Tag Archives: Perth Concert Hall

PERTH FESTIVAL: Benedetti & SCO

Perth Concert Hall

One of the constant enjoyments in life is to listen to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra playing Mozart. It’s tradition for them that goes back to the James Conlon recordings of the early 1980s and continues today under the likes of current chief conductor Maxim Emelyanychev. There have been times, too, when this finely-tuned orchestra has simply self-driven itself through Mozart, as it did with the in-house guidance of leader Benjamin Marquise Gilmore in this closing online concert of the Perth Festival.

And this Mozart delicacy – the short, light-fingered, Italianate No 33 – was much more than a warm-up to the starry appearance of Nicola Benedetti in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto that was to follow. In its own right, it had poise, the graceful triple-time opening Allegro, the soothing Andante, the downward swooping Menuetto and the pert Finale, all enlivened by shapely poeticism and a neatly-textured ensemble. It wasn’t the most flawless performance in terms of absolute togetherness, but in spirit it was a confectionary delight.

Benedetti may only be in her early 30s, but she carries her own lengthy and busy tradition of playing the Mendelssohn concerto, which – she recounted in her introductory remarks – featured in the last set of SCO performances she undertook before last year’s lockdown. 

So there was an obvious pertinence in returning to it here as the music world begins to reopen. A palpable optimism seemed to inform Benedetti’s performance, which bristled with intent from the word go. If this is a work that engenders impetuosity – there’s a fair argument for that – it was dealt here in spades, but with all the affectionate sincerity and heartfelt lyricism it deserves.

Was Benedetti’s response a little roughshod at times? To an extent, perhaps, in the heat of the opening movement, but there was consistency, wholehearted conviction in her playing, which in turn fed into the robust orchestral support. The melting tenderness of the Andante, opulent without labour or indulgence, was charming; the finale, joyous and liberated. 

That should have been the upbeat conclusion to the 2021 Perth Festival, were it not for an unexpected encore: Sally Beamish’s natty arrangement for violin, viola and orchestra of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Farewell to Stromness. Benedetti was joined front stage by principal viola Nicholas Bootiman, in a version stage-managed like Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, the musicians disappearing one by one, leaving only the duo under the lone spotlight, Max’s wistful melody drifting softly into the distance. 
Ken Walton

Available on the Perth Festival website till 7 June. 

Colin Currie and Huw Watkins

Perth Concert Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Available on BBC Sounds

Jess Gillam and Zeynep Ozsuca

Perth Concert Hall

Had he not died four centuries ago, composer John Dowland would have surely been astonished to see the company he has been keeping this week at Perth Concert Hall.

Having featured in the first of this week’s Live and Unlocked recitals, bringing performers together with an audience for the first time in over a year, when his songs bracketed a diverse recital by contralto Jess Dandy, he popped up again on Thursday in the programme of saxophonist Jess Gillam.

One of his best-known tunes, Flow my tears, was her sole delve into the distant past alongside 20th century masters Francis Poulenc, Kurt Weill and Astor Piazzolla and the very-much-with-us Meredith Monk and Graham Fitkin.

The Poulenc oboe sonata, which he dedicated to Prokofiev, is very well-suited to the more robust dynamics of the soprano saxophone, the instrument Gillam played throughout. It is very colourful music for both the soloist and pianist, languid lines in the company of much spikier material, as was true of the whole set.

The short Monk solo, Early Morning Light, was close kin to Dowland’s song, preceding the precisely-titled Dappled Light, commissioned by Gillam and Ozcusa from Luke Howard. The sound you have in your head, suggested by those two words, is exactly what the piano plays.

Fitkin’s Gate gave Ozcusa a terrific rumbling jazzy underscore to a very demanding sax line, with long eloquent phrases. Gillam’s breath control on this was quite superb. It is a real virtuoso showpiece and her relaxed delivery of it was exemplary.

Composed in Paris, after his first successes with Brecht and before his American career, Kurt Weill’s Je ne t’aime pas is 1934’s statement of the same sentiment as 10cc’s I’m Not In Love, and again spoke across 400 years to the Dowland, which preceded it.

Paralleling the Poulenc was Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango, a sonata in all but name, its four movements tracing the music the Argentinian re-invented from the start of the 20th century to the time of its composition (1985) in generational chunks. With a big ballad tune (Café 1930) at its heart, there was plenty for Ozcusa to get her teeth into as well as Gillam, and as much Bartok as bossa-nova for aficionados to enjoy.

Keith Bruce

Alasdair Beatson And Friends

Perth Concert Hall / BBC Radio 3

The perfect lunch is one that satisfies the midday hunger pangs without weighing you down for the remainder of the day. In that sense, this second programme in a week of lunchtime concerts broadcast live from Perth Concert Hall by BBC Radio 3, though more remarkably attended by a limited live audience, served its purpose perfectly.

