Tag Archives: SCO

SCO / Zehetmair

City Halls, Glasgow

The violinist-cum-conductor Thomas Zehetmair has, and always has had, an arresting stage charisma. It’s a mix of unshakeable natural talent (especially on the violin) and a strength of personality that eschews outright showmanship though making up for that with an almost pugilistic belief in his own interpretational beliefs.

Look no further than the opening work in this SCO programme – Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor – in which he wielded outright control as soloist/director. The latter role is seldom needed with this orchestra, which has an innate ability to propel its own destiny. But in this instance, it was Zehetmair’s way or the highway. And it was strangely discomforting.

All began well, a crisp, nimble momentum informing the opening bars, but then – where the soloist ventures into flowery offshoots of its own – Zehetmair began to tease his collaborators with extraneous rhythmic liberties that often overstepped the limits of free speech. They rocked the boat, and suddenly the SCO sounded nervous, as if trying to second guess the next move, but doing so with mild signs of panic. 

The slow movement’s lengthy discourse was much more settling, Zehetmair’s greater discipline now steadying the ship, and the jig-like finale was only marginally afflicted, but the performance never completely recovered from its earlier eccentricities.

You could call Zehetmair’s own completion of an unfinished 1790 String Trio Fragment by Mozart equally eccentric, but his approach in giving performance life to the 100 bars of exposition Mozart penned during the last year or so of his life is genuinely fascinating. 

Zehetmair’s solution, premiered last month in Geneva, is to create an extended “response” as opposed to a literal extension. Thus the string orchestra picks up from the opening one-to-a part string trio – petering out as they exhaust the original music – as if on a rescue mission to bring the wanderers home. If that encouraged compositional liberties on Zehetmair’s part, this performance applied them sensitively, just enough to address the strong hints of wild adventure in the extant Mozart material, but careful to preserve stylistic integrity in the new material.

The final two works in this 70-minute programme threw the spotlight wholly on Zehetmair the conductor/interpreter. In Mendelssohn’s 1834 overture Die Schöne Melusine – a work of real worth unearthed by the SCO in one of last season’s streamed concerts – he elicited playing that etched out every minutiae of the drama, from exquisitely-sculpted melodies to dizzying heights of expression.

Haydn’s “Oxford” Symphony bears its own eccentricities, not least an opening finale theme that toys mischievously with natural expectations. In that sense, it was right up Zehetmair’s street, and there was no mistaking the fun embodied in this spirited performance. It wasn’t the SCO at its most refined, Zehetmair demanding brusqueness and brittle edge to the detriment of poise and poeticism. 

If it was rough and ready at  times, it was striking nonetheless, portraying Haydn in a spirit of high exuberance and laissez-faire, much of it to be enjoyed if not necessary approved of.

Ken Walton

EIF: Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Edinburgh Academy Junior School

It was not the fireworks-accompanying with which the SCO usually winds up its Festival commitments, but there was excitement nonetheless in the orchestra’s sole outing at full strength in the 2021 programme.

Scarcely longer than a fireworks concert, that brevity was in part explained by the late substitution of conductor with the withdrawal of Japanese Kazushi Ono due to quarantine-related travel complications. In one of remarkably few such changes this year, French conductor, and former Music Director of the Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich, Lionel Bringuier, took on the bulk of the pre-announced programme.

The casualty was Takemitsu’s Tree Line, but Toshio Hosokawa’s Blossoming II survived, surely because it was already known by many of the players, who premiered the EIF commission a decade ago under Robin Ticciati. The precisely-titled piece starts with a single unfolding note on the strings which opens out to embrace the rest of the orchestra before acquiring a bolder rhythmic pulse through bass drum, bass clarinet, double bassoon and string basses, with some virtuosic flurries from the string and wind principals.

There is also blossoming orchestration in Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin with its teasing first movement before the delayed arrival of the Forlane tune in the second. In this most lyrical of memorials, there was some beautiful oboe playing and Bringuier brought a particular finesse to the final bars of the Menuet, perfection not quite repeated at the conclusion of the Rigaudon.

