Tag Archives: Glasgow City Halls

BBC SSO / Dausgaard

City Halls, Glasgow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Walton

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

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Walton

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

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

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasow

It’s not often you hear delirious cheering, verging on rock hysteria, at a classical music gig, but the noticeably young audience section, whose unrestrained appreciation crescendoed over the course of this all-Mozart SCO programme, certainly wasn’t backward in liberating its Friday night fizz.

This was heartwarming to say the least, as concert-going inches back to normal. Nor was it difficult to identify the source of their adulation, Maxim Emelyanychev, the orchestra’s fresh-faced Russian principal conductor, whose rousing frontman presence – punchy, unpredictable and a whisker short of anarchic – is to the SCO what Freddie Mercury was to Queen. 

To describe the SCO, though, as a Mozart tribute band on this occasion, is perhaps taking the pop analogy too far. Yet these were performances through which Emelyanychev seemed intent on marrying the impression of Mozart the disorderly showman of his day with Mozart the musical museum piece. 

Full credit to the Russian, these performances really brought the music to life, not simply as if the ink was still wet on the score, but that some bits had even been left unfinished, to be made up on the spur of the moment.

That was literally the case in Emelyanychev’s solo number as performer/director in the Piano Concerto No 20 in D minor. He’d hardly sat down at the Steinway when he cut the applause dead, defying expectations with a short improvised fantasy, allegedly based on a harmonic sequence from Mozart’s Requiem (the Lacrimosa), delivered with a sort of pre-Lisztian demonism that eventually hung endlessly on a dominant chord in preparation for the concerto proper.

It was daring and electrifying. With the SCO tuning vigorously into this spirit of deflection and danger, grittily and spontaneously, the concerto’s familiarity was jeopardised in the best of senses. Yes, the purity of Mozart’s content and construction was judiciously maintained, its motivic interplay and seamless melodic invention bound by integrity, but this was also an object lesson in dynamic, on-the-spot music-making, which can only happen when an orchestra has such absolute belief in the man at the front. 

They won over their audience with interactive spontaneity and unheralded surprise. There was no second-guessing Emelyanychev’s chosen course, which sometimes involved walking away from the piano and into the midst of his colleagues. His own performance was fiery and fickle, just occasionally, in softer passages, failing to communicate the fullest of tone. And why make such an issue of retuning the orchestra between movements? It seemed more like an act than a necessity.

The concerto sat between the curiosity that is Mozart’s Serenade No 6, “Serenata notturna”, introduced by Emelyanychev who then disappeared to let this unconventionally orchestrated delight take care of itself, and the late Symphony No 39 in E flat.

The Serenade played its part as a showpiece opener, the central “concertante” group (a string quartet with double bass instead of cello) encased within the exuberance of the wider band. Louise Goodwin’s timpani, placed centre front stage, unleashed a solo break to rival Buddy Rich. 

Emelyanychev was back in harness to direct the closing symphony, predictably unpredictable, set ablaze by a freedom that invited snatches of improvised ornamentation from the woodwind and febrile gutsiness from the strings, but nearly burned to the ground when Mozart’s mischievous false finish, riskily exaggerated, set off premature applause and subsequent laughter. 

Was that the intended response? I wouldn’t put it past the SCO’s charismatic enfant terrible.

Ken Walton 

BBC SSO / Sanderling

City Halls, Glasgow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Walton

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

BBC SSO / Volkov

City Halls, Glasgow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Walton 

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

BBC SSO / Dausgaard

City Halls, Glasgow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Walton

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

TECTONICS Goes Live

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBC SSO / Chauhan

City Halls, Glasgow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Walton

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

BBC SSO / Carneiro

City Halls, Glasgow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Walton

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow

A printed programme, an interval, and the reopening of the City Halls bar to service the latter: a sure sign, at Friday’s SCO concert, that things are edging towards normal.

