conductor, and with some very fine individual performances, from the brass fanfare that starts Act 2 to its conclusion, he shaped the central section of the evening perfectly.

We should really have applauded the Act’s end, but, after a pause to tune, the cor anglais solo from the start of Act 3 and Bisset’s glorious partnership with the orchestra in the Liebestod completed the programme. There was no real reason to have expected more integration of that closing part with what preceded it, but that is how high Leakey and his band set the bar.

Keith Bruce

Picture: conductor Tomas Leakey

SCO / Egarr

SCO / Egarr

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

When the SCO Chorus last sang Handel’s Israel in Egypt in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall, under Dutch conductor Peter Dijkstra, it seemed to me that the work, with its six soloists, full brass and chamber organ, was too big for the venue. While it was a surprise to find that was six years ago to the week – the Covid-era prohibition on choral singing has confused recollection of concerts past – that impression was confirmed by Richard Egarr’s dynamic direction, from the harpsichord, of the oratorio in the Usher Hall on Thursday evening.

There are some odd things about Israel in Egypt, one of the composer’s earliest excursions into Bible story-telling for the concert platform. Even in an age when recreation of original performance scores has become the thing, Part 1 is still usually consigned to the dustbin of history and we hear Handel’s revised version of Parts 2 and 3 with his addition of some arias for the soloists.

Those six voices – a stellar line-up of sopranos Rowan Pierce and Mary Bevan, mezzo Helen Charlston, tenor James Gilchrist and basses Ashley Riches and Peter Harvey here – are still far from overworked. Handel chose texts from Exodus and Psalms to tell the story of God’s chosen people, and the chorus therefore has the most to sing.

The SCO choir, refreshed by a good number of younger voices, did a superb job across all its sections, without a weak link in voice pitch, and crisp and clear through the entire evening. Egarr treated all the musicians on the Usher Hall stage equally, and the ensemble sound the collective made was superb, quite startlingly so in the combination of singing and instrumental playing in the hailstones of the plagues in Part 2.

From Gilchrist and Charleston’s almost “Once upon a time” storytelling approach to the opening, this Israel in Egypt was a captivating yarn. In Part 3, after the interval, the other soloists took their brief slots in the spotlight with style, Bevan and Pierce combining beautifully in duet only to be ungallantly upstaged by Harvey and Riches with a belligerent, duelling “The Lord is a man of war” that provoked its own ripple of applause.

Not for the first time at Scottish Chamber Orchestra concert, the final credit has to go Richard Egarr for bringing all of the elements together into a wonderful coherence. He was alive to all the contrasts in the score, digging into the platform with his fist on “He smote all the first-born” before gently shepherding the chorus and lyrical reed players in the chorus that immediately follows, and leading a trio of string principals from the keyboard in the continuo.

Handel was still experimenting when he wrote Israel in Egypt, with the triumph of Messiah a few years off, but in this performance, with all its meticulous details and ensemble endeavour, it was very much more than a work-in-progress.

Keith Bruce

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