Tag Archives: City Halls Glasgow

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

It took Elgar until he was 50 to complete his First Symphony, the upside of which being its emotional maturity, technical mastery and a self-confidence through which the composer’s fingerprint dictates every level of its being. It was the major work in Thursday’s BBC SSO programme, a meaty challenge for its principal conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, and an epic, ear-catching conclusion to an evening that had hitherto blown hot and cold.

That’s not to say there was anything objectionable in soloist Martin James Bartlett’s performance of Mozart’s D minor Piano Concerto, K466. Indeed, the 2014 BBC Young Musician winner was entirely consistent in his ultra-poetic delivery, an approach that underlined Mozart’s uncommon journey (for a concerto) into minor key realms, and allowed the pianist to challenge the orchestra’s escape attempts with visibly calming gestures and return to containment.

What his playing did require as a counter measure was steelier, more incisive finger work. For all its lyrical pleasantries it fell short in genuine sparkle. In turn the ghosts lurking within Mozart’s score struggled to surface other than benevolently, and little details, like Bartlett’s uneven ornamentation, transmitted low-voltage results. Where he did apply physical energy – those fiery cadenzas by Hummel (first movement) and Beethoven (finale) – the temperature briefly soared. 

Bartlett’s encore, on the other hand, was absolutely sublime, a meltingly poised performance of Schumann’s “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples” from Kinderszenen. 

Wigglesworth opened with a work he himself has championed, Jonathan Woolgar’s Canzoni et ricercari. Originally scored for 12 string players and premiered in Gloucester Cathedral in 2021, Wigglesworth suggested the composer create a version for enlarged string orchestra. Here it was, beefed up to full onstage and smaller offstage strings, and a performance all the more teasing for its theatrical surprise.

We were told the offstage strings were “hidden”, but not exactly where, so when they did release a screaming counter-offensive from behind us, the impact was nerve-tingling. The ensuing dialogue proved invigorating, the more extensive discourse on stage – a striking interplay of melancholic density and exhilarating frenzy – provoking varying degrees of bullish retort in return. The performance was wholesome, animated, if partly rough around the edges. 

Full-blooded consistency in the Elgar gave this concert a lift beyond the ordinary. Wigglesworth was impressively composed throughout, establishing grounded, timeless authority in the opening slow march, and navigating the shifting contours and moods of the lengthy first movement with clean, meaningful discipline. Similarly, the frenzy of the second movement Allegro giving way uninterrupted to the glowing inner warmth of the Adagio was as heavenly as the composer intended. The finale, with its affirmative thematic retrospection, was a conclusive triumph.

No small thanks to a impassioned SSO for this, nor to such exquisite solo snippets as the self-assured consistency of leader Kanako Ito. There was scope, perhaps, for Wigglesworth to apply a more airborne, expansive sweep, a stepping back to embrace the biggest picture, yet there was more than enough in this performance to take away and savour long after the event.

Ken Walton

The programme is repeated on Sunday at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh at 3pm.
Thursday’s performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available on BBC Sounds for 30 days

BBC SSO / Chauhan

City Halls, Glasgow

This hefty BBC SSO coupling of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler was not for the faint-hearted. Few will have left the City Halls on Thursday without feeling they’d been squeezed through the emotional wringer. On their own, Strauss’ Symphonic Fantasy based on his opera Die Frau one Schatten and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde are exhaustive enough as examples of post-Romantic, Austro-German intensity. Together, the danger was they might be one fix too many.

That wasn’t the case. Alpesh Chauhan – until recently the assistant conductor of the SSO – seemed ever-alert to the possibility, assured in his gestures and generously poetic in his phrase-shaping, but with a modicum of reserve and judicious application of self-indulgence. For us, that meant little discomfort and an ample double-helping of gratification.

There were some obvious issues – tenor Brenden Gunnell’s intrepid efforts to be heard over the orchestral clamour dominating the opening Mahler song (he was just short of screaming at one point, to little effect), and a general feeling that not everything had been done to fine-tune the expressive dove-tailing of the sinuous orchestral textures. But besides that, the delivery was impressive.

Strauss’ Symphonic Fantasy proved fascinating for the ground it occupies away from the opera that spawned it. Never conceived as a string of greatest hits – which don’t really exist in Strauss’ more organically creative mind – the impression is one of symphonic distillation. Recognisable themes provide the essential impetus for a powerful, self-contained, cathartic stream of consciousness. 