Prokofiev’s contemporary “Classical” Symphony suggested further encounters between orchestra and conductor should be eagerly anticipated. Although there will always be a suggestion that the precocious composer was winding up the musical establishment with his referencing of old forms, there is no pastiche in his Symphony No 1. From the opening Allegro it was played here with real vigour and emphasis, and at pace, with an especially physical performance from the ensemble of strings. Hopefully there is much more to come from Bringuier with the SCO.
Keith Bruce

SCO’s Russian season

Led by its charismatic Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra brings a Russian flavour to its new concert season, running from September to December and taking in venues across Scotland.

With three programmes conducted by the young Russian, fresh from the orchestra’s acclaimed BBC Proms performance of Mozart’s last symphonies, the concerts include Russian pianist Lukas Geniusas, playing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto in Emelyanychev’s season-opener, and Russian violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky the soloist in the conductor’s October concert of the music of Leclair, Locatelli, Vivaldi, Poulenc and his own arrangement of Farkas’ Five Ancient Hungarian Dances.

The orchestra’s Russian principal double bass Nikita Naumov is featured soloist for Peter Eotvos’s Aurora in a concert under the baton of Thomas Zehetmair which also includes Mendelssohn and Haydn, and Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony is conducted by Mark Wigglesworth with soloists soprano Elizabeth Atherton and bass Peter Rose.

The season also features concerts conducted by Joseph Swensen, the orchestra’s former principal bassoon Peter Whelan and Sir James MacMillan, whose programme includes the premiere of a new work, Death in a Nutshell, by Jay Capperauld. December’s concerts include the SCO debut of Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro and Nicola Benedetti playing Mozart.

With concerts in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth and St Andrews, the orchestra will offer socially-distanced seating for this autumn season and will ask the audience to wear masks in the auditorium. A parallel programme of online, digital performances has also been announced, featuring percussionist Colin Currie, violinist Benjamin Marquise Gilmore and baritone Benjamin Appl, as well as the Scottish premiere of SCO Associate Composer Anna Clyne’s Stride.

Following on from the orchestra’s residency in Edinburgh’s Wester Hailes, the SCO has also announced a five-year commitment to the Craigmillar area of the capital, beginning at the Craigmillar Festival this weekend.

Full details of the orchestra’s concerts and outreach work are available at sco.org.uk and there is a video presenting the programme to watch on YouTube: https://youtu.be/FkgcIJfVoZ4

Concerts in the spring will be announced later in the year.

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. 

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

SCO / Swensen

Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Swensen

Perth Concert Hall

If it was a treat to see the RSNO back to max strength for last weekend’s concert of Polish repertoire, it is no less exciting to see the SCO performing with a full line-up, however thoughtful has been its exploration of a wide range of chamber music for most of its digital offerings.

With former principal conductor Joseph Swensen on the podium and leader Stephanie Gonley as featured soloist, this is an all-Schumann programme, two works by Robert bracketing one by his wife, Clara. Like Thomas Sondergard with the RSNO, Swensen is clearly delighted to be working with a full band, and the swagger he and they bring to the Overture to Schumann’s sole opera Genoveva is superbly captured in the recording in the Perth Hall’s fine acoustic. Here, as in the Spring Symphony later, the wind soloists have plenty share of the spotlight, and there are some lovely performances, but it is the ensemble sound, and the vigour of it, that is the real treat.

Clara Schumann’s Three Romances were originally written, in 1853, for herself and the couple’s violinist friend Joseph Joachim to play, and this orchestral arrangement by the conductor has been performed by the SCO with Swensen himself as soloist. There is a cumulative emotional effect to the three short movements, and a suggestion in the Allegretto and Romance that Clara might have found a home on Broadway if she had been working a century later. Stephanie Gonley revels in the colour that is in her solo part, and that is mostly matched in Swensen’s orchestration – only in the last movement is the loss of the percussive quality of the piano something of a regret.

