Tag Archives: BBC SSO

BBC SSO / Urioste / Poster

City Halls, Glasgow

There has been no point in the past century or two of musical history at which an orchestral concerto with more than one soloist was anything other than a poor career move for a composer, given the obvious extra requirement for performances. Precocious talent though he was, that difficulty may not have occurred to the 14-year-old Felix Mendelssohn when he wrote his Concerto for Violin and Piano in D Minor in 1823. First performed with his violin teacher and the young composer at the piano, it was unpublished in his lifetime and a definitive edition only appeared in the last year of the 20th century.

Nonetheless, it had its UK premiere in 1968, in a Glasgow studio concert by the BBC Scottish, which would have been a good reason for performing it this spring at the City Halls, although it was not the one here. Instead, the work, which requires virtuoso turns from the soloists, was the culmination of a programme created by life and musical partners Elena Urioste and Tom Poster, whose relationship began as members of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme.

More recently the couple have been one of the sensations of the “at home” online projects with their Lockdown Jukebox of varied repertoire. That imagination was very much in evidence here, in a 20th and 21st century sequence that preceded the Mendelssohn, beginning with a duet before works that teamed them individually with the SSO strings. Throughout there was a sense of chamber music intimacy that made the concert something of an extension of those broadcasts from home.

For mysterious reasons, between its recording on March 25 and its broadcast, the BBC had changed the title of the recital from Dreamscapes, the name of the work Urioste would play, to Spiegel im Spiegel, the more familiar Arvo Part composition that opened it. Poster claimed a hypnotic state was part of the method of playing the Part, but that can only be true if the concentration for its minimalist rising and falling measures is second nature.

The Gerald Finzi Eclogue for Piano and Strings that followed may be no stretch for a pianist of Poster’s ability, but its pastoral Englishness is the setting of many a dream idyll, with unmistakeable similarity to Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending.

Dreamscapes itself is a decade-old composition for violin and strings by Clarice Assad, daughter of Brazilian guitarist Sergio, that has its own echo of The Lark at the start. Urioste gave the New York premiere of the work three years ago to the day of this broadcast. After some rhythmically Latin scoring, the work becomes much more edgy about two thirds of the way through its 12 minutes. By some distance a less soothing dream, its turbulence resolves into a more gentle awakening, rather than being suggestive of nightmare.

Urioste and Poster were joined by orchestra leader Laura Samuel for a post-Mendelssohn encore composed by Donald Grant of the Elias Quartet in what was a beautifully-curated programme. A refreshing change from conductor-led thinking, and a relationship that the orchestra would do well to nurture.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Dvorak / MacMillan

City Halls, Glasgow

Sometimes the periphery of a programme outshines its intended core. There’s an element of that in this Radio 3 broadcast by the BBC SSO under Martyn Brabbins. For at its heart is a performance of Dvorak’s gloriously lyrical and substantial Cello Concerto featuring the highly popular Sheku Kanneh-Mason as soloist, the impact of which is lessened by moments of inconsistent tuning, particularly those high solo reaches towards the end of the opening movement.

That’s a pity, because otherwise there is much in Kanneh-Mason’s performance that shows sure signs of a maturing musical voice. Take the slow movement, where the young cellist colours Dvorak’s plangent lyricism with breathy sighs and yielding subtleties, dispelling the untypical shoddiness of the orchestral opening and finding a warmth and intensity that lingers into the finale. 

It’s an unusual version of the concerto, George Morton’s slimmed-down 2018 arrangement distilling Dvorak’s opulent scoring to chamber orchestra size, much of it to great effect. There’s less tension in the mightiest tuttis, the cello sings through without need to force, all of which contributes to a more easeful appreciation of the music. Brabbins grasps that opportunity, minor skirmishes aside, but the key concern remains those frantic periodic intonation lapses by Kanneh-Mason. 

Wrapped around this mighty concerto is a sublime opener from the pen of American composer Augusta Read Thomas, currently professor of composition at the University of Chicago, and an early seminal work from James MacMillan, Tryst, written for the1989 St Magnus Festival and premiered there by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Thomas’ Plea for Peace – a short ruminating work commissioned four years ago to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Chicago Pile-1, the world’s first controlled nuclear reactor – is both questioning and reassuring. In this alternative version, which replaces the original vocalised soprano solo with a sinuous interchanging of solo flute, oboe and trumpet against a sumptuous backdrop of stings, an austere Coplandesque simplicity prevails, magically so in this haunting, atmospheric performance.

