Tag Archives: Scottish Chamber Orchestra

SCO / Stout & McKay

City Halls, Glasgow

While the SCO’s mission on Friday was fundamentally to operate as a backing band for folk duo Chris Stout (violin) and Catriona McKay (Scottish harp), the whistling and cheering from this Celtic Connections audience must surely have compensated. Rarely does a regular SCO City Halls audience mark its presence with anything beyond polite applause or a stifled cough. In truth, classical music could do with more of this unrestrained encouragement. 

But let’s not kid ourselves. The real focus for Friday’s uninhibited following was Stout and McKay, and a brand of music, rooted in progressive folk and embraced by an unpretentious sophistication that engenders its wide appeal. 

They opened with Seavaigers, written for them ten years ago by Sally Beamish, and ended with the duo’s own musical reverie, Glenshee. In between were equally substantial works based on poetry by Shetland-born Christie Williamson, himself present and involved, plus songs by Irishman Liam Ó Maonlaí that acted more inconsequentially as miscellaneous stocking fillers.

Otherwise the concert bore unified purpose under the overarching title Möder Dy, how Shetlanders describe the ocean’s mysterious undercurrents. There was instant reference to that in Seavaigers, a powerfully expressive scene-setter in which Beamish threads traditional influences through her trademark modernism. Stout and McKay brought it thrillingly to life in a wide-ranging performance that shifted inexorably from whispered mystique to mountainous swells of foot-stamping exuberance.

More substantial were the three lengthy musical responses to Williamson’s poetry that were, on paper, the meat of the programme. Williamson’s own vocal presence, pre-empting each musical moment with the relevant lines from his watery allegory, Waves Whisper, was one of slightly dishevelled informality. Maybe that’s the way of poets, but he should have stuck to the readings and left the casual asides to the more charismatic Stout. 

All three performances were predominantly showpieces for the front line and, to some extent, guest percussionist James Mackintosh, whose feathery brushstrokes on kit were more visually than audibly stimulating. As for Stout (alternating between violin and ruminative viola) and McKay, they commanded exclusive attention through their breathtaking chemistry, each knowing instinctively what nuance or dramatic change of gear the other was implying.

There wasn’t that much for the SCO to do in the Williamson-inspired pieces other than act as wallpaper, albeit peppered with momentary flourishes, but they did so with unstinting professionalism under the alert baton of James Lowe. More refreshing, perhaps, was that eventual escape to what Stout described as “a sonic postcard from Glenshee”, a sequence of contrasting tableaux touched up with rich Highland imagery and plenty of “wish you were here” sentiment.

Stout and McKay had no intention of leaving things there. Anticipating a call for a valedictory “set of reels”, they obliged, now very much in boisterous home territory. They are a dynamic duo, with a stage presence that plays to their distinctive personae: Stout’s rock-fuelled stomp and bad boy cool versus McKay’s matronly insouciance and smouldering sensuality. Maybe they should rebrand as Nigel and Nigella – Kennedy and Lawson, that is, just to be absolutely clear!. 

Ken Walton

SCO / Leleux

City Halls, Glasgow

It is a terrible thing to say of a Frenchman, especially one who cuts a sartorial dash on the podium, but Francois Leleux is not the most elegant of conductors in his gestures. He is, however, supremely eloquent, his intention always clear and his stick hand unafraid to ensure that everyone is on the beat.

So the unusual lack of sparkle in some of the playing from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on Friday night was not down to him, and nor could the blame be laid at the door of the SCO winds, who tend to pull out all the stops for their kindred spirit, whether or not Leleux is actually playing his oboe.

Best guess might be in the absence of familiar faces leading the lower strings, although the guest musicians in their place were all quality performers in their own right. The difference was perhaps marginal, but detectable, especially after the interval with a perfectly fine, but not in any way exceptional, account of Schubert’s Symphony No 4, the somewhat ill-named “Tragic”, and in Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, which preceded it and was less meteorologically dramatic than it can be.

The more interesting music was in the first half, when Leleux was the soloist in fellow oboist Andreas Tarkmann’s recent arrangement for oboe and strings of Mendelssohn’s popular piano pieces, Songs Without Words. Leleux played six of the seven, chosen it would seem for the contrasts they offered. Here was the small double-reed instrument showing off its full range and a dazzling tonal palette. It would be wrong to describe the result as a demonstration of virtuosity, rather it is a showpiece for the capabilities of the instrument.

It is said that Louise Farrenc was acclaimed by Paris in the same era as Mendelssohn for the novelty of her gender as a composer as much as for the quality of the music. Contemporary sexism, on the other hand, simply underrates her if her Symphony No 3 in G Minor from 1847 is any guide. She clearly owes a debt to Beethoven, but there is no plagiarism in her work, rather a shared language and compositional techniques, particularly in the outer movements.

The heart of the work is a beautifully-shaped, if melodically unmemorable slow movement, with first clarinet Maximiliano Martin in the lead role, and a terrific Scherzo, which trips along at pace and has the better tune.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Swensen

City Halls, Glasgow

The slightly cheesy title, “Musique Amerique”, that the Scottish Chamber Orchestra gave to its first season programme of 2023, should not detract from what was one of the most fascinating concerts given by the band’s Conductor Emeritus, Joseph Swensen, in recent years.

Its conceit was the traffic of musical ideas between Europe and America in the earlier part of the 20th century, a trade that not only brought US composers to the fore on this side of The Pond but radically transformed the practice of those in Russia and Germany as well as France.

The focus here was on Paris, with two members of composers’ collective Les Six, Milhaud and Poulenc, opening and closing the evening. Poulenc’s four-movement Sinfonietta, from 1947, was the most conventionally-shaped score in the concert, and the only one to employ a recognisably entire SCO. The musical material within that structure, however, was very much of its era, with a recognisable debt to film music from behind the Iron Curtain as well as Hollywood, and echoes of the cabaret and music hall stage – but then Francis Poulenc was very much a man of the theatre.

Darius Milhaud’s La creation du monde was composed for what may have been a fascinating ballet that mixed quasi-African creation myths with elements of the book of Genesis, but perhaps more limited to its time. Half a century before Steve Reich’s work of that name, however, it is “Music for 18 musicians”, and the fact that Milhaud taught Reich (as well as Philip Glass, Burt Bacharach and Dave Brubeck) may be no coincidence.

It is a terrifically colourful suite, full of early jazz influence and often sounding even more modern, with an arco bass solo paving the way for the first brass interjection and many attention-grabbing duo combinations: flute and cello; oboe and horn. The closing section is built around a riff that starts in pizzicato low strings before involving the whole band, and is ripe for rediscovery by a contemporary jazz ensemble.

The heart of the evening lay across the Atlantic, with the SCO’s principal clarinet the featured soloist. Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto is meat and drink to Maximiliano Martin, even if Benny Goodman, who commissioned it, found the score the composer delivered trickier to play than he’d anticipated.