When Robin Ticciati conducted and recorded the Schumann symphonies with the SCO, his opening to the first of them was a deal crisper than Swensen’s account of it here, but there is such an energy to the development of this first movement that it more than makes up for that. From the opening trumpet fanfare, this is a sumptuous, full-blooded, account of a work the composer dashed off in days. There is a longed-for richness, rather than any solemnity, in the entry of the three trombones at the end of the Larghetto, and if the singular rhythm of the Scherzo lacks some buoyancy initially, the shaping of the whole work towards its joyous conclusion is emblematic of the season in full flower.  

Keith Bruce

Available to view online until Saturday May 22

SCO Winds/DAniel

SCO Winds/Daniel: Caplet, Clyne & Dvorak

Perth Concert Hall

If the programmes, and combinations of instruments, that have featured in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s digital response to the pandemic have been abundantly filled with rare treats from centuries of repertoire, this concert still stood out as an absolute classic.

Over the years the SCO has been distinguished by the quality of its wind soloists, and the current membership continues that tradition. Here, guest directed from the oboe by Nicholas Daniel, are ten top players with three works for double wind quintet, one a world premiere.

That new work stands out in the midst of some exquisite music. The SCO’s associate composer Anna Clyne has described the chance to write for these forces – effectively replacing the scheduled UK premiere of a work co-commissioned with three other orchestras – as “an opportunity to refine my craft”. In fact she has created a superb ensemble work that makes the most inventive use of the instruments. Not only that, but it works with very carefully defined musical material in endlessly fascinating fashion, passing short motifs between flutes, oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons.

Beginning and ending with unusual use of the pair of oboes, Overflow is full of atmosphere, like a film score in miniature – and it will be no surprise if it turns up in exactly that context in future.

Clyne took her inspiration from the Emily Dickinson poem By the Sea and Jelaluddin Rumi’s Where Everything is Music, so it was fitting that the premiere was prefaced by Andre Caplet’s three-movement Suite Persane. It dates from 1901, the year the Frenchman won the Prix de Rome (beating Maurice Ravel), and it must have been absolutely a la mode at the time in its use of Eastern-sounding melodies. It is the outer movements where that is most obvious, while the lush Nihavend in the middle could only be French, until the flute figure of the final bars, even if the title refers to a Persian scale.

Like the Clyne piece that followed, however, there is a wonderful democracy about the work, a real showpiece for a section of the orchestra working together as a team, disdaining any hierarchy. The social distancing required between the players only seems to enhance that impression, as well as the clarity of the sound.

That is also true of every detail in the arrangement of Dvorak’s Czech Suite, which closes the concert. His travels may have been ahead of him, but the composer’s folk music borrowings and dance rhythms often sound from a tradition altogether more local to this venue, bagpipe drones and all.

Keith Bruce

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

SCO: Purcell, Reich, Part

Perth Concert Hall

Many of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s streamed online concerts have been an education, but few quite as well structured a lesson as this one. Not that it necessarily feels like we are in class, but percussionist Louise Goodwin, who programmed and presents the recital, is also a very good teacher, explaining the thought behind each juxtaposition and the arc of the concert as a whole.

Goodwin stepped into the shoes of Matthew Hardy a few years ago and is usually seen behind a pair of compact kettle-drums, although one of her early concerts also involved triggering samples for a Martin Suckling composition. There are no timpani in sight here and her technological skills are called upon once again for the central piece of the evening, a solo tour-de-force entitled Shades, by contemporary composer Dani Howard, who is still in her 30s.

Operating a loop pedal to repeat phrases she has played, Goodwin builds up the multi-layered work from her station behind the vibraphone, extracting different timbres from either end of her sticks and adding shimmers of ride cymbal, claves, woodblocks and tom-toms to the mix. Never frantic, but complex and virtuosic, it all adds up to a memorable soundscape.