It’s easy to forget the starting point for MacMillan, given the 30 or so years that have passed since such launchpad works as Tryst or The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, and the sheer prolificacy of his output ever since. Here, in Tryst, is a vivid reminder of the rawer 30-year-old, tangible conflicting influences exploding in abundance, yet the distinctiveness that was to become MacMillan’s maturer style piercing through the underlying turmoil.

So yes, there is jagged-edged Messiaen, factory-like Stravinsky (or are those incessant repetitive rhythms more Kenneth Leighton, MacMillan’s university teacher?), and becalming Brittenesque acquiescence; but there is also a driving, defining intent that knits such discordant elements into a powerfully argued entity.

The point is well-made in this gripping performance, which Brabbins steers with brutal excitability, hushed tranquility and consequential theatricality. A cathartic complement to the earlier Thomas.
Ken Walton

Available for 30 days on BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds

Tectonics online and on-air

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has announced that its annual weekend of new and experimental music, curated by principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov and events promoter Alasdair Campbell, will go ahead this year on May 8 and 9.

Only weeks after last year’s programme had been announced, the 2020 event was one of the early casualties of the pandemic, with an immediate promise that it would return in 2021.

While audiences will still be unable to fill the many spaces of Glasgow’s City Halls and Old Fruitmarket complex for what has become a hugely popular event, a full programme of pre-recorded online performances and late-night broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 is promised this year.

The orchestra has three broadcast concerts before then, two of them also available to view on the BBC iPlayer. The second of those is a 50th birthday concert by Steven Osborne, who is celebrating that same anniversary with a recital at London’s Wigmore Hall on Friday March 12. The Glasgow concert is on Thursday, April 22 and is conducted by Martyn Brabbins. In a programme of music by Copland and Shostakovich, Osborne plays the Russian’s Piano Concerto No.2, which was written a birthday present for the composer’s son, Maxim. It is bracketed by Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite and Quiet City, and the concert concludes with the suite Shostakovich made from his music for an avant-garde 1930s production of Hamlet.

Earlier in April, violin and piano duo Elena Urioste and Tom Poster, whose kaleidoscopic home music sessions were one of the online hits of lockdown, join the orchestra to co-direct a programme entitled “Dreamscapes”. The title work, for violin and chamber orchestra is by Brazilian composer Clarice Assad, and is based on the composer’s researches into Rapid Eye Movement sleep. It is preceded by Arvo Part’s atmospheric and haunting Spiegel im Spiegel and Gerard Finzi’s Eclogue for Piano and Strings, and followed by Mendelssohn’s D Minor Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Orchestra, 54 years after the orchestra broadcast the UK premiere of the work.

The SSO is also in action next week, again under Brabbins and again available to view on the BBC i-Player. Sheku Kanneh-Mason is the soloist for the Dvorak Cello Concerto, performed on Thursday March 11 in George Morton’s reduced orchestration. The concert begins with contemporary American composer Augusta Read Thomas’s Plea for Peace and concludes with Sir James MacMillan’s signature 1989 work, Tryst.

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

In these lean times, when orchestral forces are pared to spartan COVID-friendly levels, it says a lot of a conductor when he can glean such richness of string tone as Mark Wigglesworth did from the BBC SSO in this latest Radio 3 live broadcast.

And it came with a dash of style, particularly in the two Classical symphonies that bookended the programme: Haydn’s spirited Symphony No 1 (yes, he had to start somewhere); and Mozart’s Symphony No 40 (the second of his final three symphonies, not that he envisaged them as such).

The instant joie-de-vivre of the Haydn, a natural effusion of craftsmanship and ingenuity integrating prevalent Mannheim symphonic traits with newfound Austrian zest, produced a stimulating opener: nothing trenchant or intellectually taxing, just a no-nonsense, honest appreciation of the music’s charm and integrity. As with the later Mozart, there seemed a conscious limitation on string vibrato, which gave this performance a refreshingly raw, period countenance. 

If there’s anything Haydnesque about Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1, it’s the Soviet composer’s preoccupation with the cellular motif. Identified immediately by its brusque four-note monogram, Shostakovich powers his concerto with a single-minded insistence that borders on violence, which is why soloist Steven Isserlis refuses to play it on his Stradivarius. “For this, you need an instrument that doesn’t mind being hit,” he revealed in his pre-performance interview.

