Tag Archives: BBC SSO

BBC SSO / Paterson

City Halls, Glasgow

Whether or not it was directly applicable in this case, the BBC SSO made a wise link with the conducting course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in the era of Sir Donald Runnicles. A knowledge of young talent able to jump in for a last minute absentee chief conductor is clearly an advantage in these uncertain times.

An alumnus of the RCS in the days when it was still “The Academy”, Geoffrey Paterson last appeared with the SSO for a Hear and Now concert of contemporary music in 2018. It seemed likely, therefore, that he had been chosen because of the world premiere of Erika Fox’s piano concerto, David spielt vor Saul, performed by its dedicatee, Julian Jacobson.

That was only the half of it, however. It transpired that Paterson had the main work of the evening, the Third Symphony of Carl Nielsen – and the first of a projected cycle of Nielsen symphonies planned by Thomas Dausgaard – off by heart. Conducting the piece without a score, Paterson was in precise control of the dynamics of the work as surely as if his hand was on a volume dial as well as clearly having a picture of the entire work, in all its colourful variety, in his head from start to finish.

It was a superb performance of the symphony – and gives Dausgaard, should he return to Scotland in March to conduct the Sixth Symphony as the orchestra management still expects, a tough act to follow. The orchestra was on stellar form for Paterson, from the crisp, sharp strings of the opening through to the anthemic finale with its complex, interweaving rhythms and high profile roles for timpanist, trombones and tuba, and five horns.

With vocal soloists Benjamin Appl and Elizabeth Watts side stage and barely visible from my prime seat, their slow movement contributions were a nicely understated contribution to the overall acoustic balance in an account that was every bit as “expansive” as the work’s title promises.

That description could also be applied to Fox’s concerto however, in which the orchestra has just as large a role as the soloist. Some 30 years in the writing, and taking its title from a Rilke poem, it is a big, bold, modernist piece demanding a huge variety of stylistic variation from the pianist. With brass and winds split across the stage and a particular layout of the string sections, it also keeps two percussionists busy, moving to tuned instruments in the second, softer-edged, more querulous section.

Although it ends without the piano, there was a deserved ovation for Jacobson, whose patience has been well rewarded, as well as for the composer, who modestly took her bow from her seat in the hall.

Paterson used Fox’s prescribed string layout for the opening work, Bartok’s Divertimento, as well. With the musicians once again each having their own music stand, there was no loss of ensemble and real muscle in this performance from the off, the 50 players including a few top “extras” from outside the SSO payroll. The shifts in focus between the front desk quartet and the full string orchestra were expertly handled by Paterson, with leader Laura Samuel contributing fine folk fiddle to the finale.

Currently the only show in town for orchestral music fans, and with that overdue commission as part of a high colourful programme, there was an element of “fulfilling obligations” running as a thread through a concert that was altogether more exciting than that makes it sound. The current chief conductor of the BBC Scottish should, nonetheless, take note.

Keith Bruce

Dausgaard Cancels Glasgow and Seattle

Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard has announced he is to resign with immediate effect from the Seattle Symphony Orchestra midway through his third season as music director. 

The news emerged last Friday, the same day that the BBC SSO, where he is also principal conductor, released a statement saying Dausgaard would not be travelling to Scotland this week to conduct the first in a planned series of concerts featuring Nielsen’s six symphonies.

Dausgaard has not been seen with the BBC SSO since the start of the pandemic, the first major casualty of which was his highly-anticipated Beethoven Festival in May/June 2020. He recently returned to Seattle briefly after a 20-month absence, only to issue his shock decision to quit there.

Dausgaard, whose Seattle contract began in 2019 and was due to run until the 2022-23 season, cited the pandemic as the underlying reason for his premature departure. “My decision to step back at this time when we have achieved such collective artistic success is the result of these pandemic times, where the question for all of us is central: how do we value our lives,” he said.

The same fears were expressed in the statement issued by the BBC SSO. “Unfortunately it is clear the world in 2022 is not yet as stable as we might have hoped, and with the continuing health risks and responsibilities we must all face, travelling at this moment in the pandemic is sadly not an option for me,” he explained. “It is therefore with enormous regret that I have decided that I cannot join you in Scotland at this time.”

An article on the Seattle Symphony Orchestra website also points to undisclosed “personal turmoil” playing a part in Dausgaard’s extended self-confinement in Denmark during the pandemic.

The announcement will come as a blow to the BBC SSO for whom Dausgaard’s Nielsen series was effectively his swan song before leaving his Glasgow-based post this summer. The English conductor Geoffrey Paterson will step in to conduct this Thursday’s programme, which remains unchanged with the world premiere of Erica Fox’s new BBC commission David Spielt vor Saul (with pianist Julian Jacobson), Bartok’s Divertimento and Nielsen’s Third Symphony. 

Due to the new Covid restrictions over Christmas, the BBC SSO had suspended ticket sales for Thursday’s concert at Glasgow City Halls. It has now confirmed that the concert will go ahead and ticket holders will be notified.