It is, however, only one of five distinctive soundscapes in a programme that has rhythm at its heart. Demonstrating as eloquently as you will hear it the close kinship between minimalism and early music, the recital begins and ends with Henry Purcell and his 17th century fascination with repeated bass riffs as a basis for extemporisation. Chacony in G Minor and the familiar Fantasia in D Major “Three parts upon a Ground” are performed by a quintet and a sextet of strings with Jan Waterfield at the harpsichord, bracketing works that are, Howard’s apart, all composed by men born in the 1930s.

Goodwin is joined by Richard Cartlidge for Steve Reich’s Nagoya Marimbas duet, a modern percussionists’ showpiece that harks back to his ground-breaking 1970s compositions and builds on layers of harmonic sophistication.

The two percussionists then join a string quartet for Arvo Part’s Fratres, in its string quartet version but with minimalist claves and bass drum added. That punctuation is a brilliant aural assist for the snails-pace melodic material that Part passes around whatever combination of instruments is assembled for its challenge. Challenging it certainly is, and the SCO quartet gives a very fine account of its nuances of tempo, balance and dynamics.

The mayhem of Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union might seem at another extreme, but it unites not only all the players (again the composer permits any ensemble) but the rhythmic obsession of the recital. The dignity of labour here is in the ever-changing pulse of the score, while the choice of notes are the players’ own, although rising and falling pitch is indicated. Here is the ultimate demonstration of why the beat is the essential ingredient of music. Or at least one of them.

Keith Bruce

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

SCO/Mozart/Faure

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh 

Edinburgh born, and now resident there again, pianist Susan Tomes is a career chamber musician whose work with the Florestan Trio took her all over the world, but whose first global accolades came with a piano quartet, and specifically the second work featured in this latest online offering from the players of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. 

If that C Minor Piano Quartet by Gabriel Faure and the even more familiar and popular G Minor Quartet by Mozart are works Tomes must have played countless times, there is a zestful freshness – doubtless partly occasioned by her enforced recent absence from the concert platform – that is unmistakable in these performances. 

Joined by violinist Maria Wloszczowska, violist Felix Tanner, and cellist Philip Higham, this quartet may have been assembled for the occasion, but its combined experience is evident in the secure balance and instinctive communication across both works. For much of the time it is the string players who provide the muscle when it is needed, while Tomes conveys effortless poise. Some well-chosen camera angles mean that piano students can appreciate that at close quarters. 

The publisher Hoffmeister was famously dismayed by the challenges the work he commissioned from Mozart presented to his customers, but if he failed to read past the bold rhythmic opening of the first movement, he missed the Andante’s lovely conversation between violin and piano and the sequence of arpeggios on the strings that follows, with Higham’s rich tone especially ear-catching here. 

Not only is there a beautiful clarity in the recorded balance of this performance – and the extra space currently required between the players may well be assisting that – but the ability to easily appreciate the sound of the individual instruments melds with a lovely ensemble coherence. That is especially appreciable in the lightness of touch all four bring to the sparkling opening of the finale. 

Faure’s Quartet No.1 was three turbulent years in the writing and substantially revised four years later, in the year of his marriage, when the original Finale was discarded. How much of the work is autobiographical is a matter of debate, but the Adagio third movement sounds very much the work of a heart-broken man here. 

In her spoken introduction, Tomes draws attention to the churchy cadences of the work, and there is also something of a vocal quality to the opening movement, written during Faure’s engagement to a young singer whose voice was admired by Clara Schumann. The Scherzo that follows is more musically adventurous and exploratory and is performed by this team with delightful playfulness (although its changes would surely have terrified Hoffmeister a century earlier). 

Wherever Faure’s music originally went after that third movement, the fourth that we have is the sound of a chap striding through his misery. Although still elegant, Tomes unleashes some power, alongside that of her string partners, leading to a concluding few bars of wonderfully committed expression. 

Available via the SCO website and YouTube channel until April 11. 

Keith Bruce 

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

Six New SCO Concerts

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra has followed the RSNO in announcing a new clutch of digital concerts which will be recorded at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall and Perth Concert Hall and broadcast free on Thursday evenings on the SCO’s YouTube channel and Facebook site.