It was followed, after the interval, by an orchestration of Bernstein’s precocious Clarinet Sonata, composed during his student years at a Tanglewood summer school when he was being mentored by Copland. Martin has played the piece a lot in recent years, with pianist Scott Mitchell and the man behind the piano for the SCO, Simon Smith, but I had not previously heard this orchestration (strings, piano, and some very effective and often subtle tuned and untuned percussion from Tom Hunter).

The arrangement is the work of Sid Ramin, who died in 2019 aged 100, a collaborator with Bernstein on West Side Story, and then orchestrator of musicals by Sondheim and others. Written in 1994, after Bernstein’s death, it softens the work in places and makes it less obviously a virtuoso clarinet showpiece, but was nonetheless well worth hearing as part of a very thoughtful and immaculately-performed programme.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Manze

City Halls, Glasgow

Throughout the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s near half-century existence, one of the greatest joys has been the orchestra’s intimate connection with Mozart. It was present once again in this final 2022 programme, which featured the classy South Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 27 in B flat, and flashed up pleasurable memories of the complete Mozart concerto series performed with the same magnetic poise by pianist Mitsuko Uchida with the SCO way back in the 1980s.

Eum Son’s delivery had the same honesty and purity about it, lightning finger work precisely placed, an evenness of tone informing crystalline phrase, and a composure that allowed the music to express its intentions with natural elan. That conductor Andrew Manze – whose violin-playing days were once equally notable for their clean-cut Mozart – was of the same mind, brought a satisfying unity of purpose to the performance.

It was clear from the unending applause that Eum Son had no option but to deliver an encore, and boy did she oblige with the chattering brilliance of Moritz Moskowski’s Etincelles (Sparks) Op 36 No 6, like Scarlatti on steroids and offering a pyrotechnic glimpse of the pianist’s showier persona.

All this came immediately after the Concerto for String Orchestra by another amazing woman, Grazyna Bacewicz. As a pioneering female Polish composer in mid-20th-century male-dominated Europe, who had previously established herself as a celebrated violinist, it’s clear from this gutsy work (and others that have increasingly crept into concert programmes in recent years) that she was a voice to to be reckoned with.

Bullish, ultra-confident and instantly arresting, the opening movement was one unstoppable adrenalin rush, Manze drawing visceral heat from his eager, belligerent players. The wrestling complexity of the Allegro, a sizzling cauldron of thematic conflict, gave way to the more restful, rich-textured Andante, before the hi-octane finale, with its rhythmic twists and turns, produced a relentless, resolute dash to the finishing line. 

Manze completed his programme with music more often reserved for larger entities than the SCO, Dvorak’s Symphony No 7 – some may recall a BBC SSO performance a couple of weeks ago under Portuguese conductor Nuno Coelho. What transpired, though, was a refreshing reconsideration of its expressive potential. Where the string numbers were limited, the quality of sound was so alive and intense it captured details in the textural world of this heated symphony that are rarely heard.

As is standard with Manze, this was a programme brimming with refreshing thoughts, studiously intelligent on the one hand, passionately revealing on the other.

Ken Walton

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

SCO / Whelan

City Halls, Glasgow

When the main man pulls out, you’re snookered. It was, of course, nobody’s fault that violinist Colin Scobie had to call off his solo appearance in last week’s SCO programme, but that’s not the main man being referred to. 

As a consequence of Scobie’s unfortunate withdrawal, the Violin Concerto No 3 by the hitherto unsung 19th century Edinburgh-based, Polish-Lithuanian emigre Felix Yaniewicz had to be pulled – a bit of a blow when the whole programme was designed around the composer’s symbolic and significant inclusion. 

The original intention was a selection of music representative of Yaniewicz’s time and influence as a key mover and shaker in post-Enlightenment Edinburgh, where he was organiser of the illustrious Edinburgh Musical Society concerts, and co-founder in 1815 of the short-lived Edinburgh Musical Festival, a notable precursor to the annual August jamboree the city enjoys today.

With the main orchestral works remaining in place, and the last-minute services of Irish mezzo soprano Tara Erraught secured to sing a single song by Yaniewicz contextualised alongside others by Tommaso Giordani, Mozart and JC Bach, much of that intention was maintained. We were reliving something of the presentational style and content that 19th century Edinburgh concert-goers would have experienced.

How that might have appealed to a Glasgow audience rather spoke for itself. There was a pitiful turnout, but those who did make the effort witnessed something that was daintily charming in parts, thrillingly virtuosic in others, though when it came to the A-list composers, true class proved its worth.

At the helm was former SCO principal bassoon, Peter Whelan, now making significant headway internationally as a conductor, especially in earlier repertoire. He made an immediate impression in the opening overture from Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, the incessant, chirping piccolo and Janissary-style percussion glittering like exotic musical bling. 

Erraught’s first set was initially disappointing, a rather hesitant and inconsistent Caro Mio Ben by Giordani followed by a more settled performance – for all the music itself is routinely crafted – of Yaniewicz’s Go Youth Belov’d. These are intimate songs, a quality Erraught strived hard to sustain, but she seemed infinitely more at ease in Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate. Its dazzling, extrovert acrobatics found Erraught in her natural, opulent comfort zone. 

Returning in the second half for Giordani’s Queen Mary’s Lamentation and JC Bach’s classy arrangement of the traditional Scots song, The Broom of Cowdenknowes, Erraught found something of the composure that had escaped her initial performances. The latter song, in particular, had a melting appeal that earned an emotive sigh from an appreciative audience.

Whelan, meantime, upped the temperature in a couple of orchestral curiosities of the time: the flamboyant Overture in C (essentially a miniature symphony) by Thomas Erskine, the 6th Earl of Kellie, a Fifer known as much for his drinking prowess as his carefree adoption of the musical principles of the Mannheim School, vividly demonstrated in this hearty performance; and Mozart’s modernising arrangement of Handel’s Overture to Alexander’s Feast, lovingly shaped by Whelan and the orchestra.

The concert ended with Haydn’s “Military” Symphony, its bullish eccentricities integrated tastefully within a bright, zestful, at times deliciously poetic interpretation. By which point, any lingering disappointment over the programme changes were resolutely dismissed.

Ken Walton

SCO / Egarr

SCO / Egarr

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

When the SCO Chorus last sang Handel’s Israel in Egypt in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall, under Dutch conductor Peter Dijkstra, it seemed to me that the work, with its six soloists, full brass and chamber organ, was too big for the venue. While it was a surprise to find that was six years ago to the week – the Covid-era prohibition on choral singing has confused recollection of concerts past – that impression was confirmed by Richard Egarr’s dynamic direction, from the harpsichord, of the oratorio in the Usher Hall on Thursday evening.

There are some odd things about Israel in Egypt, one of the composer’s earliest excursions into Bible story-telling for the concert platform. Even in an age when recreation of original performance scores has become the thing, Part 1 is still usually consigned to the dustbin of history and we hear Handel’s revised version of Parts 2 and 3 with his addition of some arias for the soloists.

Those six voices – a stellar line-up of sopranos Rowan Pierce and Mary Bevan, mezzo Helen Charlston, tenor James Gilchrist and basses Ashley Riches and Peter Harvey here – are still far from overworked. Handel chose texts from Exodus and Psalms to tell the story of God’s chosen people, and the chorus therefore has the most to sing.