Meanwhile, the SSO’s search for a successor to Dausgaard is under way.

BBC SSO / brabbins

City Halls, Glasgow

Vasily Kallinikov’s symphonies are not entirely unknown in Scotland. Neeme Järvi recorded them with the RSNO in the late 1990s. Even so, last week’s performance of the First Symphony by the BBC SSO under Martyn Brabbins will have been a discovery moment for most of Thursday’s audience.

Kallinikov lived a life as short as Mozart’s, dying in 1901 aged 35. He was admired by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, hardly surprising when his expressive language is textbook Russian Romanticism, laced with personal fingerprints that define its originality. The most remarkable example, highlighted in this hot-blooded performance, proved to be the opening and close of the second movement, a bold unswerving tick-tock ostinato from the harp, coloured by impressionistic drones that descend progressively through the orchestra.

Brabbins played it straight with the entire symphony, embracing the rich thematic tapestry of the opening Allegro, the lyrical expansiveness of the Andante (featuring a gorgeously prominent cor anglais solo), the ebullience of the Scherzo, and the recapitulative resolve of the finale, within a wholesomely cohesive whole. 

It followed a more familiar Russian warhorse, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1. But this Tchaikovsky was far from routine, pianist Pavel Kolesnikov applying fresh interpretational brushstrokes in liberal doses. His opening gambit was an early indication, the usually crashing chords delivered instead with disarming delicacy and shapeliness, an approach in tune apparently with Tchaikovsky’s own equivocations on the manner of their delivery.

From hereon in, it was Kolesnikov’s freely-expressive gestures that defined the sensuous unpredictability of the performance. Brabbins and the SSO were up for it, too, reacting assiduously to the playful flexibility of his opening movement, the elegiac suppleness of the slow movement and the resolute inevitably of the finale.

Kolesnikov satisfied unending applause with the delicate simplicity of a Chopin encore. It was truly exquisite.

Ken Walton

Pictured: Pavel Kolesnikov

BBC SSO / Chauhan

City Halls, Glasgow 

Does the BBC SSO have its eye on Alpesh Chauhan as a possible successor to Thomas Dausgaard as principal conductor, whose contract ends next year? He’s certainly an interesting prospect – young, determined and confident – though Thursday’s appearance with the SSO revealed once again that, while he ignites a spark in certain areas of repertoire, his mastery of such core Romantic repertory as Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6, the “Pathétique”, is still work in progress.

Chauhan opened this live broadcast programme with Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No 2, a work completed by the composer three decades after leaving it unfinished, which consequently bears the post-Romantic excess of his pre-dodecaphonic music but with the ultra-clean textural discipline of his maturer style. A reduced SSO ensemble made the most of the challenge, producing a gritty, precise and virtuosic performance.

But it was the calculated insistence on Chauhan’s part that characterised it. The initial journey from soft teasing woodwind phrases to the seething tumult of the first big climax was as much a result of pumped adrenalin as clear thinking. And where the first movement wrestled with its dense emotional heat, the second – initially an assertive, jaunty Con fuoco – pinned its outgoing exhilaration on a combination of Schoenberg’s stabilising old-style rhythmic regularity and the elusiveness of its post-Romantic language.

This was the big hit of the evening, with mezzo soprano Karen Cargill’s pre-interval encore of Richard Strauss’s idyllic Morgen well up there with it. The latter followed Cargill’s official contribution to the programme, Erich Korngold’s achingly beautiful Absecheidslieder (Songs of Farewell), which suited the characteristically molten, earthy quality of her lower voice. 

In the opening song the mood was one of reflective seduction; the powerful Wagnerian in Cargill coloured the ensuing Dies eine kann mein Sehen with a thrilling euphoric glow; the more mystical Mond, so gest du wieder auf, with its otherworldliness and ethereal religiosity, gave way to the deeply personal Gefasster Abschied, sumptuously Straussian in mood and manner.

It was hard at times to catch all of Cargill’s performance above the wholesome orchestration, and the higher reaches of her voice seemed a little less comfortable than usual, but there was no escaping the emotive connection she has with this music, and with the exquisite Morgen that followed, featuring also the poised, poignantly understated solo violin of SSO associate leader Kanako Ita. It was just a shame that no-one saw fit to give her the curtain call she so thoroughly deserved.

Chauhan’s Tchaikovsky was a curious combination of fluid efficiency and heavy-duty indulgence. The latter turned the opening movement into a journey plagued by too many wrong turnings – agonising extremes of tempi, especially the slow ones, that jarred with the overall flow and which effected audible signs of insecurity at key attack points. When he let the music express itself in the central movements, however, things made much more sense. From that, the finale emerged with convincing gravitas, albeit susceptible – as in several previous instances – to a brass section given too free a rein at the expense of the modest string forces. 

Ken Walton

Available to stream or download for 30 days.

BBC SSO / Ackham

City Halls, Glasgow

All things German seemed to align in this substantial BBC SSO programme, from the repertoire itself to the efficient presence of David Ackham on the podium and violinist Tobias Feldmann replacing the advertised soloist, Viktoria Eberle, who had to withdraw due to Covid-related issues.

