Tag Archives: Queen's Hall

EIF: Castalian Quartet

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

It’s just over a month since the excellent Castalian String Quartet struck a particularly refreshing note at Fife’s East Neuk Festival. On that occasion, the repertoire was mainstream Mozart and Dvorak, the music stirringly revitalised by astute characterisation and an entertaining spirit of playfulness. At the heart of Friday’s Edinburgh International Festival appearance, the key challenge was to introduce an entirely new piece, the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Awake.

As it happened, the stakes were raised twofold. With regular second violinist Daniel Roberts ruled out through illness, his place was taken last-minute by the young London-based Japanese violinist Yume Fijise. To fill Roberts’ boots in such a rushed way, and on such a prominent platform, would have been no easy ask, yet Fujise responded not only with laudable efficiency, but a sense of musical compatibility that grew more easeful and confident as the programme progressed. She’s no stranger to quartet playing, being leader of the award-winning Kleio Quartet.

Turnage’s new string quartet – an uncharacteristically understated creation by a 63-year-old composer more associated in his younger days with musical hooliganism – was in safe hands. Inspired by the black Polish-African violinist, George Bridgetower, who famously impressed Beethoven, and to whom the latter’s Kreuzer Sonata was originally dedicated, a solo violin has first say, establishing an air of elegance and calm that is seldom seriously challenged throughout the two movements, their soft political message implicit in the titles, Bridgetower 23 and Shut Out.

This performance emphasised the reflectiveness and genuine attractiveness of the music, even where a hint of a rock ostinato emerged in the cello, abating rather than dominating as the opening movement subsided to near nothing. That plaintiveness persisted in the second movement, this time a jabbing repeated motif offering the only real threat to its languid countenance. What was so surprising about this piece was also a mark of its incredibly beauty.

The Beethoven connection prevailed either side of the Turnage, if effectively one step removed in Janacek’s String Quartet No 1 – subtitled the “Kreuzer Sonata”, though directly in reference to Tolstoy’s novel – which opened the recital. It’s a nervous piece at the best of times, frenetically buzzing ponticelli like some restless obsession, the focus of which took time to settle here, but when it did, embraced its excitable allure.

To end with Beethoven’s String Quartet in B flat, Op 130, and its original Grosse Fuge finale (later numbered separately as Op 133), was to send us away mentally exhausted. The opening five movements provided neat and precise stimulation, from the gentle whimsy of the scherzo and lapping waves of the Alla danza tedesca, to the lyrical sweetness of the Cavatina. Then the full force of the Grosse Fuge, like a wild uncontrollable force of nature, courting danger at times, venturing close to collision, but ultimately providing the explosive catharsis Beethoven unequivocally intended.

Ken Walton

SCO / Schuldt

SCO / Schuldt

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Getting the best out of Schumann is not as easy as one might imagine. There’s something about his orchestral music in particular that tells of an ardent and instinctive creative mind working hard to express the fullness of its fruits, but where an overabundance of his own self-criticism looms menacingly, threatening to suffocate its natural flow. Get the right conductor, and the threats dissolve. Clement Schuldt is one such exponent, something he proved beyond doubt in an SCO programme that began and ended with Schumann.

It was in the final work, the Symphony No 3 known as the Rhenish, that the distinctive character of Schuldt’s approach was most forcibly illustrated. He is a gestural conductor, who paints vivid pictures with his hands and which an orchestra as responsive as the SCO latches onto with stimulating results. 

This was by no means a pristine run-of-the-mill Rhenish, in that a certain riskiness gave this performance ample biting edge and spontaneous thrills. Dubiety of pulse in the opening bars instilled an unsettlingly mystifying ambiguity, resolving quickly to assert the extremes of pomposity and brooding melancholy that frame the first movement’s stormy polemic. 

The moderately-paced Scherzo was both weighty and fluid; the third movement meaty and mellifluous; the final two moments sombre and vivacious respectively. Informing all of this was a richly-flavoured SCO – its bold winds, punchy brass and brazen strings emphasised in the immediacy of the Queen’s Hall acoustics.

