Tag Archives: BBC SSO

Letting The Cracks Show

Jay Capperauld’s new flute concerto is a Japanese repair job, but it represents a positive healing process, he tells KEN WALTON

For Jay Capperauld, Christmas has come early. It’s only a matter of weeks since the RSNO performed the 33-year-old up-and-coming Ayrshire composer’s Fèin-Aithne, written originally for the BBC SSO, alongside Strauss’ monumental Alpine Symphony. Last week, the SCO announced that for the next four years he is to succeed Anna Clyne as its associate composer. This weekend, his new flute concerto, Our Gilded Veins, is premiered by the RSNO and its principal flautist, Katherine Bryan.

When we spoke, the SCO announcement was still under wraps, but there was a pent-up excitement in Capperauld’s manner that suggested something big was in the offing. “I can’t say at the moment,” he blurted cautiously, clearly wishing he could.

We’d met to discuss Our Gilded Veins, a work that began life pre-pandemic, was duly postponed from its planned 2020 premiere, underwent subsequent refashioning during lockdown, and will now emerge in its freshly-minted form this week under the baton of RSNO music director Thomas Søndergård and in the exalted company of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. 

Anyone who has followed Capperauld’s upward trajectory since graduating from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland will appreciate to what extent extra-musical inspirations – often surreal, often funny, always potent – are a defining feature of his music. “I generally always write to a concept. I rarely work in absolute abstract terms,” he says. Our Gilded Veins is no exception.

The title refers to the Japanese art of Kintsugi, “a tradition whereby you break a plate or a bowl, then put it back together using gilded lacquer in order to highlight the breakage, as if you are celebrating the history of the object, warts and all,” he explains. “To me that’s just a delicious metaphor for the human condition, especially after what we’ve all been through over the last couple of years.”

“Kintsugi has been a hugely positive influence on me, in the sense it allows you to perceive things you’ve gone through, those bad experiences, in a positive way and not cover things up. The biggest step forward in the past five years or so is that we’re able to talk about mental health. It’s visible in the same way as the ‘gilded veins’ on these objects. It leads to conversations that need to happen.”

The “conversation” explored in Our Gilded Veins had already taken root in a previous piece for solo flute, The Pathos of Broken Things, which itself acted as the prototype for the concerto. Both stemmed from his encounter with Katherine Bryan. Impressed by a work Capperauld had had performed as a participant in the RSNO’s 2015/16 inaugural Composers’ Hub scheme, Bryan had later sought him out and asked if he had written any flute music. The answer was no, but he immediately set about composing one, which led in turn to the concerto commission.

Revisiting a work is not unusual for Capperauld. He did so for last month’s RSNO performance of Fèin-Aithne, rewriting around half of it, and he’s done the same for Our Gilded Veins. “The pandemic played a part in the nature of these revisions. It was, for me compositionally, an opportunity to spring clean. It also made complete sense as both pieces are about self-identity, and my perception of myself had changed significantly during that period.”

That’s reflected  in the altered narrative. “That now starts at a place where trauma has just happened. In the original version, we were seeing it unfold and transpire over the entire narrative. So there’s a fractured sense to the music straightaway, where the lines are unconnected. The whole first half of the piece is now about those lines trying to find each other, gluing themselves together, so we can then explore what that positive aspect of Kintsugi implies. By the end we revisit the trauma material, but in a new and reassuring harmonic context.”

Another key factor in the ongoing evolution of the piece has been Capperauld’s creative dialogue with Bryan. As she herself says, “Jay got to know me well during the process as a player: that I like to tell stories; that I love big-hitting, powerful stuff; that I like the emotional drive behind a piece that I can really talk to an audience with. He must have thought I liked a big challenge. This piece is so hard, but breaking through those challenges really enhances it.”

Katherine Bryan: “I love big-hitting, powerful stuff”

With so much original music excised in the revision process, does it just go in the bin? “No,” insists Capperauld. “I hang on to absolutely everything. I learned that from Harrison Birtwistle, whose advice to young composers was ‘keep everything’. There might be something you’re working on that you don’t have a context for at the time, but years down the line you find one. So who knows, maybe some scraps from the old version will find their way into a new piece of music at some point.”

Meantime, Our Gilded Veins – which Bryan and Capperauld will also be utilising in an outreach project at the Kibble Educational and Care Centre in Paisley – is partnering Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture and the Choral Symphony in this week’s close-of-season concert by the RSNO. How daunting is that?

“Hugely,” says Capperauld. “Knowing that was very scary, but all I can do is focus on the matter in hand. I’d be foolish to think that because my piece is being performed alongside Beethoven Nine I must try to express myself to that same level, cos that ain’t gonna happen! I can’t make that judgement call as a composer. That’s for the audience to decide. All I can do is my best work.”

Katherine Bryan and the RSNO premiere Jay Capperauld’s Our Gilded Veins at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh (3 March) and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (4 March). Full details at www.rsno.org.uk

BBC SSO / Dausgaard

City Halls, Glasgow

The six-year relationship between the BBC SSO and its Danish chief conductor Thomas Dausgaard all but concluded last week. His last season concert – there are still some recordings and a final BBC Proms programme to come – also brought to an end Dausgaard’s valedictory project, a complete survey of Carl Nielsen’s six symphonies. Signing off with No 4, The Inextinguishable, was to go out with a blast.

There were two Nielsen symphonies in this programme, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. Opening with the First took us to a place where the quintessential Danish composer was testing the water, but already armed with sufficient confidence to explore new and individualistic ground. Dausgaard’s opening gambit, grittily echoed by the SSO, was to embrace its ebullience and joyous intent, a gutsy start beyond which Nielsen’s fitful argument jockeyed between rage and reflection. 

Fast forward to the concert climax and The Inextinguishable, cast in the same discursive mould, but which proved itself altogether mightier, meatier and mind-blowing in its universal message. If, indeed, it’s about the unquenchable affirmation of the human spirit, a cathartic resolution to life’s questioning and contradictory experiences, then that is no better expressed than in a ferocious peroration dominated by two battling sets of timpani. 

Dausgaard adopted the theatrical quirk often associated with Finnish conductor Leif Segerstam, asking the second timpanist to emerge dressed in civvies from the audience, like some rogue opportunist fancying his chances on the big drums. The impact as Alasdair Kelly launched his first brutal salvo was electrifying, the ensuing cross-stage duel with SSO principal timpanist Gordon Rigby as bellicose as the previous weekend’s destructive rampage of Celtic fans around the City Halls’ environs.

So yes, this was a Nielsen Four bristling with fervour, demonic and transformative in equal measure, but not without tenderness and simplicity when moments called for it. What short-changed it were these inexplicable hypos where Dausgaard visibly seemed to release his grasp on the action and draw back as if in some personal conversation with himself. At these points glitches appeared, uneven attacks or the odd tremor in the rhythmic flow. 

Between the symphonies, the contribution by soloist Jörg Widmann in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto was a baffling one. He’s a known eccentric, and this performance lived up to that reputation from his very first utterance, adopting a coarseness of tone that veered towards agonising. Add to that affectation his tendency to skew the intonation, and a certain ugliness found its way into a very beautiful concerto.

It wasn’t all so questionable, Widmann proving in the slow movement how lyrically poised his playing can be, and imbuing much of the finale with sparkle and stylistically conducive incision. Moreover, Dausgaard found a place in this for an SSO performance that was lithe and poetically Mozartian, even if the task of following Widmann’s rhythmic idiosyncrasies made the job more difficult than it ought to have been.

All in all, this Dausgaard finale was one of mixed results, which is a fair enough assessment of his time with the SSO.

