As we near the end of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, conductor Martyn Brabbins concluded his latest programme on the podium for the BBC Scottish with the composer’s Fifth Symphony before he directs the soundtrack of Scott of the Antarctic with a screening of the 1948 film on Saturday.
The score of the latter would be reworked as Vaughan Williams’ Seventh, the Sinfonia Antarctica, five years later, and it was the revised 1951 version that we heard the Fifth. Although its thematic material is richly various through its four movements, Brabbins made a coherent argument for its overall shape. The symphony begins with solos from the first horn and principal flute – guests Christopher Gough and Katherine Bryan here – and has a colourful and fun Scherzo second movement before a melancholy third movement Romanza featuring further solos from among the winds and strings.
Vaughan Williams dedicated the symphony to Sibelius, who admired it, and the musical material of the outer movements owes much to the Finnish composer, with specific echoes of his late work, Tapiola, which appropriately opened the concert. As impressive as they were in last weekend’s Wagner, the SSO strings were on superb form again here, the violas in particular at the start. Brabbins found a really sparky narrative drive in the work, with its evocation of a bleak and mystical environment, lashed by wind and rain.
However, the main attraction for many on what was a well-attended Thursday evening was the gentler autumnal sound of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Unlike Kurt Weill, Strauss finds a very short way from Spring to September in his setting of the words of Herman Hesse, and soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn brought a beautifully shaped, never indulgent, legato to that journey.
Having been a stalwart of Scottish Opera’s outdoor operas in its Edington Street car park during lockdown, Llewellyn has her own Glasgow following, alongside that of Brabbins, which doubtless helped at the box office. She also has her own distinctive way with the Four Last Songs, lighter of voice than many, but expressive and alive to all the details of interaction with the instrumentalists. Those included fine solo playing by orchestra leader Laura Samuel and lyrical work from flutes and piccolo.
The intimations of mortality in Hesse’s Beim Schlafengehen and Eichendorff’s Im Abendrot may have been more obviously realised by a fuller mezzo voice, but Llewellyn brought an individual ambiguity as well as a musical clarity to the cycle.
It was a bit of a risk for the BBC SSO to programme a Wagner opera, albeit a shortened form of Götterdämmerung remodelled as a “symphonic journey” by the orchestra’s multi-talented chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, given that anything so heavyweight is guaranteed to test the limits of the City Halls acoustics. Then again, this is a venue that, in the 1980s and prior to modernisation, accommodated Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony, so maybe it wasn’t such a crazy idea.
Wigglesworth’s original motive for creating his 50-minute version was, he claims, to provide a shortened concert alternative to the whole without resorting to what has often been termed “bleeding chunks”. And to a great extent he succeeds, majoring on the prologue and Act 3 music with its critical and conclusive Immolation music, while padding the musical progression out with relevant infill from elsewhere in the massive score.
So yes, it was Wagnerian heaven, eventually. Wigglesworth has a habit of over-controlling things, which was more evident earlier in the performance, in a safety-first sort of way, than in the later stages, especially once the resplendent soprano Katherine Broderick let rip with those final epic moments as Brünnhilde. Her voice powered through the orchestra, and the heat of the opera suddenly became more ecstatically real.
It was here, too, that Wigglesworth awoke to the drama, the SSO responding in turn with gushing waves of true Wagnerian exhilaration and passion. Then, the cathartic transformation of the closing bars, and a quiet intensity that hung magically in the air. Even so, I was left unconvinced that this is the final say in how concert adaptations of Wagner can best work.
In a shorter first half, Wigglesworth offered another of his pet enthusiasms, music by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen, indeed the UK premiere of his Vers le silence (Towards the Silence), written during lockdown.
It opened with a shattered glass effect, a shrill tutti that busied itself intently until exhaustion quashed its searing euphoria, revealing a more restful, ethereal landscape. This appeared to be the game plan for the first three movements, each subtly altered in mood, but frustratingly repetitive in concept, only to be extinguished by an uneventful, slow-moving finale. Abrahamsen has a gift for texture, not so much for harmonic warmth. And strangely enough, it was the piccolo-heavy tuttis in this work that challenged the ears rather more than the Wagner did.