The six concert season in March and April concludes with a world premiere from the orchestra’s Associate Composer Anna Clyne. Overflow, inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Jalaluddin Rumi, is for a group of wind soloists and will be directed from the oboe by Nicholas Daniel. That concert, on April 15, also includes music by Caplet and Dvorak, and it will, like everything in the season, be available to view free for 30 days after first transmission.

The season begins with an established showpiece for the orchestra’s principal clarinet, Maximiliano Martin. Sir James MacMillan’s Tuireadh, a lament for the victims of the Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea, features on Martin’s recent Delphian disc with the Orquesta Sinfonica de Tenerife. It will be played on March 4 in its original version for clarinet and string quartet in a programme that also includes Britten’s Phantasy Quartet and Prokofiev’s Quintet in G Minor.

Piano Quartets by Mozart and Faure feature in the other new Queen’s Hall concert, on March 11, when violinist Maria Mloszczowska, Felix Tanner on viola, and principal cello Philip Higham are joined by pianist Susan Tomes.

The first of the run of concerts from Perth, on March 18, is an all-20th century programme of chamber music, pairing two familiar male names from Russia, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, with a wind quintet by Poland’s Grazyna Bacewicz and a trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon by Czech composer Vitezslava Kapralova.

The following week has a focus on percussion in a programme that sees Reich, Part, Andriessen and Britain’s Dani Howard, who is still in her 20s, bracketed by two works from Henry Purcell.

The penultimate concert, on April 8, features baritone Marcus Farnsworth, who is also due to appear alongside soprano Susanna Hurrell with the RSNO in May. In Perth he features in a recital of rare baroque repertoire including works by Telemann, Biber, Froberger, Muffat, Schop and J C Bach.

Full details and instructions on watching and listening to the concerts are available at sco.org.ukKeith Bruce

BBC SSO / Samuel

City Halls, Glasgow

It is likely that there were few arts organisations whose immediate response to COVID-19 was to make a SWOT analysis to inform their planning, but it has nonetheless become commonplace to point out some benefits to be appreciated as a result of the restrictions made necessary by the pandemic.

With social distancing limiting the size of musical ensembles and travel prohibition making the scheduled appearances of guest soloists and conductors impossible, there has been a focus on the wealth of international and indigenous talent that is resident in Scotland. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra in particular has been able to let a wider audience see its players in many different chamber music combinations.

This programme from the BBC Scottish was in some respect much more like a programme that the SCO might have undertaken pre-pandemic, with a previous or current leader of the orchestra directing from the violin. But it is also true that even the much larger RSNO has ventured down that road recently, tackling Beethoven symphonies without a conductor and emerging with credit from the exercise.

Battling through the health emergency to meet its commitments, with changes of conductors and soloists, this was perhaps the first time the SSO used the situation to highlight the talent it has within its ranks, and what a buoyant uplifting experience it was.

It is not as if we did not know how good the orchestra’s wind principals are. Stella McCracken (oboe), Yann Ghiro (clarinet), Julian Roberts (bassoon) and even newer member Alberto Menendez Escribano (horn) have all been in the ranks for some years, distinguishing concerts with their soloing.

That quartet had the spotlight for Mozart’s other Paris Sinfonia Concertante, from the year before the one for violin and viola that he probably played himself. Although designated a Kochel catalogue number, it is still not entirely accepted as being by him, in the absence of an autographed score.

If someone else did write it, they have surely been denied credit for a lovely piece of work, which gives all four of the wind instruments a platform, and the interweaving lines of the SSO players were beautifully captured in this broadcast.

At the heart of many an SSO concert, however, is its distinctive string sound, and with leader Laura Samuel directing from the concert-master’s seat, this programme was really a celebration of that strength. If the Mozart is not strongest in that department – in some respects the root of doubts about the score’s authenticity – it was bracketed by Czech works that more than compensated.

Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings was hugely important for the composer, an early triumph on his rocky road to a professional career, and there is ebullience in every bar. That was what came across in this performance, liberated from any directorial interpretation that may have come from the podium. The tempo was not too strict to allow the music to flow naturally, with some lovely languid moments in the rich string sound.

