RSNO Centre, Glasgow
A “technical issue” resulted in Friday’s planned release of the RSNO’s first 2021 digital concert being delayed until Saturday. Given this glitch offered a version that chopped the final bars off Dvorak’s New World Symphony, the decision to delay was wise. There’s nothing worse than experiencing the same fate as the long distance runner whose legs buckle a few metres short of the finish line.
Be assured, the rectified version takes us all the way, with a rousing end to a performance in which conductor James Lowe and the orchestra finally feel at home with each other and a mutually conducive spark is lit.
Lowe was brought in to replace Ryan Bancroft and a programme originally intended to feature violinist Midori in the world premiere on Glanert’s Violin Concerto No 2. In its place comes the popular Dvorak symphony and Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with mezzo soprano Karen Cargill.
The opening work remains unchanged, Errollyn Wallen’s surging Mighty River, written in 2007 to commemorate the bicentennial of the signing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. Like the political momentum gathering pace then for a lengthy ongoing liberation campaign, Wallen’s metaphor of choice is the unstoppable power of water, its vitality, the unceasing journey that a mighty river undertakes in search of the open sea.
Familiar tunes make their presence felt: Amazing Grace feeds through the opening bars like a shared opening prayer; the spiritual Deep River more immersed within the later fabric of increasingly frenetic textures. The language encompasses echoes of Copland’s fresh-faced dissonances, powering minimalism à la Reich or Adams, besides Wallen’s own lyrical, occasionally mystical fingerprints. It is a compendium of 20th/21st century Classical Americana underpinned by incessant, pulsating energy.
This performance doesn’t quite get to grips with all that. It’s more matter-of-fact than edge-of-the-seat, more routine than gripping, especially where the vital underpinning rhythmic motor seems more content to chunter along than switch to overdrive.
Cargill’s presence in the five songs that make up Wagner’s gorgeous Mathilde Wesendonck settings provide a welcome instant transformation. The rich sonority of her lower range channels their emotional depth from the offset, Cargill brilliantly fractious in Stehe Still – a touch of the Wagnerian nasties – and glowingly ecstatic in Im Treibhaus, spine-chillingly intense in Der Engel and aptly dreamy in Traume.
Hans Werner Henze’s orchestration poses its own challenges, the highly exposed solo lines and curious colour mixes dependent on super-refined management. While Lowe’s direction provides inoffensive, efficient support for Cargill, it struggles to find the vital essence of Henze’s weird and wonderful intentions. They are more convincing than they sometimes appear here.
No lack of conviction when it comes to the Dvorak, despite niggling aspects of (recording?) balance that occasionally vulgarise the opening Allegro molto. Thereafter, there’s the leisurely Largo, sprightly Scherzo and wholesomely conclusive Allegro con fuoco to seal the deal on a programme that takes its time to fully settle.
Available to view on www.rsno.org.uk
Tag Archives: Karen Cargill
RSNO Centre, Glasgow
London Philharmonic Orchestra
It has become a platitude to enthuse about how creatively artists have responded to the restrictions on their livelihood brought about the pandemic, but it is nonetheless undeniable. However, this production of Ravel’s short opera, a modernist parable to a libretto by Colette brought vibrantly up-to-date, raises the bar to new heights.
Director Rachael Hewer – with the help of somewhere around 100 other people – has made a version of a work that is a musical delight, if very much of its time in other ways, into a profound commentary on our times, at the end of which you may well find yourself choking back tears.
Objectively, it is an astonishing technical achievement. All the singers – and they range from well-known names (Karen Cargill is Maman) to youngsters in the early stages of their careers – recorded and filmed their parts at home, using the technology to hand. The 27 members of the LPO recorded the music in socially-distanced conditions, playing a reduced orchestration made by conductor Lee Reynolds.
Hewer and her technical team have taken the faces of their cast and chorus and put them into the animated world in which the production takes place, as seen from the perspective of the titular child, sung by Emily Edmonds and winningly performed on-screen by Amelie Turnage. On the bones of Colette’s French text, given fresh translation in subtitles by Hewer herself, much contemporary context is happily applied: the girl is unhappily home-schooling during lockdown, and the fantasy world she enters, through the screen of her laptop, includes a hospital ward with all the necessary PPE, a yoga class in the gym, a rolling news broadcast with subtitles becoming the headlines ticker-taping along the foot of the screen, and a Zoom meeting for the Dance of the Frogs, with all the now-familiar icons hand-drawn.
It is hard to believe that a full orchestra would serve Ravel’s highly-original score, with its elements of Broadway, cabaret and operetta, any better than the LPO musicians do here, and the singing is of a uniformly high standard, with brilliant solo turns (stratospheric stuff from Sarah Hayashi as The Fire) as well as the quite remarkable choral combination, given the way it came about.
Within those restrictions too, there is also some fine facial acting – Marcus Farnsworth’s child-hating armchair an early highlight, and Shuna Scott Sendall an animated gym-bunny cat.
Familiar London locations crop up in the animated world, but the film begins in a black and white version of the child’s domestic home, and ends, in glorious technicolour, in the world everyone involved wants to get back to, as a patchwork of gilded interiors of opera houses around the world fills the screen. All are empty, of course, with a single “ghost light” left burning.
To the closing choral lament, the animated characters begin to fill up the stalls, and L’enfant has the last word as she returns “home”, singing: “Maman!” It is at this point that strong men may well be reaching for their pocket square. Like I did.
Available on YouTube until December 16.
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