This programme is repeated at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on Sun 20 Nov
Anyone unfamiliar with Leos Janacek’s Sinfonietta will still have suspected that something big and exhilarating was on the cards for this well-attended afternoon concert – Bohemian Rhapsodies – by the BBC SSO under its chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth. The clue was in the expectant line of music strands splayed across the rear balcony, a sure sign that an additional grandstanding phalanx of brass would be appearing anytime soon.
But way before that, Wigglesworth opened with something rarer and altogether more populist by Janacek: his Lachian Dances, which arise out of the same rustic nationalist genre as fellow Bohemian Antonin Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances. They are tuneful, picturesque, with exuberant rhythmic surprises that thrill, moodily countered by curious modal colourings that frequently cool the ardour.
That didn’t prevent the SSO homing in on the music’s overarching optimism, plentiful in the swarthy, celebratory Pozehnany and swaggering Celadensky (Country Bumpkin’s Dance). Wigglesworth generally let them speak for themselves, though a further reining in of the wind and brass would have warranted a better-balanced presence by the strings.
Then came the highlight of the programme, a diversion into the whimsical world of Hungarian composer Erno Dohnanyi and his tongue-in-cheek concerto treatment of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, more quaintly known as his Variations on a Nursery Song. With its sidestepping jibes at all the greats – Liszt, Richard Strauss, Brahms, Bruckner and others – the satirical impact was made all the more effective by the clean, unfussy, matter-of-fact virtuosity of pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, pitted against Dohnanyi’s sparkling orchestration.
The comic set-up – a growling opening right out of the Wagner-Liszt camp – made its mark, power-driven by Wigglesworth only to be slapped down by the smirky fausse naïveté of Kanneh-Mason’s nursery theme entry. The partnership remained frivolously alert throughout.
The second half opened with four of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, their natural ebullience captured equally in spirit and lively content.
Finally, the massed balcony brass lined up for Janacek’s Sinfonietta, a daring challenge for the City Halls’ limited acoustics, but one well met by the molten, tumultuous quality of the brass ensemble and the overall orchestral spectacle this work exudes. Momentary untidiness in attack and balance issues aside, the overall impression was one of awesome spectacle. For that alone, it was worth waiting for.
For the second week running, the BBC SSO came up trumps with a conductor it instantly warmed to, and a programme that pulled in the crowds. The latter was significant on a day that saw the surprise announcement of a new UK-wide Head of Orchestras and Choirs, the current BBC Philharmonic boss Simon Webb, whose stated objectives include building audiences for all the BBC orchestras at a time when the BBC as a whole is undergoing a serious critical debate about its future.
On the basis of Thursday’s buzzing concert – a substantial complementary pairing of Shostakovich’s edgy Violin Concerto No 2 and Rachmaninov’s spine-tingling Second Symphony – you’d think the SSO had little to worry about. Under Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu, both performances bore a responsiveness and virility that was instantly engaging: very different in each case, but together symptomatic of an orchestra that clearly wanted to give its best.
Added to the mix was the formidable American-born Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä, whose unshakeable, coruscating presence in the Shostakovich injected fire, obstinacy, tenderness and pathos into a complex, at times harrowing, late work, which the composer fills hauntingly and fleetingly with reminiscences of his earlier music.
Such a vital concoction of responses filled this riveting performance, the gathering storm of the opening movement powered by the orchestra’s swelling presence, but also a piquancy arising from delicate interchanges between the soloist and orchestra principals, like a chattering dialogue with the piccolo, or endearingly with the flute in the central Adagio.
But it was in the finale that Vähälä found every opportunity to showcase her combative energy and stimulating musicality. Like a mischievous child, she threw truculent pronouncements at the orchestra, whose matching responses were just as incendiary and belligerent. Lintu played both fellow protagonist and artful arbiter in this electrifying trading of insults, forging a synthesis that held things together while maintained the inexorable swagger.