The SCO choir, refreshed by a good number of younger voices, did a superb job across all its sections, without a weak link in voice pitch, and crisp and clear through the entire evening. Egarr treated all the musicians on the Usher Hall stage equally, and the ensemble sound the collective made was superb, quite startlingly so in the combination of singing and instrumental playing in the hailstones of the plagues in Part 2.

From Gilchrist and Charleston’s almost “Once upon a time” storytelling approach to the opening, this Israel in Egypt was a captivating yarn. In Part 3, after the interval, the other soloists took their brief slots in the spotlight with style, Bevan and Pierce combining beautifully in duet only to be ungallantly upstaged by Harvey and Riches with a belligerent, duelling “The Lord is a man of war” that provoked its own ripple of applause.

Not for the first time at Scottish Chamber Orchestra concert, the final credit has to go Richard Egarr for bringing all of the elements together into a wonderful coherence. He was alive to all the contrasts in the score, digging into the platform with his fist on “He smote all the first-born” before gently shepherding the chorus and lyrical reed players in the chorus that immediately follows, and leading a trio of string principals from the keyboard in the continuo.

Handel was still experimenting when he wrote Israel in Egypt, with the triumph of Messiah a few years off, but in this performance, with all its meticulous details and ensemble endeavour, it was very much more than a work-in-progress.

Keith Bruce

Conversation Pieces

Uniquely-talented cellist Su-a Lee shares the limelight in Dialogues, her debut album. Going solo isn’t really her thing, she tells KEN WALTON

The last time I spoke to Scottish Chamber Orchestra cellist Su-a Lee, she had just videoed herself playing alone in a beautiful Speyside forest, surrounded by birds who flocked to her musical soliloquising like those to Snow White in the animated Disney film. 

The idea was to emulate the famous “nightingale duet” of 1924, when Elgar’s cellist friend Beatrice Harrison achieved a similar avian response in her Surrey garden, in what was to become one of the BBC’s earliest outside broadcasts. Lee loved the idea, which was to be her uniquely moving contribution to the award-winning Scotsman Sessions, a series launched during lockdown to give a much-needed performance platform to Scots-based musicians.

That same creative originality and that same idyllic part of the world (Lee has, post-Covid, married the partner she spent most of lockdown with in Speyside, folk musician Hamish Napier), were instrumental in inspiring her debut solo album, due for release this week on her own Sky Child Records label. Dialogues, as its title suggests, is not actually a solo album at all; nor – and this won’t surprise anyone familiar with Lee’s eclectic musical penchant – is it genre specific.

In terms of the former, going it alone has never appealed to the colourful but unassuming cellist, despite her 30-year prominence among the front ranks of the SCO and her flamboyant presence as a founder member of the quirky Mr McFall’s Chamber, where her expertise famously extends to solo virtuosity on the musical saw, and musical tastes flit between the earthy sensuality of Argentine tango and the experimental genre-mix of King Crimson.

Dialogues is a free-riding collaboration on an intimate scale. Other than the final solo track, Lee shares the limelight with a progression of friends in music that evolved organically during the recording process itself and reflects the various specialisms, mainly folk-rooted, of collaborators that include accordionist Phil Cunningham, singer Julie Fowlis, Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, harpist Maeve Gilchrist and even husband Hamish, who played a key role in encouraging the project. 

The solo route was never on the cards, insists the South Korea-born cellist, who’s early studies took her to Manchester’s Chetham’s School as a talented teenager and to the hotbed of New York and its prestigious Julliard School as an undergraduate, before settling in Edinburgh in the early 1990s. 

“It really isn’t a thing I’m interested in doing,” she explains. “One of the very first things I was asked to do in lockdown was a solo concert for Chamber Music Scotland online. At first I thought, I’m not going to do that, that’s really not my thing. But actually a lot of people had been asking in the past few years if I would do village concerts and I thought maybe I should, because it’s easy to go out on your own and you don’t have to arrange for anyone else to do stuff. Then I thought perhaps I could just get Hamish involved. We were locked down together, so maybe we could share the programmes, and that’s how things progressed. 

Su-a Lee with folk musician husband Hamish Napier

“As for the solo album, that was definitely Hamish’s idea. I was dead against it, and certainly had no interest in writing music, no desire to create a band. But after giving it careful thought, I warmed to the idea of something certainly small and intimate, maybe duos or trios. Would it be classical? I was like no, there were already far too many amazing cellists out there recording all that stuff, but maybe folk would work. The next step was to see if anyone was up for playing with me as an equal voice.”

Unsurprisingly they were, and a process of developing individual tracks – “each a project on its own” – eventually grew into the final product. “I remember sneaking in a studio session just as things were opening up with the lovely Pekka – he had been recording with us at the SCO, so we snuck off at the end of one of the SCO recordings to put this together. It was slightly terrifying for me, time being limited and precious, but that in itself made it so instantly creative, like grabbing a moment.”

Each “moment” produced its own challenges. When it came to working with Caithness composer and pianist James Ross for the track Stroma, the creative process was done remotely by email. “James sent me the original melody, then I would do some improvisations and send them back giving him options to choose where the music would go next. He’d send it back again and we’d morph things. It just went back and forth until we were happy with the final results.” 

The same happened with cellist Natalie Haas, who was based in Montreal at the time. “Because we played the same instrument, the main thing was working out how to avoid getting in each other’s way in terms of register,” Lee recalls. “By the time she finally came over to Scotland for a weekend, we clicked instantly, playing together for hours. It felt like a real dialogue.” Thus emerged the hypnotically side-stepping Waltzska for Su-a.

Now that it’s all over, Lee muses on the impact lockdown in Speyside had on nurturing her album. “That environment definitely had a huge effect,” she says. It allowed time and space for ideas to percolate, for me to work in a very different way than before. It felt very new, and gave me me the luxury of not having to be anywhere else, not squeezing things between deadlines. It was a real gift to be surrounded by nature, not ever having really experienced that before. I’d always lived inner city – New York in Manhattan, the centre of Edinburgh. 

The Highlands remain a bolt hole, where she and her equally busy husband spend time together as much as they can. “I do still have my flat in Edinburgh, where most of my playing work is based, but for me personally things have definitely changed. It’s a matter of negotiating how much time we spend with each other. 

“I’m managing to get a bit more of a balance, but it takes thought, preplanning and commitment. You have to say no to a lot more things, and I am in the process of doing exactly that, coming off various boards, so I can find some time just to switch off. Good stuff doesn’t happen, creativity doesn’t happen, when you’re constantly having to catch up with yourself. The mind does a wonderful thing, though, when you are doing nothing. You start to muse, you start to think.

Does she think there might be another album? She offers a definitive no, but only a fool would dismiss the possibility. “I won’t be doing it again … in a hurry,” she adds. That doesn’t sound like the door being completely slammed shut. Does it?