Foremost in this performance was its thrusting inevitability, wave upon wave of tidal surge punctuated by moments of idyllic calm (the early slow, smoking crescendo by the strings) or the thwack of menacing chords. Chauhan gauged the mood swings well, from Debussy-like mirages to irreverent playfulness. It was wild and heated, tempered by a cool head.

The Mahler, once its balance was better calibrated, was exquisite and every bit as compelling, Gunnell’s soaring tenor complemented by the golden-grained mezzo of Karen Cargill. There was pastoral frivolity from Gunnell in his songs, the scherzo-like “Youth” and a captivating laissez-faire in “The Drunkard in Spring”. Cargill revelled in her more reflective selection, the wistful ruminations of “The Lonely One In Autumn” and the shifting images of “Beauty” with its rapturous climactic interlude. 

But it was in the heart-stopping “Farewell”, meltingly sung by Cargill, that the full impact hit home.  Beyond the filigree instrumental delicacies of the earlier songs, and Mahler’s confection of impressions, from chattering chinoiserie and bird-like menageries to swarthy folk scenes, it was in this final timeless transcendence that magic happened. At its impassioned peak Cargill’s low register was a scorching presence. In the final fade out, pierced by a chiming celeste, we were left only with a chilling, seemingly eternal, silence. 

Ken Walton

BBC SSO / Volkov

City Halls, Glasgow

There’s something about the “idée fixe” – a theme or motif composers weave and manipulate throughout a work to both unify and characterise their creations – that gets under your skin. It is a powerfully defining device that Berlioz, most of all, applied with obsessive emotional pungency to such Romantic epics as his Symphonie fantastique. But, just as in the psychological definition, it can be an irritating fixation. Whether or not it was her intention, and I suspect it was, Cassandra Miller plays that card to its extreme in her Duet for Cello and Orchestra.

That possibly wasn’t the reason conductor Ilan Volkov pitted these works against each other in Thursday’s thought-provoking BBC SSO programme, but it was hard not to be minded retrospectively of Miller’s, to some extent, cynical extremism in the later unfolding of Berlioz’s musical angst.

This was a return visit by the SSO, Volkov and soloist Charles Curtis to Miller’s concerto, which they premiered at the 2015 Tectonics Glasgow festival. Miller describes it as a homage to Sicilian opera composer Vincenzo Bellini, and to be sure, its progressively intensified orchestral episodes emulate the syrupy, ecstatic ripeness of southern Italian folk music, in this case based on the actual Sardinian folk song, Trallallera. 

These glitzy repetitive sunbursts, dominated by a bullish and brazen SSO trumpet section, seemed intent on goading the intransigence of Curtis’ belligerent cello performance – for the most part an unceasing repetition of two oscillating notes – into action. It took most of the 30-minute duration for that to have the desired effect, like a release from an inescapable hypnotic nightmare, the cellist responding with a brief and final catharsis of stratospheric harmonics before abruptly signing off with a throwaway glissando. 

Volkov’s cool insistence, and the SSO’s charismatic response, captured the obstinacy of Millar’s quirky mindset. (For those taken by it, and with a propensity to travel, the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester is presenting a day-long focus on Miller’s chamber and orchestral music on 19 October.)  

On its own, this concerto performance would have left us in a mild state of anxiety, but Berlioz’s effusive musical depiction, the Symphonie fantastique, of his infatuation for the actress Harriet Smithson – he subtitled it “Episode in the Life of an Artist” – provided a coruscating antidote. 

Once again, it was the tangible chemistry Volkov enjoys with an orchestra he has been associated with for the past 20 years that guaranteed the rollercoaster thrill. Every vivid scene, every emotional deviation in the fantastical journey, was heightened by a natural, visceral synergy, which the conductor inspired with an empowering economy of gestures.

The entire band swayed physically as one, negotiating the hazy uncertainty of the opening Daydreams, the whirling delirium of the Ball scene, the pastorale sentimentality of the Adagio, and the combined bombast and finality of the March to the Scaffold and Witches’ Sabbath, with unfettered inevitability. This was a masterclass in disciplined passion, where less was very much more, where by keeping the eye on the ball – the centrifugal persistence of the idée fixe – this volcanic music ultimately took care of itself.

Ken Walton 

Repeated tonight (Fri 29 Sep) in Aberdeen Music Hall. Thursday’s live broadcast from Glasgow available on BBC Sounds for 30 days.

BBC SSO / Brabbins

City Halls, Glasgow

It’s over 25 years since the BBC SSO performed William Wallace’s “Creation” Symphony in C sharp minor. It was a studio session in Glasgow recorded for BBC Radio 3 and a Hyperion CD. So it’s not before time that conductor Martyn Brabbins included it in his “Sound of Scotland” matinee programme with the same orchestra last Thursday, a performance that sealed its aesthetic and technical worth, but equally pointed to a London-based Scots composer responding in the 1890s to a musical world still starstruck by Wagner, while living amidst the stirring potency of Elgar.