It featured locally-born pianist Alasdair Beatson in partnership with violinist Maria Włoszczowska and Philip Higham of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and the sum total of its content – trios by Haydn, Helen Grime and Fauré – was one of edifying and fulfilling contentment. Crowning that, it had a casual, summery appeal that made up for the mixed weather we’ve currently been enduring.

Haydn’s late Piano Trio in D set the scene. Restrained and serious from the outset, Beatson and his string colleagues emphasised its delicate surprises, puffs of energy grounded within rich-grained tone and a comforting tempo. Beyond the pervading sadness of the short slow movement, its dotted motifs like gentle sniffles, the innocent tittle-tattle of the finale lifted the spirits only to disappear finally and unexpectedly into the distance.

What made this such a delight was the unpretentiousness of the ensemble playing, an emphasis on blend and integration without suppressing the option for each player at any given moment to make a worthy point. Such opportunities further presented themselves in Scots composer Helen Grimes’ Three Whistler Miniatures, written 10 years ago and inspired by three chalk and pastel portraits by Whistler.

They are, says the composer, impressions rather than musical portraits, immediately apparent in the opening piece, The Little Note in Yellow and Gold, where the ambient lustre established by blurred piano chords is injected by flashes of hot string colours. Together with the more agitated contours of Lapis Lazuli and increasingly exotic textures of The Violet Note, these are sharp and scintillating pieces, heard to full effect in this insightful performance.

Another late Piano Trio completed the programme, this time by Fauré, his Op 120, composed near the end of his life. And again, it was the generosity and warmth of the playing that allowed the essence of Fauré’s signature style to fully emerge: the endless and effortless melodic flow; the irrepressible sense of natural momentum; the intoxicating and imperceptible shifts in key; and the restful fluidity that, in the closing moments of the finale, rises to Olympian heights. 

Beatson and his SCO friends served it all to perfection.
Ken Walton

Available on BBC Sounds

Jess Dandy and Malcolm Martineau

Perth Concert Hall

The chief executive of Horsecross, the organisation that runs Perth’s Concert Hall and Theatre, spoke for everyone in the room when Nick Williams said that the sooner he can welcome audiences back to regular events the better. For the moment, however, there were not that many of us in the room.

As hopefully came across on BBC Radio 3’s live broadcast, what we lacked in numbers (the hall’s capacity capped at 100 to maintain two metres’ social distancing), we made up for in enthusiasm. This was, by any measure, an historic occasion. Not since mid-March 2020 had people paid to gather indoors in Scotland to listen to music: we were members of Audience No. 1 of the post-Covid era, if fortune should smile.

“Live and Unlocked” is how Perth has billed this series of four lunchtime concerts, and this first one also kicked off a Scottish presence on the BBC network this week. Like myself, many in the hall and listening on the radio would know Jess Dandy best for her singing of early choral repertoire. Her distinctive contralto voice was a crucial ingredient of the Dunedin Consort’s St Matthew Passion online from this same venue at the end of March.

If this recital was partially designed to show her versatility beyond that, it was a huge success. As she eloquently explained to Radio 3 presenter Ian Skelly, its origins lay in noting that words written in the 16th century have inspired composers from then until now to set them to music. The hour-long concert took us from John Dowland to Joseph Horovitz, whose 1970 setting of Lady Macbeth’s speeches from Acts 1, 2 and 5 of Shakespeare’s tragedy as Lady Macbeth – A Scena is a short one-woman opera of the character’s story.

Shakespeare’s words and inspiration were a constant thread through the programme, but there was also room for the poetry of Ben Jonson and Sir Philip Sidney as well as Robert Schumann’s late work setting the five suspiciously-autobiographical poems attributed to Mary Queen of Scots, which form a mini-opera of their own.

It was also very thoughtfully sequenced, with music by French composers Ravel, Poulenc, Berlioz and Gounod interrupted by a reading of poetry from Hamlet to precede Berlioz’s Ballade La Mort d’Ophelie. The hymn-like cadences of Gounod’s setting of Sidney’s sonnet of devotion My True Love Hath My Heart sat perfectly before the hymns and prayers – and desperate letter – of the Schumann songs.

If Dandy seemed to take a couple of songs to move into top gear, she was full of confidence and style for the rest of the programme, which became more demanding as it went on. The same might be said of the piano parts, but Malcolm Martineau was his usual sparkling self throughout, as the perfect foil in the most dramatic works.

With two of Dominick Argento’s Six Elizabethan Songs, we were most clearly in the business of crossing the centuries in both melody and backing, while Korngold’s settings of lyrics from Shakespeare’s plays are clearly of their own era. One could perhaps argue that they most aptly suited the “cabaret seating” that kept the audience socially-distanced, but this was Broadway, not Berlin. Nonetheless, Martineau and Dandy had great fun with Under the Greenwood Tree and Where Birds Do Sing.