As it happened, Feldmann’s appearance turned out to be the surprise of the show, a performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto that not only defied expectations though its adoption of Wolfgang Schneiderhan’s fascinating cadenzas, but by virtue of Feldmann’s soulful and effortless virtuosity. There was a sheen to his playing, bright and fulfilling, that presented this Beethoven warhorse as a vital living organism rather than a museum piece.

The cadenzas helped in refreshing our own thoughts. Beethoven never created any himself for this piece, other than through the piano concerto version he made, the so-called “Sixth Piano Concerto”. And it’s from that source that Schneiderhan – a celebrated Austrian violinist who died some 20 years ago – sculpted these 20th century ones. They are grittier than the more familiar ones, and more challenging in the harmonic directions they pursue, and in the way the timpanist accompanies the soloist in that of the first movement. Spot the motivic link here with the concerto’s opening bars.

Ackham established a cool-headed insistence from the SSO right at the start, out of which the effusive sweetness of Feldmann’s solo line emerged with character and vividness. The interplay was magical, one or two momentary lapses in focus aside, with Beethoven’s concerto freshened up in the process.

Beethoven featured again in the second half, though not directly. Unsuk Chin’s Subito con forza, written last year for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, is wonderfully crackpot. The South Korean – Chin lives in Germany – has based her music on stimuli from Beethoven’s Conversation Books, which the composer used to communicate his thoughts as his hearing declined. Her response is impulsive, music that is fitful, often aphoristic. This wasn’t the most incendiary performance, but its contrast to the ensuing Schumann symphony was effective.

Not so effective was Ackham’s gauging of tonal balance in Schumann’s Symphony No 3 “Rhenish”, the soaring strings theme of the opening bars, for instance, subsumed beneath an over-egged welter of brass. This was a frequent issue in the unfolding of the work, yet there was also much to admire in a performance that embraced the sombre mood of the writing, such as the throbbing chorus of trombones in the brief fourth movement, the watery Rhine-like ripples of the scherzo, and the anchored thrill of the finale.

Ken Walton

This performance is repeated in Edinburgh, Sun 27 Nov, and will be broadcasted on BBC Radio 3 on Fri 10 Dec, 7.30pm, Full details at www.bbc.co.uk/bbcsso

BBC SSO / Lintu

City Halls, Glasgow

The dynamic of the symphony orchestra is a peculiar thing. Here, in its regular Thursday evening Glasgow slot, at its home venue (even if the completion of roof repairs had meant rehearsal at Tramway), was a very unfamiliar-looking BBC Scottish, with guest principals in much of the wind section and elsewhere, without its usual leader, and with less-than-regular guest conductor (Finn Hannu Lintu) and piano soloist (American Garrick Ohlsson). Yet the result was a classic SSO concert, with its strengths in all the places you might expect to find them.

The repertoire perhaps explained both that and the good attendance, with Brahms’ last symphony  preceded by Grieg’s perennially-popular Piano Concerto. The exotica was provided by Rautavarra’s Lintukoto (Isle of Bliss), which opened the programme and sat more comfortably with music of the previous century than might have been expected.

Although its sonic palette was quickly recognisable, the pace and tone of this short tone-poem are very different from more often heard works by the Finnish composer and the first bars are almost frantic. There are big sweeps of unison strings, but counterpoint between the sections as well, and some lovely detailing in the horns, winds, and muted brass before principal trumpet Mark O’Keeffe had haunting solo towards the end.

The Fourth Symphony of Johannes Brahms, which concluded the concert, is arguably his most Beethovian, with few notes being made to do a lot of work in the first, second and last movements and the only expansive tune appearing in the overture-like third. Lintu’s account of the symphony was business-like rather than inspired, although again some of the detail along the way was sumptuous, especially the blend of horns and the other winds with the pizzicato strings in the Andante.

The highlight of the evening was the Grieg, which was everything the old warhorse should be. Ohlsson is not a man to be rushed, as his playing of the first movement cadenza made clear, but there was a terrific balance between the relaxed fluidity of his playing and the crispness Lintu asked for from the strings. The conductor was alive to the work’s use of semitone intervals and rhythmic structures at parallel points in each of its movements, so that the concerto came alive as a narrative, and any problems of the fragmentary nature of the finale were swept aside.

As a lovely bonus, Ohlsson brought the same skilful sense of phrasing – and then some – to Chopin’s best-known Waltz, by way of an encore.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Garrick Ohlsson by Dario Acosta

BBC SSO: Widmann

City Halls, Glasgow

Jörg Widmann is a human dynamo. When he appeared last season with the RSNO, we had a glimpse – albeit in recorded film format – of that bundled energy, single-minded flamboyance and multi-talent. As clarinet soloist, composer and conductor rolled into one, it was very definitely the Widmann Show, highly idiosyncratic and pretty damn good.