Despite the warning, Isserlis was careful not to go ballistic. Yes, there was forthright assertiveness and fiery detachment in his opening gambit, but this was not an exercise in basic extremes. Instead, there was a real sense of journey, the opening movement tempered with gnawing undertones, the Moderato equally cautious of overstatement, the cadenza shifting momentously from ruminative soliloquy to fiery springboard unleashing the rumbustious peasantry of the relentless finale. 

Fine horn playing, too, from SSO principal Alberto Menendez Escribano, and the lighter addition of a Kabalevsky dance (No 3 of 5 Studies for solo cello), played as an encore by Isserlis and dedicate to his friend, Berlin Philharmonic cellist Wolfgang Boettcher, who died last week.

Post interval, Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante defunte removed any lingering shockwaves from the Shostakovich, its wafting melodies and summer-scented harmonies, plus a sumptuous Ravel orchestration to die for, paving the way for the genius of Mozart.

This may have been 56-year-old Wigglesworth’s first time conducting the G minor symphony, but the clarity and cogency of his interpretation suggest the time was ripe. There was a meaty energy to this performance, essential in addressing the robust counterpoint of the finale, but never at the expense of capturing textural detail. It wasn’t the tightest playing of the evening, the occasional hint of rushed freneticism rocking an otherwise steady ship. But the overall encapsulation of Mozart’s heavier moods, especially that deliciously emotive chain of suspensions at the heart of the Andante, was enough to dispel any minor quibbles.
Ken Walton

Listen to this concert on BBC Sounds

BBC SSO / Samuel

City Halls, Glasgow

It is likely that there were few arts organisations whose immediate response to COVID-19 was to make a SWOT analysis to inform their planning, but it has nonetheless become commonplace to point out some benefits to be appreciated as a result of the restrictions made necessary by the pandemic.

With social distancing limiting the size of musical ensembles and travel prohibition making the scheduled appearances of guest soloists and conductors impossible, there has been a focus on the wealth of international and indigenous talent that is resident in Scotland. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra in particular has been able to let a wider audience see its players in many different chamber music combinations.

This programme from the BBC Scottish was in some respect much more like a programme that the SCO might have undertaken pre-pandemic, with a previous or current leader of the orchestra directing from the violin. But it is also true that even the much larger RSNO has ventured down that road recently, tackling Beethoven symphonies without a conductor and emerging with credit from the exercise.

Battling through the health emergency to meet its commitments, with changes of conductors and soloists, this was perhaps the first time the SSO used the situation to highlight the talent it has within its ranks, and what a buoyant uplifting experience it was.

It is not as if we did not know how good the orchestra’s wind principals are. Stella McCracken (oboe), Yann Ghiro (clarinet), Julian Roberts (bassoon) and even newer member Alberto Menendez Escribano (horn) have all been in the ranks for some years, distinguishing concerts with their soloing.

That quartet had the spotlight for Mozart’s other Paris Sinfonia Concertante, from the year before the one for violin and viola that he probably played himself. Although designated a Kochel catalogue number, it is still not entirely accepted as being by him, in the absence of an autographed score.

If someone else did write it, they have surely been denied credit for a lovely piece of work, which gives all four of the wind instruments a platform, and the interweaving lines of the SSO players were beautifully captured in this broadcast.

At the heart of many an SSO concert, however, is its distinctive string sound, and with leader Laura Samuel directing from the concert-master’s seat, this programme was really a celebration of that strength. If the Mozart is not strongest in that department – in some respects the root of doubts about the score’s authenticity – it was bracketed by Czech works that more than compensated.

Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings was hugely important for the composer, an early triumph on his rocky road to a professional career, and there is ebullience in every bar. That was what came across in this performance, liberated from any directorial interpretation that may have come from the podium. The tempo was not too strict to allow the music to flow naturally, with some lovely languid moments in the rich string sound.

The concert began with a briefer, less familiar, but also beautifully scored piece by Dvorak’s son-in-law Josef Suk, Meditation on an old Czech hymn “St Wenceslas”. Originally written for the Bohemian String Quartet, of which Suk was a member, it was a riposte to the occupying Austrians’ requirement that their national anthem be played at all concerts. Its political message may be obscured by distance and time, but the powerful community feeling it expresses was transmitted to an audience starved of the communal enjoyment of live music by the eloquence of the SSO strings.
Keith Bruce

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

BBC SSO / Cottis

City Halls, Glasgow

Someone at the BBC SSO has taken action against the fiasco that was its recent livestream broadcast. Thursday evening’s concert under conductor Jessica Cottis was as much a feast for the eyes as the ears. Far greater creative thought went into marrying camera angles with sound cues implicit in a musical journey that stretched from hard core American minimalism to the traditional heartland of the German Romantic symphony.