Keith Bruce

Available on BBC Sounds

PERTH FESTIVAL: Isata Kanneh-Mason

Perth Concert Hall

The most wonderful moment in a young musician’s career is when they suddenly appear to have cracked it; where maturity and composure hits in and a performance seems more a genuine lived experience than one of technique-masquerading-as-mastery. 

I’m not saying that moment arrived for pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason specifically with Sunday’s release of her gripping online Perth Festival programme. But for those of us experiencing her several recent appearances in Scotland, this was surely the turning point. Have a listen and decide for yourselves. The programme is available on line for 30 days.

She plays Mozart, Chopin, Gershwin and Samuel Barber, and in each case strikes an electrifying balance between stylistic deference and compelling rhetoric. The one advantage of playing in the absence of audience applause is that each piece can be heard in direct, uninterrupted context. Kanneh-Mason uses that opportunity to fully energise her programme, It hardly stops for breath.

Mozart’s C minor Sonata provides the perfect opener, clean and transparent on the one hand, exploiting fully the minor key dramatic potential on the other. Kanneh-Mason plays one against the other, visibly precise and articulate with her finger work, yet ever-aware of the emotional cut and  thrust of the opening movement, or the lyrical suppleness of the ensuing Adagio. There is utter confidence, too, in the extent to which spontaneous nuance gives expressive character to the musical phrase.

The immediate transition into Chopin’s Ballade No 2 is an easy one, given the calm triadic chordal theme with which it opens. But this, too, is music that thrives on the thrill of vying sentiments, this time in the stormy language of the Romantics. Kanneh-Mason unleashes the fiery element of the Chopin with blistering passion, allowing the work’s argument to reach fever point, and the ultimate triumph of reasoning to assert its quiet, restful resolution. 

To follow that immediately with Gershwin’s Three Preludes is to time travel with a ferocious jolt. Published in 1926, they are jazzy to the core. At their heart is a gorgeously bluesy Adagio, where once again Kanneh-Mason finds the supplest and subtlest of touches and expansiveness of tone with which to hone its melancholic lines. Either side, the Allegro ben ritmico and Agitato are set ablaze by electrifying pianism and effusive razzmatazz.

The most exciting piece comes last, Barber’s astringent Piano Sonata in E flat minor, commissioned by Irving Berlin and Richard Rogers, written in 1950 and, from the outset, characterised by a modernity we don’t always associate with the same composer’s Violin Concerto or Adagio our Strings. 

The troubled landscape of the opening bars searching for distant resolution, a bubbling “scherzo” as translucent and nimble as any of Ravel’s, the soulful angularity of the slow movement melodies, and the waspish rigour of the final fugue find Kanneh-Mason in total control of her thoughts and of this difficult music. She nails it in every sense. Here, surely, is a talented musician approaching full bloom.
Ken Walton

Available to view on the Perth festival website.

PERTH FESTIVAL: Manu Brazo

Perth Concert Hall

The billing was solely focused on Spanish saxophonist Manu Brazo, but in reality this Perth Festival online concert, recorded in the cheery resonant acoustics of Perth Concert Hall, was for the most part a trio performance, featuring on roughly equal terms the violinist Claudio Gallardo and pianist Prajna Indrawati. 

There is, of course, little if any repertoire specifically written for such an unorthodox line-up, so arrangements were the order of the day. They ranged from the kind of lollipops once associated with summer seaside orchestras – among them versions of Mascagni’s Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, Monti’s rip-roaring Czardas, and Kreisler’s sweet-scented arrangement of the Londonderry Air – to more full-blooded adaptations of Manuel de Falla’s Danse Espagnole and a re-crafted selection from Max Bruch’s 8 Pieces, originally for clarinet, viola and piano.

The last of these, said Brazo, provided the central core of a programme he called Revive, alluding to the reawakening of music as Covid restrictions are relaxed. To be honest, such a title could apply to any concert programme at the moment. Its relevance here was neither here nor there.

What did stand out was Brazo’s alert playing, despite on rather too many occasions being mismatched by the less consistent form of his colleagues. He injected both vivacity and sultriness into Gallardo’s fine arrangement of the de Falla, and was the dynamo that took the programme to its conclusion, particularly in Albeniz’s sizzling Sevilla from his Iberia Suite, one of a few numbers in which the ensemble seemed nearest to gelling on equal terms.

Even when working solely with piano, as in François Borne’s Fantasie brilliante sur Carmen, there was erratic imbalance in the presentation, Brazo’s lightning articulation and virtuoso magnetism in its variation segments occasionally undermined by Indrawati’s missed detail and somewhat reserved presence. 

It was in the Bruch that the trio came much more in to its own, thanks to these beautiful, eloquent works. The four selected ranged from the smouldering rusticity of the Rumänische Melodie and woozy calm of Nachtgesang, to the concluding bright and breezy Allegro vivace. Here, at least, the music came alive, even if the odd tuning or ensemble glitch persisted in interrupting the smooth flow and complete enjoyment.