Ken Walton

Available for 30 days after live broadcast via BBC Sounds

BBC SSO / Dausgaard

City Halls, Glasgow

When it comes to reflecting on Thomas Dausgaard’s 6-year tenure as principal conductor of the BBC SSO, it could very well be that his swan song will be seen as his greatest moment. At least, that was the immediate impression gleaned from last Thursday’s concert. It marked the midway point in what should have been his valedictory vision of all six Nielsen symphonies – he called off January’s opening performance of the Third, but made it for the Sixth in March – which ends this coming Thursday with a mighty two-pronged finale of Nos 1 and 4 (The Inextinguishable).

In this case, we heard the Symphony No 2, The Four Temperaments, one of the composer’s most gritty and direct, placed in the second half as a plain-speaking riposte to the burning fervour of Bartok’s ballet score The Wooden Prince. From the word go – an impatient and decisive downbeat that carried the ballistic shock effect of an Olympic starting gun – Dausgaard had the SSO playing with penetrating rhythmic bite and an immediate sense of propulsion that foretold the unceasing excitement about to unfold. 

Each movement relates to four Ancient Greek temperaments – Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholic and Sanguine – their characteristics filtered, in Nielsen’s case, through crude images he observed on the walls of a rural Danish pub. What transpires is a sequence of edgy, to-the-point musical representations, devilishly curt in both expression and length, but all the more visceral and entertaining for it.

The journey from feverish impetuosity in the opening Allegro collerico and dismissive charm of the scherzo-like Allegro commode e flemmatico, through the ultimate resignation of the slow movement (Andante malinconico) to carefree exuberance of the concluding Allegro sanguineo, was a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride.

Before that, the 1932 shortened version by Bartok of his The Wooden Prince, asked naturally for more expansive treatment, which it received by way of Dausgaard’s impassioned but unobtrusive approach. More than he often does, and without losing a hold over the big picture, he allowed the SSO ample scope to shape its own take on the descriptive tale of a prince whose ruse to win the heart of a princess by creating a puppet of himself initially backfires when the princess falls for the puppet.

The music itself was revelatory, Bartok dipping into a sea of derivatives, from Wagner to Stravinsky, yet marking his own presence with signature affirmation. If there was room for Dausgaard to exercise some of the same ferocity he applied later to the Nielsen, there was plenty in this performance to signal its fascination and extreme worth.

Ken Walton

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, after which it will be available for 30 days via BBC Sounds

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

A common mantra among many conductors is that less is often best. You see it in the most effective and moving performances, where a pertinent flick, an overarching gesture or, indeed, a visible cessation of any movement whatsoever may seem inversely proportionate to the heaving potency of the music, yet somehow the orchestra knows instinctively what is required of it and delivers with driven, burning intensity.

It’s something Ryan Wigglesworth might like to consider as he develops his imminent relationship as chief conductor with the BBC SSO. He was in Glasgow on Thursday performing a double act as soloist and conductor in this latest SSO afternoon concert, as well as attending the subsequent launch of what will be his first season in charge. The latter opens in September, when Wigglesworth officially takes up his new position (see the 2022-23 Season details in VoxCarnyx News).

Thursday’s programme wasn’t exactly as intended. It should have opened with the world premiere of Jörg Widmann’s Danse macabre, which was postponed “due to logistical constraints” to be replaced by Betsy Jolas’ Letters from Bachville. The now 95-year-old Franco-American composer describes her 2019 orchestral portrait of Leipzig, where Bach was its most famous Kantor, as a “Bach playlist”, filtering lightning quotes from the older composer through a fitful, cartoonesque score that ultimately seemed more skittish than cohesive. 

It could have been both had Wigglesworth stepped back a little, allowing its spontaneous energy, its capricious fits and starts, to self-combust. Instead, there was a sense of over-prescribed containment that not only suppressed any natural fizz, but killed the impact of its many punctuating silences by drawing undue attention to them.

A quick reset and the piano was installed centre stage for Wigglesworth to play/direct Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A, K414. It was clear from the outset that this would be an elegant appraisal of a porcelain-textured work.  The orchestral opening presented itself as gentile and rosy, Wigglesworth’s first solo entry responding with the same mannered deliberation and unchallenging understatement.

Such polite mutual interaction continued throughout, something of a nostalgic throwback to an earlier school of Mozart playing, which threw up enjoyable moments of nurtured poetry and reverential eloquence. There was never much intention, though, to probe below the surface, most noticeable in the slow movement, the piano’s first statement bland and unclear in its purpose, and instances throughout the concerto where the rhythmic interpretation felt more studied than instinctive. It was agreeable rather than dynamic, a mood endorsed by Wigglesworth’s ensuing encore, Harrison Birtwistle’s simple and delicately undulating piano miniature, Berceuse de Jeanne.

A work that really requires internal probing is Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony, a harrowing symphonic enigma written when the composer was at a particularly low ebb, self-questioning and wrestling with his health. It was the final work in this programme and one equally testing for the performers as for the listener.

Wigglesworth’s approach was ever-thoughtful, SSO principal cello Rudi de Groote’s soulful solo emerging from the lower-string, tritone-infested depths of the gloomy opening like a beacon of hope, only to be countered by the suffocating orchestral bleakness that persists. The SSO – with Sibelius firmly in their DNA from the Osmo Vänskä days of the 1990s – responded with natural empathy to the bitterness and crying despair of the music, the thwarted optimism of the Scherzo, the aching waves of the Largo, the Finale’s frustrating, dissipating inconclusiveness.

Why, then, did this feel like a performance painted strictly by numbers rather than guided by a free hand? Wigglesworth has a tendency to beat, even subdivide, every breathing moment, the impact of which was evident in its occasionally awkward groundedness. And was there an issue with an orchestral layout that placed the elevated double basses across the rear, brought the concealed wind and brass down to ground level behind the strings, and most importantly threw the glockenspiel far to the side where its key prominence in the Finale was strangely muted?

These are early days in the Wigglesworth-SSO partnership. The new season throws up plenty opportunities for them to assimilate that relationship. As always, each can benefit and learn from the other. In time, we’ll find out how explosive the chemistry will be.

Ken Walton

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, after which it will be available for 30 days via BBC Sounds

SSO’s New Season

Ryan Wigglesworth, the BBC SSO’s newly appointed chief conductor, will open the orchestra’s 2022-23 Season with a programme on 22 September dominated by Ravel’s complete ballet score Daphnis et Chloé. The following evening Wigglesworth will appear as pianist with a trio of BBC principals in Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, part of a wider Messiaen theme next season to mark 30 year’s since the radical French composer’s death.

Wigglesworth, who succeeds Thomas Dausgaard in the SSO conductor hot seat, will spearhead a further six programmes in the season, including a performance of Messiaen’s The Sermon to the Birds from his opera St Francis of Assisi, a Bach/Stravinsky double-header in which Wigglesworth will also feature as piano soloist in Bach’s E major Keyboard Concerto, and a closing concert in May 2023 featuring the world premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Cello Concerto (soloist Laura van der Heijden) and Elgar’s Symphony No 2.

“Ryan is a compelling musician – whether as conductor, composer or pianist – and his warmth towards our players will be evident in all the varied programmes he’s bringing to audiences across Scotland,” said SSO director Dominic Parker, presiding over the launch of the orchestra’s first full season of performances since the pandemic hit two years ago.

The orchestra’s other associated conductors are also back in force. Conductor emeritus Sir Donald Runnicles tackles Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh in February. Alpesh Chauhan, associate conductor, takes on two programmes, one with Rimsky Korsakov’s richly-coloured Scheherazade, another with Shostakovich’s hard-hitting Fifth Symphony that also goes to the Sage in Newcastle. 

Principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov’s particular penchant for modern repertoire is reflected in two season programmes that range in repertoire from Ligeti and Xenakis to the rarefied sounds, and UK premieres, of Norwegian composer Oyvind Torvund and Belgian Stefan Prins. Volkov will again co-curate the annual contemporary music festival Tectonics in May.

