Tag Archives: SCO

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

SCO Stays Free in ’21

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra has unveiled its Spring season of online concerts, when it will be continuing to offer all the music free to view and listen to via its website and YouTube channel.

Chief Executive Gavin Reid said that it is thanks to the generosity of individual supporters and the continuing support of its business sponsors that the concerts remain free to view. Capital Document Solutions, Pulsant, Baillie Gifford, Insider.co.uk and Institut Francais d’Ecosse are among the orchestra’s partners.

Former principal bassoon Peter Whelan returns to direct the first concert of 2021 and a Mozart programme with soloist mezzo soprano Katie Bray that also features an overture by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The season has a strong line-up of singers, with Benjamin Appl performing Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad in a March concert conducted by Andrew Manze. It also features the UK premiere of the Beethoven-inspired Stride by SCO Associate Composer Anna Clyne, co-commissioned by the SCO with the Australian and Lausanne Chamber Orchestras.

A February concert directed by Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev sees the orchestra in Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre for a performance of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella with soprano Claire Booth, tenor Andrew Staples and baritone Roderick Williams. In combination with January’s Queen’s Hall performance of the same composer’s The Soldier’s Tale, this represents a direct clash with the BBC SSO, which has scheduled the same Stravinsky pairing in its own February programming.

The Festival Theatre is also the venue for the SCO’s contribution to January’s online Celtic Connections festival when it is teamed with folksinger Karine Polwart and her regular accompanists Steven Polwart and Inge Thomson under the direction of violinist Pekka Kuusisto.

Emelyanychev is at the harpsichord for part of his first concert of the season, with Benjamin Marquise Gilmore, Nikita Naumov and Philip Higham also soloists in a Queen’s Hall programme of Bottesini, Bruch, Haydn and Hasse. Two more SCO principals, violinist Stephanie Gonley and flautist Andre Cebrian, feature in his March concert of Bach, Adams and Mozart. Gonley also joins Kristian Bezuidenhout as co-director and co-soloist in an all-Mendelssohn programme from the Festival Theatre in February.

Completing the roll call of singers is baritone Marcus Farnsworth, who sings Bach as part of a baroque chamber programme from the Queen’s Hall on January 21. The preceding week sees a chamber ensemble play Dvorak, Hass and Martinu.

In March saxophonist Jess Gillam makes her SCO debut in a concert conducted by Joana Carniero at Perth Concert Hall, and Susan Tomes joins SCO players for Mozart and Faure Piano Quartets. The season concludes in Perth at the start of April when Francois Leleux conducts the world premiere of a work for winds by Clyne, entitled Overflow and inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Jalaluddin Rumi.

SCO / Emelyanychev / Higham

Perth Concert Hall

Never underestimate the individual virtuosity of orchestral musicians who sit more anonymously, week after week, amid the wider ranks of their respective bands. Here was a typical illustration: SCO principal cellist Philip Higham breaking ranks to feature in his orchestra’s latest digital presentation from Perth Concert Hall as soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme.

Tchaikovsky’s balletic concert piece – it’s the closest he got to writing a full-blown cello concerto – is exquisite and fanciful, as the title suggests. But that shouldn’t imply anything lightweight or superficial. As the opening orchestral gambit of this iridescent performance under SCO principal conductor Maxim Emelyanychev asserted, here also is music of infinite character and substance. 

It offered the perfect interpretational springboard for Higham, whose entrance established all the perfection, agility and poise that was to inform the ensuing variations. The nimble, airborne simplicity of the main theme, the natural zest that followed, even the sumptuous calm in Tchaikovsky’s more contemplative moments, were all effortlessly captured in a performance notable for its visual grace and instinctive musicality.

It was the centrepiece of a concert bookended by Schubert, whose music, Emelyanychev reminded us, should have been a focal theme in the originally-planned SCO season. A pairing of Schubert’s Symphony No 5 and the Entr’act No 3 from Rosamunde was telling proof as to why that was always such a good idea.

In a symphony indebted in its lyrical, spirited zeal to Mozart, Emelyanychev seemed in seventh heaven, light-footed and with delicate gestures that inspired the freshest of results from his players. There was spring-like effervescence in the opening Allegro, eliciting affectionate playfulness from the conversational woodwind. The free-flowing Andante con moto and breezy Menuetto then set the pace for a finale the went like the clappers and embraced dramatic turbulence as chilling as Mozart’s Don Giovanni. 