The concert began with a briefer, less familiar, but also beautifully scored piece by Dvorak’s son-in-law Josef Suk, Meditation on an old Czech hymn “St Wenceslas”. Originally written for the Bohemian String Quartet, of which Suk was a member, it was a riposte to the occupying Austrians’ requirement that their national anthem be played at all concerts. Its political message may be obscured by distance and time, but the powerful community feeling it expresses was transmitted to an audience starved of the communal enjoyment of live music by the eloquence of the SSO strings.
Keith Bruce

SCO/Emelyanychev

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

New Cumnock Partnership

News that Sir James MacMillan has launched a major new initiative to establish Cumnock as a global centre of excellence in the learning and teaching of composition should come as no surprise. 

MacMillan’s preeminent worldwide reputation as a composer, allied to his establishment of the annual Cumnock Tryst Festival, with its formidable record in fostering new compositional talent and associated schools and community initiatives, positions this latest initiative as a bold and natural advancement in the widening impact and influence of his expanding East Ayrshire project.

The new scheme, a partnership between The Cumnock Tryst and Trinity College London, aims to support composers at crucial stages in their development: those just embarking on a career; those teaching composition in schools; and those studying composition either at school or in higher education. 

“It has long been an ambition of mine to take all the experience and learnings we have built over many years of teaching composition in the schools around Cumnock and East Ayrshire and make those available to teachers and students further afield,” said MacMillan, who will be assisted on the ground by fellow composer Jennifer Martin.

The new Tryst-Trinity partnership will kick off this year with a project for Advanced Higher music students at the new Robert Burns Academy in Cumnock, and the launch of a supporting publication for music teachers and young composers, written by MacMillan and Martin, timed to coincide with the 2021 Cumnock Tryst festival in October.

MacMillan, whose new hard-hitting Christmas Oratorio is reviewed this week in VoxCarnyx, added: “The resources we create will not just be focused on teachers, but also support students studying composition at a higher education level or even self-taught. As part of our work to date we have mentored many emerging composers and supported some incredible talent nurtured here in Cumnock, such as Jay Capperauld and Electra Perivolaris, through commissions for our festival.” 

“I really believe that here we have the skills and resources to create an internationally recognised centre of excellence which will benefit the potential composers in the area, but also those around the world.” 

Future Cumnock Trysts are also set to benefit from a substantial new auditorium in the Robert Burns Academy that can seat upwards of 500 people. MacMillan is confident it will become an important venue, not just for the festival, but for performing groups in the community, in schools and from further afield. 

A gala opening was planned for last year’s Cumnock Tryst, featuring the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, but had to be abandoned due to Covid-19. “It is our intention to mark the new space with a celebratory event as soon as we are allowed,” MacMillan promised.

SCO : Czech music

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Hot on the heels of her star turn in the SCO’s first 2021 foray into the Igor Stravinsky jubilee repertoire, The Soldier’s Tale, the chamber orchestra offers a Wild Night in the company of percussionist Louise Goodwin in its latest online concert.

And that’s not the half of it, because this recital – of mostly 20th century Czech music – also includes two colourful visits to the theatre and kicks off with some charming, but rarely heard, salon music. Dvorak, the composer of the latter, and Martinu, whose music ends the programme, are the better-known names, but Scotland can boast particular connections with the other two: Hans Krasa and Pavel Haas. 

Krasa’s children’s opera Brundibar was a rediscovered centrepiece in the exploration of the music composed in Terezin concentration camp at Stirling’s Macrobert Arts Centre some years back, and the string quartet named after Pavel Haas, who was also imprisoned there and also died in Auschwitz, made its UK debut at Orkney’s St Magnus Festival after winning a European competition at which Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was a judge.