Dialogues is released on 2 December, available on CD and digital download. Full information at www.sualee.com

(Top picture: Elly Lucas)

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow

The ever-exuberant Principal Conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Maxim Emelyanychev, is a man who likes to spring a surprise, and – predictably enough – this programme, entitled “Maxim’s Baroque Inspirations”, came garnished with unbilled extra ingredients.

Playing recorder, he led a small group into the first floor foyer at the interval to perform music by 17th century London-based Italian violinist Nicola Matteis, revelling in his pied piper persona. And for an encore at the end of the published programme, he chose one of Grieg’s Elegiac Melodies, a string orchestra piece that nicely mirrored the Holberg Suite, which had opened the concert.

There was nothing haphazard about any of this. Rather the entire sequence of the evening was brilliantly conceived to show how early music had been drawn upon by more recent composers in the most imaginative ways.

In fact there was no authentically Baroque music before that half-time treat, but the performance of the Holberg was sparkling and full of variety. Emelyanychev’s emphasis on the pizzicato low strings at the start was masterly, the Sarabande surprisingly lush, the Gavotte suitably Handelian and the fourth movement Andante religioso almost like Rachmaninov.

The less familiar music that followed was just as rich in instrumental colour. Thierry Escaich’s Baroque Song, composed in 2007, begins with some very sprightly wind playing, while Alison Green’s contrabassoon was crucial to the dark central Andante before Philip Higham’s increasingly frantic cello solo led into the lively finale. Escaich is a Parisian organist, and his cut-and-paste use of Bach at times inspired thoughts of Gaston Leroux’ Gothic novel, if not the musical it spawned.

Henryck Gorecki has as much fun with early music in his Harpsichord Concerto, filtering it through Kraftwerk and Kraut-rock with relentless repeating figures from both the soloist – Emelyanychev himself – and the strings. The big major chord at the end of the Allegro molto first movement sets up the change of tone for the Vivace second one, and there is at least a suspicion that the Polish composer has his tongue firmly in his cheek.

The interval treat set up a second half with two Vivaldi concerti, the first “for many instruments” demonstrating that there was little the composer could learn from his successors about orchestration, and pairs of winds, and string instruments both plucked and bowed taking turns in the spotlight.

In between was a gem of seven short movements by Paul Hindemith, composed for students at Yale University, where he’d escaped during the Second World War. The arrangements of 16th century French dance music – including one labelled “Bransle d’Ecosse” – are superbly voiced for five strings, five winds, trumpet, theorbo and percussion, a group sitting in size exactly between the Vivaldi ensemble and that strolling foyer group for the Matteis. As in every other immaculate detail of the evening, Emelyanychev had it planned to the last beat of the last bar.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Marwood

City Halls, Glasgow

Any journey that ends with Kurt Weill’s 1924 Violin Concerto – the work of a young man yet to form his career-making partnership with Bertolt Brecht – is worth embarking on, but the Scottish Chamber Orchestra took a circuitous way there under the direction of violinist Anthony Marwood.

During its composition, Weill’s teacher Federico Busoni died and that is reflected in the work’s sombre opening. It does lighten in tone in the three-part central movement, however, when the soloist finds foils among the percussion, brass and winds in turn, before becoming a real virtuoso piece in the fast finale. Marwood took a very measured approach to the work, leaving plenty of room to make the conclusion especially dramatic.

The might possibly be said of the whole programme, which leapt about chronologically and in scale. Immediately before the concerto was the only work that could really be seen as its precursor, the Three Dances from Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. Here was the SCO as a cabaret band and closer to the music that Weill would go on to write, and Marwood clearly relished his devilish part in proceedings.

The programme had begun with music that would not be played until after the Second World War but was written before the First, Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question. The American maverick may have predicted a direction in which music would go, but he was alone on that path in the first decade of the 20th century. It was followed by a singularly playful statement from exiled Russian Alexander Raskatov, Five Minutes from the Life of W A Mozart, from the first year of the 21st.

Haydn’s Symphony No 8 “Le soir” was just – like the Weill – the work of a composer in his 20s, and recently employed by the Esterhazys. After the parody of the Raskatov, here was music both baroque and pictorial, played with sparkling joie de vivre.

The two works on either side of the interval fitted even less well into the already opaque scheme of things: the Adagio from Bruckner’s epic String Quintet and Elgar’s five-minute string work Sospiri, which sounded very dated next to everything else in the second half.

Marwood’s title for this selection box was From Darkness to Light, which did not really help clarify the programme. It was great to hear the Weill, but the route there did seem a little random.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Emelyanychev

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

There has been nothing very chamber-sized about Maxim Emelyanychev’s concerts launching the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s new season, with large orchestral works bracketing Nicola Benedetti’s premiere of a new James MacMillan concerto last week and then the SCO Chorus in the choir stalls for Haydn’s Creation.

The Creation seems to be having a moment, as the secular elements that made it problematic for the church in the past chime with the environmental worries of the present. It is good to hear a big work by “Papa” Haydn with more regularity ­– he does a great deal with those first six days in the book of Genesis. While the work’s most famous hymn tune, The Heavens are Telling the Glory of God, is given to the chorus, the orchestra and all three soloists have some fine meaty music to showcase their capabilities.

That trio had a late substitution, with German soprano Lydia Teuscher coming in for Sophie Bevan, who is ill. As we were actually hearing Die Schopfung, the German text version of a work that was composed with both that and English as options, she was an appropriate choice, and proved a very fine singer. When she forsook the role of Gabriel for that of Eve at the start of Part Three, Hanno Muller-Brachmann (now Adam rather than Raphael) led her by the hand to the centre of the stage in a gesture that fitted the sense of mutual enjoyment that emanated from the stage on Thursday evening – and was all the better for being initiated by the more mannered bass-baritone.

For natural fluency, in German as well as in the music, it was tenor Andrew Staples (Uriel) who set the pace. He did not do anything particularly theatrical as he moved from his chair at the side to centre stage to sing, but every syllable was filled with meaning and purpose. The opening of Part Three, when a duo of flutes prefaced his softly sung introduction of Adam and Eve, was exquisite.

In the more descriptive music, with the orchestral writing at its best, the other two soloists had their share of the limelight. Haydn is at the peak of his powers with the evocation of birds and animals at the start of Part Two and Teuscher’s aria with the SCO woodwind soloists taking turns to partner her was simply gorgeous.

That is immediately followed by Raphael’s finest moment, the recitative of whales in the deep matched to a sextet continuo of the lower strings – one example of the many variations Haydn introduces to standard structural practice, with a string quintet taking that role early in Part Three.

Elsewhere continuo is in the more predictable hands of harpsichord and first cello Phillip Higham, but this being Emelyanychev, there were plenty of unscripted flourishes when he switched his attention to the keyboard. The beautiful, and clearly audible, instrument onstage was another element in his conductor’s armoury, and he occasionally added an extra left hand chord to the mix even as orchestra and chorus were in full flow.