No such pungency in the Rosamunde excerpt, which was all about eloquence and charm. There’s a gloriously ambient ring to the empty Perth hall acoustics that was fully embraced in this performance, evident in the poetic sheen and settled composure that coloured its every moment.
Ken Walton

SCO: Adams/Mozart

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

There have been some delightful threads to follow through the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s digital chamber music concerts, with its subtly changing cast of musicians, uniformly excellent sound mixing and evolving style of careful visual presentation.

The modern element of this programme is a selection of three of the 12 movements of John’s Book of Alleged Dances, a Kronos Quartet commission from John Adams that dates from 1994. In its original version, it references the work of John Cage in the use of a prepared piano rhythmic backing track, which proved a bit of a challenge for even the technologically-adept American group for whose individual members particular passages were specifically written.

This SCO quartet – Stephanie Gonley, Marcus Barcham Stevens, Felix Tanner, and Donald Gillan – neatly side-steps that problem by playing only movements 5, 3 and 8, none of which requires the rhythm track. They are each quintessential Adams though, particularly the first, and by far the longest, “Pavane: She’s So Fine”. It both celebrates and subverts an earlier form and the formal roles of the members of a string quartet. Gillan deserves particular praise for his playing of the very high cello part, written to showcase the Kronos’s Joan Jeanrenaud.

The briefer joys of “Toot Nipple” and “Stubble Crotchet” – classic Adams titles – displays his signature rhythmic style, the latter an encapsulation of his practice in miniature that can’t help but bring a smile. Dancing to any of this would surely be a challenge, but one that choreographers have risen to since the work was composed.

More specific to the narrative of this season is the sextet that follows, Mozart’s Grande Sestetto Concertante. With Gonley again leading, Philip Higham replacing Gillan, and violist Brian Schiele and bassist Nikita Naumov joining the group, the piece often sounds very little like Mozart. That  was also true of the Mozart Adagio and Fugue, which was included in the Queen’s Hall concert of November 12 (and still available to view until Saturday December 12), although that work consciously looked backwards. The more obvious reason this time around is that Mozart didn’t actually write it. The score is an arrangement of his Sinfonia Concertante, published almost 30 years later and the work of an unknown hand.

Cast your mind back to the days of audiences in concert halls, and the original work was in the last programme played by the SCO in March, with Nicola Benedetti and Lawrence Power as the soloists. If it sounded like scaled-up chamber music then, this might have been expected to be a back-to-basics exercise, but the arranger has had no particular urge to employ Mozartian building blocks.

More influenced by Beethoven, the music shares the solo lines around the members of the group, with Higham and Naumov providing the propulsion in the Presto finale. The opening movement loses none of its Maestoso in this reduced orchestration, and the moving central Andante seems to acquire a more Mediterranean feel in its flow, but is no less moving.

sco.org.uk, available to Sunday January 3 2021

Keith Bruce

Image: The SCO’s Philip Higham & Nikita Naumov play Mozart

SCO / Clyne & Britten

Perth Concert Hall

What a welcome sight. Thursday’s filmed concert by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, introduced by cellist Su-a Lee, returned this week to Perth Concert Hall, its stage floor area extended over the front stalls to accommodate the fuller string complement required for Benjamin’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. 

The setting also inspired the theatrical positioning of tenor Allan Clayton and horn soloist Alec Frank-Gemmill as spotlit protagonists out front, looking inward to the ensemble, which the camerawork in Mark Parkin’s film direction inventively captured.

Directing from the leader’s chair was Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, who confessed to not ever having encountered Britten’s 1943 wartime song cycle while growing up in Finland. Evidence of that emerged in a performance entirely in tune with its movingly refined ecstasy, but much more interestingly coloured by a fresh-faced objectivity.

In all but a very few moments, it worked. There was a dryness in the string tone and articulation that underpinned Blake’s Elegy, for instance, robbing us of its blanket warmth and forward momentum. But in every other sense this was a truly compelling performance, set magically in motion by Frank-Gemmill’s pitch-perfect playing (even the jarring natural horn harmonics) of the solo Prologue, and sung throughout with candescent poise by Clayton.