As for the concert itself, it was vintage Maxim Emelyanychev, even if that seems a slightly odd adjective to use for an SCO chief conductor still in his early 30s. But vintage it was, in the sense that the supercharged Russian whisked us through a heady mixed cocktail of Beethoven, Liszt, Sweelinck and Mendelssohn complete with the unexpected twists that are his permanent trademark.

There was one ingredient that didn’t quite come off. For the second half he prefaced Mendelssohn’s pious “Reformation” Symphony with his own arrangement of the Beati pauperes (motet settings of the New Testament Beatitudes) from Dutch Renaissance composer Jan Sweelinck’s Cantiones Sacrae. 

In theory, the programmatic hypothesis made intriguing sense: Sweelinck, a Catholic who likely turned to Calvinism amid the religious turmoil of the 1570s; Mendelssohn, whose symphony celebrates the 300th anniversary of Martin Luther’s protestant declaration in the 1530 Augsburg Confession. Played by a small ensemble on period instruments – sackbuts, serpent and Emelyanychev, himself, on cornett – there was a certain novelty and quaintness in witnessing this rarified sound world as a springboard to the Mendelssohn’s heavyweight stoicism.

The problem was its presentation. It would have worked better with a smoother segue between the two works than the complete set change we witnessed, especially as the Sweelinck was only minutes long. It made its presence seem more incongruous than inclusive.

Not that it obscured the collective success of the rest of the programme. From the very first note of Beethoven’s Symphony No 1, it was clear that run-of-the-mill is not a phrase this conductor adheres to. Without losing the innate Classicism at the heart of the symphony, the natural momentum that carries it inexorably forward, Emelyanychev implanted magically judged gestures, momentary surprises, that cast it in an entirely fresh light. The unanimity of the SCO’s response was crucial in achieving that.

Then two refreshing minds came together, soloist Benjamin Grosvenor joining Emelyanychev and his team for a performance of Liszt’s single-movement Piano Concerto No 1 with compelling results. Grosvenor’s approach was utterly thrilling, on the one hand assertive and rhetorical, on the other eschewing indulgence and self-absorbed showmanship of the sort that so often skews the logic of Liszt’s cohesive thematic scheme.

I’ve never heard Grosvenor – who was famously the 11-year-old runner-up to Nicola Benedetti in the 2004 BBC Young Musician finals – play with such authority and ingenuity. Not quite 30 yet, a remarkable, new-found maturity has set in. 

With the quirkiness of the Sweelinck dispensed with, the closing Mendelssohn symphony brought us back to firm and fertile ground. In the wrong hands, the “Reformation”, with its robust “Ein’ feast Burg” chorale and echoing reference to the so-called Dresden Amen, can sound overly thick-set. With Emelyanychev it was anything but. Sparkle, airiness and transparency, and an SCO on top form, injected its reflective sincerity with optimistic affirmation. 

Ken Walton

BBC SSO: Widmann

City Halls, Glasgow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Walton 

SCO / Zehetmair

City Halls, Glasgow

The violinist-cum-conductor Thomas Zehetmair has, and always has had, an arresting stage charisma. It’s a mix of unshakeable natural talent (especially on the violin) and a strength of personality that eschews outright showmanship though making up for that with an almost pugilistic belief in his own interpretational beliefs.

Look no further than the opening work in this SCO programme – Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor – in which he wielded outright control as soloist/director. The latter role is seldom needed with this orchestra, which has an innate ability to propel its own destiny. But in this instance, it was Zehetmair’s way or the highway. And it was strangely discomforting.

All began well, a crisp, nimble momentum informing the opening bars, but then – where the soloist ventures into flowery offshoots of its own – Zehetmair began to tease his collaborators with extraneous rhythmic liberties that often overstepped the limits of free speech. They rocked the boat, and suddenly the SCO sounded nervous, as if trying to second guess the next move, but doing so with mild signs of panic. 

The slow movement’s lengthy discourse was much more settling, Zehetmair’s greater discipline now steadying the ship, and the jig-like finale was only marginally afflicted, but the performance never completely recovered from its earlier eccentricities.