The newly-announced SSO appointment of Danish-born modernist Hans Abrahamsen as composer-in-association is marked by the world premiere of his Vers le silence in November, a month before he celebrates his 60th birthday. Wigglesworth, who conducts that concert, will also direct his own distillation of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, “A Symphonic Journey”. 

Other world premieres include a new BBC commission from genre-bending South African cellist/composer Abel Selaocoe and the former BBC Young Composer winner Jonathan Woolgar. 

Among the many guest conductors returning to the SSO are Joanna Carneiro, Hannu Lintu, Matthias Pintscher and Michael Sanderling. Tabita Berglund, in Scotland this month to conduct the RSNO, is joined by pianist Stephen Hough for Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. Long-time favourite Martyn Brabbins contributes to the Vaughan Williams 150th anniversary celebrations with a performance, alongside Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, of his Symphony No 5. He also directs a screening of Charles Frend’s 1948 adventure film Scott of the Antarctic, complete with live performance of Vaughan Williams’ haunting soundtrack. 

In a late season afternoon concert (April) Brabbins curates “The Sound of Scotland” which features the world premieres of his own Aduos and James MacMillan’s Canon for Two Violas alongside music by Judith Weir, Iain Hamilton and William Wallace’s Creation Symphony.

The SSO are alluding to this as their A-Z season, with the wildest possible range of repertoire, from Thomas Ades to Alexander Zemlinsky, by way of Bartok, Chopin, Debussy, Elgar and much more. Guest artists include pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason (Dohnanyi’s Variations on a Nursery Song), violinist Elina Vähälä (Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No 2) and the BBC Singers (in the opening Ravel concert and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms). 

Regular favourites include the seasonal Christmas Classics and Christmas at the Movies with singer/presenter Jamie MacDougall. Most concerts will be recorded for BBC Radio 3, valuable thereafter on BBC Sounds and BBC iPlayer. The announcement of further concerts is due in the coming weeks.

Full information on programmes and booking at bbc.co.uk/bbcsso

TECTONICS 2022

City Halls, Glasgow

The latest post-pandemic cultural reinstatement got underway at the weekend with the first live Tectonics Festival in three years. Nothing has changed from the now time-honoured format, save the actual music of course, which is, as ever, cutting edge and slightly off the beaten track. 

It has remained contained within the City Halls complex in Glasgow – a timetabled procession, hither and thither, between the august Grand Hall, the cobbled Victorian street ambience of the Old Fruitmarket and the blinged-up retro elegance of the Recital Room. The mark of cofounders Ilan Volkov and Alasdair Campbell persisted through the customary matrix of installations, discussion and concerts. New sounds, familiar setting.

It’s strange to think that the music of Janet Beat still counts among the former. Now in her eighties and quietly retired, it’s easy to forget that she played such a pioneering role, especially as a woman, in the development of electronic music, yet her music has remained in the shadows. Day 1 of Tectonics 2022 witnessed the first of two tribute concerts, The Beat Goes On, in her honour. At its heart, a performance in the Old Fruitmarket of Puspawarna, her 1989-90 piece for voice, gong and electronics, with Juliet Fraser as soprano soloist.

There’s an alluring datedness to the electronics dimension of this work, dominated – aside from Fraser’s dazzling incantations and the tolling gong – by the pungent persistence of a rhythmically sidestepping keyboard riff, much in the mould of early Messiaen. This was a captivating performance, surrounded either side of the Indonesian-influenced Puspawarna by contrasting improvised responses to Beat’s music.

While Japanese sound artist Yosuke Fujita’s Installation in the Recital Room remained self-functioning throughout the weekend, his live presentation on Saturday was the most visceral way to experience it. A thing of visual intrigue –  three miniature aquariums, from which he has synthesised water sounds, set around a primitive pipe organ and mixing desk – Fujita added his own vocalisations to the gradually metamorphosing soundscape, sometimes subliminal, other times gutteral, always with a sense of the spiritual.

It was back to the Old Fruitmarket for a brief double bill presented to some extent as a gladiatorial combat between Volkov and the BBC SSO in the world premiere of Joanna Ward’s “from the trees and from my friends (bean piece 3)” and Jamaican multi-instrumentalist Douglas R Ewart’s Red Hills, spiritedly performed under his direction by the super cool Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra.

Each band occupied opposing ends of the venue, requiring the audience to do a 180 degrees about-turn between pieces. First up, the awkward fascination of Ward’s itinerant experiment, SSO players constantly swapping positions as if engaging in some cross-contamination of musical chairs and speed dating, the music unfortunately forgettable. Ewart’s Red Hills, though, was an exuberant counterweight, its initial sultriness and composure exploding into a jam so energised and frenzied it had the joint jumping.

The big event on Saturday was the BBC SSO’s evening programme, which centred on premieres by French experimentalist Pascale Criton, American-born composer and sound designer Amber Priestley and the Norwegian visually-inspired composer Kristine Tjøgersen. 

Criton’s Alter, written during the pandemic and with a focus on the elemental transformation of sound and texture, re-introduced singer Juliet Fraser, whose own words fed into a vocal line initially inconsequential, but later powerful in echoing the increasing dramatic narrative of the music.

The SSO, as always, found infinite purpose in Alter’s expressive message, equally so in Priestley’s  For Jocelyn Bel Burnell, its title referring to the astrophysicist who discovered pulsars, the process of which Priestley reimagines as a conflict between gravitational references to Beethoven by the main stage ensemble, and ephemeral overlay by the assorted musicians spread all around the audience. The surround experience was exhilarating, the piece itself unhelpfully prolix. What started as a mesmerising juxtaposition turned eventually into an alien invasion.

Volkov saved the best till last, Tjøgersen’s Between Trees, its provocative colours and delicate nuances magically assimilating in a performance that matched ear-catching detail and ample literalism (the odd cuckoo among a clamour of birdcalls and other allusions to the natural world) with the collective clout of its structural arch. Tjøgersen’s background observance of traditional vocabulary made her exploration of new horizons all the more exciting. 

Ken Walton

(Photo: Alex Woodward)

The majority of Tectonics performances were recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3 & BBC Sounds

BBC SSO / Elder

City Halls, Glasgow

In their own way, Mozart, Wagner and Richard Strauss thought a lot of themselves and expressed as much in their music. While that might seem a gross understatement where Wagner is concerned, and a potent but pleasant truth when it comes to Strauss, for Mozart it was expressed in terms of honestly-intentioned free-spiritedness with a capacity to express the frivolous and the wretched with almost unrivalled humanity.

This was a BBC SSO programme, combining all three composers, that was right up veteran conductor Sir Mark Elder’s street. He is a Wagnerian par excellence, capable of eliciting maximum intensity with minimum interference. He translates that naturally to the emotive excesses of Strauss, wisely so in an approach that guards against a potentially riotous free-for-all. In Mozart – in this case with the slimmest of reduced forces – his respect for classical tautness and proportions is flexible enough to accommodate dramatic fire.

He was joined in the last – the rarely-heard concert aria “Ah, lo previdi” dating from the end of Mozart’s Salzburg period in 1777 – by the soprano Sophie Bevan, wife of the SSO’s newly-appointed chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, who, incidentally, will replace Marin Alsop in charge of next week’s Thursday Series concert. 

Bevan’s performance, a pseudo-operatic narrative based on texts from a libretto by Vittorio Cigna-Santi on the trials and tribulations of the woeful Andromeda, was one of passionate engagement, stopping short of melodrama, but with a vocal range that freely explored the score’s volcanic vicissitudes. Elder gleaned empathetic support from the orchestra, bringing principal oboist Stella McCracken front stage for her gently persuasive solo obbligato in the final Cavatina.

The opening Wagner – a coupling of the Prelude from Act I and Good Friday Music from Act III from his opera Parsifal – took time to settle. While a degree of timelessness informed the slow, aching unfolding of the Prelude, it bore a fragility that undermined its intensity, its sense of expectation. Intonation malfunctions in critical woodwind chords merely added to the unease. Elder’s magic took root in the second extract, however, the orchestra now onside with a heart-felt performance oozing soulfulness and sublime warmth.