These are the overriding influences in this symphonic representation of the biblical creation story, its dark opening groping steadily and Parsifal-like towards successive peaks through which Wallace demonstrates a mastery of orchestration and structuring. 

Such repertoire is right up Brabbins’ street, his relaxed, authoritative lead capturing the momentousness of the score, almost film-like in its epic ebbing and flowing. The SSO responded with infectious self-belief, going all the way with the first movement’s sugar-coated conclusion, the sunbursts that offer glimpses of character in the occasionally bland Andantino, a scherzo-like Allegro verging on jolly-hockey-sticks joie-de-vivre, and a finale oozing pride and pomp, as if Wallace was saying: “And God created the British Empire, and he saw that it was good”.

Such was the climax to a programme that began with Judith Weir’s tribute to the geometric Swiss painter Paul Klee, her Heroic Strokes of the Bow based on his musically-inspired “Heroische Bogenstriche”, but also mixed and matched a refreshing couple of viola duos with Iain Hamilton’s virile Clarinet Concerto.

Where Weir transforms Klee’s images into sparkling sonic gestures and whirlwind textures, all dramatically threaded through this pellucid performance, Hamilton’s early concerto proved an eye-opener for those more familiar with the acerbic rigour that dominates much of his later music. Soloist Richard Plane had the full measure of the piece, packing his delivery with physical vitality, athletic virtuosity, and where called for, sweet lyrical charisma.

Why the interspersed viola duos? It just seemed, Brabbins explained, an opportune moment to showcase the SSO’s front desk principals – Scott Dickinson and Andrew Berridge – who had used the restrictions during Covid to seek out new repertoire for themselves. Here were two of a still-growing collection: James MacMillan’s Canon for Two Violas; and the world premiere of Camino by none other than the unassuming Brabbins.

There was a satisfying complementarity between both works, the plaintive intimacy of MacMillan’s, with its wistful melodic charm and softly intermeshing complexities, countered by the sparkier interactions of Brabbins’ Camino, its more impulsive introspection inspired by his daughter’s solitary pilgrimage along the Camino Santiago de Compostela. In each case, Dickinson and Berridge brought accomplishment and poetic empathy to their performances.

Ken Walton

Recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

On the same night the BBC SSO released its plans for a challenging and adventurous new 2023-24 season, its chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth was pre-echoing that explorative spirit directing a concert dominated by one of the eight tableaux, The Sermon to the Birds, from Olivier Messiaen’s only opera, the epic Saint François d’Assise. 

Completed late in the French composer’s life, and premiered in 1975, it’s an encapsulation of Messiaen’s life and music. A self-styled radical, he called on the ecstatic freedom of birdsong, the distinctive qualities of systematic modes and Eastern-inspired rhythms from which his harmonic and melodic sound world was derived, and an engrained Catholicism, to formulate one of the most distinctive modernist 20th century voices.

The tableau performed here from the opera’s central act – The Sermon to the Birds – is perhaps the most demonstrative of this: the cathartic extravagance of its avian counterpoints rich to the point of wild cacophony; the powerful juxtaposition of compressed harmonic colour, constant rhythmic surprises and searing melodies; the spine-tingling exuberance from a colossal of the percussion section; and the heart-stopping intensity delivers by those high-density major chords that finally appear as if to ground the whole experience.

Wigglesworth and an expanded SSO gave it big licks in Thursday’s riveting performance, one which, with the help of assistant conductor Emilie Godden and the luxury of three penetrating Ondes Martenot, was a triumph of controlled and mostly well-coordinated intent. The two soloists, Scots tenor Nicky Spence and bass-baritone Ashley Riches, proved a solid, complementary and emotive pairing, though audience access to the text – surtitles perhaps? – would have facilitated a more detailed appreciation of the French narrative. 

The Messiaen followed an earlier paean to nature, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Wigglesworth’s approach may have been essentially cautious – we’ve witnessed far more impetuous storms and expansive countryside greenery from the SSO in the past – but in this performance he elicited such endearing warmth from the strings and meaningful fluidity from the wind that any brief moments of laxity proved inconsequential. 