You could call Zehetmair’s own completion of an unfinished 1790 String Trio Fragment by Mozart equally eccentric, but his approach in giving performance life to the 100 bars of exposition Mozart penned during the last year or so of his life is genuinely fascinating. 

Zehetmair’s solution, premiered last month in Geneva, is to create an extended “response” as opposed to a literal extension. Thus the string orchestra picks up from the opening one-to-a part string trio – petering out as they exhaust the original music – as if on a rescue mission to bring the wanderers home. If that encouraged compositional liberties on Zehetmair’s part, this performance applied them sensitively, just enough to address the strong hints of wild adventure in the extant Mozart material, but careful to preserve stylistic integrity in the new material.

The final two works in this 70-minute programme threw the spotlight wholly on Zehetmair the conductor/interpreter. In Mendelssohn’s 1834 overture Die Schöne Melusine – a work of real worth unearthed by the SCO in one of last season’s streamed concerts – he elicited playing that etched out every minutiae of the drama, from exquisitely-sculpted melodies to dizzying heights of expression.

Haydn’s “Oxford” Symphony bears its own eccentricities, not least an opening finale theme that toys mischievously with natural expectations. In that sense, it was right up Zehetmair’s street, and there was no mistaking the fun embodied in this spirited performance. It wasn’t the SCO at its most refined, Zehetmair demanding brusqueness and brittle edge to the detriment of poise and poeticism. 

If it was rough and ready at  times, it was striking nonetheless, portraying Haydn in a spirit of high exuberance and laissez-faire, much of it to be enjoyed if not necessary approved of.

Ken Walton

BBC SSO / van Soeterstede / Currie

City Halls, Glasgow

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBC SSO/Wilson

City Halls, Glasgow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keith Bruce

Tectonics Glasgow 2021

City Halls, Glasgow & online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBC SSO / Urioste / Poster

City Halls, Glasgow

There has been no point in the past century or two of musical history at which an orchestral concerto with more than one soloist was anything other than a poor career move for a composer, given the obvious extra requirement for performances. Precocious talent though he was, that difficulty may not have occurred to the 14-year-old Felix Mendelssohn when he wrote his Concerto for Violin and Piano in D Minor in 1823. First performed with his violin teacher and the young composer at the piano, it was unpublished in his lifetime and a definitive edition only appeared in the last year of the 20th century.

Nonetheless, it had its UK premiere in 1968, in a Glasgow studio concert by the BBC Scottish, which would have been a good reason for performing it this spring at the City Halls, although it was not the one here. Instead, the work, which requires virtuoso turns from the soloists, was the culmination of a programme created by life and musical partners Elena Urioste and Tom Poster, whose relationship began as members of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme.

More recently the couple have been one of the sensations of the “at home” online projects with their Lockdown Jukebox of varied repertoire. That imagination was very much in evidence here, in a 20th and 21st century sequence that preceded the Mendelssohn, beginning with a duet before works that teamed them individually with the SSO strings. Throughout there was a sense of chamber music intimacy that made the concert something of an extension of those broadcasts from home.

For mysterious reasons, between its recording on March 25 and its broadcast, the BBC had changed the title of the recital from Dreamscapes, the name of the work Urioste would play, to Spiegel im Spiegel, the more familiar Arvo Part composition that opened it. Poster claimed a hypnotic state was part of the method of playing the Part, but that can only be true if the concentration for its minimalist rising and falling measures is second nature.

The Gerald Finzi Eclogue for Piano and Strings that followed may be no stretch for a pianist of Poster’s ability, but its pastoral Englishness is the setting of many a dream idyll, with unmistakeable similarity to Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending.

Dreamscapes itself is a decade-old composition for violin and strings by Clarice Assad, daughter of Brazilian guitarist Sergio, that has its own echo of The Lark at the start. Urioste gave the New York premiere of the work three years ago to the day of this broadcast. After some rhythmically Latin scoring, the work becomes much more edgy about two thirds of the way through its 12 minutes. By some distance a less soothing dream, its turbulence resolves into a more gentle awakening, rather than being suggestive of nightmare.