Ken Walton 

Available to view via the Perth Festival website

SCO: MacMillan / Currie

Perth Concert Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live music in Perth

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCO / Boyd / Osborne

Perth Concert Hall

It is not a strategy any sane person would recommend, of course, but the long period without performances at full strength has surely produced an audibly re-energised Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Or perhaps that is to do an injustice to oboist and conductor Douglas Boyd, whose direction of this concert shows that every section of the band is within reach of his eloquent arms.

Nonetheless, it is the wind section that shines brightest in the opening performance of Mendelssohn’s Overture: The Fair Melusine, and in particular the flute of Bronte Hudnott and the clarinet of Maximiliano Martin. With natural trumpets and horns, there is a robust period-band approach from Boyd and an appreciation that the narrative of the daft mermaid story is still a tragic one.

This reviewer is not much given to tears, but the performance by pianist Steven Osborne and the orchestra of the Adagio slow movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G brought a lump to the throat. That this achingly melody should have been the last thing Maurice Ravel wrote for these forces is poignant, but the emotional power of the unfolding line – a real challenge for the soloist to express as beautifully as Osborne does here – is all in the notes themselves.

The muscularity that was apparent in the Mendelssohn continues into the first movement’s percussive opening, from orchestra and then piano. This is the richest of early-20th century compositions, full of echoes of dance, jazz and ethnic music, the movement ending as boldly and expressively as it begins. The closing Presto movement goes at full pelt from the off, with Osborne’s lightning work at the keyboard matched by piccolo, E-flat clarinet and impressively zippy bassoon playing. Especially memorable in the online incarnation is the piano’s partnership with the cor anglais of Imogen Davies, given a lovely retro realisation in the vision-mix by film partner Stagecast and director Phil Glenny.

The programme ends with Mozart’s “Paris” Symphony, No 31, and the SCO knows playing Mozart’s symphonies in the way that Rick Stein is worth listening to on cooking fish. This was the composer’s first “full-strength” symphony, new-fangled clarinets and all, even if the instrument is strangely undeployed in the flowing dynamics of the Andantino. The outer Allegro movements were as Boyd’s Mendelssohn predicted, with the timpani-driven march at the start of the finale emblematic of commitment evident across the programme as a whole.

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Keith Bruce

SCO / Swensen

Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Swensen

Perth Concert Hall

Given his remarkably prodigious output, it is not so astonishing that French writer Jules Verne set his 1882 romantic novel The Green Ray in the West of Scotland. Over the course of his career he ran through a vast number of global locations in his work, as well as those that were out of this world.

Composer Gavin Bryars borrows the title of the book, and to some extent its subject matter, for his 1991 saxophone concerto, originally written for John Harle and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta. It was played here, at the centre of a concert conducted by Joseph Swensen, by Jess Gillam, the young virtuoso of soprano and alto saxes who has her own Saturday series on BBC Radio 3 and is the presentational face of this year’s BBC Young Musician finals, a competition in which she was a runner-up.

The was her debut with the SCO, and the work presented a side to her personality that contrasted with her engaging ebullience as a broadcaster. On an instrument, the soprano sax, that can be shrill, Gillam had a beautifully mellow tone throughout a score that is played as a continuous sequence and in which the soloist rarely has a break. It is not by any measure a virtuoso showpiece, however, with no flashy cadenzas or lightening fingerwork. Instead the sax has a lead role in the ensemble, perhaps depicting that rarely glimpsed, but ever-present, shaft of verdant sunlight seen at sunset in certain latitudes. The piece has a lovely arc to its construction, which Swensen clearly appreciated, underpinned by bass clarinet and contra-bassoon, with a significant orchestral piano part (played by Michael Bawtree, briefly credited on screen but mysteriously missing from the downloadable programme) and ending with an unmistakeable echo of the pipes.

It also shares some sonic elements with the work that preceded it, Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, most obviously the tubular bells but also in the string writing and deliberate pace. Part may never have met the English composer, but this is an exquisite eulogy, and also as perfect an encapsulation of the Estonian’s method: using the simplest materials to make the most profound music.

Arguably Beethoven was at something of the same game with his First Symphony. The opening bars of his symphonic odyssey can still sound startling 220 years on, and they did so here. With natural trumpets and baroque horns, there was a clear historically-informed approach from Swensen with brisk tempi and crisp playing across the orchestra. It was far from straight-laced, though, the brief third movement full of rhythmic playfulness, and clearly anticipating the finale of the Fifth and the dancing Seventh.

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Keith Bruce

Susan Tomes / RSNO Winds

Perth Concert Hall

One of the great advantages for a pianist teaming up with key wind principals from a single orchestra to form the required ensemble for Mozart’s and Beethoven’s only Quintets for Piano and Winds is its diminishing of the risk factors regarding coordination.

For pianist Susan Tomes, therefore, spearheading this pairing of works for the last of Perth Concert Hall’s engaging week-long Easter Lunchtime Concert Series, the integration here with her RSNO friends is akin to a joining of two minds rather than five. The unified, easeful enjoyment of these performances translate as such.