The quality of the sung German from the front of the stage was paralleled by the diction of the chorus behind, although their crisp beginning to phrases was not always matched by their conclusion of them. Chorusmaster Gregory Batsleer has this choir beautifully calibrated, and the conductor was evidently quite comfortable with that part of the whole ensemble even when he felt it necessary to bring in the soloists.

Not only was Emelyanychev alive to all the details of the score, he also shaped the entire narrative of the performance. Certainly the composer makes that easy with the meticulous structure of the work, but it is not often that The Creation story is told with the clarity the conductor and his team brought to the job here.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Lydia Teuscher by Shirley Suarez

Lammermuir: SCO / Poska

St Mary’s Church, Haddington

Like the Formula 1 calendar and the soccer season, the itinerary of the Scottish orchestral musician now lacks much in the way of clear holiday breaks.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra visited Lammermuir on the last lap of its extensive summer touring schedule, with concerts of music by contemporary women composers aimed at school students in Musselburgh, Ayr and Dumfries to come next week before Nicola Benedetti launches the new season, premiering James MacMillan’s Second Violin Concerto at the turn of the month.

The woman in charge on Wednesday evening was the Estonian chief conductor of the Flanders Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Latvian Symphony, Kristiina Poska. Her programme majored on Beethoven, opening with the Overture “Coriolan” and closing with Symphony No 2, with Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony and a contemporary work from Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tuur in between.

Compact enough in duration, it was a rich, if often rather bleak, mix in a Lammermuir Festival that has found room for all three of Scotland’s orchestras – although perhaps not an enormous amount of room for the BBC SSO in Dunbar Parish Church this Friday.

On both the overture and Beethoven symphony, the SCO sounded like a larger outfit in this space with its reverberating acoustic. Nonetheless Poska, a very precise and clear conductor, had the playing edgy and keen, and the dynamics of the string sections particularly precisely graded. The Coriolan was powerful and the Second increasingly colourful as it went on, the SCO winds as dependable as ever, and guest first flute Daniel Pailthorpe (from the BBC Symphony Orchestra) a star turn. Poska really ratcheted up the performance as she built towards an explosive finale.

The works in the middle were more exercises in focused intensity, almost frighteningly so in the case of the Shostakovich, on which leader Michael Gurevich shone from the start, and principal cello Christian Elliot later. The composer’s amplification of his Eighth String Quartet for string orchestra is all about specifics of tone on the instruments, and the range of brooding notes they can produce. The balance Poska achieved was ideal.

Tuur’s Flamma also demands prodigious technique from a smaller string ensemble, particularly in the bowing, although there was some lightning fingering to appreciate as well. Commissioned by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the composer’s programme note references the indigenous people’s relationship with fire as a purifying as well as a destructive force, and the emphasis sounded to be on the former. As much as the Shostakovich, it is a work specifically tailored to the forces it demands, constantly switching between ensemble and solo voices, which sometimes echoed one another in minimalist fashion. The overall effect, however, was much more expressive and pictorial.

Keith Bruce

Programme repeated this evening in Blair Atholl and on Saturday (September 17) in Greenock.

Picture of Kristiina Poska by Kaupo Kikkas

EIF: SCO / Emeyanychev

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Max Bruch would surely be dismayed to know how much he is still identified with the first of his three violin concertos (which he sold to a publisher for a pittance), his later Scottish Fantasy its only real rival in the modern repertoire.

Nicola Benedetti plays both, of course, and few regular concertgoers in Scotland will never have heard her perform the concerto during her starry early career. It is a box office favourite, and best known for the Hungarian dance music of the Finale, written for the work’s virtuoso dedicatee Joseph Joachim, who had no small hand in the shaping of the piece.

If you were fortunate enough to be hearing it for the first time at the start of the final week of the 75th Edinburgh International Festival, however, you will have heard another side to the concerto – and one that might have gratified its long-dead composer.

Benedetti, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and its Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev put the focus firmly on the central Adagio movement, treating the faster music around it almost as supporting furniture. It was a glorious account of a beautifully structured part of the work that takes its themes through many changes of key, falling figures in the winds playing against climbing ones in the solo line, and lush interplay that owes much to Mendelssohn and to Schubert.

With little more pause before the Finale than there is between the first and second movements, Emelyanychev and Benedetti made a wonderful arc of the whole piece, the violinist allowing neither her cadenza at the end of the Vorspiel nor her first bar of the Allegro energico to disturb the flow.

Of course, the faster showier music was still there, and few play it with more panache than Benedetti, but it was far from the whole story here.

For an encore, Emelyanychev was at the piano for another familiar favourite recorded early on by Benedetti – the Meditation from Thais by Massenet.

After that, Tchaikovsky’s ballet music for The Sleeping Beauty could almost seem an exotic choice, but Emelyanychev chose to play a sequence of music that eloquently told the tale that everyone knows, even if some of the score is much more familiar than other parts.

Guest principal clarinet Yann Ghiro, first trumpet Shaun Harrold, principal cello Philip Higham and harpist Eleanor Hudson all made telling solo contributions, but it was the precision tempi of the ensemble – playing as if in a pit for a performance – that impressed most. The music at the end of Act I built to a sumptuous peak from which the marvel was being able to continue, although the Entr’acte Symphonique of Act 2 matched it.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Ryan Buchanan

EIF: Martineau / Osborne | SCO

Queens Hall & Usher Hall, Edinburgh

It may say something or nothing about wider changes in society, but it is a paradox that music written by Brahms for the intimacy of the domestic salon now needs the well-funded platform of an international festival to be heard.

For most of us, the EIF’s morning Queen’s Hall concert series is as close as we can be to the atmosphere the composer and Clara Schumann would create for the first performances of his two sets of Liebeslieder-Walzer.

At the piano here were two of Scotland’s finest players, Malcolm Martineau and Steven Osborne, their presence the main attraction for a pretty full house. The four singers were from south of the border and, in the case of soprano Madison Nonoa, New Zealand.

For reasons that were unclear, we heard the later “Neue” Liebeslieder-Walzer first, apart from the closing Goethe setting, saved for an encore. That meant the soprano had the prominent solo voice for the first half of the concert – and a very fine one it is too. Her other engagements this season include Handel’s Acis and Galatea and Maria in West Side Story and that gives a good indication of the tone and precision she brought to Brahms. She also combined beautifully in duet with alto Jess Dandy, whose rich instrument is known and loved by Scots audiences and who was in excellent voice here.

Tenor Magnus Walker was to the fore in the earlier songs (performed second), but we had already heard him to advantage in the fickle Ich kose suss mit der und der. Bass William Thomas had an early solo moment with Ich swarzen Augen, but was more often in a supporting role. It was as an ensemble, for which they had presumably had little rehearsal, that the young singers really impressed, their balance consistent even with some brisk tempi set by their accompanists.

On either side of the interval Osborne and Martineau added two classics for four hands, some of the best known piano music in the canon. Ravel’s fairytale settings, Ma Mere l’Oye, went on to orchestrated life, but are exquisitely colourful and technically precise in their original form. The pianists in the hall are perhaps more likely to keep a lasting memory of Schubert’s Fantasie in F Minor, surely the most famous work for four hands and given an utterly spell-binding reading. The way the work unfolded, with its recurring anguished melody and climactic fugue, was absolutely masterly.