Clayton – whose wild beard and distressed hair make him look as if he’d just walked off the final scene of Peter Grimes – is no vocal clone of Peter Pears, for whom the work was written. Nor does he ever pretend to be, allowing instead the more rounded purity of his tenor voice to express its own persuasive response to Britten’s masterpiece. 

His partnership with Frank-Gemmill was compatible in every sense, generating musical dialogues capable of capturing the serene and thoughtful and the demonic and triumphant with equal conviction. The inexorability of the Dirge, unleashing those cascading horn counterpoints at its height, marked a thrilling moment, just as Ben Jonson’s Hymn elicited infinite expressive colours. And finally the horn Epilogue bringing the whole work full circle, this time offstage, its final dying note echoed by the emotive dimming of the lights.

Before the Britten, a smaller string contingent performed SCO associate composer Anna Clyne’s Within Her Arms, a heartfelt tribute to her late mother, written for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009.

The caressing Perth acoustics served to amplify its tenderness and unhurried quiescence, and from the strings a glowing warmth inhabited every gentle, keening bar, whether expressed through the gradually intertwining sighs of the opening lament, the ensuing glassy Tippett-like washes of polyphony, or the exhaustive bass drones that reset the opening calm.
Ken Walton

See this concert free at www.sco.org.uk

Image: SCO at Perth Concert Hall, credit Ryan Buchanan

SCO: Mozart, Schumann & Strauss

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

As Brexit looms, with all its threatening implications for musicians, it seems significant that two Scottish groups should choose to perform works written in response to the destruction of German cities by the Allied forces during the Second World War.

Next week, the Dunedin Consort will sing Rudolph Mauersberger’s Wie liegt die Stradt so wuste, written after the bombing of Dresden, and, on the day after Remembrance, the latest concert in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s digital season culminated in Metamorphosen, Richard Strauss’s response to the destruction of the Munich Hoftheater, a venue that had shaped his career. The first sketches for the piece were entitled Mourning for Munich.

Ultimately, Metamorphosen has been seen as concerned with rather more than that, and many have found comfort in its unfolding cycle of sorrow, hope and fatality. The work of a master craftsman in the twilight of his career, it is usually heard in the 1945 version scored for 23 strings, but the SCO played the Septet, rediscovered in Switzerland 30 years ago and realised as a performing edition by cellist Rudolph Leopold.

As was the case with Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which the SCO played in its quartet version three weeks ago, the smaller forces brought more of an edge to the sound than we often hear. Without a conductor this is a big, demanding piece of chamber music, and the communication across the socially-distanced group, led by Stephanie Gonley, was exemplary. Bassist Nikita Naumov’s personal enthusiasm for the work, which he had introduced, was palpable, particularly when he played the quotation from the Funeral March in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony near the end.

There was arguably a bit too much presence from the bassist in the recital’s opening work, although that was the only quibble in a transmission that was beautifully balanced by engineer Calum Malcolm and filmed by Mauro Silva and Stuart Armitt. In a blind test, however, how many would identify the Bach-influenced Adagio and Fugue as by Mozart? Yes, the composer was harking back to earlier forms in creating it – originally for two pianos and then two violins, viola and bass – but it is rather bleak in tone, with none of the lightness and vivacity most associated with the composer.

Schumann’s six Etudes in Canonic Form are also less upbeat than Philip Higham maintained in his introductory remarks, if much less angsty than the troubled composer could be. The SCO’s first cello made this string quintet transcription of a work that also began life for keyboard before being arranged for piano trio. His fellow cellist in the group, Su-a Lee, usually had the duller job of playing the pedal notes in what is nonetheless a lively work, with animated contrapuntal conversations between the other four players.

Its brief movements deploy the form of the title, but it is the structure of the whole sequence that makes it lovely to listen to, using canonic form in the service of emotional language, with great variation, especially in the fourth of them, which is marked “tenderly”. Higham’s arrangement emerges as an inspired notion that will surely be enthusiastically embraced by young chamber musicians in conservatoires the world over.
Keith Bruce

SCO / Ravel, Debussy & Milhaud

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Thursday digital chamber music series just gets better and better. This latest one – the first in its extended Autumn tranche of concerts – threw in a whole lot of jazz influence voiced via the titillating early 20th century French musical inflexions of Ravel, Debussy and Milhaud. Nothing beats a dose of regenerated blues for shaking off the pandemic gloom, especially in performances as gripping as these.