It was the latter qualities, plus the curbed temptations to overindulge, in Strauss’ 1899 self-serving tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) that proved the outright hit of the evening. Philosophically bound to the Nietzschean concept of man as a hero whose self-overcoming struggles lead to inward fulfilment, and vividly applied by Strauss to aspects of his own life, the musical journey is a whirlwind of impassioned extremes.

Elder shaped those with masterful reserve, leaving much of the initiative to the significantly inflated SSO ranks – among them 8 horns no less, and 6 trumpets – yet always there to draw a red line. That was imperative in matching the explosive magnitude of the battle music to the modest hall, which he impressively achieved; and brilliantly effective in articulating the cacophonous carping of the critics, which Strauss must have had enormous fun in writing. 

But central to this performance, and to a great extent defining it, was leader Laura Samuel’s extended solo violin role, opening reservedly with awe and wonderment, but soon adopting a full-blooded bravado that harnessed the tempestuousness of the composer’s wife, a manic concoction of the sensual and the irrational. It’s unlikely Strauss was out to make too many friends in the references he bravely pursued.

Ken Walton

Available for 30 days after broadcast on BBC Sounds

BBC SSO / Brabbins

City Halls, Glasgow

A big concert with two soloists and a well-loved conductor on the podium, the SSO’s live broadcast from Glasgow looked a terrific programme on paper, but did not quite cohere in performance, even if every part of it had something to enjoy.

The second half pairing of Ernest Chausson’s Poeme de l’amour et de la mer and Claude Debussy’s much better known La mer did serve to illustrate how two contemporaries of the same nation might approach the same broad subject in an entirely different way. As even those not familiar with the work of Martyn Brabbins might expect of the music director of English National Opera, the latter was full of drama, and built beautifully to the climactic third movement “Dialogue of the wind and the sea”, the unfolding orchestration a captivating use of the vast forces onstage.

Chausson’s songs, setting the poetry of Maurice Bouchor, also make for a piece of scale, but owe much to contemporary German Romanticism. Mezzo Dame Sarah Connolly did not really sing them like Mahler or Strauss, however, taking a rather more narrative approach, which was enhanced, rather than in any way diminished, by her reference to the score. With a bassoon-led instrumental interlude separating the two texts, the shape of the work was as clear as that of the Debussy, and first cello Rudi de Groot added a lovely solo to the second one. Although it was probably undetectable to radio listeners, there were a few moments in the hall where Connolly’s immaculate diction was a little swamped by the orchestra.

Why Debussy’s early March ecossaise sur un theme populaire, which opened the concert, is rarely heard, particularly from Scottish orchestras, is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it is a little Brigadoon, but as the Frenchman wrote it, to order, more than half a century before that movie, it is difficult to dismiss the piece as in any way kitsch. And as a celebration of the oft-cited, if historically dubious, “Auld Alliance”, it would surely be popular with local audiences. Again, it uses a big orchestra, and even the young Debussy knew well how to make the most of that.

The world premiere in the programme, the new Clarinet Concerto, “Sutra”, by Wim Henderickx for fellow Belgian Annelien van Wauwe, also contained some liquid noises, not only in the electronics that form a crucial element of its structure, but also in the playing required of the lower strings. There are a lot of different ingredients in the score, with many of the ideas coming from the soloist and dedicatee.

Like violinist Elena Urioste, she combines her musical practice with yoga tuition, and the disciplines of meditation and concentration are themes of the central two movements. Only in the third one did the work become at all virtuosic, with a step up in tempo, a speedy Balkan melody line and a big band sound from the orchestra.

Elsewhere the players were required to breathe audibly, both through and without their instruments, and there were a number of vocal exchanges between soloist and ensemble. It may be a box-fresh composition, but there was something very 1970s about much of this, as well as in the use of wine glasses among the percussion, and in Scott Dickinson’s viola solo toward the end. It was tempting to speculate that the composer may have drawn on his teenage prog and jazz listening.

He also gave van Wauwe plenty of opportunity to demonstrate the lower register of the basset clarinet, although the most attractive and exciting passages she had to play seemed to fall within the range of the regular instrument.

Keith Bruce

The concert is available to listen to on BBC Sounds for 30 days.

Edinburgh International Festival 2022

It may be couched in terms of sustainability, and the avoidance of needless consumption of resources in the pursuit of artistic excellence from around the world, but the programme for the 75th Edinburgh International Festival also looks back to the shape of the event in the years after the Second World War with its residencies by companies and orchestras bringing more than one programme of work.

That the founding director of the Festival, Rudolph Bing, was a refugee from conflict is also marked in the programme – a thematic strand that has proved more appropriate than the EIF team could have foreseen as they shaped the anniversary event.

The orchestras “in residence” are the Philadelphia, with conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin, and the Philharmonia, under the baton of new Principal Conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali and Sir Donald Runnicles, making his debut with them. The Czech Philharmonic also has two Usher Hall concerts with Semyon Bychkov, as do Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic, one of them a concert performance of Strauss’s Salome with soprano Malin Bystrom.

The BBC SSO gives the Opening Concert, with Runnicles on the podium and the Festival Chorus singing Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, and the RSNO gives the closing one, Sir Andrew Davies conducting the Chorus in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. The RSNO also appears under the baton of Elim Chan to play Bartok and Tan Dun and with Thomas Sondergard to perform Mahler 3 with the RSNO Junior Chorus and the Festival Chorus.

The Chorus’s busy August also includes Janacek Glagolitic Mass with the Czech Phil and Beethoven 9 with the Philadelphia, while the National Youth Choir of Scotland sings in the opening and closing Usher Hall concerts as well as at the 2022 Festival’s free opening event at Murrayfield Stadium, which is expected to attract an audience of up to 20,000.

The Philadelphia’s residency also includes a free 75th anniversary concert at the end of the Festival, details of which have yet to be announced, as well as a further Usher Hall concert including Szymanowski and Florence Price, and Mozart chamber music at the Queen’s Hall, featuring Nezet-Seguin at the piano.

Douglas Boyd conducts the Philharmonia in the Festival’s only fully-staged opera, a Garsington production of Dvorak’s Rusalka by Jack Furness with Natalya Romaniw in the title role, and Runnicles conducts a concert performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio. In a further nod towards the Festival’s origins, its chamber music programme at the Queen’s Hall includes a String Trio by Hans Gals, another refugee who made his home in the Scottish capital and was a founding figure of the event.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra has two concerts, one with Nicola Benedetti, the EIF’s recently-announced artistic director designate, performing Bruch, and playing Gershwin, Bernstein and Copland under the direction of pianist Wayne Marshall, the musical director of last year’s A Grand Night for Singing.

The Usher Hall programme is completed by appearances from Les Siecles and Francois-Xavier Roth, featuring music from 1913 by Lili Boulanger and Igor Stravinsky, Hesperion XXI and Jordi Savall with music from the 14th century, the LSO, Sir Simon Rattle and a Daniel Kidane premiere, Zubin Mehta conducting the Australian World Orchestra, Bernard Labadie directing Handel’s Saul with Iestyn Davies and The English Consort, and the Festival debut of the Helsinki Philharmonic, conducted by Susanna Malkki.

The Festival’s return to the Queen’s Hall after the pandemic includes Brett Dean playing with the Hebrides Ensemble, pianist Malcolm Martineau with Florian Boesch for Winterreise and with Steven Osborne and a quartet of voices, soprano Golda Schultz, mezzos Magdalena Kozena and  Anne Sofie von Otter, Richard Egarr, Dunedin Consort, Ronald Brautigam and the Takacs and Pavel Haas Quartets.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs from August 5 – 28. General booking opens on April 8.

eif.co.uk

Picture: Natalya Romaniw by Antonio Olmos

BBC SSO / Sanderling

City Halls, Glasgow

For the second week running, the BBC SSO has played like an orchestra utterly transformed. Why has the sound been so instantly arresting and synergic? How come every moment of attack has been like a bolt of lightning, everyone – audience included – on the edge of their seats?  Why are there smiles of satisfaction and sheer enjoyment on the players’ faces? Easy, it’s all down the conductor.