All was very different in the Rachmaninov, a reading by Lintu that was as sweeping as it was elemental. He made that clear in the opening minutes, a slow fashioning of strength that eventually blossomed and ceded at the broadest level, yet centred on delicious minutiae. He breathed radiant energy and sparkle into the scherzo, filled the Adagio with a timeless, but never laboured, expansiveness, and in the frenetic finale wrapped up a wholly satisfying programme with a rip-roaring send off.
Despite the last-minute change of conductor and soloist, it was heartening to witness a decent-sized audience at the City Halls, the first in a long time for the BBC SSO, and the sense of occasion and excitement such numbers duly generate. That the programme – music by Clyne, Chopin and Bartok – had a drawing power of its own easily mitigated the change of personnel. Even so, conductor Tito Muñoz (in for Joana Carneiro) and pianist Eric Lu (replacing the advertised Russian soloist, Zlata Chochieva) brought their own distinguished qualities to the performances.
Muñoz, the current long-standing music director of the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra in his native America, made his mark in an instant. He’s a no-nonsense conductor, with a whip-like beat that immediately pulled us into the murky world of Anna Clyne’s high-energy This Midnight Hour.
The composer – an Edinburgh University graduate most recently known to Scots through her stint as associate composer of the SCO – calls it “a visual journey expressed in sound”. In that respect, its cinematic flow – a restlessly unceasing soundtrack to what could easily be an imaginary film noir – is self-explanatory. The frenetic narrative changes gear at the drop of a hat – adrenalin-charged propulsion gives way to smoky cabaret ballad gives way to hymn-like calmness – but there’s rarely a moment’s breath en route.
Muñoz nailed every change of tempo and mood with resolute insistence and conviction. It was perhaps a mistake to ask the two onstage trumpeters to step out of the orchestra at such a quiet point in the score and make their way up to the rear gallery for a final offstage coup de théâtre. It provided an unnecessary distraction, even if the final result was thrilling.
Fellow American Eric Lu’s performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1 immediately reduced the temperature. His first bold entry signalled an approach that favoured care over caution, and indeed, what followed was a deliberately contained exposé that steered clear of effusive gesture or extrovert indulgence, instead harnessing the natural energy of Chopin’s writing and allowing its filigree meanderings to speak instinctively for themselves.
Where the opening movement enjoyed limitless free-flowing pianism set against a robust structural framework, the slow movement shone a more intimate, nocturnal spotlight on the young Lu – it’s only four years since the 24-year-old won the Leeds International Piano Competition – only to be thrust aside by the rhapsodic delights of the finale.
The focus shifted back to Muñoz and the SSO for the closing work in the programme, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and one of the 20th century’s most virtuosic orchestral masterpieces. The symmetrical relevance to Clyne’s opening work was not lost, once again dark features, sardonic references and blazing euphoria variously at play.
Muñoz’s pacing was masterfully gauged, moulding the organic volcanism of the opening movement, the pithy playfulness of the scherzo, the eery “night music” of the Elegia, the edgy lampooning of Shostakovich in the Intermezzo, and the whirling finale into one glorious aural spectacle. He certainly had the SSO playing their best so far this season.
It is not so very long since the symphonies of Robert Schumann were rarely programmed, which now seems strange. Whatever kept them out of the repertoire, conductors clearly relish tackling them today, and orchestras playing them.
The first, the “Spring” Symphony, has the energy a young man, newly wed to Clara Wieck, and Matthias Pintscher, returning to the orchestra where he was an associate artist, communicated that from the podium with enthusiasm, bouncing on the balls of his feet. The conductor was on top of all the details of the score, and in command of the overall shape too, with a sense of pace building through the complexities of the third movement into the Allegro finale.
The chain of communication within the strings was just as apparent – across the front desks and through the sections in a fine ensemble sound. There was excellent work from principal oboe Stella McCracken and first flute Bronte Hudnott in that finale too.