Compare that to the Scottish premiere of Julian Anderson’s Cello Concerto “Litanies” which preceded it, its shimmery impermanence a million miles from the gravitational solidity of the Schumann. Performed superbly by Alban Gerhardt, its dedicatee, Anderson’s originality sat to the fore, lacy textures bearing an almost ephemeral appeal and exhilaration, Gerhardt fully absorbed in the music’s translucent charm, sympathetic to the ingenuity of orchestral flavourings punching the air around him. 

The work which opening the concert – Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale – presented the composer in uncommonly high spirits, reflected by Schuldt’s vibrant, cheery realisation. It was a performance that danced on air, oozed theatricality and languished in heart-felt lyricism. Yet it resisted any temptation for anodyne complacency, Schuldt’s vigorous precision keeping it fresh and dynamic at every turn.

Ken Walton

EIF: Chineke! Chamber Players

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

The Chineke! Orchestra has made a profound and lasting impression on the classical music world, with its commitment to ethnic diversity among its players and the composers it performs. It’s not a strangulating, exclusive deal – look at the wide multi-cultural spread among its ranks – but it’s a prominent one. Classical music, and society, are all the better for it.

We experienced that in miniature on Thursday, when the Chineke! Chamber Players took to the Queen’s Hall stage for a programme that delved into music by composers much of the audience are unlikely to have heard of – Black Americans William Grant Still (1895-1978) and 52-year-old Valerie Coleman, and contemporary native Australian artists Deborah Cheetham and William Barton – as well as Mendelssohn, his posthumously-published Piano Sextet Op110.

That’s all very well, but at the end of the day if a piece of music is merely fair-to-middling it’s not going to set the heather on fire, and the first half of this concert certainly left this listener unconvinced we’d heard anything particularly exceptional. Many of the performances, a range of ensemble mixes culminating in Barton’s frontline appearance on didgeridoo, struggled to make proverbial silk purses.

Still’s Folk Suite No 1 undoubtedly bears a popular charm, its references to African folk song, Black spiritual and high-spirited Jewish songs very much a starter for ten, with a catchy opening movement simplistically reminiscent of Arthur Jacob’s Jamaican Rumba. Coleman, a more expansive compositional voice in her early 50s, aims to interpret life in the American South through the medium of the classical scherzo, which Red Clay and  Mississippi Delta did in a performance that played to its bluesy tenor, got us finger-clicking (though with no indication of when to stop) and a virtuosity that took time to emotionally engage and ultimately fly. 

For the remaining Australian portion of the opening half, the mood turned distinctively pictorial, first in the filmic soundscaping that is Cheetham’s Ngarrgooroon – Woven Song. Cheetham – one of the country’s Stolen Generation which saw Aboriginal children forcibly removed for their biological families to live with non-Aboriginals – is a multi-disciplined performer and activist whose compositions encompass her beliefs in “country and connection”. While this one oozes atmosphere and mysticism, it struggles to go places musically.

The same might be said for Barton’s The Rising of Mother Country, which started off so promisingly with the composer entering from the rear and processing through the audience soulfully incanting. Once seated within the ensemble, didgeridoos at the ready (he had two, one exquisitely ornate, the other looking as if it had been through the wars and held together with gaffer tape), his role seemed disappointingly incidental. Was it that the didgeridoo is intrinsically subtler than I thought, or was the amplification inefficient? Either way, what looked like an intensity of expression was hard to actually perceive above the fullness of the surrounding ensemble. 

Despite that, the overall effect was at times mesmerising, evocatively nostalgic, if ultimately lacking in shape and directional definition. Barton continued with a further number, a song inspired by his early love of rock (I think he referenced Australian rock band AC/DC) in which he simultaneously sang, played guitar and didgeridoo. He was a natural star in this.