This week, Michael Sanderling, of the famous German conducting family, was on the podium. From the word go, in this upbeat coupling of Haydn and Mahler, there was a palpable magic in the air. Foremost, he instilled in the orchestra a confidence to express itself: disciplined and super-clean in Haydn’s Cello Concerto No 2, but with a pliable, cosseted warmth that enriched its vital interaction with the soloist Alexey Stadler; and equally Haydnesque in articulating the steely definition of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, but wild and free enough to capture its childlike wonderment.

Stadler’s own performance in the Haydn was a captivating amalgam of exuberance and poise. He conquered effortlessly its challenges – rapidly virtuosic with a tendency towards the topmost reaches of the cello’s fingerboard and beyond – and with a lustrous singing tone that married crystalline focus with hair-raising magnitude. 

There was nothing routine or subordinate in the SSO’s performance, Sanderling – himself a cellist – nurturing every nuance with calculated accuracy and meaningful prominence. Nor, after such a brilliant performance by the Russian soloist, and the audience demanding more, was there much chance of Stadler getting away without an encore. He responded with aching pathos – the haunting unaccompanied strains of the Adagio from the Solo Sonata No 1 by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Polish-born Jew who suffered oppression under Stalin while living in Soviet Russia.

That moment of resonating contemplation was instantly swept aside in the second half with the jingling bells that introduce Mahler’s Symphony No 4. There are many ways to convey the visionary innocence of this instrumentally-light – for `Mahler – work. Sanderling chose detailed precision as the catalyst for his persuasive solution. 

“Don’t hurry”, indicates the composer in his opening tempo instructions. That was exactly the impression Sanderling imparted, a very Germanic approach that fed the overall performance with powerful, self-generating momentum. Rather than stifling Mahler’s impetuous tempi changes, this heightened their impact, a sense of harnessed ecstasy that, when it was offered release, did so with thrilling abandon. 

The orchestral playing brimmed with electrifying incision and distinctive colourings, as much from the many solo contributions as the integral ensembles. The Adagio, its timeless expression of death and acceptance, served breathtakingly its pivotal role between the devilish Scherzo and Mahler’s final illuminating vision of peace. 

Swedish soprano Miah Persson imbued the Finale’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn text – “Heaven is hung with violins” – with an embracing, motherly charm. The unwinding to ultimate silence was a mind-blowing clincher – milked thoroughly by Sanderling – with which to end.

Ken Walton

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, after which it will be available for 30 days via BBC Sounds 

BBC SSO / Volkov

City Halls, Glasgow

Bruno Maderna’s music deserves greater prominence than it gets in today’s concert billings. As an active, if largely underrated, figure in the European postwar avant-garde, who mentored such slightly younger luminaries as Stockhausen, Berio and Boulez, he has never quite attained the lasting presence he deserves. 

Thanks, then, to Ilan Volkov and the BBC SSO for building a programme – at least the first half of last Thursday’s afternoon concert – around his exuberant and acerbic Venetian Journal, a concert-style monodrama, written two years before his death in 1973, which paints a wacky vision of James Boswell’s 18th century visit to Venice, as documented with plentiful self-conceit in the Scots diarist’s own colourful recollections.

Scored for tenor, orchestra and tape, there was no mistaking, in this brilliantly wicked and wittily-presented performance, parallels to Peter Maxwell Davies’ anarchic music theatre pieces that would have been emerging around the same time. But Maderna’s voice is a wholly individual one, his textures clean and sparkling, expressive of a musical language that remains incisive and distinctive even when it makes carping jokes or travels in time.

Venetian Journal explodes into life with a vying racket of pre-recorded operatic snatches and orchestral gunfire, the soloist – the animated tenor Benjamin Hulett – entering as the fatuous Boswell, initially calming the menagerie, but soon summoning the bluster and gaucheness necessary to match the music’s restless narrative.

Hullet played a blinder, accentuating the pomposity of the character through his impressive vocal agility. It was left to the compact instrumental ensemble to capture the multiple excesses, not least the score’s high-speed, cartoon-like volatility and irrepressible sense of ridicule and laughter. Its sardonic directness was right up Volkov’s street.

So was Maderna’s Tre pezzi, a chamber ensemble arrangement of three pieces by the seminal Italian Baroque composer, Frescobaldi, which projects the original music through a modern-day lens. On he one hand, Volkov elicited a warm and comforting period sound from the players, while at the same time capturing the crystalline quirks – the obsessive accentuated prominence given to cellular motifs – with which Maderna opens our eyes to the inner workings of Renaissance polyphony. 

Genuine French Baroque opened the concert’s second half, an orchestral suite by Rameau (edited by Nicholas McGegan) from his 1749 opera Naïs. Here was further opportunity for the SSO to show off its stylistic adaptability, which it did with finely-honed discipline, but with plentiful ruggedness and exuberance to express the celebratory nature of this musical response to the termination of the War of Austrian Succession. 

As if to offer a right to reply, it was an Austrian symphony that concluded this engagement, Haydn’s Symphony No 82, The Bear. The subtitle wasn’t Haydn’s, and is essentially irrelevant. But there was adequate vigour and sturdy, irrepressible momentum in this performance to warrant a nod in its favour. It was also elegant, and yet another riveting example of the chemistry between Volkov and the SSO.

Ken Walton 

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, after which it will be available for 30 days via BBC Sounds

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

Vaughan Williams’ plaintive and popular musical depiction of avian levitation, The Lark Ascending. is, without doubt, a beautiful piece of writing, the solo violin soaring heavenwards over the orchestra’s dreamy pastoral landscape. What really helps, and which counters its tendency these days to overexposure, is a violinist who can look at it with fresh eyes. I rather liked the way Dutch soloist Rosanne Philippens imbued her BBC SSO performance with a subtle, enhanced degree of animation.

There was a chirpiness to this lark, spontaneous rhythmic frissons capturing a scene more alive, more instinctive, than the many misty-eyed performances we’ve become used to. The whimsical unpredictability of Philippens’ interpretation, alertly backed up by conductor Mark Wigglesworth, was a refreshing surprise.

As was the ensuing, unscripted performance of Ravel’s flirtatious Tzigane, which turned the encore spot into another fully-fledged, quasi-concerto experience. In this swashbuckling single-movement pastiche, fired by the same extrovert virtuoso spirit as Liszt’s gypsy salon pieces, Philippens could really let herself go, in the rhapsodic swagger of the unaccompanied opening and the accumulating pyrotechnics that fuelled the final, action-packed adrenalin rush.

It was in the latter, too, that Wigglesworth and the SSO found more solid, common ground. Previously, in Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde, uneven entries had lent unease at the start, though soon found a surer footing en route to the unfolding ecstasy of the Liebestod. 

That excitable compatibility carried over to the second half, and a power-packed performance of Sibelius’ Symphony No 1. It’s a work that has defined much of the SSO’s past – intense and fiery under Jerzy Maksymiuk in the 1980s, steely and electrifying under Osmo Vänskä in the 1990s – and here they responded immediately to the more heated and outwardly passionate vision of Wigglesworth.

The first movement, some iffy solo intonation in the slow introduction aside, bore a self-contained satisfaction, defiant and fulminating. The lower-grade tempestuousness of the slow movement, and the pounding rhythmic energy of the Scherzo created a suitably heightened expectancy for the thrusting turbulence of the Finale, and its surprise pizzicato sign-off. 