There are more 20th century oboe concertos than manage to elbow their way into 21st century concert schedules with any frequency, but they have a fine ambassador in Spanish soloist Cristina Gomez Godoy. The story of the genesis of Richard Strauss’s 1945 Oboe Concerto is a particularly good one (suggested to the composer by an oboe-playing G.I. stationed in Bavaria at the end of World War 2, it was eventually premiered in the US by the man who subsequently signed Aretha Franklin for her first recordings, but passed on The Beatles for the American market) and it is a great showcase for a virtuoso player from the first bars.
Gomez Godoy was also very engaged with the work the orchestra was doing, in the many echoes and exchanges with the other winds, and especially principal clarinet Yann Ghiro. Predictably, given the timbre of her instrument – and Gomez Godoy plays an impressively “bling” gold-keyed one – the plaintive central Andante was a highlight, but the faster music on either side of it was equally lyrical, the most upbeat of Strauss’s compositional Indian Summer.
The real rarity of Pintscher’s programme was Alexander Zemlinsky’s 1934 Sinfonietta, which opened the concert in its first performance by the orchestra. The work demands much of the strings from the start, and they delivered clear, focussed playing across the sections, with fine solos from leader Laura Samuel.
Zemlinsky’s score is edgy and colourfully orchestrated and sounds increasingly of its time as it progresses – not at all in a bad way – through the central “Ballade” to the cabaret and jazz inflections of the third and final movement, building in pace and volume.
This is very dramatic music, which had its US premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1940, only two years before the Viennese composer died in exile in New York. Unlike some more fortunate fellow refugees from the Nazis, he was a great loss to Hollywood.
Programme repeated at Aberdeen Music Hall on Friday September 30 and available on BBC Sounds.
Ryan Wigglesworth’s opening programme as new chief conductor of the BBC SSO told us much about what to expect from him as he nurtures his relationship with his new orchestra. It was anything but run-of-the-mill, offsetting the sparkling French textures of Ravel and Messiaen with brand new music by the interesting young Yorkshire-born composer Jonathan Woolgar. The musical journey, which also featured the pitch-perfect BBC Singers, was endlessly adventurous and repeatedly exhilarating. Wigglesworth has set his own bar unquestionably high.
As a composer himself, he has as eye – and an ear – for latent talent. In Woolgar’s new BBC commission, Symphonic Message in memory of L.R. (referring to the drama teacher Lynda Ross whom, the composer writes, inspired so many at his former school), Wigglesworth focused on the frenetic impatience of Woolgar’s musical characterisation, a fast-moving exchange of sharp-textured contradictions that paradoxically spelt completeness.
Wigglesworth could have pressed a little more to punch out the detail, even where Woolgar’s motivic invention itself lacked a natural spark, but this was a performance that lived by its adrenalin and sense of constant surprise. As such, it served well as a springboard to the French feast that lay ahead.
On their own, Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi – a musical gift to his wife Claire Delbos, pet name “Mi”, rather in the manner of Wagner’s Siegried Idyll – are a 1937 set of orchestral songs fulfilling enough in themselves. But with the BBC Singers to hand, why not offer a scene-setter in the form of the contemporaneous Messiaen a cappella motet, O sacrum convivium?
It was a magical moment, Wigglesworth’s contained gestures eliciting a mystical perfection from the 36-strong chorus, in both the thrilling unanimity and sustained stillness and slowness of the performance.
Without a break, Canadian soprano Jane Archibald (replacing Wigglesworth’s indisposed wife, Sarah Bevan, as soloist) unleashed a glowing interpretation of the nine Poèmes pour Mi, probing every expressive possibility, from internalised intensity to outward rapture. It wasn’t always possible to hear every word she sang above the glittering orchestration, but as a whole, and with the SSO extolling the full virtues of Messiaen’s orchestral sweetness and translucence, this was an utterly sublime and moving performance.
Much of that was down to Wigglesworth’s highly prescriptive conducting. He appears to be something of a perfectionist, each gesture carefully pre-considered and ultra-clear in its intentions.