Safe to say that the second half, limited to one substantial work, inspired the now piano and string ensemble to a more palpable and profound belief in what they were playing. This was the Mendelssohn’s Sextet, a work that makes no apologies for its technical demands on the pianist from start to finish, but which explores exhaustive possibilities among the entirety of this rich instrumental grouping. 

As a whole, Chineke! delivered an invigorating performance, with gritty, witty interplay and capturing the high drama in music that betrays the composer’s odd flamboyant nod to Weber. It almost hit the skids in the final moments, but ultimately this Mendelssohn gem was the much-needed panacea to a strangely undistinguished first half. True quality wins out.

Ken Walton

Image: Chineke! Chamber Players & Wiliam Barton by Ryan Buchanan

SCO / Macmillan / Prokofiev

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

At the heart of the first in this new series of Thursday online concerts by members of the SCO is James MacMillan’s Tuireadh, written in 1991 in memory of the victims of the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988. Scored for clarinet and string quartet, it sits powerfully within the programme’s common thread of wind-string chamber combinations, but its grim, often painful, countenance gives it an agonising central presence, Britten’s early elemental Phantasy Quartet and Prokofiev’s ebullient Quintet offering less anguish either side.

That’s not to underplay the depth of engagement in all three performances. As an opener, Britten’s student composition is illuminating as an early insight into the composer’s later signature voice. The extreme clarity of texture – a primal two-note opening motif expanding as a springboard towards the oboe’s first languishing melody – is far from naive, and a powerful preemptor of Britten’s ability to express his thoughts with intense nuclear precision.

This is a vital performance with exemplary playing from the string trio and, above all, Amy Turner’s exquisite and dominant role as oboist. An ending that returns to the opening material is all the more effective as the dissolving resolution to this all-embracing interpretation.

The limelight shifts to clarinet for the MacMillan, critical from the outset where an emerging breathy hiss transforms into a single chilling note, agonisingly repeated. It’s a dramatic moment, right up clarinettist Maximiliano Martin’s street, from which this lengthy lament unfolds with agonising grief. 

Like the Britten, it is representative of MacMilllan in his early years of mainstream composition. The seeds are there: the bare theatricality of isolated unison notes rising to deafening crescendos; keening glissandi that evoke a rugged Scottish primitivism; harmonics that throw a ghostly halo over hymn-like harmonies. These are like a blueprint for later, greater MacMilllan. 

At the time of its origin, one critic said of Tuireadh that “MacMillan has written nothing better”. The fact is he’s written lots better ever since, though that is not to dismiss what is a genuinely moving reflection on the mood of the time in the wake of a disaster that took so many lives. 

There is, nonetheless, a sense of fragmentation and consequent prolixity, together with a noticeable presence of stylistic borrowings, which are hard to ignore even in such a heartfelt performance as this. Yet Maximiliano and his colleagues find everything that is powerful in its deep-felt message. It remains a tour-de-force in MacMillan’s now epic canon.

The concert ends on a cheerier note with Prokofiev’s Quintet Op 39, a six-movement suite made up of music from his chamber ballet Trapèze, written in 1924 while he was living in Paris. Scored unusually for oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and bassoon – he wrote for the ensemble he was presented with – the music is typical of Prokofiev’s acid pen, combining satire and nostalgia like a bittersweet pill. The SCO ensemble revel in its playful irreverence while respecting its warm and affectionate undercurrents.  
Ken Walton

View this concert at www.sco.org.uk


Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

A week after it was originally scheduled, this week’s online recital from musicians of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra reunites them with the dynamic young Principal Conductor who hardly had his feet under the table before the coronavirus brought a halt to live concerts.

As more recent restrictions brought a premature end to this series, it is appropriate that it is with a sequence of party pieces. As we have already learned, if a musical party is what you are after, Maxim Emelyanychev is your man.