The programme is repeated at the Usher Hall Edinburgh on Sunday 16 April, 3pm

Ken Walton

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available on BBC Sounds. It is also repeated at the Usher Hall Edinburgh on Sun 16 April at 3pm

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow

It helps to get off to a good start. That’s as much the case for journalists – are you still with me? – as it is for musicians, be they performers or composers. This SCO programme, guided by the impishly convincing eccentricity of chief conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, was all about good attention-grabbing openings.

First up, those three arresting chords that herald Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute, in this case supercharged with electrifying brutality, yet still seriously solemn to the core. It was a call to attention no one could ignore, least of all the SCO whose response was instant and penetrating. 

Then, as if to intensify the conflict inherent in Mozart’s final opera – an intellectual discourse steeped in the symbolism of Enlightenment ideals and Freemasonry disguised, as all good satire is, within pantomimic nonsense – Emelyanychev played feverishly with the music’s jostling extremes. Responding to the stern chords, a hell-for-leather fugue bristled with red-hot energy, superbly intensified by sparky symphonic jousting, individual instruments firing out motivic one-liners like petulant points of order only to be countered by matching reaction. In total, and in every sense, what an opener.

The tone changed completely for Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and an introductory 8-bar cello and bass melody that cast a sense of mystery and awe, its simple melodic framework woven with unhurried deliberation and expressive wholesomeness, almost complete in itself. 

What impressed here and beyond was the intoxicating sensitivity Emelyanychev drew from the SCO, every utterance freshly conceived, every detailed moment worth savouring. Again, his role was simply to set the scene and inspire freedom within a performance that oozed spontaneity within his prescribed vision. With such casual, but never laboured, tempi the impression was one of leisure well spent. If ever there was an argument for Schubert leaving these two movements as they were (he did sketch out ideas for a third movement) this was it. 

As openings go, a deafening whistle blast from a referee is something guaranteed to send the adrenalin into overdrive. It did so – timpanist Louise Lewis Goodwin doubling pointedly on said whistle – in James MacMillan’s Eleven, a succinct concert work about football written last year and premiered by the SCO on tour in Antwerp, now receiving its UK premiere. Raucous, impetuous, and symbolising everything in the “beautiful game” from terrace chants and on-pitch exuberance to post-match melancholy, it’s typical of MacMillan that he finds musical depth and allure in such a commonplace scenario.

Even the number eleven presents him with intellectual stimulus, feisty combative themes that seem to snap off prematurely (twelve possesses more rounded proportions, but would be less provocative), dense harmonies that mask the familiarity of such familiar tunes as “Auld Lang Syne” (I wasn’t aware it had common football usage?) and flavour the unexpectedly demure ending to an otherwise bombastic entertainment. 

Emelyanychev certainly viewed his own solo role in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 22 in E-flat as genuine entertainment. He performed on, and directed from, the fortepiano, intrinsically a delicate instrument, but played here with such incisive sparkle that, even in those moments where the orchestra surged powerfully, the Russian’s playful motions were still enough to convey his intentions.

Nor did he stick religiously to the written score, something the famously spontaneous Mozart would no doubt have approved of. Where he felt the urge, Emelyanychev casually threw in impromptu right-handed flourishes, either stolen from existing instrumental lines or fruitily embellished, though never at the expense of the composer’s core material. In that, this enlightening performance was charmingly authentic, with some initiatives – such as occasionally cutting the string ripieno down, concert grosso-style, to solo quintet – that sharpened the intimacy. 

Then there was Emelyanychev’s quirky opening, a moment that caught us all on the hop, where the pre-match tuning process morphed almost unnoticed into an improvised fortepiano transition, its final paused chord providing the expectant springboard to the music proper. It’s not often the very opening note of a Mozart concerto brings with it an appreciative snigger from the audience, but such is Emelyanychev’s confident appeal, and such was the power of this unexpected gesture. He encored with the slow movement from Mozart’s similarly-scored K.488 concerto.

Ken Walton 

BBC SSO / Oramo

City Halls, Glasgow

The colourful personality and striking originality of South African cellist/singer/composer Abel Selaocoe created a sensation the last time he appeared with the BBC SSO. That – and his growing international reputation – no doubt accounted of the anticipatory excitement that filled the City Halls foyer on Thursday, where notable swarms of young people and the accompanying buzz gathered noisily with the traditional BBC SSO audience. There was certainly something in the air!

Before long, in the main concert hall, that “something” had made its indelible mark, though not initially. Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, in its version for strings and percussion, provided first a softly pungent scene-setter, the SSO initiating an unplanned fresh partnership with the young Finnish conductor Taavi Oramo (son of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor Sakari Oramo). Brought in last minute to replace the advertised Anu Tali, he launched slightly cautiously into the Estonian composer’s hypnotic meditation.   