On Thursday, he adopted the same formula with the BBC SSO, this time before a live audience in the City Halls. The performance style was every bit as sparky, spontaneous and eccentric, but this time many of the risks led into trouble waters and what transpired often seemed more skin-of the-teeth than edge-of-the-seat.

There was no greater illustration than the opening concerto, Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No 1, which by the very nature of its frenetic opening movement requires a steady hand on the tiller. Widmann, doubling as soloist-director, concentrated more on the former than the latter, leaving the orchestra, after pressing the initial on-switch, to second guess his edgy, sidestepping interpretational whims and respond accordingly. 

That was no easy task, and plaudits go to leader Laura Samuel for keeping the ship on course, to the extent that a gradually settling SSO elicited more comfortable support in the ensuing movements, particularly the sweet-flowing Adagio, which also revealed a more reflective playing style from Widmann, whose tone at times in the outer movements veered occasionally to the wrong side of harsh.

Widmann’s own Con brio, heard here in a reduced version of an original short concert overture commissioned in 2008 by Mariss Jansons as a partner piece to Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, also seemed like a direct embodiment of his hi-energy persona, the flashing references to Beethoven’s themes exploding on impact, hardly recognisable amid the aftershocks defined by surreal effects on the woodwind and timpani. There’s a bit of overkill in this piece, but it was performed with just the right amount of unbridled panache.

There were idyllic moments in Schumann’s Second Symphony, such as the movingly understated fugue in the Adagio, and clarity of texture in the finale that opened up often undisclosed back-references to the slow movement’s central theme. These were powerful, natural responses to the symphony. But Widmann chose also to take uncomfortable liberties of tempo, and to allow the brass an over-prominence that occasionally masked the tunes that mattered.

For Widmann and the SSO to find a more sustained and successful synergy they need to get to know each other better. And that they will do, now that news has emerged of Widmann’s appointment as the SSO’s artist-in-residence. He’ll be back for two more concerts this season. Sparks could fly.

Ken Walton 

BBC SSO: Volkov / Evans

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

This was foreign territory for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, decamped from its home at Glasgow’s City Halls to the Royal Concert Hall due to essential repair works at the former, but in this case it was a helpful move. For there was much in this curious journey into the hinterland of late-20th/21st century American music  – neatly packaged as “States of America” – that could have done serious damage to our ear drums in the smaller City Halls.

It wasn’t so much the loudness of the music – in fact much of it was intensely suppressed in volume – as the unrelenting obsessiveness contained in these four works by Courtney Bryan, Talib Rasul Hakim, Eleanor Hovda and Lucia Dlugoszewski. Two of them – Bryan’s White Gleam of our Bright Star and Dlugoszewski’s Abyss and Caress – were UK premieres.

Needless to say, this was devised and conducted by Ilan Volkov, whose unquenchable thirst for difficult, offbeat contemporary scores has long made Glasgow concert-going the adventure into the unknown it so often is. Once again, he communicated his astute and precise understanding of complex ideas to the obliging SSO, whose realisation of the seemingly impossible was, at times, mind-blowing.

Bryan’s short opener, commissioned by the Colorado Springs Philharmonic in 2016, was relatively easy listening. The density of its colours, shaded with a ghostly fragility, reflects the composer’s preoccupations with “themes of sister/brotherhood, freedom and equality”, heightened by an excessive climax whose dissonance seems to shatter the cosiness of the traditional American big band sound, which it alludes to, and from which softer questioning emerges, still tainted by mildly troubling contradictions.

Hakim’s Visons of Ishawara dates back half a century, and boy does it smack of the grim aesthetic of the 1970s. From the very outset it’s as if we’re thrown into the furious melodrama of a period TV horror soundtrack: the ritualistic pounding of the bass drum; the lugubrious idealism of the wilting flute melody; a febrile hyperactive narrative that tries too hard to keep up with the action. It will have been a trip down memory lane for listeners of a certain vintage, trip being the operative word

If there was promise of calm to follow in the hushed tones of Hovda’s Fields 87, its dynamic and timbral containment ultimately led to an uncomfortable sense of sensory asphyxiation. Operating at a micro level, its journey is an almost imperceptible metamorphosis that, despite one momentary outburst, remains stifling to the end. Nonetheless, the SSO furnished it with the utmost sensitivity.

The single post-interval work provided a much-needed release: Dlugoszewski’s 1975 Abyss and Cares for trumpet and orchestra, which is frankly barmy. Not once does its frenzied tempo let up, nor does its crazed language – superhuman trumpet techniques allied to weird string effects and wind players that double on swanee whistles – offer a moment of conventional respite.

It was superbly performed, the astounding New York trumpeter Peter Evans negotiating Dlugoszewski’s boundless demands with uncanny proficiency, from whispered stratospheric heights to guttural grunts and snorts, and all at twice the speed of sound. Volkov instilled an unrelenting volatility in a performance that could so easily have been the soundtrack to a crazed convention of cartoon heroes. 