He is at the harpsichord for the first two works on the programme – an Adagio and Fugue by Johann Adolph Hasse and an exuberant concerto by Haydn. The first may not even be the work of the prolific but now obscure German composer, but it sets a muscular tone in the real ferocity of the playing style of Emelyanychev and his string sextet. The Haydn then underlines the sparkling sound and superb playing of the man leading from the keyboard. It looks a beautiful instrument, but this vibrant performance of 18th century music is not about the kit, but about the playing. Even the antithetical Sir Thomas Beecham would surely have been beguiled.

Not only does Emelyanychev achieve a remarkable range of expression on the harpsichord, as director there is a delightful playfulness in his precision tempo adjustments across all three movements of the concerto.

The last of these is a lively set of variations on a Balkan dance tune, and is a link to the programme’s second half, which begins with the Yiddish songs that are the basis of Max Bruch’s Kol nidrei, composed for the Jewish community of Liverpool when he was Principal Conductor of the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra.

Cellist Philip Higham describes this duo rhapsody on two themes, with Emelyanychev on piano, as a prayer and a blessing, which is not only musically resonant but also makes clear, without overstatement, the significance of the work’s inclusion during the week of Holocaust Memorial Day.

It was composed in 1880, the same year as Giovanni Bottesini’s Gran duo concertante, an explosive concluding showcase for bassist Nikita Naumov and violinist Benjamin Marquise Gilmore, with Emelyanychev again at the piano. It is telling that both string players have the work from memory for this is a party piece par excellence, particularly for the double bass, with virtuoso passages beyond its usual range, above the bridge end of the fingerboard.

Available via the SCO’s YouTube and Facebook until February 28.

Keith Bruce

SCO : The Soldier’s Tale

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

WITH the new year lockdown across the UK impacting on the making of concert films already announced – including the SCO’s contribution to Celtic Connections with Pekka Kuusisto and Karine Polwart – it is fortunate that the orchestra already had “in the can” its early acknowledgement of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Igor Stravinsky.

As a full online programme note for the transmission by David Kettle makes very clear, it is not hard to find parallels between the genesis of Stravinsky’s use of Russian folk tales for a small touring ensemble and our own straitened times. In the aftermath of the First World War and in the midst of the global Spanish Flu epidemic, the celebrated composer of The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, then living in Switzerland, created compact works for a small number of musicians as an economic necessity. In fact, as the leader of the group for this performance, violinist Siun Milne, points out in her spoken introduction, the tour was then abandoned when the musicians contracted the disease.

In that context, the players involved here eloquently illustrate the strength-in-depth of the SCO’s current squad, with sub-principal violin Gordon Bragg stepping up to conduct, and Milne herself, a back desk SCO first violin, a sparkling soloist on the instrument around which much of the narrative is formed. Her partnership with Nikita Naumov is one aspect of the bassist’s work, his other eye on a rhythm section role alongside Louise Goodwin, whose playing of an orchestral drum kit is quite outstanding. The octet of performers also includes Maximiliano Martin demonstrating a huge range of tone on clarinet, and the cornet of Peter Franks a shimmering presence throughout.

If all the instrumentalists show vibrant versatility over the hour long duration, that is matched by actor Matthew McVarish, far more than the mere narrator of the story. There are many ways to perform this modernist fable, and McVarish uses the restrictions of social distancing to his advantage here, adding as many varieties of tone and accent to his cast of characters, from a stationary position.

This is an absolutely compelling re-telling of the familiar story of the consequences of trying to do a deal with Auld Nick which finds form in many cultures, and McVarish brings plenty of his own cultural background to the party in a Scots-accented tale that makes the most of the vocabulary available.

In that, it departs considerably from the source English version, by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black, made for an Edinburgh Festival performance of the mid-1950s that featured Robert Helpmann dancing the part of the Devil, and recorded by the SCO thirty years later with narration by Christopher Lee. That’s some legacy to follow, but McVarish and the SCO team make The Soldier’s Tale very much their own.

Available on the SCO’s YouTube and Facebook channels until February 7.

Keith Bruce

Image: The SCO’s Siun Milne and Nikita Naumov