What didn’t happen as planned was Friday’s associated BBC Radio 3 broadcast, given that the BBC turned over its entire radio network to coverage of the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, so the concert’s only current availability is via the film version purchasable via the Concert Hall’s website.

It, too, has its unplanned moments, such as the false start to the opening of the Beethoven: a strangely unedited moment (uncorrected at the time of writing), but at the same time offering a touchingly human moment that could easily have happened in any live context. Such are the vagaries of these uncharted times.

That aside, these are both exceptional works that are a joy to experience anytime in any way, and when the essence of chamber music is adhered to – no place for egos here – the music truly sings. Not even in the Beethoven, who places more soloistic emphasis on the piano than Mozart, does Tomes feel any need to play the prima donna. She is, and always has been, a naturally sensitive chamber musician.

Her interaction with the RSNO players – Adrian Wilson (oboe), Timothy Orpen (clarinet), David Hubbard (bassoon) and Christopher Gough (horn) – is both generous and empathetic; their familiarity with each other in return gives a natural homogeneity and precision to the complementary wind unit.

Nonetheless, the real joy of these performances are those moments where self-expression shines through – a penetrating horn melody perhaps, the surprisingly bullish emergence of the bassoon, or of course the many opportunities for the piano to capitalise on concerto-like opportunities. 

It’s in the slow movements where the most melting musical moments arise. The lyrical warmth of Mozart’s central Larghetto and Beethoven’s Andante cantabile find Tomes and her colleagues at their most spontaneously and most comfortably expressive. The outer movements vary in consistency. 

Should a slight hesitancy of attack in Mozart’s opening Largo – Allegro moderato concern us? Only when the initial mist clears to reveal a crisper, more vital team spirit. And are the solo piano openings to both the Mozart and Beethoven finales deliberately understated? Again, the instant shifts of gear as the winds enter in each case leave you wondering. 

But there’s no escaping the unique brilliance of these hybrid works, the fascinating sound world they explore, and the powerful affection and instinctive musicality elicited in these genuinely inspired performances. 
Ken Walton

Available to watch via www.horsecross.co.uk

SCO / Farnsworth

Perth Concert Hall

One of the most exhilarating aspects of the online experience we are currently enjoying in response to Covid is the freedom it has given for experimental concert presentation, none more informative and characterful than when the very players themselves are given screen time to offer their own illuminating introductory thoughts on the music.

Here is a prime example – a gorgeous cornucopia of relatively peripheral Baroque music selected by violist Brian Schiele and harpsichordist/organist Jan Waterfield, introduced by them and baritone Marcus Farnsworth, and played by a stylish coterie of fellow SCO players. Yes, the music itself is rendered with lively affection and stylistic panache, but the intervening introductions are what bring the connection up close and personal. We shouldn’t lose this factor when things get back to the so-called new normal.

It’s to the early Baroque that this programme turns first, a lush and stately Pavan à 6 by Johann Schop, the late 17th century Lower Saxon who made his name in Copenhagen and Hamburg. Foremost in this performance is the clarity of texture emanating from the purity of tone, particularly the fruits of inner detail issuing from the second violin and violas. 

It sets an anticipatory atmosphere for Telemann’s Devil-slaying solo cantata So grausam mächtig iso der Teufel, which Farnsworth, as solo protagonist, imbues with determined and triumphant fervour. Then to Sperantis Gaudia from Florilegium 1 by the much travelled Georg Muffat – a composer, we are informed, whose Scottish grandparents fled 16th century Catholic persecution to mainland Europe – and an instrumental work enriched by the multiple viola presence and consequentially soulful inner voices.

If anyone set Baroque string writing ablaze, it was surely Bohemian-born Heinrich Biber, famous for the often extreme literalism of his instrumental effects, heard here in much more tempered vein, though no less rewardingly, at the core of his Serenata “The Night Watchman” – that dramatic moment when Farnsworth appears on stage with an apparently authentic 17th century nightwatchman’s song, to the serenading accompaniment of a pizzicato string band.

Then a palate-cleanser, Waterfield’s crystalline solo performance on harpsichord of Froberger’s Toccata III – crisply disciplined finger-work with neatly-judged expressive fluidity – before an unexpectedly reflective finale from the pen of Johann Christoph Bach, uncle and one-time guardian of the younger Johann Sebastian. 

Again, Farnsworth is at the forefront as soloist in this mesmerising lament, Ach, dass ich Wassers g’nug hätte,  and the Bach signature is unmistakable: aching musical sighs that penetrate to the very core of the texts (taken from Jeremiah and the Psalms) and a musical offering as consummate as any of the more famous Bach. If Farnsworth’s interpretation very occasionally eschews complete focus, the bigger picture wins out. The ending is magical.