Ken Walton

This concert was recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds

BBC SSO / Leleux

City Halls, Glasgow

One of the curious outcomes of the past 20 months, where orchestras have trawled the catalogues for music suited to restricted numbers, has been the emergence of obscure repertoire and neglected composers. Now, slightly perversely, these composers are surfacing repeatedly. One example is the 19th century French composer Louise Farrenc. She came to light last season courtesy of the SCO. Here she was again, in the company of Mendelssohn and Mozart, in a concert by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

It was short and sweet, her brief but bullish Overture No 1 in E minor lasting a mere 7 minutes, but how well it held its head high in such illustrious company. Helping make its point was French oboist-cum-conductor François Leleux, whose flirtatious charisma secured a shapely, directional performance. If there are clear echoes of Beethoven in Farrenc’s motivic shape and structure, there is also a suppleness of invention that is nearer to Schumann and preemptive even of Wagner. Like so much of this programme, the SSO was in a resilient mood.

This was in a second half that ended with Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony, delivered with the same illuminating clarity that had already made such a distinctive impression prior to the interval. Leleux had opened with the same composer’s overture for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, failing for a brief moment to pull the strings convincingly together in the scurrying fairy dust opening. But it was a transient issue, cancelled immediately in a performance notable thereafter for its delicious textural subtleties and gripping expressiveness.

Then a piece of virtual theatre. Leleux, now armed with oboe, took on the dual role of soloist and director in his own suite of arrangements of six operatic arias by Mozart, selected from The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni. This was the jewel of the evening, facilitated as much by the skilfulness of Leleux’s virtuoso adaptations – from thrill-a-minute ornamentation of the melodies to mischievous quirks in which he pinched instrumental snippets for himself – as by the extraordinary, often whimsical, versatility of his dazzling technique. Needless to say, encores were demanded and duly delivered.

There was a sense in Leleux’s relationship with the SSO that the chemistry between them was increasing by the minute. So when it came to the closing Mendelssohn symphony it simply breezed along. Again, irrepressible energy and tight-knit detail informed the performance. But there was a natural sweetness in the Andante, and an effortless elegance in the minuet that countered the Mediterranean tang of the outer movements.  

Ken Walton

This concert will be broadcast on Radio 3 and BBC Sounds on 14 October, thereafter available to stream or download for 30 days

BBC SSO/Carneiro

City Halls, Glasgow

Popular Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro, who directed this live broadcast season-opener by the BBC SSO – its first concert for a live audience in its home venue since March 12, 2020 – has no position with a UK orchestra. Might she take on this one, with its undeclared apparent vacancy in the top job with the continuing absence of chief conductor Thomas Dausgaard?

There is clearly a great rapport there already. Carneiro conducted a fine SSO concert of Sir James MacMillan’s music at the 2019 Edinburgh Festival and was in the pit for Scottish Opera’s production of Nixon in China, some of the players from which joined guests from the RSNO in this BBC Scottish line-up.

It was luxury casting indeed to have Carneiro joined by violinist Pekka Kuusisto for what was a clever celebration of the music of his native Finland to launch the orchestra’s return. Starting with a blast of Bach from a brass quartet, a very carefully-constructed programme featured the music of contemporary composer Magnus Lindberg and culminated in the last symphony of Sibelius. The brass was a continuing punctuating feature of the evening, whether in the choir stalls above the orchestra or offstage for Beethoven’s Leonora No.3, but it was leader Laura Samuel’s strings who were the sectional heroes of the day, from their combative then seductive dialogue with Kuusisto’s solo voice in Lingdberg’s First Violin Concerto through to the striking unison ensemble in the Symphony No. 7 of Jean Sibelius.

The Bach chorale that opened the concert began a sequence that ran through Lindberg’s arrangement of that material for full orchestra in his 2001 Chorale to his three-movement concerto, also scored for a very compact string section of 25 players. Early on they swamp the soloist just the same, until an accommodation is reached and Kuusisto was heard giving full expression to a fiery cadenza.

There are echoes of Sibelius in both the blossoming to resolution of Lindberg’s Chorale and the finale movement of the concerto, and the choice of the Beethoven to open the second half (after an actual interval, albeit with no bars open) also spoke of influences, even if the storm in the overture is perhaps more clearly heard in the Finnish composer’s final orchestral work, Tapiola.

Self-evident through all this cross-referencing cleverness was that this supremely versatile orchestra had a conductor of equal range on the podium. She may not be quite as animated as the SCO’s Maxim Emelyanychev, but Carneiro is a very physical conductor with a vast vocabulary of eloquent arm and hand gestures that leave her intentions in little doubt and her tempo and dynamic instructions absolutely clear. It would be a fine thing indeed if the SSO was to sign her up.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Joana Carneiro (BBC/Alan Peebles)

Lammermuir: BBC SSO/Whelan

St Mary’s Church, Haddington

The former SCO principal bassoonist Peter Whelan is forging a formidable reputation as a conductor, not just with his own group Ensemble Marsyas, but with a growing number of orchestras that recognise the spark he brings to the podium. The coming season adds to his conquests a Vivaldi opera the Royal Opera House and a guest appearance in Finland with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.

