Tag Archives: Colin Currie

SCO / Schuldt

City Halls, Glasgow

Given all that has happened – or failed to happen – in recent years, it says a lot for the enthusiasm of the SCO for German conductor Clemens Schuldt that this was, by my reckoning, his fourth return visit in the past five years. By way of comparison, the soloist for this concert, Colin Currie, revealed that it was his first concert in the city since he moved back to Scotland and bought a home in Glasgow in November 2019.

Thus we have waited a long time to hear the 2018 Percussion Concerto written for him by Edinburgh-raised Helen Grime. It was a touching gesture that Currie dedicated the performance to two composers of an earlier generation – Lyell Cresswell and John McLeod – who died recently and had been an inspiration to both of them.

The work turns out to be a fascinating addition to the expanding catalogue of concertos the virtuoso percussionist has caused to be written. Rather than compose an explosive demonstration for the soloist with an accompaniment and underscore from the chamber orchestra, Grime has given Currie the lead with all the musical material – and there’s a lot of it – and invented a vast range of responses to it from the full palette of orchestral sounds at her disposal.

Currie’s “follow me” start on tuned percussion is immediately answered by slap bass and trumpet blasts and as the piece develops the percussive sounds of timpani, harp and celeste are crucial supports, as are the vibrant double bassoon, cor anglais and E flat clarinet colours in the winds.

The soloist is rarely required to hit the untuned percussion very hard, but some of the writing is very fast indeed. The third of three unseparated movements has a long marimba solo before it ends on a shimmer of glockenspiel, string harmonics and breath effects on the horns.

Grime’s radical modernity was framed by works of Beethoven, Haydn and Anton Eberl, the latter two overtures to operas about islands and women. While Eberl’s Overture to The Queen of the Black Islands made you feel you had seen the opera in its full-on drama, Haydn’s for The Uninhabited Island rather made one yearn to see a full staging of the shipwreck story.

Completing the programme was Beethoven’s Symphony No 4, a work that seems to have featured regularly in Scottish concert schedules of late. Schuldt’s version came in very clearly delineated chapters, with a very bouncy second movement Adagio and huge enthusiasm for the rhythmic games of the Scherzo. Among the fine wind solos, first bassoon Cerys Ambrose-Evans stood out.

Keith Bruce

Colin Currie and Huw Watkins

Perth Concert Hall

The coupling of piano and percussion is a natural one, given that part of the piano’s nature which is intrinsically percussive. That’s not to say it’s all about rhythm. As percussionist Colin Currie and pianist Huw Watkins persuasively illustrated in the last of four live audience lunchtime concerts this week in Perth Concert Hall – broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 – there is as much fun to be had exploring the combined fertile potential of their respective instruments’ melodic and timbral properties.

That they chose a virtuoso contemporary programme to make their point was to be expected. Currie has long been an exciting magnet to composers, inspiring new works in a field of instrumental music that previously had precious little in the way of quality bespoke repertoire. Watkins, besides his keyboard expertise, is one of these composers who have taken up the challenge, and it was his Seven Inventions for marimba and piano that rounded off this exceptional concert.

Written for, and premiered at, the 2019 East Neuk Festival, Watkins strikes an enticing balance between the traditional and radical. In all seven pieces, which range in mood from whispered reflection to screaming ecstasy, you sense the stabilising presence of conventional techniques – tonal sequences and regular counterpoint – yet there is a quizzical, dissonant unpredictability that gives this music a mysterious allure, not least Watkins’ teasing tendency to leave the endings hanging.

This was just one magnificent performance of several. The programme opened with Dave Maric’s Predicaments, a progression from dense blues evoked through the lower piano registers and mellow marimba, to the invigorating thrill of brighter percussion that ended in a mischievous “ting”. Watkins followed that up with Helen Grimes’ Harp of the North for solo piano, inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, as distantly atmospheric as Debussy and handled here with the utmost delicacy and, momentarily, the mildest disquiet.

The Scottish thread continued with Joe Duddell’s Parallel Lines, commissioned in 1999 by the BBC for Music Live in Glasgow, and inspired by Blondie’s 1970s’ album of the same name. The pop references sit beguilingly within a score that opens and closes with obstreperous energy, but whose central section – notable for its eerie crotales – is a disarming contrast.

Currie went solo in the penultimate performance, Tansy Davies’ ritualistic Dark Ground, which opens with the “dead sound” of the pedal bass drum. If that sounded like the typical start-up signal for an Irish marching flute band, the comparison ended there. Currie’s one-man act, on what looked like blinged-up drum kit, complete with thunder sheet, was a tour de force, a veritable showpiece in a recital that thrilled on every level.
Ken Walton

Available on BBC Sounds

BBC SSO / van Soeterstede / Currie

City Halls, Glasgow

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCO: MacMillan / Currie

Perth Concert Hall

Two Scottish premieres provide the entrance and exit to this latest online SCO programme, once again recorded in Perth. In charge is conductor/composer Sir James MacMillan, opening with one of his own works. He’s later joined by Scots virtuoso Colin Currie in a concerto specially written for the percussionist in 2008 by the late Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. 

Both works possess an inner beauty, which gives this entire concert – Sibelius’ Suite No 2 from his characterful music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest provides a connecting bridge – a overarching aura of accessible warmth and glowing humanity. 

Originally written for string quartet, MacMillan’s short opener, Ein Lämplein verlosch (“A little lamp went out”), takes its title from the first song in Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, but surely resonates as a deeply personal response to the early death several years ago of MacMillan’s own granddaughter. This enchanting performance certainly captures a spectral innocence radiating from ephemeral string harmonics, its questioning fragmentation, and a lingering sense that its feet never quite touch the ground.