Conductor, pianist and organist Wayne Marshall (pic Charles Best)

The home team of musicians were out in force at the Usher Hall later, with a large edition of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra that included a sprinkling of players from the RSNO as well as well-known freelances in prominent roles.

Continuing a relationship with EIF after last year’s A Grand Night for Singing, Wayne Marshall was on the podium and, initially, at the keyboard for a programme of American music that began with Rhapsody in Blue and ended with the “Symphonic Picture” arrangement of Porgy and Bess by Robert Russell Bennett. I don’t much like the latter, and Marshall’s approach to Rhapsody was idiosyncratic – good and pacey but with long, meandering cadenzas by himself.

A well-filled auditorium loved it though, and especially enjoyed his encore variations on I Got Rhythm on the Usher Hall organ. In between were early works by Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland: Fancy Free and El Salon Mexico set both composers on their paths to popular success in the USA and are important to hear, but I missed the crisp beat and dynamic control a conductor like John Wilson would have brought to the task.

Keith Bruce

Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Emelyanychev

Stirling Castle

Controversial though its appearance was at the turn of the millennium, the restored Great Hall of Stirling Castle cuts a fine figure on the skyline on a sunny day. It is none too shabby on the inside too, and possibly the sort of concert venue Mozart and his contemporaries would have recognised, if a little more austere.

Although we were on familiar repertoire territory for the SCO in this summer tour concert under Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, there was little that was routine or predictable about what a capacity audience heard. Most obviously, that was in the symphony after the interval by Moravian composer Pavel Vranicky, born the same year as Mozart and outliving him only into the first decade of the 19th century.

Hugely prolific and much admired in his time, Vranicky (aka Paul Wranitzky) may well lack a place in the modern canon simply because he is not Mozart or Beethoven or Haydn, although his music is attractive enough. Perhaps, in the way that more obscure Baroque composers have recently been rediscovered, his day will come again.

In Emelyanychev’s hands, his Opus 36 Symphony in D (of which there seems to be just a single recording, by Matthias Bamert and the London Mozart Players, in the catalogue) emerged as much Beethovian as Mozartian, which is perhaps unsurprising from the pen of the man who conducted the Vienna premiere of Ludwig’s Symphony No 1. The young Russian conductor also brought his Baroque sensibility to the interpretation, especially on the third movement Polonese, an ideal encore piece for this orchestra if ever there was one. Hearing the whole work, however, gave a particular delight to the symphony’s extravagant conclusion. In another genre it would be called a “jam ending” – cue smiles all round.

SCO principal clarinet Maximiliano Martin had a generous share of the melody line in the Vranicky and he was the undoubted star of the evening for his immaculate performance of the Second Clarinet Concerto by Carl Maria von Weber, cheered to the historic building’s visible rafters at its end. Ever the showman, the Spaniard was at his theatrical best on a work that displayed his precision articulation and lightning-speed fluency. Weber wrote more demandingly for clarinet than Mozart, but Martin delighted in the bold leaps across the range of the instrument. Nor is the work merely a showpiece for the soloist, with some dramatic writing for the orchestra as well, and a particularly lovely pizzicato strings conclusion to the slow second movement here.

As many would have been hoping and expecting, Martin had an encore up his sleeve: one of the nine Hommages for solo clarinet by Hungarian Bela Kovacs, who died late last year. He chose not the one for Weber, or the de Falla which can still be seen online as part of the Scotsman’s award-winning pandemic-initiated “Sessions” project, but the penultimate of the series, for Zoltan Kodaly.

The programme had begun with Mozart’s Symphony No 38, the “Prague”, with Emelyanychev setting the theatrical tone of the evening from the first bar, in an interpretation full of drama and dynamic colouring. Those colours are often dark at the start of the ground-breaking first of the composer’s big four final symphonies, and the conductor then found something slightly sleazy in the languid chromatics of the second movement. The playful rhythmic games of the Presto finale are also right up his street, with precise, crisp work in the winds and a beautifully integrated string ensemble.

Keith Bruce

Programme repeated tonight in Dunoon’s Queen’s Hall; Emelyanychev and the SCO then match the Mozart with Haydn in Glenrothes and Musselburgh with Principal Cello Philip Higham as soloist.

East Neuk Festival (1)

Although most of its loyal audience comes to the East Neuk Festival to hear world-class performances of classical chamber music in beautiful, intimate acoustics – particularly some of the lovely churches in that corner of Fife – artistic director Svend McEwan-Brown has long since widened the scope of the event to embrace other spaces, outdoor events and contemporary and world music and jazz, and the audience has demonstrated an appetite for those as well.

And while it is a remarkable blessing that some of the first rank performances of the work of Czech composers by members of the Pavel Haas Quartet and pianist Boris Giltburg had previously been heard only by those attending the Prague Spring Festival, ticket-holders were also able to see and hear freshly-minted work make its first-ever appearance.

On Sunday afternoon, the repurposed agricultural shed near St Monans, the Bowhouse, hosted the largest number of musicians it saw over the course of the event when the Scottish Chamber Orchestra played the last of a run of four dates under the baton of its former principal bassoonist, Peter Whelan. For East Neuk they were joined by soprano Anna Dennis, singing two arias from Mozart’s opera Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, with the fullest expression of anguish (in Traurigkeit) and anger (Martern aller Artern). As in the two symphonies on either side of those songs, Haydn’s 82nd “The Bear” and Beethoven’s 8th, the balance in the room and the detail in the performances was superb, the singer and the wind soloists, of which Whelan was once a star member, on top form.

Early on Friday evening, however, the same space had proved just as appropriate for a unique combination of amplified music, juggling and dance under the title Light the Lights, a beautifully presented hour of the music of Bach, Steve Reich and Nico Muhly that was as much a feast for the eyes as the ears.

With the indisposition of guitarist Sean Shibe, the musical responsibility rested on the shoulders of violinist Benjamin Baker, who not only performed that wide compositional repertoire, but was the physical narrative guide through much of it, starting with a Bach-playing amble from the back of the hall that was impressive enough on its own.

Thereafter he was joined by six members of Gandini Juggling who gave visual expression to some of the compositional techniques used by Reich with clubs and balls moving through the air, in and out of synchronicity. At the conclusion of the performance they added a programmed lighting element to the mix for Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, using recorded music.

In between, the jugglers added solo work and a wry nod to Ligeti’s 100 metronomes while Baker played a movement of Reena Esmail’s Darshan and combined forces with dancer James Pett on an interpretation of Muhly’s A Long Line, for violin and electronics. Much of this had a “work in progress” feel to it, but the sense of being admitted to the creative process was the joy of it, especially with the expressive choreography of Pett, who has a hinterland of work with Richard Alston and Wayne McGregor.