On Saturday, Whelan took charge of the BBC SSO in a programme that reinforced his natural affinity with the clinical panache of the Classical symphony and the ultra-fine sensitivity of Benjamin Britten.

He began with Haydn, and the joyous adventuring of the 1760s’ Symphony No 35 in B flat. It features the composer in a mood of relaxed excitability, and in this performance, as rhythmically taut as it was expressively supple, Whelan allowed its myriad surprises to surface gleefully within a framework of logic and symmetry. 

The SSO horns made light work of Haydn’s stratospheric demands. The strings evoked a warmth that only once – in the exposed violin melodies of the Andante – seemed to waver, perhaps due to the players’ continued social distancing. The curt ending, a kind of “that’s all folks” dismissal, was entirely in keeping with the tempered humour Whelan elicited from its four movements.

Britten’s 1958 Nocturne for tenor and small orchestra, written as a companion piece to the more familiar Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and dedicated to Alma Mahler, transported us into a giddy world of dreams as expressed through selected texts from Shelley, Coleridge, Middleton, Wordsworth, Owen, Keats and Shakespeare. 

Tenor Joshua Ellicott expressed Britten’s continuous sequence exquisitely and intimately, the penetrating purity of his voice capable of harnessing intense passion as well as serene mysticism, and everything in between. The result was a performance of compelling poeticism and powerfully controlled tension, further enhanced by the strings’ gossamer precision and evocative wind solos.

Mozart’s popular Symphony No 40, cheeriness in a minor key, gave a final pleasing symmetry to this programme. It was fast and fearless, with just an occasional blurring of the edges in these generous ecclesiastical acoustics. As in the Haydn, Whelan revealed a willingness to hand much of the responsibility to the players, economic in his gestures, but always at hand to bring down a decisive beat and keep the outer skin firmly in place. 

There was real chemistry in this performance. The SSO should further this conductor relationship.

Ken Walton

BBC SSO new season

Following its return to live performances for audiences at the Royal Albert Hall and Edinburgh Festival, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has announced an autumn season of concerts at its home in Glasgow’s City Halls, and two Sunday afternoon concerts at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall.

The first home concert is on Thursday September 23 with Sibelius Symphony No 7, when Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro is on the podium and Pekka Kuusisto the soloist for Magnus Lindberg’s Violin Concerto No 1. The same team then appears in Edinburgh on September 26 when Kuusisto plays the Sibelius Concerto before the 7th Symphony.

The second Edinburgh concert is on November 28, when Veronika Eberle plays Beethoven’s Violin Concerto before conductor David Afkham directs Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, the Third. The Glasgow performance of that programme, which is completed by a new work by Unsuk Chin, is on the evening of November 25.

Schumann’s Symphony No 2 is played the previous month in Glasgow, when Jorg Widmann also directs the orchestra in his own Con Brio as well as playing Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No 1. That programme is repeated at Perth Concert Hall on Friday October 29.

Another wind player and conductor, Francois Leleux, both performs and directs at the City Hall on September 30 for a programme of Mendelssohn, Mozart and Farrenc.

November also sees concerts featuring Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, conducted by Yutaka Sado, and Brahms’s Fourth Symphony and the Grieg Piano Concerto, with soloist Garrick Ohlssohn, conducted by Hannu Lintu.

The orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor Ilan Volkov oversees a performance on October 21 for BBC Radio3’s New Music Show that includes Lucia Dlugoszewski’s Abyss and Caress with New York jazz trumpeter Peter Evans, for which tickets are free.

December sees a two-concert focus on Tchaikovsky, with Associate Conductor Alpesh Chauhan conducting the Sixth Symphony in a programme that also includes Karen Cargill singing Korngold’s Abschiedslieder. In the second Tchaikovsky programme Martyn Brabbins conducts the First Piano Concerto with soloist Pavel Kolesnikov.

Seating for all of the concerts will be partially distanced with reduced capacity, and audiences will be required to wear face coverings. The orchestra hopes to announce appearances in Aberdeen soon and will reveal details of concerts for the new year in November.

bbc.co.uk/bbcsso

EIF: BBC SSO/Alsop

Edinburgh Academy Junior School

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

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

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

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

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

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / van Soeterstede / Currie

City Halls, Glasgow

For all its negative effects, the pandemic has accelerated the careers of some musicians, and London-based Frenchwoman Chloe van Soeterstede, a product of the Royal Northern College of Music conducting course, may be one of those.

This was her second visit to the BBC Scottish in six months, after partnering cellist Steven Isserlis in a memorable programme last December. Here she was working with Colin Currie in a busy week for the Glasgow-based percussionist, on the UK premiere of the percussion concerto written for him by Dutch composer Joey Roukens.

Currie has championed many new orchestral works for his instrument(s) but this one has been a particular enthusiasm, and it is a real surprise that it has not had more international exposure. It is a full decade since he debuted it, and three years to the day since he gave an acclaimed run of three performances in Holland.