Ken Walton  
Available to watch on www.sco.org.uk

Maxwell Quartet

Perth Concert Hall

How very well chosen were this pair of crucial works of the string quartet repertoire, complementary in their forging ahead with the form, well short of two decades apart in their composition, and each utterly emblematic of the voice of the composer.

Just as significantly, Haydn’s “Rider” Quartet, Opus 74 No 3, and Beethoven’s “Harp”, his 10th String Quartet and also, curiously, Opus 74, are works for an experienced group to explore fully. Just as they are mature works by their respective composers, they are pieces for a well-established quartet. The Maxwells are that group, no longer youths who met at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and won their first international recognition at the Trondheim competition. Even the flowing lockdown locks and bushy beards cannot disguise that.

The crisp and vibrant opening Allegro of the Haydn made that intent immediately obvious, but it was the rich, blended sound in the Largo that follows that confirmed it, with first violin Colin Scobie on special form on top. The short Menuetto began and ended with as much flourish before the Finale that gives the work its nickname through its galloping rhythms. This is Haydn at his most playful and smile-provoking, and there were smiles all round to confirm that.

If it is possible that Haydn indeed had horse-riding in his mind, it is less likely that Beethoven was in any sense trying to mimic the harp with his pizzicato writing in the opening movement of his Opus 74. Although the composer was already battling encroaching deafness, the first movement is all about the particular character of the plucked string resonance on these instruments, a responsibility that is passed around the ensemble and was sparklingly played and recorded here. Once again, Scobie was on fine robust and lyrical form with his lead line.

As in the closing Allegro of the Haydn, the Adagio second movement is as much about the spaces between the notes as the notes themselves, and here again the Maxwell displayed their mature, unhurried but decisive, approach to the score. The Finale is a very close rhythmic cousin of the opening of the Fifth Symphony, which Beethoven had premiered only a year earlier, and that was made very clear in the quartet’s coherent attack from bar one. Classic performances of two pivotal pieces.

Keith Bruce

Available to watch via horsecross.co.uk

Perth Festival

May’s Perth Festival of the Arts has maintained a classical music core to its programme even as it has diversified into other areas of music, theatre and a popular art fair. This year, although it will not be able to welcome live audiences to its concerts, it has doubled down on that commitment, with a fine line-up of local and visiting artists.

The 49th festival opens on May 20 with a concert by the Scottish Ensemble, filmed in the Byre at Inchrya as the string group continues its eye-catching exploration of different venues in its own response to the current crisis. The programme will be an international journey, visiting the Balkans, Central Europe, the Americas and Scandinavia and culminating in Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, the work that had been due to close Perth’s 2020 Festival.

On the days following there is a concert from Perth Concert Hall, with Spanish saxophonist Manu Brazo, violinist Claudia Uriarte and pianist Prajna Indrawati, a performance by chamber choir The Sixteen followed by a live Q&A with its founder and conductor Harry Christophers, and a solo piano recital by Isata Kanneh-Mason featuring works by Mozart, Barber, Chopin and Gershwin.

The following week, the festival has concerts at Perth Museum and Art Gallery with the Gesualdo Six singing Monteverdi and Palestrina, and at Perth Theatre Studio with the Sitkovetsky Trio playing Schumann and Tchaikovsky and soprano Ilona Domnich, pianist Sholto Kynoch and critic Michael White exploring the songs of Rachmaninov.

The classical series closes at Perth Concert Hall with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and soloist Nicola Benedetti playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.

Other ingredients of the programme include traditional music from Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton and jazz from the Fergus McCreadie Trio and big band Fat-Suit.

Tickets and Festival passes are on sale and full details are available at perthfestival.co.uk

Martin / Mitchell

Maximiliano Martin/Scott Mitchell

Perth Concert Hall

During the entire duration of this live concert hiatus, opportunities to hear Maximiliano Martin have not been rare at all. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Principal Clarinet has popped up in many a chamber music series, he has his own new concerto album out with an orchestra from his native Tenerife, and been a mainstay of the SCO’s stream of digital transmissions from Edinburgh, Perth and St Andrews.

The final work in this recital of sonatas in the company of pianist Scott Mitchell was, in fact, a feature of one of those, in October of last year, with Simon Smith at the piano. Leonard Bernstein’s two-movement Sonata for Clarinet and Piano is the sound of a young composer finding his own voice, and quite compelling for that reason: the first movement in the academic mode of 1941, the second exploring the jazzy showbiz style that would take him to Broadway and Hollywood.

As the presenter of this concert on BBC Radio 3, Tom Redmond, pointed out, chamber works for clarinet are associated with the final years of Mozart and Brahms as well as two of the French composers that made up the bulk of this programme. However, the first of them, Ernest Chausson, was also represented by a piece from the tail-end of his student years at the Paris Conservatoire. The explosive Allegro of his Andante and Allegro is a real showpiece for clarinet and was a great sparkling start here.

The Saint-Saens sonata that followed is a wonderfully-constructed work, no less flashy in places but with a deliciously sombre tone in the middle that then leaps from the bottom of the clarinet’s range to the higher register before a piano-led segue into the last movement.