Urioste and Poster were joined by orchestra leader Laura Samuel for a post-Mendelssohn encore composed by Donald Grant of the Elias Quartet in what was a beautifully-curated programme. A refreshing change from conductor-led thinking, and a relationship that the orchestra would do well to nurture.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Dvorak / MacMillan

City Halls, Glasgow

Sometimes the periphery of a programme outshines its intended core. There’s an element of that in this Radio 3 broadcast by the BBC SSO under Martyn Brabbins. For at its heart is a performance of Dvorak’s gloriously lyrical and substantial Cello Concerto featuring the highly popular Sheku Kanneh-Mason as soloist, the impact of which is lessened by moments of inconsistent tuning, particularly those high solo reaches towards the end of the opening movement.

That’s a pity, because otherwise there is much in Kanneh-Mason’s performance that shows sure signs of a maturing musical voice. Take the slow movement, where the young cellist colours Dvorak’s plangent lyricism with breathy sighs and yielding subtleties, dispelling the untypical shoddiness of the orchestral opening and finding a warmth and intensity that lingers into the finale. 

It’s an unusual version of the concerto, George Morton’s slimmed-down 2018 arrangement distilling Dvorak’s opulent scoring to chamber orchestra size, much of it to great effect. There’s less tension in the mightiest tuttis, the cello sings through without need to force, all of which contributes to a more easeful appreciation of the music. Brabbins grasps that opportunity, minor skirmishes aside, but the key concern remains those frantic periodic intonation lapses by Kanneh-Mason. 

Wrapped around this mighty concerto is a sublime opener from the pen of American composer Augusta Read Thomas, currently professor of composition at the University of Chicago, and an early seminal work from James MacMillan, Tryst, written for the1989 St Magnus Festival and premiered there by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Thomas’ Plea for Peace – a short ruminating work commissioned four years ago to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Chicago Pile-1, the world’s first controlled nuclear reactor – is both questioning and reassuring. In this alternative version, which replaces the original vocalised soprano solo with a sinuous interchanging of solo flute, oboe and trumpet against a sumptuous backdrop of stings, an austere Coplandesque simplicity prevails, magically so in this haunting, atmospheric performance.

It’s easy to forget the starting point for MacMillan, given the 30 or so years that have passed since such launchpad works as Tryst or The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, and the sheer prolificacy of his output ever since. Here, in Tryst, is a vivid reminder of the rawer 30-year-old, tangible conflicting influences exploding in abundance, yet the distinctiveness that was to become MacMillan’s maturer style piercing through the underlying turmoil.

So yes, there is jagged-edged Messiaen, factory-like Stravinsky (or are those incessant repetitive rhythms more Kenneth Leighton, MacMillan’s university teacher?), and becalming Brittenesque acquiescence; but there is also a driving, defining intent that knits such discordant elements into a powerfully argued entity.

The point is well-made in this gripping performance, which Brabbins steers with brutal excitability, hushed tranquility and consequential theatricality. A cathartic complement to the earlier Thomas.
Ken Walton

Available for 30 days on BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

In these lean times, when orchestral forces are pared to spartan COVID-friendly levels, it says a lot of a conductor when he can glean such richness of string tone as Mark Wigglesworth did from the BBC SSO in this latest Radio 3 live broadcast.

And it came with a dash of style, particularly in the two Classical symphonies that bookended the programme: Haydn’s spirited Symphony No 1 (yes, he had to start somewhere); and Mozart’s Symphony No 40 (the second of his final three symphonies, not that he envisaged them as such).

The instant joie-de-vivre of the Haydn, a natural effusion of craftsmanship and ingenuity integrating prevalent Mannheim symphonic traits with newfound Austrian zest, produced a stimulating opener: nothing trenchant or intellectually taxing, just a no-nonsense, honest appreciation of the music’s charm and integrity. As with the later Mozart, there seemed a conscious limitation on string vibrato, which gave this performance a refreshingly raw, period countenance. 