Ravel’s 1927 Violin Sonata featured a notable star from last week, SCO guest leader Maria Wloszczowska, this time in duo partnership with Edinburgh pianist Peter Evans. She cuts a charismatically unpretentious presence on stage, authoritative yet compliant, incisive in gesture but eliciting a natural expressive warmth. The dissonant pokes of humour that gently infiltrate the silken fluidity and filigree detail of the opening movement did so with infectious charm.

Then a playful Blues, a beguiling central movement whose woozy lyricism vies with antagonistic syncopations. Wloszczowska and Evans engaged fully in its whimsy and the saucy dialogue that ultimately achieves its seductive purpose, before gifting the sonata’s final skittish moto perpetuo with all the inexorable fervour its kinetic insistence invites.

Debussy’s Cello Sonata seemed the perfect complement with which to follow, its opening rhetoric mindful in establishing an intuitive but exhilarating stream of thought, which SCO principal cellist Philip Higham expressed with crafted, glowing intensity. Once again, Evans was an inspiring collaborator, receptive to Higham’s architectural vision and purposeful in initiating those restless interruptions that breath fire into Debussy’s logical narrative and the quicksilver charm that enlivens the closing moment.

In many respects, the piano quintet version of Darius Milhaud’s 1920s’ ballet score La Creation du Monde is inevitably more high class drawing room in character than the raunchy Harlem-style jazz club textures evoked by the original 17-instrument line-up. But there is a certain ironic charm in the way its refined rescoring establishes a sort of perverse decadence.

With violinist Kama Kawashima and violist Felix Tanner now completing the ensemble, and in a performance driven by a combination of sultry sensuality and raw rhythmic drive, the realisation of its risqué primitivism was palpable and profound. Whether in the biting aggression of the Fugue, the steamy laid-back ecstasy of the Romance, the terse rhythmic menagerie that defines the short Scherzo, or the whimsical gamesmanship of the Finale, this was a cracking conclusion to a quirky programme.
Ken Walton

Available to view on www.sco.org.uk

Image: SCO guest leader Maria Wloszczowska

SCO/ Mozart & Mendelssohn

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

It may come under the banner of chamber music, but a coupling of Mozart’s probing G minor String Quintet K516 and Mendelssohn’s youthfully exuberant Octet represents something altogether more massive in physical stature and emotional heft. So it’s hardly surprising that this latest programme in the SCO’s digital Chamber Music Series proved not only one of the lengthiest, but also the most exhaustive and exhilarating to date. 

In the first of these, Mozart takes us through the wringer with music that strives to reconcile troublesome thoughts, that expresses its journey through a fragmentary healing process and a final shift to the major key that is as much about transformative release as triumphant consummation.
 
And this performance, led compellingly and demonstratively by lead violinist Maria Wloszczowska, knew exactly where it was taking us and how it would get there. The sighing phrases of the opening Allegro, articulated with raw vibrato-less poignancy, tugged gnawingly at the heartstrings. With the Menuetto came a deeper agitation before the muted Adagio, no less troubled, but offering rays of hope as it edged towards the transformative discourse of the closing Allegro.

If the meaty ensemble mix in the Mozart was a thrill in itself, it was soon to expand to the eightsome forces of the Mendelssohn. Written – as second violinist Gordon Bragg reminded us in his programme introduction – when Mendelssohn was but a lad, it’s a work of uncanny maturity fired by the spontaneous ferocity of youth, an incendiary combination articulated with tantalising vitality in this performance.

Knowing gestures, friendly smiles and all-out teamwork were the outward signs of a corporate internalised instinct. Where dazzling, detailed interplay made much of work’s dizzying intricacies – just occasionally edging over the safety limit – there was ample symphonic fullness when the moment demanded. It’s a work we hear time and time again, but just sometimes, like this, you sit up and take fresh notice.  
Ken Walton

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