Everything these days has a tendency to harbour subliminal resonances to the turmoil on Russia’s borders. It was hard not to read something into the nationalist zeal implicit in this symphony, given Finland’s neighbouring geographical position. This performance hit a powerful, if unintentional, note in that respect.

Ken Walton

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available for 30 days after broadcast via BBC Sounds.
The programme is repeated live at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Sun 13 March at 3pm.

BBC SSO / Dausgaard

City Halls, Glasgow

What began as an inspired return, following a lengthy absence from the BBC SSO by its principal conductor Thomas Dausgaard, took a tumble in the second half with a Brahms concerto that defied its potential. 

The soloist in Thursday’s concert was Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov, outspoken last week against his country’s invasion of Ukraine, whose musical brawn, by its hefty physicality, is ideally suited to Brahms’ heavy-duty First Piano Concerto. But this was not a comfortable performance, Melnikov’s moments of focused composure – which were many – interrupted by bouts of unsteadiness.

It wasn’t solely Melnikov’s fault. Dausgaard clearly had his own vision of the work, a determination to over-egg its expressive purpose to the point of aggravating the solo line. Aspects of balance were mismanaged, some of the woodwind tuning in the slow movement warranted better attention, though the finale did inject late promise of lively conciliation. But Brahms wasn’t the outright winner.

How different things were in the first half. In an affectionate gesture towards the awful plight of Ukraine, Dausgaard inserted an unplanned concert opener, a gently rocking serenade movement from Stille Musik by the  84-year-old Kyiv-born composer, Valentin Silvestrov. It was simple and idyllic.

Then to the official programme, and a fascinating juxtaposition of early Bartok and late Nielsen. The big attraction here was Nielsen’s final symphony, his Sixth, subtitled “Sinfonia semplice”, anything but a simple symphony other than the hypertensive transparency and brittle economy of its textures. Beyond that, it is enigmatically, often brutally, eccentric, like musical graffiti.

That surely appealed to Dausgaard, whose strategy was to exaggerate its extremes. So the insistent, repetitive recurrence of the glockenspiel was as pointedly irritating as it was charmingly whimsical, the acerbic grotesqueness of the Humoreske reeked of vicious mockery, while at the other end of the spectrum, Nielsen’s fresh, elusive lyricism poked through to reveal an underbelly of warmth. The performance had its cliff-edge moments, but rarely failed to thrill.

The Bartok couplet, his Two Portraits, was a helpful route towards that, opening with music adapted by the composer from his First Violin Concerto, and featuring resplendent solo playing by leader Laura Samuel. Built initially on a masterful long-range crescendo, the impact of this SSO performance was powerful and ultimately luxurious, before being cast aside by the tomfoolery of the second Portrait.

Ken Walton

Recorded for BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, then available for 30 days via BBC Sounds

TECTONICS Goes Live

This year’s Tectonics Glasgow Festival (30 April – 1 May) will focus on the music of Janet Beat, the 84-year-old pioneering Glasgow-based composer who, in the 1950s, was among the first British woman to explore the potential of electronics music composition. 

Beat – who in 2019 received the first ever Scottish Women in Music Lifetime Achievement Ward, and only last year released her debut album “Pioneering Knob Twiddler” – will be featured through works for solo performer and electronics, performed by members of the BBC SSO and British soprano Juliet Fraser. Fraser also forms part of the 4-artist line-up in a tribute programme, the Beat Goes On, featuring live sets by experimentalist performers Andie Brown, Sharon Gal and Ailie Ormston.

The 2022 event, centred at Glasgow’s City Halls and Old Fruitmarket and with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at its core, marks the event’s first return to live performance after two years of Covid-enforced online presentation. Co-curated by founder and conductor Ilan Volkov and creative sound producer Alasdair Campbell, the two-day programme will also feature 5 world premieres, together with an installation and performances by the Japanese-based sound artist FUJI||||||||||TA.

There will be brand new BBC commissions for orchestra by Pascale Criton, Joanna Ward and Amber Priestley, further new works by creative duo Cassandra Miller and Silvia Tarozzi and James Weeks, and UK premieres from Liza Lim and Kristine Tjøgersen.  

Other Festival highlights include collaborations by sound artist Russell Haswell and violist Ailbhe Nic Oireachtaig with members of the SSO. French bassist Joëlle Léandre teams up with Jamaican composer, improviser, sculptor and instrument-maker Douglas R Ewart, whose 1979 conceptual instrumental work Red Hills will be performed by the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra.

The majority of performances will be recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3, including a special edition of the New Music Show on 7 May. Some performances, still to be confirmed, will also be available to watch digitally.

Booking opens Friday 4 March at 10am.  Further details can be found at www.bbc.co.uk/tectonics

BBC SSO / Chauhan

City Halls, Glasgow

Alpesh Chauhan set himself a mighty challenge in a BBC SSO programme that receded from the tipping point of Austro-German Romanticism in the first half to its full-blown meaty excess in the second. It was in the mountainous journey of the latter – Bruckner’s “Romantic” Symphony No 4 – that the SSO’s young associate conductor had the biggest opportunity to really flex his creative powers.

The first half was anything but a simple warm up, though the opening bars of Webern’s Op 1 Passacaglia bore the distinct uncertainty of a cold start. After the theme’s initial pizzicato statement the tempo wobbled, the instrumental coordination disconcertingly slack. Chauhan establish rhythmic control quickly enough to capture the inevitability of the work’s post-Wagnerian ebb and flow. Climaxes surged, but the missing factor in this performance was the vital detailed dovetailing of instrumental colours. That’s where the soul and momentum of this music lies.

The arrival of Scots mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill for Schoenberg’s passionate Song of the Wood Dove from his epic cantata Gurrelieder, presented here in the composer’s reduced chamber version of 1922, was a moment of instant transformation. The work is a perfect fit for Cargill’s gloriously versatile voice, whether in the rich lower depths of the opening and much beyond, or in her topmost notes as the work reaches its emotional peak.

Her integral position within the small instrumental group did nothing to limit the expressive breadth and intensity of her performance. Indeed, it helped cement the overall cohesiveness and nuanced precision of the delivery, Chauhan underpinning Cargill’s high-voltage opulence with the neat, harnessed incision of the tight-knit chamber ensemble.

Then the massed ranks for Bruckner’s Fourth, brass splayed across the upper balcony somewhat threateningly but also excitingly. Chauhan’s approach was mostly clinical, which certainly facilitated the efficient flow of the symphony, and allowed its many build-ups to shake the rafters and tingle the spine. There were plenty notable moments, whether in the melancholy poise of the Andante or the rapture of the Scherzo’s outer sections.

The problem with Bruckner, though, is combining the engineering of a performance with the overriding realisation of its soul and purpose. There was a prevailing sense here that the latter was sold short. As with the Webern, Chauhan’s grasp of the big picture was tenuous, with too many psychological hiatuses and a resulting tendency to stall the momentum and invoke nervousness in some of the orchestral response. That was inevitably disappointing.

Ken Walton

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 1 March, and is then available for 30 days via BBC Sounds

BBC SSO / Carneiro

City Halls, Glasgow

Stravinsky’s Petrushka seemed the inevitable endpoint to a BBC SSO afternoon concert that had explored, en route, the defiant energy of Anna Clyne’s pulverising «rewind« and the iridescent intensity of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Piano Concerto.

It was a journey that sizzled under the charismatic, needle-sharp direction of Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro. From her initial ebullient stage entrance, and a first downbeat fearsome enough to set the audience, never mind the players, on the edge of their seats, she had us completely under her spell.

Clyne’s opening work – a reworking of her original 2005 orchestra and tape version for Kitty McNamee’s Hysterica Dance Company – pulled no punches. Vigorous, uncompromisingly repetitive, and with glittering, intoxicating textures to offset the dry brutality of its punctuating chords, it was met with a blistering performance equal to its intent. The SSO was on red hot form.