Cottis was on the podium by default, due to Israel-based Ilan Volkov’s inability to travel. But she made it entirely her own show, exerting a relaxed and confident hold over an orchestra she knows well from her time as assistant to its previous principal conductor, Sir Donald Runnicles. 

And she brought a touch of theatre to the opening minutes, facing the rear of the City Halls where the distant brass and percussion, spread over a balcony normally inhabited by audience, struck up Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No 1 (the now 82-year-old Grammy-winning American composer wrote six of them), a quirky gender response to Aaron Copland’s more familiar Fanfare for the Common Man.

The main equivalence to Copland is the common thunderous drum opening, beyond which Tower veers off on a far less earthbound course. The textures dance, the climax is a whirlwind as ecstatic as (indeed reminiscent of) Janacek’s Sinfonietta, and the glockenspiel serves as a glittery addition of orchestral bling. This performance may have had its reticent moments, but ultimately it swelled big time and served its theatrical purpose.

Back on the main stage, the SSO strings engaged in John Adams’ Shaker Loops, which did invite the troubling question: is such raw, repetitive minimalism really what’s needed when the last thing we wish to be reminded of is the monotony of lockdown life? And this piece in particular, its persistently manic tremolando effects inspired by the frenzied rituals of the American Shaker sects, has an inbuilt tendency to set the nerves jangling. Which it did rather well. 

Yet Adams’ oscillating sound sculpture, while it starts like a rave in a beehive, is not all concentrated superheat. Yes, Cottis sourced the necessary electricity that drives the outermost movements, sometimes with pulverising persistence, always with trance-inducing focus. But she also embraced the rich mystical qualities of the second movement – Hymning Slews – its whistling harmonics, slithering motifs and altogether spookier soundscape representing a welcome respite.

In Schumann’s Second Symphony – a work remarkably positive and buoyant given the composer’s prevailing state of mind – the real thrill was to hear something approaching the full symphonic sound we’ve been missing since March. Cottis exercised a firm hand but with ample lightness of foot, so that the music’s essential solidity, while firmly rooted and warmly expressive in the weeping slow movement, had levity and sparkle conveyed through the SSO’s lithe, crisp playing, its clean textures and alert tempi.
www.bbc.co.uk/bbcsso
Ken Walton

Image: Jessica Cottis credit Kaupo Kikkas

BBC SSO / Brabbins

City Halls, Glasgow 

As Martyn Brabbins rightly observed during his interval thoughts on Benjamin Britten’s last opera Death in Venice, there is a disturbing undercurrent that haunts its pungent score. We weren’t about to hear the whole opera, but rather a masterfully crafted concert suite, prepared eight years after Britten’s death by the conductor and Britten collaborator Steuart Bedford.

It was the final piece in a brooding all-Britten programme broadcast live on Radio 3 by the BBC SSO, the common factor throughout being that anxious underswell described by Brabbins, whether in the sombre strains of Russian Funeral, the searing mystical delights of the song cycle Nocturne, the ghostly references of John Dowland cutting through the ruminative Lachrymae for viola and string orchestra, or the constant reminders within the Death in Venice score of the opera’s hovering fear – rumours of a cholera pandemic. How topical!

Russian Funeral, scored for brass only, is understandably powerful and morose, written in the run up to the Second World War when Britten’s anti-war sensibilities were fully wakening. But it’s not just about his pacifist ideals. Structured around a Russian proletarian song, it’s a paean to the victims of the 1905 Winter Palace insurrection, its lugubrious but hot-blooded sentiment roundly embraced by the SSO brass, underpinned by the menace of militaristic drums.

Britten’s final song cycle, Nocturne, took us to a dreamier world. These settings of Shelley, Tennyson, Owen, Keats and Shakespeare, among others, explore rich and varied images of sleep and darkness, from the hypnotic density of Shelley’s On a Poet’s Lips I Slept, the catchy “ting, ting, ting” of Middleton’s Midnight Bell, to the powerful contradictions in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43.