Rihab Azar by Neil Hanna Photography

In Anstruther Town Hall on Friday evening, clarinettist Julian Bliss brought a whole suite of box-fresh arrangements by vibraphone player Lewis Wright that extended his jazz excursion into surprisingly contemporary areas. The advance publicity for the Hooray for Hollywood programme had suggested the group was following its acclaimed Gershwin programme with film music from the “Golden Age” of screen musicals. In fact some of the highlights of the set were from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the 2011 movie Midnight in Paris, which adapted Bechet and Django Reinhardt for modern ears. There were classics from the Great American Songbook as well, but Bliss and his cohorts produce a disciplined sound that is a long way from the pub trad band.

As far as East Neuk’s core activity is concerned, this was a year of great riches, with pianists Elisabeth Leonskaya, Pavel Kolesnikov, Samson Tsoy, Boris Giltburg and Christian Zacharias all featured. Leonskaya played Schubert Trios with violinist Liza Ferschtman and young cellist Ivan Karizna in which the beautiful tone of the latter was a discovery, while Kolesnikov and Tsoy explored the same composer’s writing for four hands.

Although no dedication was made, there was surely a nod towards the situation in Ukraine with the Pavel Haas Quartet prefacing its Kilrenny Church concert with Joseph Suk’s nationalist Meditation on the Old Czech Hymn, St Wenceslas. Followed by Korngold’s Quartet No 3 and Janacek’s “Intimate Letters”, this was the Pavel Haas on fertile home territory, the muscular playing of leader Veronika Jaruskova and cellist Peter Jarusek tempered by the newest recruit Luosha Fang, whose viola was so central to the latter.

In Crail Church, the violin and cello couple were joined by Giltburg for two Dvorak trios: the 1876 No 2 is more conventional but less often heard and the 1891 No 4 “Dumky” was given a beautifully-shaped performance, with a particularly memorable steady pulse in the fourth movement. The same venue saw the full quartet joined by Giltburg to play piano quintets of Brahms and Dvorak, as featured on their acclaimed Supraphon recordings.

It is St Ayle Church in Anstruther that often houses other steps away from the mainstream at East Neuk, and it was home this year to the virtuosic oud player Rihab Azar. Combining with bassist Dudley Phillips and percussionist Beth Higham-Edwards, she provided a whistle-stop tour of the contemporary chamber music of Egypt, Iran and her native Syria in a refreshing and relaxing Sunday lunchtime recital that was in some ways a bridge between the core canon of East Neuk and the festival’s more radical exploratory side.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Gandini Juggling by Neil Hanna

SCO 22/23 Season

Two premieres from the pen of Sir James MacMillan and a focus on the work of Brahms by Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev are the headline attractions in the new season unveiled by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

The first of the MacMillans will be his Second Violin Concerto, with soloist Nicola Benedetti, for whom it has been written. The world premiere will take place at the end of September, shortly after the violinist has taken up her new post as director of the Edinburgh International Festival. It will be conducted by Emelyanychev in a concert that also includes John Adams’ The Chairman Dances and Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony.

The other new Macmillan work is a short piece on a football theme that had its world premiere in Antwerp last week as part of the repertoire the SCO took on its European tour. The first UK performances of “Eleven” will be next March in concerts Emelyanychev is directing with himself as soloist on Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 22, K482.

The conductor is at the harpsichord for a programme of “Baroque Inspirations” in November that teams Vivaldi with Grieg, Hindemith and Gorecki. At the end of  February he conducts an all-Brahms concert with the Symphony No. 1, preceded by the Violin Concerto with Aylen Pritchin as soloist, and at the start of March an all-Mendelssohn one with the Italian Symphony and the Incidental Music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The season concludes next May with Brahms’ German Requiem, Sophie Bevan and Hanno Muller-Brachman the soloists and Gregory Batsleer’s SCO Chorus concluding a busy year. The same two singers are joined by tenor Andrew Staples for The Creation by Haydn in October, with Emelyanychev again conducting, and Richard Egarr directs Handel’s Israel in Egypt in December, with Rowan Pierce, Mary Bevan, Helen Charlston, James Gilchrist and Andrew Foster-Williams the soloists.

Other familiar faces conducting and directing concerts include Clemens Schuldt, with a November concert that includes Alban Gerhardt giving the Scottish premiere of the cello concerto written for him by Julian Anderson, Peter Whelan with music of the Scottish Enlightenment, Andrew Manze, Joseph Swensen, Joana Carniero, Francois Leleux and violinist Anthony Marwood.

Next Spring, Bernard Labadie directs an evening of music Handel wrote for Royal occasions, joined by singers Lydia Teuscher, Iestyn Davies and Neal Davies, following a fortnight residency by Finnish violin maestro Pekka Kuusisto who has singer-songwriter Sam Amidon and tenor Allan Clayton, singing Britten’s Les Illuminations, as soloists and composer Nico Muhly featuring in both programmes.

The star names keep coming at the season’s end, with mezzo Karen Cargill singing Berlioz and cellist Laura van der Heijden playing Shostakovich in April and Lawrence Power giving the Scottish Premiere of Cassandra Miller’s Viola Concerto, under the baton of John Storgards, in May.

Full details at sco.org.uk

SCO/ Emelyanychev

Perth Concert Hall

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s marketing department sold this season-closer under the banner “Maxim’s Firebird” and energetic Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev obliged by delivering a singular account of Stravinsky’s score that was only predictable in its unpredictability.

Preceded by the encapsulation of Beethoven’s craft that is the Leonore Overture No 3 and the equally compact and radical First Violin Concerto of Prokofiev, with Alina Ibragimova as soloist, this was a concert of music usually heard by larger orchestras performed by a big edition of the SCO that made explicit use and purpose of its chamber music sensibilities.

In all cases, but especially in the Stravinsky, the result was revelatory. There were details in the music that appeared fresh and newly-minted; from Simon Smith’s celesta and piano and Eleanor Hudson’s harp on the one hand, and from first horn Zoe Tweed, first flute Daniel Pailthorpe and the regulars on the reed instruments on the other.

Just as important, though, was the dynamic control the conductor produced from the musicians all evening. That was evident in his clear insistence on playing more softly at the start of the Beethoven, and reached its apotheosis in the sequence of Rondo, Infernal dance, Lullaby and Hymn at the culmination of the Stravinsky. There have been louder Firebirds, but few with such contrasts in sound and mood, turning on a sixpence with breath-catching impact, and with a momentum that was truly magnificent.

Towards the end of Overture, following a perfectly positioned off-stage trumpet, there was a brief sense that the winds were overloud, even as the strings produced an impressive pianissimo, but in the Firebird Suite (the version Stravinsky made in 1945) the balance was always fascinating. It should be remembered that this is the hall in which Emelyanychev and the SCO worked on filmed music during lockdown, so they know the acoustic well.

That applied to the concerto as well, with Ibragimova fully on board with the project and projecting her own virtuosity at often daringly low volume. The opening Andantino began very quietly indeed and even the central, speedy Scherzo: Vivacissimo was working to hairline tolerances in terms of balance between soloist and ensemble. The concerto may not have had the narrative of the other works on the programme, but it lacked nothing in drama. The lyricism that reappears in the final movement was combined with a powerful edge, honed like tempered steel.