They were joined by the South Korean pianist, Yeol Eum Son, for Salonen’s 2007 three-movement Concerto. Written originally for the Israeli-American pianist Yefim Bronfman, it is consequently robust, physically intense and fiercely virtuosic. Eum Son had no problems making it her own, matching its muscular demands with a gracefulness that was mostly effective in the numerous conversations the soloist engages in with single instruments.

Salonen, best known as a leading conductor, is no slouch when it comes to composition. Within a personal stye that is as soulful as it is viciously dissonant, he seamlessly ingests influences as varied as Bartok, Adams, Gershwin and Stravinsky in this work, which itself lends to an elusive circumspection – the constant flow of new ideas seemingly arising out of fresh air – that this performance highlighted.

Stravinsky’s Petrushka (1947 version) came as an inevitable resolution to these two foregoing works. And once again, Carneiro’s electric presence inspired a top-notch response. Incisive and impulsive from the outset, it was a performance heightened by kaleidoscopic sensitivities, rhythmic precision and an unrelenting sense of unanimity from an orchestra wholly reactive to this highly impressive conductor.

Ken Walton

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

Whether it was always planned as such is still an open question, but the announcement of the appointment of composer/conductor Ryan Wigglesworth to succeed Thomas Dausgaard at the artistic helm of the BBC Scottish happily coincided with the Beeb’s celebrations of its centenary with concerts by all its performing groups on Radio 3, combining the music of the 1920s with that of the 2020s.

As Wigglesworth told VoxCarnyx last week, that was an interesting brief, and his programme came up with one of the weekend’s best answers to it, with a composition of his own representing our own time and three contrasting but complementary works from the 20th century.

His Five Waltzes for viola and orchestra have had an organic gestation since three of them began as piano pieces written on the occasion of the birth of his son, Raphael two years ago. After becoming a five-movement duet with violist Lawrence Power, the toddler was orchestrated for this occasion for a small ensemble with no upper strings replacing the piano. The soloist was the SSO’s principal viola Scott Dickinson, and the framing outer movements in particular seemed to owe something to the Modernism audible elsewhere in the evening.

The original trio are like snapshots or audio postcards and their piano origins were often still clear in the scoring, but the instrumentation always left plenty of space for the virtuosic solo line.

The concert’s other soloist was Katherine Broderick, whose powerful soprano was perfect for Berg’s Three Fragments from Wozzeck and Richard Strauss’s Hymn to Love, the evening’s nod towards Valentine’s Day. A Wagnerian who boasts a fine catalogue of 20th century song recordings, she bridged the gap between high Romanticism and Modernism with deceptive ease. Delightfully animated in the Strauss, she soared over the full orchestration in both.

If the Berg inevitably made one long for the full score, that was partly because of Wigglesworth’s attention to the details in what we heard. Especially in the compelling string playing in the final extract, here was evidence that this partnership between conductor and orchestra could be a highly rewarding one.

The least familiar piece of the evening was the opening work, Kurt Weill’s Quodlibet, which proved a real gem. That catch-all, almost dismissive, title hides a dramatic four-movement suite derived from a ballet score, Zaubernacht, that Weill composed as a student. With loads of opportunity for solo cameos across the orchestra, theatrical use of percussion and a very busy timpani part, the music is both clearly of its time (the early 1920s) and full of pre-echoes of Weill’s later work for the stage, particularly The Threepenny Opera.

Keith Bruce

Available on BBC Sounds

“Throwback” looks forward

Ryan Wigglesworth, newly-appointed Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, talks to Keith Bruce about his multi-disciplinary life and plans for the future.

The man who will take over from Thomas Dausgaard as Chief Conductor of the BBC SSO in September is better acquainted with the orchestra than some will immediately recognise.

“I’ve been working on and off with the orchestra for quite a number of years,” he says. “It is probably ten years since my first concert, which was a Shakespeare-inspired programme with Korngold and Berlioz. Then we did a residency at Aldeburgh with a couple of concerts covering a vast amount of music, I remember.

“And during lockdown we had the chance to work together a few times in the studio doing Mozart and Mendelssohn, and culminating in what was the first concert back in front of a small audience in the Royal Concert Hall when we performed Elgar 1. It was so wonderful to play repertoire on that scale again, even although everyone was distanced.”

It is however the wide range of Wigglesworth’s practice as a musician that makes his appointment more unusual. He has spoken before of his “core business” being as a composer, and he has been a prolific one in recent years, with an acclaimed opera adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale for ENO, orchestral pieces for the Royal Concertgebouw, Cleveland and BBC Symphony, and songs for some of the UK’s best-loved voices. He is also a virtuoso pianist and accompanist, while his conducting work has included a three-year stint as Principal Guest of the Halle.

Composer/conductors can often be found in Associate orchestral posts, with Matthias Pintscher a notable recent example at the SSO, but rarely occupy the Chief seat.

“I suppose I am a throwback,” he says. “I don’t think this was an issue before the 20th century, when these jobs became, for whatever reason, a bit more specialised.

“Before that you were just a musician, and I suppose that’s how I see it. I can’t separate the different strands really. I’m learning so much about conducting when I compose and vice-versa. If I am learning a new work, I can’t but take it apart with the eyes of a composer – I want to know how it is built.

“It is just the way the world has gone: ever-increasing specialisation has been the trend in pretty much every walk of life.”

And while new music will certainly be part of his plans for the BBC Scottish, Wigglesworth’s musical hinterland goes back to Early Music.

“I am from a non-musical family – my dad was a butcher – but somehow I became a chorister in Sheffield and that was the start of it all. Singing has remained at the core of what I do; I love working in opera and I love working with singers. Renaissance polyphony goes so deep, and it is something I think about a lot. Very quickly, I gravitated towards the organ and I was an organ scholar at university and as a result of that was very involved with period instrument groups, playing continuo.

“I went to the Guildhall after university but then went back to university to do some post-grad. In that period I was performing lots of Bach and Handel and I was very grateful to have had the experience of working with period instruments, even if it something I regretfully don’t get to do much these days. Having had that experience, it naturally informs my approach to music of the classical era that I do get to do with symphony orchestras.

“It is particularly exciting to me that the SSO has such a strong track record in that repertoire having had a relationship with the likes of Andrew Manze. It is an almost uniquely versatile orchestra with the experience of performing so much large scale Wagner and Mahler with Donald Runnicles, and developing a sound in that late Romantic repertoire, as well as their brilliance in performing music that was written yesterday.

“It is a world-class orchestra but an orchestra that is so at home in very different repertoire.”

“Having started with Baroque and been a composer involved with new music, I have come towards the centre. I strongly believe that for the health of an orchestra we must be regularly playing the music of Wagner, Bruckner, Strauss. It is so good to work on sound in that repertoire. That’s when the symphony orchestra became fully defined and it holds epic challenges.

“Late Bruckner, as an interpreter, is still a great challenge because, unlike Mahler, the work isn’t done for you. Mahler was a supreme practical musician, but in Bruckner there are so many decisions to be made, and that’s why it is so endlessly fascinating.

“I am hopeful that we can have a first season that allows myself and the orchestra to dip our toes into lots of different things. It is a period when we will be learning a lot about each other, and I hope there is the opportunity and space to start to develop that identity across a number of areas.

“Initially, when it comes to new music I see my job as identifying those composers that will be interesting for the orchestra and our audiences, and developing long-term relationships with those composers. I want to create a family of composers who feel ‘in residence’ and have more than one project over a certain amount of time.”

There will be an early opportunity to hear Wigglesworth the soloist when he direct a Mozart concerto from the piano in an afternoon concert that also includes the world premiere of a new work by Jorg Widmann and Sibelius Symphony No 4.

“In May, when I come to play and direct some Mozart, it will be wonderful to be able to have a different kind of relationship with the orchestra. It allows us the freedom to simply listen to one another and to begin to develop the telepathy that is so important in the relationship between conductor and orchestra; the more that can be unsaid the better.”