Oramo seemed a little tense to start with, the oft-repeated string incantations and punctuating  percussive tick tock of the claves rather coldly configured, but later finding a more sublime inner soul, enchantment and ultimate tenderness. 

Against such solemn quietude the ebullient appearance of Selaocoe, oozing rock star charisma, was like a bolt of lightning. Dressed in traditional South African outfit, he acknowledged the crowd as if he was headlining at Glastonbury. He spoke of his latest “release” – the imminent world premiere of his concerto Four Spirits – in which he would combine his own ethnic singing style with virtuoso cello performance, but also incorporating a dynamic inner dialogue with guest percussionist and collaborator Bernhard Schimpelsberger, placed within the orchestra but visually prominent in beanie hat and casual clothes.

What transpired as the four movements revealed themselves was a work of powerful emotional worth and democratic involvement, Selaocoe remaining seated only when issuing kaleidoscopic effects on his cello, but otherwise on his feet to broadcast mesmerising vocalisations ranging from piercing paeans of joy to subterranean rumbles and bewitching chants. 

The score, which explores various aspects of human purpose and community, cast in a language that fuses African and Western idiom, calls on the orchestral players to use their voices. Mention should also be made of orchestral percussionist David Kerr’s matching partnership with Schimpelsberger. And what a gloriously moving peroration as Selaocoe inspired the audience to join in singing the final moments. It all seemed so natural, so visceral, something very different and unforgettable. 

There was no option beyond that but for an encore. Schimpelsberger came front stage to join with Selaocoe in Wake Up, a possibly improvised dialogue that found its natural endpoint in dazzling jazz riffs and dizzy virtuosity.

How do you follow that? The answer here was Sibelius’ Second Symphony, a challenge that Oramo  met with coolness and taut discipline. There was an assuredness in his overall vision of the symphony – from the craggy inevitability of the opening movement and heart-rending intensity at the core of the Andante to the euphoric explosiveness of the Scherzo and radiant heroism of the Finale – but there were moments, too, where judgment erred, whether mis-balancing conversational solo lines or allowing the brass to over project.

But, no matter, for this concert will be remembered almost exclusively for the phenomenon that is Abel Selaocoe. 

Ken Walton 

BBC SSO / Sanderling

City Halls, Glasgow

Musical dynasties can be problematic for some, but not, it would seem, in the case of conductor Michael Sanderling, son of Kurt and brother/step brother of fellow conductors Stefan and Thomas. He proved his independent worth, without question, in the driving seat of the BBC SSO last week.

The former cellist – and one of considerable, international prizewinning note before he picked up the baton full time just over a decade ago – established instant chemistry with the orchestra in a relatively youthful symphony by Mozart, his 13th, written mostly in Milan at the age of 15. Sanderling wasted no time sourcing a stylish bite from the players – just horns and oboes in addition to the reduced strings – that captured the music’s exuberant decency.

It was a neat touch reducing the Menuetto’s trio section to solo strings, giving added intimacy to this airborne movement, and in the broader context of a performance that packed no shortage of musical surprises and delights, from the teasing tunefulness of the Andante to the rhythmic dash of the outer movements.

Mozart featured again in this affable afternoon concert, as seen through the thicker lens of heavy-duty German Romantic composer and academic Max Reger, his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart. The theme in question is the siciliano-like opener from the A Major Sonata, which in Mozart’s hands was already subjected to exhaustive variation. Reger, as you’d expect, deals with it in more circumspect, a times torrid, terms. 

Sanderling never once allowed dark clouds to assert their presence, instead giving a fleetness of foot to Reger’s restless harmonic contortions – some pretty ingenious ones at that – and therefore freer flight to internal chromatic meanderings that, in less-intuitive hands, might so easily have muddied the momentum. Such, too, was the refinement and grace of the orchestral colourings that the journey towards the concluding fugue, and its exultant closing restatement of the Mozart theme, was one of several thrills and much overall satisfaction.

Coming back to musical families, the afternoon’s solo spot was filled by one of the many prodigious Kanneh-Mason siblings currently in circulation. This was Isata, a pianist of growing stature and musical maturity, as witnessed in recent previous appearances in Scotland. She featured this time in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, noted for its bristling energy and dynamic physicality, but also for the quintessential mysticism that offers some spellbinding contrast in the central movement.

Kanneh-Mason’s performance was beautifully poised and not without fire. She doesn’t yet have the full shoulder power to fully address the ferocious dimensions of this concerto, but the fiery agility of her finger work compensated, and where gentle reflection was called for she delivered it with poetic perfection.   

Ken Walton