If there’s anything Haydnesque about Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1, it’s the Soviet composer’s preoccupation with the cellular motif. Identified immediately by its brusque four-note monogram, Shostakovich powers his concerto with a single-minded insistence that borders on violence, which is why soloist Steven Isserlis refuses to play it on his Stradivarius. “For this, you need an instrument that doesn’t mind being hit,” he revealed in his pre-performance interview.

Despite the warning, Isserlis was careful not to go ballistic. Yes, there was forthright assertiveness and fiery detachment in his opening gambit, but this was not an exercise in basic extremes. Instead, there was a real sense of journey, the opening movement tempered with gnawing undertones, the Moderato equally cautious of overstatement, the cadenza shifting momentously from ruminative soliloquy to fiery springboard unleashing the rumbustious peasantry of the relentless finale. 

Fine horn playing, too, from SSO principal Alberto Menendez Escribano, and the lighter addition of a Kabalevsky dance (No 3 of 5 Studies for solo cello), played as an encore by Isserlis and dedicate to his friend, Berlin Philharmonic cellist Wolfgang Boettcher, who died last week.

Post interval, Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante defunte removed any lingering shockwaves from the Shostakovich, its wafting melodies and summer-scented harmonies, plus a sumptuous Ravel orchestration to die for, paving the way for the genius of Mozart.

This may have been 56-year-old Wigglesworth’s first time conducting the G minor symphony, but the clarity and cogency of his interpretation suggest the time was ripe. There was a meaty energy to this performance, essential in addressing the robust counterpoint of the finale, but never at the expense of capturing textural detail. It wasn’t the tightest playing of the evening, the occasional hint of rushed freneticism rocking an otherwise steady ship. But the overall encapsulation of Mozart’s heavier moods, especially that deliciously emotive chain of suspensions at the heart of the Andante, was enough to dispel any minor quibbles.
Ken Walton

Listen to this concert on BBC Sounds

BBC SSO/Elder

City Halls, Glasgow

At a time when we’re all depending on digital expertise to beam music performance into our homes, you’d expect the BBC to lead the way. But what we got on Thursday evening from this live streaming of the BBC SSO under Sir Mark Elder was anything but a technical showcase.

Initial production was shambolic. We experienced the opening countdown and snatches of pre-performance “off air” conversation by the technical team and presenter; an explosive vocal interjection mid-Bach Brandenburg Concerto No 1; and a pre-recorded conversation with conductor Sir Mark Elder that went missing, the lengthy gap filled only momentarily with a brief apology. The faults were still there Friday morning.

All of which seemed to cast a nervous shadow over a Bach performance that took time to settle, but even when it did – most convincingly in the delicate interplay of the slow movement, the sparkling horn insubordination that is the work’s distinctive signature, and the woodwind finesse that coloured so many concertante moments – never really established sustained confidence in its style and delivery. 

Fortunes changed instantly with the shift to Stravinsky’s abstract ballet score, Danses concertantes, a tangible sense of composure now providing the bedrock for a performance that captured the energising tension implicit in Stravinsky’s neoclassical writing, where rhythmic constraint and glittering artifice collide with incendiary results.

There was a stored intensity in Elder’s gestures that sent all the right signals to the players, just enough instruction to inspire a taut, alert ensemble, but which crucially handed ultimate responsibility to them to deliver the quality goods. The outcome was tart, snappy, often burlesque, laced with melodious tenderness at all the right moments.

Franz Schreker’s Chamber Symphony provided a substantial finale to the programme, transporting us to a very different 20th century world: that of a composer steeped in the Zeitgeist of fin-de-siecle Vienna, and a musical style in tune with the hot-scented modernism of Berg and hangover of opulent Strauss and rustic Mahler.

Elder’s fondness for this 1916 work surfaced from the word go, its faint opening allusions to Impressionism instantly cast aside as the restless narrative took hold. What unfolded was a performance rich in expressive yearning, from angst to frivolity, from shimmers of spectral luminescence to heightened surges that tugged mercilessly at the heart strings. 

What’s more, as a ravishing example of its time, memories of the concert’s earlier transmission problems were almost forgotten.
Ken Walton