There is an elegant simplicity to the four easy pieces – “Miniatures” in his catalogue – that Dvorak composed in 1887 for himself and two friends to play, performed here by violinists Ruth Crouch and Amira Bedrush-McDonald with Brian Schiele on viola, and the closing Elegie hints at some of the darkness that surrounds the music that follows. Piano, percussion, flute, piccolo, clarinet and trumpet join the strings for the Brundibar Suite, arranged from the opera’s full score for the Nash Ensemble by David Matthews in 2011, and faithful to the instrumentation Krasa had to work with in Terezin.

The cabaret feel to the band is particularly evident from the music’s percussive edge, not just in Goodwin’s hands but also those of pianist Aaron Shorr and Shiele’s banjo-imitating pizzicato viola. The seven short movements of the suite end with a march that is easier to imagine a battalion in step with than the one in Martinu’s louche four-movement La Revue de Cuisine. 

Martinu made this suite for sextet from the music he composed for a bonkers ballet about the private lives of kitchen utensils, written in Paris in 1927. As well as some wonderful writing for Eric de Wit’s cello, it is coloured by the bassoon of Paul Boyes at the top of its range and the selection of mutes varying the voice of Peter Franks’ instrument in a style the trumpet section in Duke Ellington’s band knew well.

That promised Wild Night is the 4th Movement of Pavel Haas’ String Quartet No 2 “From the Monkey Mountains” for which the composer specified the defining addition of percussion, a score detail often ignored in string quartet performances. Not only does Louise Goodwin’s contribution here emphasise the jazz influences in the music, in this context it underlines the sadder question of where both Haas and Krasa may have taken their music given the opportunity to exchange ideas with artists elsewhere that Martinu was fortunate to enjoy.
Keith Bruce

This performance is available to view via the SCO’s Facebook page and YouTube channel until February 14.

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

SCO / Bacewicz / Bach / Beethoven

Queens Hall, Edinburgh

In referring to the three “B”s in classical music, we usually mean Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. This SCO strings-only programme went two-thirds of the way, replacing the Romantic Brahms with the more modernist voice of the 20th century Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz. 

Not that she is as obscure as was probably the case before Covid. Social distancing has given some of her more economically-scored works a practical and convenient attractiveness that goes beyond their intrinsic musical charm. The latter quality was in full view in the 1949 work chosen to open the programme, the Quartet for Four Violins.

It belongs to that period in her compositional journey, post-World War II, when Bacewicz embraced neoclassical principles, in her case owing much to the influences of folk music. It’s not long in this three movement quartet, beyond the wiry austerity of the eerie opening Allegretto, before the music changes gear and rustic ribaldry sets in.

The echoes of Bartok are unmistakable, yet with a stamp of individuality and beautifully crafted string writing (Bacewicz was, herself, a notable violinist) set on edge by the electrifying synergy of four violins. This quartet of SCO fiddlers formed an incisive ensemble, evenly matched and harnessing as a result the work’s full dynamic potential, from the sustained soulfulness of the slow movement to the razor-sharp energy of the finale.

If the SCO’s remarkable versatility is surfacing with regularity in these Thursday night chamber music releases, here was another example, as the music switched from Bacewicz to Bach, and a breathtaking medley from Bach’s Art of Fugue. In four of the Contrapuncti leader Benjamin Marquise Gilmore led a string section that adopted a convincing Baroque performance style.

It wasn’t simply the technical absence of vibrato, but a more deep-rooted purity of tone that gave these performances such a richness of texture more often associated with the best of period bands. Every strand of Bach’s increasingly complex counterpoint bore its own personality and sense of place without ever destroying the gorgeous combined homogeneity. The chorale prelude “Vor deinen Thron tret’ich hiermit” – applied to the collection when it was posthumously published by Bach’s son – was a heavenly way to bring such a sublime musical offering to a close. 

The peacefulness was immediately shattered by a full string version of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, a monstrous masterpiece conceived as the original finale to Beethoven’s Op 130 String Quartet. To hear it filled out like this is to witness an exaggeration of its anger and intensity, which was both gripping and fearsome. The downside was some raggedness of attack and intonation, particularly within the first violins. Just one weak moment, however, in an hour’s worth of delights.
Ken Walton

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