Tag Archives: Scottish Chamber Orchestra

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow 

However inspiring he is to work with, it can be an exhausting experience just watching and listening to the SCO’s Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev. This concert paired him with another Tiggerish Russian in violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky, whose similarly wide artistic practice embraces conducting and counter-tenor singing.

On more than one occasion on Friday evening it was less than clear who was in charge on stage. All credit to the players for seeming entirely unperturbed by the multiple waving arms, like a willow in the wind.

Journalist David Kettle supplied a very useful and comprehensive programme note to guide the listener through some very unfamiliar music, gathered under the title “Baroque Brio” – and there was plenty vivacity from both Sinkovsky and from Emelyanychev at the keyboard. Even tuning was quite theatrical, with the violinist sharing his pitch by walking around the platform and “Maestro Maxim”, as the soloist called him, finding it necessary to tweak the harpsichord from time to time.

The programme mixed early music by Leclair, Locatelli and Vivaldi with 20th century work that took inspiration from the era by Poulenc and Hungarian Ferenc Farkas. The latter’s Five Ancient Hungarian Dances, in an arrangement by Emelyanychev that called for the largest ensemble of the evening, was arguably the most interesting inclusion, but moved to the penultimate slot in the sequence it was a little lost, and immediately overshadowed by the Vivaldi concerto that followed, with its arresting opening and flamboyant cadenza for Sinkovsky at the end.

Poulenc’s Suite francaise, composed to soundtrack Bourdet’s extravagant stage version of the Dumas novel La reine Margot, is a very witty sparkling seven movements, but the eight movements of Locatelli’s Concerto Capriccioso, which apparently tells the Ariadne auf Naxos story, seemed a long row to hoe.

There is something of another Maxim, Maxim Vengerov, about Sinkovsky, who is a sensational player, but his party-piece Vivaldi solo concluded a performance of the work that was actually more spacious and less bustling that one might have expected, and all the better for it. It mirrored the Violin Concerto in D Major by Jean-Marie Leclair that had opened proceedings. Leclair, whose artistic career included dancing and virtuoso violin as well as composition, was perhaps the most apt inclusion by the concert’s multi-disciplined (but also slightly undisciplined) protagonists.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Dmitry Sinkovsky

SCO / Emelyanychev


City Halls, Glasgow
It was impossible not to pick up the eagerness with which Maxim Emelyanychev and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra launched into their first season concert in Glasgow in almost 20 months. The smiles on the players’ faces as they tuned was already indicative of their undisguised pleasure in having a live audience, as was the palpable emotion in chief executive Gavin Reid’s welcome back speech. But it was the moment Emelyanychev rushed to the podium to deliver a vicious, impatient downbeat that the power of live music made its visceral mark.
This was Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto, a work that can be what you like it to be, blustery and bombastic with the central slow movement as an oasis of relative calm, or a tempered approach with the emphasis firmly on harnessing its extremes to create a more organic, though no less volcanic, survey.
Emelyanychev and his soloist, the Russian-Lithuanian Lukas Geniušas, chose the former, the brusque and challenging opening exchange a clear indication of what was to come. In many ways it was an uncomfortable ride. Emelyanychev played freely with the tempo, placing gestural rhetoric at the forefront of his stormy vision. If that felt forced at times, there was no denying the resultant unpredictability and excitability that made every precious moment an edge-of-the-seat one.
Everyone was up for it, including the equally invigorated Geniušas, and it was this singularity of purpose that won the day. The colossal opening movement was explosive, shock tactics heightening its language of extremes; the slow movement eschewing over-sentiment in favour of rich-veined lyricism; the finale resuming the struggle but with exhaustive victory firmly in sight. Geniušas proved a pugnacious match to the exuberant Emelyanychev, to which the SCO responded with matching complicity.
This interval-less concert ended with Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony, and a performance that, once again, shaped its own destiny. While this symphony may not have quite the same instinctive charm as Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony – which the BBC SSO had performed in the same hall 24 hours earlier – Emelyanychev played to its strengths, some of which proved to be unexpected delights. 
There was an abundance of clarity, enabling unexpected colours to emerge, such as those moments where a low-set clarinet shadowed the strings, or where Mendelssohn’s complex counterpoint danced with boyish lustre. And there was a life-giving buoyancy that ensured this programme ended on the same high with which it began.
Ken Walton

Lammermuir Festival: SCO/Denk

St Mary’s, Haddington

Only a couple of years separate Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 and No. 23, but there can be few better illustrations of the development of his composition. As pianist Jeremy Denk put it in his introductory remarks to the closing concert of this year’s Lammermuir Festival, and his residency in East Lothian, the earlier work is one of by “the mad scientist in his laboratory”, while the A Major is the work of the mature talent who was also writing The Magic Flute.

My guess is that Denk and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra devoted more of their rehearsal time to the less-performed work. The E-flat Major was a certainly played by the composer, but it was the first of two written for his talented pupil Barbara von Ployer, “Babette”, the daughter of a Viennese councillor. With just 14 strings and minor roles for pairs of horns and oboes, this performance was historically-informed in its detail and precision-honed in its balance, particularly in the Andantino second movement. With his back to the audience and the lid off the Steinway, around which the players were assembled, Denk was a hands-on director of the music here, which meant that we were denied his charismatic facial expressions, now directed to them, and especially first violin Stephanie Gonley.

This mix of spare ingredients was marginally less successful in the more familiar work where bassoons, clarinets and a flute are added and the reverberant acoustic of the kirk meant things were less distinct. Denk treated his first movement cadenza less as a solo than as piece of plot exposition on the road to the Adagio, where he shared one of Mozart’s best tunes with the clarinet of Maximiliano Martin. By the finale it was clear that this was a piece of larger conception in every department but it lacked some of the finesse of the programme’s opener.

Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No 12 in E Major was a well-chosen partner to the concertos, and Gonley guided her colleagues expertly through a work that was breaking new ground twenty years earlier, in both its key and a central movement with bold rhythms and modulations. The lower strings had more of a voice here, and the SCO’s leader was always in firm control of the dynamics in the space.

Keith Bruce

pictured: Stephanie Gonley

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.

SCO: MacMillan / Currie

Perth Concert Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 / 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

Perth Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin / Mitchell

Maximiliano Martin/Scott Mitchell

Perth Concert Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keith Bruce

Available to watch via horsecross.co.uk

Quartet For The End Of Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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/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

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

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 / 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