Tag Archives: Glasgow


RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Let us hope that the RSNO is re-energised by the move into the larger space of Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and the opportunity to perform with larger forces in its recently-announced new digital season, because there is a slight sense of fatigue in this final concert of the current one.

That is no fault of guest soloist Nicky Spence, who brings expressive commitment and an enthusiastic musicality to Britten’s Les Illuminations. These nine Rimbaud settings may have been written for, and dedicated to, a soprano, Sophie Wyss, but that was surely as much because of the restrictions of the time (1940) and the emotions behind both the verse and Britten’s music sound more powerful in the tenor voice. The specific dedication of the seventh of them, the bold and assertive Being Beauteous, to Peter Pears, meant that the composer himself was being neither coy nor particularly careful.

The Scottish Ensemble made a go-to recording of the work with Toby Spence (no relation) and there is a coherence to that group’s string sound – with all the percussive effects and imitation of other instruments in this score – that is often missing here. The current necessity for social distancing might be some explanation for that, except that string players in general, and RSNO ones in particular, have noted some benefit in sitting at individual desks.

The Britten is preceded by George Walker’s roughly contemporary Lyric for Strings. While there is no argument that the compositions of the first African American to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize are ripe for rediscovery, his reputation might be better enhanced by tackling meatier fare than this early imitation of Barber’s Adagio, lovely though it is.

Thomas Sondergard’s Beethoven Five, which concluded the programme, is neither fish nor fowl – but then a hybrid of historically-informed practice and contemporary brio is what most orchestras and conductors aim for with the work these days. So we have natural trumpets and modern horns, and string playing that is brisk but not quite crisp enough in the first movement.

The conductor may be keeping his powder dry, but there is also an odd imbalance in the sound – uncharacteristic of engineer Phil Hobbs – which continues in the Andante, with the wind soloists, although all on fine form, rather too far up in the mix.

When more muscle comes into the performance in the Finale, that difficulty disappears, as does the lack of rhythmic rigour. The sprint to the tape, at least, whets the appetite for the orchestra’s return in April.

Keith Bruce

Scottish Ensemble/Cargill

Cottiers Theatre, Glasgow

Scottish Ensemble artistic director Jonathan Morton is both an original and inspired creator of programmes and a great collaborator, and his group chooses its performance venues with great care. All of those attributes are in evidence in its first streamed film event for the Coronavirus era, and the Ensemble’s first performance since March.

Songs for Life sees the string group partner with mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill in a sequence of music that is as eclectic as anything it has done, filmed in Cottiers, the former church turned arts venue, bar and restaurant in Glasgow’s West End. Part of the charm of Cottiers is that it still, after many years, seems a work in progress – both Tramway and the Arches in the city were arguably diminished as much as they were enhanced by the spending of vast sums of National Lottery money – but its aesthetic proves rather too much of a temptation to the film-makers here. With many shots from the gallery above the musicians, much skilled and confident hand-held camera-work and even drone footage from high above the kirk spire, there is an awful lot going on, and the mobility of the images is often an attention-seeking distraction. Recording engineer Jonathan Green captures the sound in the theatre well – there is a real appreciation of the reverberant acoustic and individual players are quite distinct – but the spoken introductions recorded in the bar fare less well, particularly when Cargill is speaking. This is a particular shame as she tells a story that her many fans will recognise as illustrative of why she is such a captivating performer.

Thankfully there is also ample evidence for that in the recital, and, when she sings, Miranda Stern and Julyan Sinclair often have the sense to keep the focus on her expressive performance. Aside from the single glory of Purcell’s Dido’s Lament – every bit as heart-breaking as you might desire – and leading a closing choral Auld Lang Syne – the mezzo’s contributions come in pairs: two from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, two from Britten’s Charm of Lullabies, and two of Dvorak’s Love Songs. Those last four, in particular, are lovely original choices, matched by the varied instrumental pieces Morton places around them. They begin with a movement from Walton’s Sonata for Strings and end with the mesmerising Entr’acte by Caroline Shaw, the New Yorker who is very much flavour of the moment. With Janacek, Kurtag, Beethoven and more Britten along the way, lighter moments come in one of Chick Corea’s Children’s Songs and George Walker’s Lyric for Strings, sounding a close cousin of Barber’s Adagio.

Those moments are welcome because the darkness in some of the other material is often matched by the images on screen. But then we live in bleak times, even if playing and singing of the matchless standard evident throughout this hour and a quarter presents the promise of light in that darkness.

Scottish Ensemble’s Songs for Life with Karen Cargill is available to view until 12 February, 2021; single ticket £10, household ticket £20. scottishensemble.co.uk
Keith Bruce

RSNO Berglund/Giltburg

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

With Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, we’re not in the 18th century anymore, Toto. This is both literally true – the composer began it in 1800 and it was first performed in 1803 – and in terms of the development of music. Although the piano concertos on either side may be considered in pairs, the Third is less a transitional work than the start of the revolution (to borrow the word the RSNO used for its Beethoven 250 strand) that found symphonic form in the Eroica.

The RSNO has its ideal partner for it in the dynamic and intelligent soloist with whom they have recorded Rachmaninov, Boris Giltburg, and the conductor was also to have been the same – Carlos Miguel Prieto. When he was unable to travel as a result of the current restrictions, the orchestra turned to a young Norwegian, Tabita Berglund, who only completed her Masters in orchestral conducting last year.

The reason may be very 2020, and another headache for orchestra managers to deal with, but such last minute replacements are by no means unusual, and this concert may have been the point where this “digital” season stepped up to take its place alongside the pantheon of “live” RSNO programmes – because it will be the one where we first met Berglund.

Not only was this her debut with the RSNO, it was the first time she had conducted the Beethoven concerto, and although she deferred to her soloist in her introductory remarks, there was nothing reserved in her clear, expansive, but detailed, style. In those same remarks she memorably described the work as “neither fish not bird” but she had the shape of the piece very clearly defined, and – although the start of the finale is the home of its big tune – the central Largo pinned as probably the composer’s most beautiful writing for piano and orchestra. This team performed it exquisitely.

After a very generous “encore” of the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No.30 (presumably coming soon in Giltburg’s recordings for Naxos), the programme moved to more familiar ground for young Berglund. Crucially, however, if Sibelius 7 is music she knows intimately, it is also, thanks to Alexander Gibson, in the blood of the RSNO. This change of programme was a real bonus that would surely have been cheered to the rafters had audiences been able to hear it. Berglund’s understanding of how the orchestra was this composer’s instrument, and this work the pinnacle of that relationship, was palpable from the start.

With the three trombones providing the crucial supporting architecture of the flow of Sibelius’s precise use of the forces at his disposal, this was big music for these diminished times, powerful and full of emotion. 

Once again, the RSNO’s online presentation, directed here by Jack Hunter, and with crucial vocal contributions from the players, was first class. There were some beautifully placed fixed cameras for the concerto, and the balance, while unlike anything a ticket-holder would hear anywhere in the Usher or Glasgow Royal Concert Halls, was also quite vibrantly distinct from anything you might expect of a studio recording.
Keith Bruce

Image: Tabita Berglund conducts the RSNO at the RSNO Centre, Glasgow