Tenor Mark Padmore’s performance hit the magic button, in one sense capturing that piercing objectivity we so associate with the work’s original exponent Peter Pears, but in another sense finding a range of expression fluid enough to amplify the music’s shifting moods and dramatic surprises. 

He owed much, of course, to the supporting piquant flavourings of the SSO ensemble, notably the thrill of the duetting flute and clarinet in Keats’ Sleep and Poetry, the entrancing harp in Coleridge’s Encintured with a Twine of Leaves, and that gorgeous blanket of strings throughout – a defining, unifying presence.

Where Nocturne looks to English poetry, Lachrymae for solo viola and strings (Britten’s 1976 orchestration) turns to old English song for its inspiration. Almost like a reverse set of variations, John Dowland’s theme, on which it is based, emerges in full at the end rather than the beginning. It’s a transformative moment, and one that seemed especially profound as the inevitable resolution to a captivating solo performance by SSO principal viola Scott Dickinson. The subtle references to Dowland previously were like phantom apparitions, the full string complement equal in capturing such magical moments.

All of which found the perfect destination in the Death in Venice Suite. Bedford’s slick continuous distillation maintains the opera’s narrative flow, but equally it allows us to appreciate the score on its own merit. Yes, the gnawing nuances that reflect the ageing writer Aschenbach’s obsession with the boy Tadzio are intrinsic to Britten’s expressive language, and are hard to discard if you know the opera. Yet this steely, sinewy, often sublime performance illustrated, too, the composer’s own emotional struggles. Disturbing yes, but wonderfully enriching.
Ken Walton

Image: Martyn Brabbins ©Ben Ealovega

BBC SSO/Collon

City Halls, Glasgow

THE space and acoustic of Glasgow’s City Hall was another crucial player, alongside the members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and conductor Nicholas Collon, in the performance that opened Thursday afternoon’s radio concert.

Grazyna Bacewicz’s Music for Strings, Trumpets, and Percussion is something of a classic of 20th century Polish music, dating from a time in 1958 when the Soviet hold on creativity there was loosening its grip. Bacewicz and her better-known contemporary Witold Lutoslawski were able to have some more progressive music performed, and Lutoslawski’s Funeral Music for strings is of the same year. It is explicitly dedicated to Bela Bartok and the similarity of Bacewicz’s title to Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste suggests the Hungarian composer was at least on her mind.

Perhaps she is less well-known in the West because, although prolific, she did not forge onwards as Lutoslawski did, but this 20 minute work deserves to he heard more often, and as sonorously as it could be appreciated here. Preceding Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, it was possible to hear some pastoral moments, but much more nature red in tooth and claw, and really this is abstract music, concerned with the tonalities of the instruments involved.

While there was some militaristic brass, the five trumpets also showed flashes of being a big band section, especially when muted towards the eerie ending of the second, central movement. It is chiefly the eloquent writing for the low strings that really distinguishes the score, however, and the SSO players provided real richness of tone.

Collon’s account of Beethoven’s Pastoral also boasted a lovely clarity of sound, immediately appreciable in the entry of the winds in the first movement, and in some surprisingly staccato propulsive cellos. Although there is a wealth of melody in the whole work, Beethoven stretches the material in the second movement a long way, and the conductor’s relaxed pace seemed to draw attention to that until the very pronounced birdcalls at its end.

The storm that follows was all the more dramatic as a result, but the whole arc of the piece seemed a little askew, as was something in the orchestral intonation at the start of the finale, in a performance that never sounded entirely sure of its shape.
Keith Bruce

BBC SSO/Elder

City Halls, Glasgow

At a time when we’re all depending on digital expertise to beam music performance into our homes, you’d expect the BBC to lead the way. But what we got on Thursday evening from this live streaming of the BBC SSO under Sir Mark Elder was anything but a technical showcase.

Initial production was shambolic. We experienced the opening countdown and snatches of pre-performance “off air” conversation by the technical team and presenter; an explosive vocal interjection mid-Bach Brandenburg Concerto No 1; and a pre-recorded conversation with conductor Sir Mark Elder that went missing, the lengthy gap filled only momentarily with a brief apology. The faults were still there Friday morning.

All of which seemed to cast a nervous shadow over a Bach performance that took time to settle, but even when it did – most convincingly in the delicate interplay of the slow movement, the sparkling horn insubordination that is the work’s distinctive signature, and the woodwind finesse that coloured so many concertante moments – never really established sustained confidence in its style and delivery. 