When they do, briefly, there is a mixture of joy and pain, expressed with Brittenesque clarity and succinctness. MacMillan refers to it as an “instrumental distillation of this grief”, which rings very true in this nuanced performance by the SCO strings.

Nothing could be more contrasted than the huge, bulbous ripe tune that sets the ball rolling in Rautavaara’s concerto, a work subtitled Incantations. It’s as big and brassy as any west end musical signature hit, a surging wave of tonal extravagance deliberately soured by chippy dissonance. No sooner has it made its impressive presence felt than it subsidies, acting more as a blank canvas to which Currie adds spicy detail and characterisations.

Set traditionally in three movements, the opening Pesante lives up to its name, the various internal dialogues asserted by the soloist weighted by the gravitational pull of the orchestra. One brief moment, where the percussionist evokes a mood of utter serenity, forewarns of the ensuing Espressivo, a central movement whose Debussy-like opening heralds a feast of shamelessly indulgent easy listening. 

If Rautavaara’s contribution to the finale appears minimal, to some extent padding, it’s because the dominating feature is Currie’s own mammoth cadenza, as if the composer has handed over the reins and said “show us what you can do”. What transpires is both mesmerising and seamlessly integrated within the prevailing style, and heralding Rautavaara’s eventual sign-off, which is an even more colossal statement of the opening theme. It’s big, bold and conclusive, which the SCO addresses with the required chutzpah.

As for the Sibelius, MacMillan displays an obvious affinity with the unpretentiousness of this theatrically-inspired suite, eliciting the gossamer-like delicacy of the wispy Intermezzo, Grieg-like chunkiness in the brief musical portrait of Prospero, and a gorgeous Palm Court snugness in Sibelius’ magical depiction of the kind-hearted Miranda. A tad more schmalz in the Dance of the Nymphs and less constraint in the final Dance Episode is all that was needed to satisfy the wilder side of this delightful score. 
Ken Walton

Live music in Perth

Perth Concert Hall is setting the pace for the return of music performances before a live audience with four lunchtime concerts next week.

The diverse programme of recitals begins on Tuesday with mezzo-soprano Jess Dandy – one of the featured soloists in the venue’s Easter St Matthew Passion by Dunedin Consort – accompanied by pianist Malcolm Martineau.

Perth-raised pianist Alasdair Beatson, who recently partnered cellist Aleksei Kiseliov in an online RSNO concert, leads a piano trio in the music of Faure and Haydn the following day and saxophonist Jess Gillam plays the music of Meredith Monk, Kurt Weill, Graeme Fitkin and Astor Piazzolla on Thursday.

The sequence concludes on Friday May 28 when percussionist Colin Currie is at the marimba and Huw Watkins at the piano to play Helen Grime, Joe Duddell and Tansy Davies.

The recitals will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 as part of its Scotland Week, but crucially there are also 100 tickets available for music-lovers to attend them in person,  the first in-person concerts in the venue in over a year.

Tickets are priced at £11.50 each, including booking fee. www.horsecross.co.uk

Colin Currie

H K Gruber Percussion Concertos

Colin Currie Records

In many ways the most remarkable thing about the first work on this disc is that Scottish percussion virtuoso Colin Currie had nothing to do with it coming into being. Either as the commissioner or the populariser (as in his Naxos recording of James MacMillan’s Veni Veni Emmanuel), Currie has been a great expander of the repertoire of major works for his instrument. Scotland can take some pride in the contribution Evelyn Glennie and he have made to the percussion soloist’s place on the concert platform.

That does not extend to Rough Music, however, the three-movement composition that maverick Austrian H K Gruber created for a colleague in the early 1980s when he was a bass player in the same Viennese orchestra. The boom in percussion concertos that Glennie and Currie encouraged was still in the future and forty years ago orchestral works for percussion soloists were few.

Having a sparse selection of templates suits Gruber, however, whose work sounds like no-one else. With a popular trumpet concerto for Hakan Hardenberger, a piano concerto for Emanuel Ax and a cello one for Yo-Yo Ma demonstrate, the form fits his style, and the interplay between soloist and orchestra works well for his method. Often this is brazenly oppositional: if one side of the equation is melodic and tonal, the other will be brash and angular.

Rough Music is anything but what its title suggests; this is sophisticated stuff and often a very beguiling listen. Much frantic business from the soloist at the start gives way to calm about four minutes into the first movement, when the strings provide a melodious underscore, the brass becomes percussive, and the percussion soloist rather lyrical.

In the central movement the soloist alternates between hi-velocity work on a drum kit and a suite of arias for vibraphone, and the finale quotes liberally from Erik Satie and his disciple Henri Sauguet in a sequence that seems to be a tribute to French chanson and dance music, with a suitably dramatic conclusion.

The BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Juanjo Mena at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall in 2014, has slightly less presence in the mix for that work than is immediately audible in the BBC Proms recording under John Storgards at the Royal Albert Hall a year later. This was the premier of the work Gruber composed for Currie, into the open . . ., a multi-layered half-hour which exploits the soloist’s athleticism on an enormous array of percussion, Japanese gongs prominent alongside tuned orchestral instruments.

While still very much about the musical possibilities of the forces at his disposal, there was another side to the composition of this work for Gruber, in that it remembers his friend, musicologist and great Kurt Weill scholar David Drew. Small fragments of Weill’s Alabama Song pepper the score and there is an aching sense of anguish and loss in the work, and, more challengingly perhaps, of unfinished business.

Keith Bruce