Tag Archives: Karen Cargill

BBC SSO / Chauhan

City Halls, Glasgow 

Does the BBC SSO have its eye on Alpesh Chauhan as a possible successor to Thomas Dausgaard as principal conductor, whose contract ends next year? He’s certainly an interesting prospect – young, determined and confident – though Thursday’s appearance with the SSO revealed once again that, while he ignites a spark in certain areas of repertoire, his mastery of such core Romantic repertory as Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6, the “Pathétique”, is still work in progress.

Chauhan opened this live broadcast programme with Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No 2, a work completed by the composer three decades after leaving it unfinished, which consequently bears the post-Romantic excess of his pre-dodecaphonic music but with the ultra-clean textural discipline of his maturer style. A reduced SSO ensemble made the most of the challenge, producing a gritty, precise and virtuosic performance.

But it was the calculated insistence on Chauhan’s part that characterised it. The initial journey from soft teasing woodwind phrases to the seething tumult of the first big climax was as much a result of pumped adrenalin as clear thinking. And where the first movement wrestled with its dense emotional heat, the second – initially an assertive, jaunty Con fuoco – pinned its outgoing exhilaration on a combination of Schoenberg’s stabilising old-style rhythmic regularity and the elusiveness of its post-Romantic language.

This was the big hit of the evening, with mezzo soprano Karen Cargill’s pre-interval encore of Richard Strauss’s idyllic Morgen well up there with it. The latter followed Cargill’s official contribution to the programme, Erich Korngold’s achingly beautiful Absecheidslieder (Songs of Farewell), which suited the characteristically molten, earthy quality of her lower voice. 

In the opening song the mood was one of reflective seduction; the powerful Wagnerian in Cargill coloured the ensuing Dies eine kann mein Sehen with a thrilling euphoric glow; the more mystical Mond, so gest du wieder auf, with its otherworldliness and ethereal religiosity, gave way to the deeply personal Gefasster Abschied, sumptuously Straussian in mood and manner.

It was hard at times to catch all of Cargill’s performance above the wholesome orchestration, and the higher reaches of her voice seemed a little less comfortable than usual, but there was no escaping the emotive connection she has with this music, and with the exquisite Morgen that followed, featuring also the poised, poignantly understated solo violin of SSO associate leader Kanako Ita. It was just a shame that no-one saw fit to give her the curtain call she so thoroughly deserved.

Chauhan’s Tchaikovsky was a curious combination of fluid efficiency and heavy-duty indulgence. The latter turned the opening movement into a journey plagued by too many wrong turnings – agonising extremes of tempi, especially the slow ones, that jarred with the overall flow and which effected audible signs of insecurity at key attack points. When he let the music express itself in the central movements, however, things made much more sense. From that, the finale emerged with convincing gravitas, albeit susceptible – as in several previous instances – to a brass section given too free a rein at the expense of the modest string forces. 

Ken Walton

Available to stream or download for 30 days.

Cumnock Tryst: Karen Cargill

Trinity Church, Cumnock

In an earlier era – one without, perhaps, the baleful influence of Richard Wagner – it is intriguing to wonder if Robert Schumann might have composed more than one opera. Certainly, in her performance of his song cycle Frauenliebe und Leben, international opera star Karen Cargill suggested a sensibility to create something less epic than the big German Romantic projects he contemplated.

For Cargill, Clara Schumann’s Sechs Lieder, Opus 13 and Robert’s Opus 42 set of eight are both the work of the couple together. This was something of a change to the pre-announced programme to open Sir James MacMillan’s returned long weekend of performances in East Ayrshire. The published brochure lists a showcase for female composers, with Clara followed by Fanny Mendelssohn, Pauline Viardot and Amy Beach.

Only Beach’s Three Browning Songs survived of the others, following the Schumanns with big Broadway renditions that rounded off the recital in grand style. The major loss was of five of Viardot’s Russian songs, in their German translations, which might have been something of a bridge to Cargill’s new Linn disc of French repertoire, Fleur de mon ame, none of which she sang here.

Her partner on the recording, Simon Lepper, was also her foil in Cumnock, the familiar foundation for her first performance in front of an audience in 18 months, something she clearly found an emotional experience.

In that time, as well as releasing that acclaimed recording of Debussy, Duparc and Chausson, the mezzo has been appointed interim head of vocal studies at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the Schumann songs are, as she pointed out, bedrock repertoire for young students. Cargill gave a masterclass in their performance here, alternating power with tenderness, communicating both sequences as narrative arcs of the rewards and pain of love, and persuasively presenting the settings of Chamisso’s popular verse cycle as the answer to the questioning note on which Clara Schumann’s Die stille Lotosblume ends.

This was, beyond argument, a superb way for the Cumnock Tryst to open its return, with Scotland’s major opera star making her debut at the event in an intimate recital a million miles from her high-profile life at the New York Met and elsewhere. If those Beach songs are as new to her as she said, she gave a definitive performance of them just the same, and then encored with a nod to her host in a William Soutar setting by MacMillan. Live-streamed from its first performances, the concert is available via the Tryst website for seven days.

Keith Bruce

Tryst Spreads Its Wings

Sir James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst festival is expanding into new venues as well as embracing digital streaming over its four days at the end of September and start of October.

Alongside the usual range of church and other venues – and there are performances at Trinity, St John’s and Cumnock Old Churches as well as in the Town Hall and Dumfries Arms Hotel – the Tryst will this year use the new Barony Campus Hall in the Ayrshire town and the Morphy Richards Engineering Centre on Dumfries House Estate.

The festival runs from September 30 to October 3 and opens on the Thursday evening with the first appearance at the Tryst by Scotland’s star mezzo, Karen Cargill. With Simon Lepper at the piano, she will perform two concerts back-to-back, at 6.45pm and 8.30pm, to allow for maximum audience in a safely-managed environment. Her performance will also be live-streamed and available to watch for seven days.

Pianist Steven Osborne returns to the festival, this time in the company of Paul Lewis, to perform a programme of 20thcentury piano duets, mainly by French composers.

The festival’s artist-in-residence is saxophonist Christian Forshaw. He will be joining the singers of Tenebrae in a programme of early music for Passiontide and in a trio with singer Grace Davidson and Libby Burgess at the keyboard, as well as appearing with Sir James MacMillan and the Robert Burns Academy Concert Band in a public workshop entitled Improvise!

That is only one facet of an education programme that also includes the launch, at the Barony Hall, of a new book by MacMillan and Tryst chief executive Jennifer Martin, Creative Composition for the Classroom.

The new venue at Dumfries House Estate will welcome the returning Hebrides Ensemble. Like Cargill and Tenebrae, they are also performing twice, in their case at 2pm and 4.30pm on the Sunday.General booking for this year’s programme opens on Monday August 9. www.thecumnocktryst.com

RSNO / Lowe / Cargill

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.
Ken Walton

Available to view on www.rsno.org.uk

VOPERA: L’enfant et les sortileges

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.
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