Fortunes changed instantly with the shift to Stravinsky’s abstract ballet score, Danses concertantes, a tangible sense of composure now providing the bedrock for a performance that captured the energising tension implicit in Stravinsky’s neoclassical writing, where rhythmic constraint and glittering artifice collide with incendiary results.

There was a stored intensity in Elder’s gestures that sent all the right signals to the players, just enough instruction to inspire a taut, alert ensemble, but which crucially handed ultimate responsibility to them to deliver the quality goods. The outcome was tart, snappy, often burlesque, laced with melodious tenderness at all the right moments.

Franz Schreker’s Chamber Symphony provided a substantial finale to the programme, transporting us to a very different 20th century world: that of a composer steeped in the Zeitgeist of fin-de-siecle Vienna, and a musical style in tune with the hot-scented modernism of Berg and hangover of opulent Strauss and rustic Mahler.

Elder’s fondness for this 1916 work surfaced from the word go, its faint opening allusions to Impressionism instantly cast aside as the restless narrative took hold. What unfolded was a performance rich in expressive yearning, from angst to frivolity, from shimmers of spectral luminescence to heightened surges that tugged mercilessly at the heart strings. 

What’s more, as a ravishing example of its time, memories of the concert’s earlier transmission problems were almost forgotten.
Ken Walton 

Thoughts of an Elder Statesman

Ken Walton interviews conductor SIR MARK ELDER who returns to the BBC SSO for the first time in 25 years 

Let’s look on the bright side. While the visceral, spine-chilling sensation of the symphony orchestra at its fullest fortissimo is becoming something of a distant memory, the same COVID restrictions that permit only limited player numbers to perform together has created a perfect outlet for forgotten, reduced-scale repertoire.

When, for instance, was Franz Schreker’s Chamber Symphony last performed in Scotland? I can’t answer that. But the fact it is scored for 23 solo instruments makes it the perfect vehicle for a cutdown BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra whose live online performance next Thursday (22 October) will feature a conducting figure whose Scottish appearances in recent years have also been few and far between.

He is Sir Mark Elder, currently working wonders as music director of Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra – most recently in a highly-rated Vaughan Williams’ album on the Hallé’s own label, reviewed elsewhere on VoxCarnyx – which is one of the reasons he hasn’t been north of the border much lately. 

He last conducted the SSO in 1995, filling in for the late Sir Alexander Gibson who had just died. Since then, fleeting visits have mainly been for Edinburgh International Festival appearances with the Hallé.
“As you know, I’ve been in Manchester for 20 years where we had an undertaking that I wouldn’t conduct any other orchestra outside London, so that my profile was focused on the Hallé,” he explains. “I was happy to agree that at the time, but now I’m freer to take up opportunities like this. So it will be wonderful to come back and work with the SSO again, though it’s unlikely it will be with all the same faces I knew 25 years ago.” There will, I assure him, be a few.

The entire programme, Elder believes, will be “a new experience for everybody listening and almost everybody playing it.” Besides the Schreker, a gorgeously sinuous example of post Romanticism, the concert includes Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 1 and Stravinsky’s abstract neo-classical ballet score Danses concertantes. 

The choice of Schreker was all Elder’s. “It’s a piece I’ve known for years and done quite a few times in different countries. I think it’s a masterpiece, but it takes time to get into his idiom. There’s a richness in the harmony which is different from [Richard] Strauss. It feels to me like somewhere between Strauss and Berg, on the fringes of atonal music, and yet there are noticeable key centres.”

Written during World War 1 for the Vienna Music Academy, where Schreker was teaching, its restless spirit echoes the prevailing zeitgeist of fin-de-siecle Vienna, a musical world epitomised by the soul-searching radicalism of Berg and Schoenberg, and within which Schreker was popular and well-respected. His reputation waned later under Nazi oppression.

“There’s a sense of peace at the end of the Chamber Symphony,” Elder notes. “But it’s not wholly calm. There’s some unsettled quality which was perhaps there in all his music. I think it’s very inspired, hard to play, but very, very beautiful.”

Hard to play? With orchestras forced into rediscovering such rarefied repertoire, might it be perverse to suggest that COVID could actually present them with positive creative opportunities?  

“I think the repertoire we’ve being forced to go towards is full of great chances,” Elder says. “But we have to divide things up between the members of the orchestra so that every time you do, say, the Schubert Octet it’s not always with your first string players. Everyone needs to benefit from it, to feel a part it.” 