Soprano Katherine Broderick

More imminently, the Chief Conductor Designate is on the podium for the SSO’s contribution to Sunday’s celebration of the BBC’s centenary, with his own Five Waltzes sitting alongside music of the 1920s by Weill, Strauss and Berg.

“The opportunity to think about music from the early 20s when so much was going on was a wonderful challenge,” he says. “The Scenes from Wozzeck was so important to the early days of the BBC and it’s music that is dear to my heart.”

His own work in the programme began as a piano piece before become a duo with violist Lawrence Power. Composed to mark the birth of his first child, Five Waltzes has now grown once again.

“It is now orchestrated for winds and lower strings, and slightly expanded from the piano and viola version. I am very excited to do it with Scott Dickinson in such a mixed programme.”

Less than a month later, a song cycle Wigglesworth has written to mark the more recent birth of his daughter, Vignettes de Jules Renard, will have its world premiere at the Barbican, sung by baritone Roderick Williams, alongside works by Faure, Ravel and Judith Weir.

Those pieces come from a time that was fruitful in different ways for Wigglesworth.

“Our first baby was born at the start of lockdown, so I was able to see him every day for the first year of his life. And the second one was born two weeks ago, so in that sense it has been a busy time!

“It was also a time when a lot of creative artists found it extremely difficult to write, or to paint, because it was such an unreal period. Looking back at it now, from this short distance, it did come with huge benefits as well as being such a hard time for so many people.

“For us creative types there was a bit of space to think, and get back to first principles. I played the piano a lot, which is something I hadn’t been able to do – to be able to play the Bach 48 every day was cathartic! And we put on little concerts in our village in Oxfordshire when my wife and I invited musician friends like Stephen Hough and Mark Padmore.”

With his Glasgow appointment, however, Wigglesworth is already thinking in terms of his children getting to know Scotland.

“I want my family to feel at home here, and it not just be a place where I come to rehearse and do a concert.

“I’ve just finished quite a big chorus and orchestra piece which will be premiered by Ed Gardner and his Bergen orchestra in April, and the immediate focus is on the job here. There’s been a series of orchestral projects as a composer going back some years now, and I think I am going to enjoy taking a step back from that, maybe writing a bit of chamber music, but the focus is on creating a home here.

“There’s so much I am interested in learning about – like the orchestra’s work in Campbeltown and those sort of residencies where we can identify a community and bring something to really make a difference. I want to learn about all of the orchestra’s audiences, at the Music Hall in Aberdeen, the Usher Hall and Perth Concert Hall.

“I have worked in many of the halls and I adore the country, but the process is never-ending. That’s a hugely exciting prospect and it is something I’ve been longing for. That sense of belonging and a place where I can focus my energies.”

Ryan Wigglesworth conducts the BBC SSO on Sunday February 13 in Glasgow’s City Halls. The concert, with soloists Katherine Broderick (soprano) and Scott Dickinson (viola) is part of the BBC 100 celebrations and broadcast live on Radio 3.

Portrait of Ryan Wigglesworth copyright BBC and Gordon Burniston

BBC SSO / Hermus

City Halls, Glasgow

An editor I worked for argued that typographical “entry points” – including star ratings on reviews – were an encouragement to readers, while I worried they could as easily dissuade them from engaging with the writing. A similar argument might be had over the work of Dutch percussionist, composer and arranger Henk de Vlieger, who has concentrated the music of the operas of Richard Wagner into programmable works for orchestra.

The RSNO’s performance and recording of The Ring: An Orchestral Adventure with veteran chief conductor Neeme Jarvi was my introduction to his scores, and this week the BBC Scottish, under de Vlieger’s countryman Anthony Hermus, performed another. Why The Ring is an “adventure” and Meistersinger “An Orchestral Tribute” is of minor semantic interest – the formula is the same and it would be churlish to suggest that either work does anything but entice listeners into the opera-house.

In the second half of a programme that had begun with the equally-colourful violin concerto of Erich Korngold, it was also both a complement and a contrast. While the former is, almost by definition, “cinematic”, Wagner’s music is theatrical. The reason the epic Ring cycle can be staged in so many radically different ways is that the drama is always there in the music.

And this was a very dramatic performance of the Meistersinger music. Guest-led by the RSNO’s Maya Iwabuchi, there was immense power in the orchestra’s strings and dependable articulacy from the winds. The brass took up position in the choir stalls and there were six horns in full Wagner mode – sections reinforced by offstage players at the back of the auditorium later on. When the drums and timpani joined in, the full surround-sound experience was formidable.

Yet there was also a lightness of touch about the conductor’s approach that allowed the narrative  to emerge, even if the full story of the opera would remain opaque to those unfamiliar with it. Yes, it had its grandiose moments, even in that opening Prelude, but it never seemed unnecessarily pompous.

Although it is less true of the current generation of composers for the big screen, in the first half of the 20th century what was meant by “cinematic” was as much the sound that composers who had found refuge in Hollywood after fleeing Eastern Europe had brought with them. That hypothesis is perfectly illustrated by Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D, which is full of music that also appeared in his film scores but may well have been repurposed there from earlier composition for the concert platform.

Making his debut with the SSO, the very youthful-looking Benjamin Beilman took a very measured, soulful approach to the opening bars that left him plenty of room to manoeuvre. Equally measured in his direction, Hermus gave the soloist all the space he needed in the slow movement, allowing the skewed arpeggios at the end to be a moving echo of the jagged modernist cadenza in the opening one.

It is from the start of the Allegro Finale that we are most clearly in the world of vibrant screen action, albeit a genre-hopping one that manages to suggest the Wild West, action thrillers and historical romance in successive bars. Beilman brought a huge tone to the performance, but also elegant precision – which he recapped, with that soulfulness too, in an encore of Bach.

This concert is available on BBC Sounds

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Widmann

City Halls, Glasgow

The most intriguing facet of Thursday’s lively BBC SSO afternoon concert was not so much the outré demeanour of Jörg Widmann the dynamic and extrovert clarinettist, as the daring originality and inward intensity of his own compositions, which were the exclusive content of the programme’s second half.

The most substantial work was the last to be performed, a sequence of ten concise movements under the collective title Freie Stücke (Free Pieces), written 20 years ago in honour of his teacher Wolfgang Rihm’s 50th birthday. They are highly individual, fascinating in their explorations of subliminal, modernist timbres, and yet proclaim some nostalgia for the aphoristic no-nonsense ideals of such early serialists as Webern. 

That latter quality was prominent in a performance, conducted by Widmann, that bore electrifying transparency and attention-grabbing immediacy. Opening with a fog of spectral harmonics, and a slow steady crescendo that grew menacingly like an approaching swarm of bees, the initial impression was of a slow-burner, a landscape more primordial than existential. 

But that was simply a seedbed for the maturing of ideas, the nuclear intensity of which erupted in short, sharp utterances. With the SSO on full alert, the result was as exhilarating as it was, at times, bewildering. A whispered (concert) ending seemed the perfect way for Widmann to emphasise its unorthodoxy.

He preceded that with a one-man performance of his Fantasie for solo clarinet, a dazzling floor show that said as much about his action-packed personality as his extraordinary facility on the instrument. Packed with darting, scattergun references to jazz, klezmer and so much more, Widmann’s delivery was a stage sensation.

The first half was given over to more established repertoire. SSO Leader Laura Samuel led a neatly charismatic performance of Mozart’s Divertimento in D major, K136, that showed the strings at their corporate best, a glowingly superb and motivated team.

Widmann’s first appearance was in Weber’s Clarinet Quintet in B flat major (its chamber music version). If there were moments in his animated performance that drew a slight ugliness of tone, the instinctive, breathless theatricality of it more than compensated.

Ken Walton

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast 

Portrait by Marco Borggreve


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