In what was a compact history-lesson in works for these instruments, it was the perfect bridge to the meaty fare of Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata. Commissioned by Benny Goodman, its composer died before he could play the piano part with the King of Swing, so a young Leonard Bernstein stepped up. It is a big work that is also, like those on either side of it, full of variation, with an ear-catchingly repetitious song-like slow movement and a cinematic rapid car chase of a finale.

The video presentation from Perth’s Easter Festival was characteristically understated, marred only by a minor captioning error and occasional vision-mixing glitch. Radio listeners were treated to a brief Debussy encore. 

Keith Bruce

Available to watch via horsecross.co.uk

Quartet For The End Of Time

PERTH EASTER FESTIVAL: QUARTET FOR THE END OF TIME
Perth Concert Hall

While it’s tempting to compare the enforced incarceration Olivier Messiaen would have experienced as a French prisoner of war in 1940-41, when he wrote the incredible Quartet for the End of Time, to the “imprisoned experience” we’ve all been facing in recent months combatting Covid, it’s also perhaps too convenient. 

We’ve at least maintained our basic home comforts; Messiaen and his fellow prisoner-musicians, who premiered the work in 1941, did so on salvaged instruments in the bitter January cold of an overcrowded spartan Stalag VIIIA in what is now southern Poland. Yet the music arising from such adversity is gloriously ecstatic, fuelled by inspiration from the seven angels and trumpets of the Book of Revelation, full of infinite hope and lustrous conviction.

It was a fitting choice of repertoire, then, with which to start this week’s daily series of chamber concerts from Perth Concert Hall, featuring musicians based in Scotland and available to watch on Vimeo via the hall’s own website, or to listen to daily at 1pm on BBC Radio 3. In this single-work opener, pianist Steven Osborne is joined by members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra: violinist Maria Włoszczowska, clarinetist Maximiliano Martin and cellist Philip Higham.

The visual experience is simple but effective, warmed by a blue-wash backdrop, highly appropriate for a composer who envisaged colour as intrinsic to the textures he invokes. The sound recording is rich and penetrating. Above all, the quality of performance is unerringly virtuosic and expressively profound.

From the calm awakening of Liturgie de cristal to the transcendent acceptance of Louange à l”Immortalité de Jésus, this is a paradoxical 8-movement journey of introspective outpouring. Even the infinite timelessness of Abîme des oiseaux (Martin’s soliloquising breathtakingly magical) and Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus (the unending elasticity of Higham’s cello melody cushioned by Osborne’s gently pulsating chords) bears a mystical effusiveness.

There is, nonetheless, unbridled drama where Messiaen prescribes it: the abrupt violent outpourings that embrace the otherwise mesmerising lyricism of Vocalise, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps; the biting unisons, like plainsong on steroids, of Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes; or the sugary ecstasy that defines the work’s ripest climax in Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps, where the richest textures unfold before being quelled ultimately by Włoszczowska’s sublime interpretation of the final Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus.

Only momentarily – the final bars of the sixth movement – does a slight unhinging of the tight ensemble occur. Otherwise, there’s very little to complain about in a truly gripping performance of a thoroughly awesome piece.

Ken Walton
Available to watch via www.horsecross.co.uk.

Dunedin Consort: St Matthew Passion

Perth Concert Hall

It is not only in its three-hour duration that Bach’s St Matthew Passion is an epic undertaking, and the hiatus of last year’s cancellation – the first victim of the coronavirus lockdown at Perth Concert Hall – has had the useful effect of reminding us just how important is the Dunedin Consort’s annual performance. As the choir’s chief executive Jo Buckley points out in her introductory remarks to this “as live” stream to start Perth programmer James Waters’ Easter Festival, it is a work that contains every possible human emotion and there is an added poignancy this Easter to its message of hope and salvation.

More than that though, this concert hall presentation, with all the required social distancing, makes the remarkable ingredients of Bach’s masterwork apparent in ways that could not have been predicted. There is a clarity about the ingenious storytelling, and use of the narrative voices, both musical and in the cast of characters, that is very special indeed.

Most obviously that is in the way the concert looks, with its two choruses, two orchestras and soloists, as well as how it sounds, the Perth hall’s wonderful acoustic beautifully recorded, a full, rich instrumental sound (no period instrument weediness here), and the singers placed in widescreen stereo across the stage. With effective and undistracting lighting, the video work is understated, usually (but not obsessively) matching the voices and instruments to be heard, with the occasional cross-fade as arias are accompanied by soloists or conductor John Butt directs a particular transition.

He has an A-team to conduct: Andrew Tortise is a measured and dramatic Evangelist with immaculate diction, and Matthew Brook a weighty and compelling Christus. However, it is the early outings of the women soloists that really make you sit up, alto Jess Dandy accompanied by the pair of flutes, soprano Jessica Leary stepping out of the second chorus and Anna Dennis just as expressive in partnership with the oboes. The other three solo voices, bass Benedict Nelson, tenor David Lee, and alto Judy Brown are no less impressive when their opportunities come around.