He’d happily do Tchaikovsky’s or Dvorak’s serenades for masses of strings. “I think they sound very good that way. You can then balance that with something like Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments or his Symphonies of Wind Instruments so the strings get a rest. I loved the idea my friend Ed Gardner had in London the other day of combining Messiaen’s Et expect resurrectionem mortuorum [for wind orchestra] and Schoenberg’s Varklarte Nacht [for strings] with the LPO. I think that’s exactly the mixture one could do to make sure everyone gets a go.” 

For Elder, now 73, the past seven months have been a time for rich reflection. Without the constant travelling that is a conductor’s typical way of life, he’s been able to enjoy time with his family, including a baby grandchild “who’s a bundle of energy”. Spending springtime in his London home for the first time in his married life was, he says, a precious experience.

“I live at the top of Highgate Hill near Hampstead Heath and I know this area now inside out because I’ve been on so many walks. And to see the spring come to our garden was a real thrill that helped me to think forward, to spend time studying music I’ve never had time to.”

“I’ve really got into Bruckner,” he reveals. “Now I can’t wait to conduct the Eighth Symphony. It’s the most wonderful piece, however unfashionable everybody may say it is. Particularly the marketing people!”
He accepts that won’t be happening any time soon. In Manchester with his Hallé Orchestra, it’s clear the road back to symphonic blockbusters will be slow. The orchestra has been furloughed since lockdown, but the musicians will come off that at the end of this month. “They’ve been very frustrated and hemmed in by this, but we’re now planning a series of streamed concerts in the Bridgewater Hall, which is going to open for us, and that’s terribly exciting,” Elder explains.

“The first consideration in the middle of COVID, however, is persuading the public to have the courage to come back into concert halls.” But the future, he says, lies also in greater flexibility and he’d like to see the Hallé get out of central Manchester more often. “It’s important we seek out unexpected venues in the wider community, to go out and embrace new audiences and show them we have something they could enjoy, especially when they might have a fear of coming to places like the Bridgewater”.

The one thing Elder has avoided over recent months is “crying over spilt milk”. “I’ve concentrated on looking forward to the future as much as you can, in the belief that we’ll all get back to doing some wonderful concerts.” There’s positive thinking.

View Sir Mark Elder conducting the BBC SSO online from Thu 22 Oct, 7.30pm, at bbc.co.uk/bbcsso

BBC SSO/Farnes/Urioste

City Halls, Glasgow 

The novelty has assuredly now worn off, and there was a profound sense of loss in listening to conductor Richard Farnes produce a wonderful sound from the BBC Scottish for what was a delicious programme of music. Radio 3 is a wonderful asset, but this was a concert that it would have been a real delight to have witnessed first hand. 

Instead it happened that that soloist Elena Urioste’s beautifully expressive account of the moving slow movement of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto unfolded to the soundless images of John Ford’s The Searchers on my television, and specifically the discovery of the carnage at the homestead that sends John Wayne off in dogged pursuit. 

I’ll remember this performance for more than that, however. It began with a masterclass in balance between the violin and the orchestra, with firmness of purpose from the conductor and relaxed command of the work by Urioste. A former student of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where Barber himself studied, the piece is clearly in her blood. When it came to the fireworks and drama of the Finale, the main regret, of course, was in not being able to see her dispatch it with such flourish. 

There was plenty drama in the concert opener as well, although Farnes took a very deliberate pace through the movements of the suite Sibelius made of his music for a theatrical production of Pelleas et Melisande. Surely it was not the lack of bodies in the City Hall that made the music sound so spacious in this conductor’s hands; his respect for the suite’s structure made the very most of the picturesque narrative. 

Farnes describes Franz Berwald as “a Swedish Mendelssohn”, and his Symphony No. 3 in C, sub-titled “Singuliere”, written in 1845, must surely have had something of a retro flavour when it was eventually premiered in Stockholm in 1905, 37 years after his death and in the same year as the Sibelius suite was first performed. It has found more favour in the last half century, however, with Neeme Jarvi, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Roy Goodman and Thomas Dausgaard all making recordings of it. 

The three movements seem to begin in an earlier era than the time of composition, and the arc of this reading made a compelling argument for a composer whose major works had a troubled history in his lifetime, and are still heard only occasionally in the UK today. 
Keith Bruce 

Image: Elena Urioste ©Alessandra Tinozzi