That was certainly a prime factor in ensuring that the concluding work in this concert, Ravel’s full 1912 score for the ballet Daphnis and Chloe, shone to its fullest and finest potential. Infinite colours abounded in a performance that variously sparkled and sighed, revelled and acquiesced. Acute textural detail informed mostly every moment, the wordless chorus spreading a comforting glow, like a red evening sky, over the shifting orchestral iridescence. It triggered off instant cheers and applause, and bodes well for Wigglesworth’s future relationship with his new orchestra.
In any typical year for the Edinburgh International Festival, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana would hardly be considered a genuine heavyweight opener to the Usher Hall orchestral series. Even for this historic 75th anniversary event, and in its more immediate relevance as the back-to-life adrenalin shot after two years of pandemic suppression, it is a cantata more generally regarded as a populist blast – to some extent the German composer’s one-hit wonder – offering more quick-hit than deep-rooted resonance.
It avoided that pitfall on two counts. This high-octane programme opened with Respighi’s Pines of Rome, affording a psychedelic wonderland of orchestra colouring, moments of seething harmonic adventure, and yes, its own brand of unadulterated thrill. The Orff, itself, had as its messenger the ravishing combination of the BBC SSO, Edinburgh Festival Chorus, NYCOS National Girls Choir and a glorious trio of soloists under Sir Donald Runnicles’ magisterial baton. No absence of emotional impact, then, but justified by its general excellence.
The Pines of Rome – a lustrous sequence of responses to Roman life set against the binding metaphor of the ancient trees that dominate its landscape, and one of the Italian composer’s trilogy of Rome-inspired works – is a stirring creation, its sound world reeking of Mediterranean warmth, historical mystery and sun-filled optimism.
As such, it was right up Runnicles’ street. He inspired a swashbuckling performance, red hot from the offset, a kaleidoscopic feast that explored every level of aural titillation from quietly succulent to feverishly terrifying. No more so than in the final moments, a seemingly limitless crescendo in which the gradual addition of rearguard offstage brass (spread liberally behind the dress circle audience) and the thundering might of the organ drove the decibel level to delirious heights.
This was adequate preparation for the primal force that is Carmina Burana. For so many of us, more used to the deliberately modest stage forces preferred in the recent exit-from-Covid months, it was a glorious sensation – the massed vision of the orchestra and choirs made all the more electrifying by the vivid combination of red-shirted NYCOS choir and black-clad adult choir and orchestra.
The singing was just as exhilarating, the wholesome precision of the Festival Chorus offset by the pristine projection of the youngsters, especially in such famously fervent numbers as Tempus est iocundum. Not every moment held perfectly together, with some panic-rushing by the men near the start and moments of under-projection from the women, but the sheer vocal ebullience that spilled out from the stage, and from the resplendent SSO, was mesmerising.
Then there was the tastiest icing on the cake from three perfectly-matched soloists, the soprano Meechot Marrero, tenor Sunnyboy Dladla and baritone Thomas Lehman, whose theatrical antics brought a lascivious edge to what were already riveting musical presentations. Marrero and Lehman hammed up the Cours d’Amours no end, flirting mercilessly in the process. Dladla, too, realised the dramatic potential in his caricature Roasted Swan showpiece.
It was exactly what the doctor ordered, intoxicating escapism to wash away the prevailing gloom and welcome joy, mindless or not, back into our lives.
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.”
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
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.
Available for 30 days after live broadcast via BBC Sounds
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.
This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, after which it will be available for 30 days via BBC Sounds
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.
This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, after which it will be available for 30 days via BBC Sounds
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.
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.
(Photo: Alex Woodward)
The majority of Tectonics performances were recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3 & BBC Sounds
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.
Available for 30 days after broadcast on BBC Sounds
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.
The concert is available to listen to on BBC Sounds for 30 days.
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.
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.
This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, after which it will be available for 30 days via BBC Sounds
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.
This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, after which it will be available for 30 days via BBC Sounds
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.
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.