That delay in a British performance is more surprising because it a very comprehensible, and substantial, piece, in four distinct movements, each given a separate quirky title by the composer. The third of those, a syncopated “scherzo” called Protean Grooves seems to have attained something of an individual existence as a stand-alone, perhaps because it is shows the influence of guru of Dutch composition Louis Andriessen, but it works even better in the context of the whole work.

The orchestration it uses, before an extended cadenza for the soloist, is no larger than that of the substantial opening movement, Lines and Colors, which progresses through cymbals and strings through tuned percussion and winds to toms and blocks with the brass. This is big stuff, as percussion concertos need to be, but the wistful second movement, I remember this place, is a succession of gentle duets with solo instruments from the orchestra. Roukens’s tunes are slippery, but they are there, and the combination of all his skills is deployed in the finale (amusingly entitled It’s over, my friend), from the swelling marimba and clarinet opening to its querulous ending. By that point the line between the tuned and untuned instruments at Currie’s disposal was very blurred indeed, which may be exactly the intention.

If Soeterstede again proved her quality on a work that was new to her, the familiar music in the rest of the concert showed her to be thoughtful on that too. The opening of Mozart’s Don Giovanni overture was an ominous pre-echo of the Beethoven symphony that followed, and the contrast between those bars and the more “Mozartian” music that follows has rarely been as clear. The Second Symphony of Beethoven, often taken to be a minor one of the nine, was a precursor to the “Eroica” Third in her hands. Her pacing of the first movement could be thought heavy-handed, but there was no mistaking her reading of it as the anguish of a composer facing up to his deafness for the first time.

BBC SSO/Wilson

City Halls, Glasgow

For all the strength of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra across all departments, this programme conducted by John Wilson was a real showcase for the strings, from the huge ensemble sound that opened the evening with the first movement of George Enescu’s Suite No 1 – underscored only by Gordon Rigby’s rumbling timpani – to the solo by leader Laura Samuel in the Fairy Garden conclusion of Ravel’s Mother Goose.

Nicely lit and filmed, with plenty of well-chosen instrumental close-ups, for a live-stream that seems to have been a one-time event now absent from the BBC i-Player, it was clearly audible that the opening work was being performed in an empty hall, and that reverberant acoustic suited it well.

Some echoey page-turning noises sat less happily in the midst of Lennox Berkeley’s Serenade for Strings, initially a complete sonic contrast to the ominous Enescu but ultimately becoming more edgy than its lush opening. As was noted in the concert commentary, there is evident of Berkeley’s Parisian training in that development, as there is in Vaughan Williams’s orchestral scoring of his song-cycle On Wenlock Edge.

Tenor Benjamin Hulett was making his debut singing that version, as opposed to the piano-accompanied one, and perhaps he began a little uncertainly, but he warmed well to the task at hand. Houseman was reportedly less impressed by this than other settings of his work, and if the poet’s reservations are understandable, the musical arc of the work was given full expression here by Wilson and the SSO. Is My Team Ploughing? is much less bleak than the familiar Butterworth setting, and Hulett captured its ambiguity beautifully before giving full voice to the longest song, Bredon Hill.

The orchestral coup of the concert was another first, the world premiere of a new edition of the complete ballet music for Mother Goose, the fullest version of Ravel’s suite restored to his 1912 intention, replacing the hotch-potch published in the 1970s. I cannot pretend to have picked up the additions and omissions that Wilson alluded to, but it is true that Ravel was working in an era when the whole sphere of publication and proof-reading was becoming more complex and sophisticated. If he missed out on the benefits of modernism it is more than time amends are made.

The detail of his scoring certainly deserves to be as beautifully played as it was here, with the harp, winds and celesta complementing those strings, continuing to demonstrate that distinctive ensemble coherence alongside the front-desk solo virtuosity.

Available on BBC Sounds. Now also available on the BBC i-Player.

Keith Bruce

Tectonics Glasgow 2021

City Halls, Glasgow & online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tectonics Shifts Online

Violinist Ilya Gringolts talks to KEITH BRUCE about Tectonics and his new commissioning foundation with conductor Ilan Volkov.

From the mouths of some musicians, the assurance to a Scottish journalist that “it is always a joy to come back – Scotland is one of the best places to be at any time of the year” might sound like an audience-pleasing platitude. Not violinist Ilya Gringolts though, who is a man as renowned for his plain-speaking as his virtuosic playing, and varied repertoire.

Lest there be any doubt that he means what he says, however, he adds a codicil: “I am from St Petersburg, so I grew up with bad weather. We take it for granted.”

Of course, at the present time he is not coming back at all, although he is a crucial presence in the upcoming Tectonics weekend of contemporary and experimental music with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, co-curated by its principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov and promoter Alasdair Campbell.