It is the clever matching of the arias, providing the commentary of the faithful on the Passion story with the singers who have been characters in that narrative, that is so spectacularly clear here. This is Butt’s Bach scholarship made flesh in a way that anyone coming to the work for the first time will instantly appreciate.

The conductor takes his time over his tale, with none of the regulation briskness that can blight historically-informed performance, secure in the knowledge that Bach’s version of Matthew’s telling of the Easter story is unique on its own terms. Similarly, there is nothing clinical in the playing of featured instrumentalists like flautist Katy Bircher and first violin Huw Daniel or in any of the singing, with the occasional natural imprecision enhancing the narrative flow.

If the restrictions of social distancing have no negative effect on any of the individual elements, it is also impossible to detect any diminishing in the ensemble instrumental sound, or the varied colours of the continuo – to which Butt adds chamber organ – or those moments when the two choirs combine for the glorious punctuation of Bach’s chorales.

That hymn-tune may be the ear-worm of the work but this Passion could hardly be less austere and presbyterian. It is the operatic quality of this oratorio for which this concert performance decisively argues the case.

Keith Bruce

Image: credit Tommy Slack/0405 Photography

SCO / Shostakovich

SCO / Prokofiev / Kaprálová /Bacewicz / Shostakovich
Perth Concert Hall

The search for workable repertoire by orchestras during the performance strictures of this pandemic has led to the unearthing of some pleasurable novelties. They are, of course, all geared to smaller ensemble sizes, but they are by no means diminished in interest and impact.

Who for instance, in normal times, would ever have programmed Prokofiev’s Sonata for Solo Violin, intended by the composer not just for a single player, but – with teaching purposes in mind – for several players in unison? With this, the latest SCO online concert from Perth, comes an ideal opportunity. 

Led by Stephanie Gonley, whose presence whips up a valiant head of steam from the outset, the SCO violin coterie make homogenous mischief out of Prokofiev’s angular devilry and softer lyrical sweetness playing musical tag with each other. 

The whole programme offers a similar bittersweet sensation. Two wind pieces by Viteslava Kaprálová and Grazyna Bacewicz maintain that mood, the first a flighty Wind Trio, the latter a punchy Wind Quintet. The playing is extraordinary, which in a way makes up for the neoclassical dryness that is, up to a point, this music’s piquant charm. 

Kaprálová’s Trio  – her premature death in 1940 at the age of 25, left works such as this unfinished – is heard in Stéphane Egeling’s reconstruction which utilises material from her piano music to plug the compositional gaps. The result is a testament to her craftsmanship and caustic wit, all of which is captured by oboist Robin Williams, clarinettist William Stafford and bassoonist Alison Green.

They are joined by Patrick Broderick (horn) and Bronte Hüdnott (flute) in the Bacewicz Quintet, where the fuller, more diverse, wind ensemble revel in its joyous virtuosity and riot of energy and repose. The spacious Perth Concert Hall and its warm acoustics provide a warm embrace.

It’s back to strings for the final work, Shostakovich’s early Two Pieces for String Octet, Op 11, written with a discernible nod to Mendelssohn’s more famous Octet, which the SCO ensemble acknowledge through the natural meatiness of this wholesome instrumental grouping. A rueful opening piece is countered by the robust second, the expansiveness of Shostakovich’s expressiveness, from plaintiff reflection to searing aggression, fully and resolutely explored. 
Ken Walton

Available to watch via www.sco.org.uk

Easter Passion in Perth

The intrepid Dunedin Consort, whose early lockdown adventures provided the only authentic example of the currently much-invoked “Dunkirk Spirit”, will not be permitting the continuing health emergency to cancel this Easter’s performance of Bach’s epic St Matthew Passion.

With Andrew Tortise as the Evangelist and Matthew Brook as Christus, the ensemble will be presenting a streamed performance of the work on the evening of Saturday March 27 to launch Perth Concert Hall’s Easter festival of classical music.

Broadcast via Vimeo, the concert will be directed by John Butt from the organ, and available to view for a month, with tickets priced at £11.50 per receiving device, including booking fee.

The Dunedin Passion precedes four recitals from Perth featuring musicians from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the award winning Maxwell String Quartet. Running at 1pm from Tuesday April 6 to Friday April 9, in partnership with BBC Radio 3, they will also be available to view in the same way and for the same charge.

The series begins with pianist Steven Osborne playing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time with soloists from the SCO and continues with clarinettist Maximiliano Martin and pianist Scott Mitchell, the Maxwell Quartet playing Haydn and Beethoven, and pianist Susan Tomes and members of the RSNO with quintets by Mozart and Beethoven.

Full details of the concerts from the Perth Concert Hall website: horsecross.co.uk

Keith Bruce

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