Having been cancelled last May, this year Tectonics is an online and on-air event over two days and Gringolts is contributing filmed performances of works that have been commissioned through a new foundation he and Volkov have established. [As previously reported in Vox Carnyx]

In the two decades before the pandemic, Gringolts was a very frequent visitor to Scotland. He was a guest soloist at Orkney’s St Magnus Festival in 2004 and 2008 and until recently the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s International Fellow of Violin. His association with the SSO goes back to appearances under the baton of Osmo Vanska as a teenager. “I have had a relationship with the orchestra for more than 20 years,” he says, “and it has been wonderful every time.”

That Glasgow is still firmly on the violinist’s map should be a matter of civic pride. From his studies in St Petersburg, Gringolts moved to the Juilliard School in New York and the tuition of Itzhak Perlman, before becoming one of the earliest beneficiaries of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists programme. He has been settled in Zurich with his Armenian violinist wife Anahit Kurtikyan, who is a principal in the opera orchestra, Philharmonia Zurich, for 14 years. The couple have three young daughters: two more violinists and a pianist.

Switzerland has been much slower than the UK to vaccinate its population, Gringolts tells me, with only 10 per cent of the population having had both shots when we talk, and his own age group – he’s 38 – not likely to figure in the programme until July at the earliest. This is a matter of more than passing interest to the violinist, who was ill with Covid in January.

“It wasn’t pleasant; I wouldn’t recommend it. And I still have periods when I feel very weak,” he says. Quite recently he checked himself back into hospital, having spent ten days very ill.

As in other cities in Europe, Zurich went through the trauma of opening up too early last autumn and cultural events are only now very slowly resuming. The Tonhalle Orchester is permitting audiences of just 50 and playing its first concerts three times over two days, and the opera house has some small-scale shows scheduled for May.

We are now accustomed to learning of silver linings to the coronavirus crisis, and, before he became ill, there was one for Gringolts and Volkov, in the aftermath of the cancellation of Tectonics 2020.

“I had always admired Ilan’s active engagement with the world of new music and his expertise and fascination with it. A very important part of what I do is working with composers but we have lost the connection with living composers that was common 100 years ago. As performers we have become disengaged with new music and wait for things to be offered to us.

“If we don’t continue to pursue new music as performers, sooner or later it will disappear and I don’t want that to happen. During the first lockdown I had the time to think about all that.”

The upshot of which was the registration, in June 2020, of the Zurich-based I & I Foundation, established by Ilya and Ilan, with some heavyweight support. Verbier Festival founder Martin Engstroem, composer Michael Jarrell and star violinist and conductor Maxim Vengerov (who is married to Gringolts’ sister, Olga) are backers, and cultural manager Dorothy Yeung, banker Davide Petrachi and lawyer Anna-Naomi Bandi-Lang serve on the board, the latter as President.

The foundation’s aim, says Gringolts, is simple to describe: linking composers to performers.

“The two are disconnected. We are in the communication business, bringing these people together. Ilan knows young composers who have things to say creatively, and I have colleagues who are too shy or afraid to ask.”

The initial strategy is through “micro-commissions” for solo player or small ensemble, and two of those will be performed by Gringolts as part of Tectonics, filmed in a verdant Budapest location that the violinist intriguingly describes as “a bit Jurassic Park – with palm trees and lots of light and space”.

Young American composer Sky Macklay’s Trrhythms uses short, rhythmic phrases over and over, as its title suggests. Previously commissioned by Chamber Music America and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, her music also includes a chamber opera voicing the doubts of a uterus about the necessity of child-bearing.

Tokyo-based Yu Kuwabara’s Bai and Dharani is based on the composer’s ten-year research into Japanese Buddhist vocal music, Shomyo. “That was a revelation to me,” says Gringolts, “and the violin is not the first instrument you would think of to explore it.”

“We have 12 commissions running, and so far half of them are from me, but that balance will change. It’s not really about me and Ilan. We will come to larger works that require more funding, and work with promoters who are willing to pool resources.”

The key aim of the I & I Foundation is to streamline and simplify the commissioning process and speed up the business of having original music heard, and the swiftness with which the foundation went from being an idea to a reality is emblematic, despite the pandemic prohibiting face-to-face meetings.

“All of this was accomplished on the phone and by Zoom, with Ilan in Tel Aviv, and that didn’t make any difference. Humans can get used to everything. The pandemic gave it urgency, as well as the time to think and realise these projects without other priorities distracting.

“But of course I miss the live experience and it is important that we get back to it – and stay safe and healthy.”

The rest of the year is already shaping up to be busy for Gringolts, with a second volume of Schoenberg’s music recorded by his quartet (which also includes his wife) in March and concerts scheduled for later in the year. In the first lockdown the violinist continued his exploration of baroque violin, discovering more pieces that he wants to play in concert and on record.

“I have new pieces to learn for the autumn as well, and ten students to teach at Zurich University. There are lots of things to do.”

Ilya Gringolts performs at Tectonics 2021 on Saturday and Sunday May 8 & 9. bbc.co.uk/sso

BBC SSO / Brabbins / Osborne

City Halls, Glasgow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Available to listen to on BBC Sounds

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

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