As former chief conductor Robin Ticciati steered the SCO into spheres of music it had previously not visited, as well as recalibrating more familiar repertoire, so too, in his own inimitable style, has Maxim Emelyanychev. He may, however, be bringing a more radical, and – crucially – more intimate approach to that aspect of his job.

Keith Bruce

Concert repeated at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh and City Halls, Glasgow tonight and tomorrow.
Picture: Alina Ibragimova

SCO / Manze

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

For his first concert with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra since before the pandemic, conductor Andrew Manze presided over a magnificent programme that will surely be one of the most thoughtful and inventive to grace the 150th anniversary year of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Only one of the works – Britten’s Lachrymae – was familiar to me, and the highlight of a sensational concert was a world premiere, The Years by the SCO’s Associate Composer Anna Clyne, commissioned with funds from the RVW Trust.

Setting verses by Stephanie Fleischmann, this response to the pandemic was a real challenge for the 45 voices of the SCO Chorus, and music few other amateur choirs would have attempted. Clyne employed the voices incrementally, sometimes using very few of them. Here was a fabulous evocation of the solace we all found in nature during lockdown walks, with trilling winds and bugle-like calls on the trumpets. The integration of the chorus with the instrumentalists was masterly, with some exceptional sonic results.

Part of that rich mix of sound was an evocation of the sea, and the new work was preceded by the Sea Sketches for strings by Grace Williams, a pupil of Vaughan Williams and contemporary of Britten, and another female composer whose work is ripe for rediscovery. Introducing it, Manze must have been keenly aware that the violinists behind him included only one man, seconds leader Gordon Bragg.

He, leader Doriane Gable and first viola Jessica Beeston all had brief solos in the hugely effective third section Channel Sirens, which is followed by the brisk, picturesque Breakers. This is 20th century “sea music” as worthy of a regular place in the repertoire as the famous pieces by Britten, Debussy and Ravel.

The works that followed the interval were also sequenced superbly. Manze supplied his own orchestral arrangement of John Dowland’s If My Complaints Could Passions Move as a precursor to the Britten, which is based on the Renaissance song and was written for Scots viola virtuoso William Primrose. The soloist here was young Timothy Ridout, who has recorded it with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra on a disc that also includes music by Vaughan Williams.

The work by Vaughan Williams that brought this clever programme to a close was his Flos Campi, which features both solo viola and the chorus. It is structured on texts from the Song of Solomon, but the vocal line is wordless, and although it might have been a more straightforward sing for the choir, it is still far from standard repertoire. Given the composer’s interest in traditional music, it is little surprise that Ridout was required to bring some folk fiddle feeling to his contribution.

With the sopranos on especially impressive, precise form, the chorus that brought their best game to the very scenic scoring of the piece, in what was another pinnacle of a triumphant evening, repeated at Glasgow City Halls tonight.

Keith Bruce

Timothy Ridout picture by Jan Hordijk

SCO / Carneiro

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro has become a familiar and popular figure on Scotland’s stages, and her relaxed and communicative style was an essential ingredient of the success of this well-attended concert. It is likely, however, that many in the audience were attracted by the accessible programme of music by Mozart, Chopin and Beethoven and the presence of piano soloist Benjamin Grosvenor, just a day after the RSNO had announced a season that includes the box office certainty of a gig featuring him with Nicola Benedetti and Sheku Kanneh-Mason.

He was playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 (actually Chopin’s first), of which he made a chart-topping recording with the RSNO and Elim Chan, and I’d wager that Carneiro shares Chan’s opinion that the view that the young Chopin was no orchestrator is exaggerated. In a performance that found Beethovian echoes in the opening of the first movement before Grosvenor had played a note, she was very aware that the work is all about the soloist, but made sure that the rest of the players had a share of the action. There may be long stretches, particularly in the Larghetto slow movement, when many of them are less productively employed, but the vivacity of the dance music in the finale was as much down to them as the piano.

Grosvenor’s playing was exemplary. The correct balance between rigour and passion seems to come naturally to him for this music, and it is not overstating the case to place him as the foremost interpreter of both Chopin concertos of our times.

On either side we heard composers who informed the Chopin’s style, with Mozart’s Symphony No 32 (really more of an overture, as Carneiro said) and Beethoven’s Sixth, the Pastoral.

With four horns and nearly 30 string players, the Mozart was a big opening statement, shaped by the conductor to wake up the ears. The clarity of her beat and signals of emphasis and dynamics are delightfully readable from an audience point of view, so she is a great asset in selling the music to those with less experience of orchestral concerts, as was perhaps the case here.

Not that the Pastoral needs much help. As probably the most popular of Beethoven’s symphonies, it resists attempts to intellectualise it, and what was clear here was how much it shares with the contemporaneous Fifth in the composer’s endlessly inventive re-working of his basic material – the difference being that Sixth’s is easier to like, prettier and more like Mozart.

Carneiro found a revelatory approach to the Andante second movement “Scene by the brook” with a balance that favoured the undercurrent of the low strings, the violins rippling more quietly on top, and the round-toned bassoon of Cerys Ambrose-Evans a crucial ingredient later. The rural partying that followed was full of fun, ended by a muscular, but not overpowering, storm.

Keith Bruce

Sponsored by Pulsant

SCO On The Road

As the RSNO returns from touring in Europe, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra has announced a huge list of concerts on tour across Scotland this summer.

The SCO’s version of “returning to normal” after the restrictions of the pandemic is to take every facet of its work out on the road, with everything from full-scale performances by the orchestra and by the SCO Chorus, to the projects for pre-schoolers to secondary students and with amateur adults, as well as visiting more remote venues with string and wind ensembles.

The programme of work runs from June to September and visits venues from the Shetland Isles to the Borders, with showcases for soloists from within the current line-up and return visits by old friends.

Inverness and Shetland are the locations for the SCO’s long-established and admired education and outreach work on the tour, with projects at Eden Court and in Elgin and in Lerwick and Brae in June. The professionals clearly expect amateur musicians to have been honing their chops during lockdown as its “Scrapers and Tooters” initiative offering coaching to rusty instrumentalists has adopted the more expectant “Come and Play” title.

Around the same time the SCO Chorus makes its venture into touring with concerts in Stirling Castle and St Andrews Holy Trinity Church on June 11 and 12. Chorus Director Gregory Batsleer directs a programme that ranges from Byrd to Britten and includes a new work from Associate Composer Anna Clyne.

The summer schedule begins in Inverness and Drumnadrochit on June 9 and 10 when an 11-piece chamber group plays a new version of Beethoven’s First Symphony by principal flute Andre Cebrian, alongside works by Ligeti and Lutoslawski.

The following week, the orchestra divides into its more familiar touring configurations of string ensemble, directed by leader Stephanie Gonley, and wind soloists. The former visits Blairgowrie, Callander and Helensburgh with a programme including Elgar, Schubert and Bartok, while the winds go to Ballachulish, Mull, Seil and Tillicoultry with Mozart, Telemann and Hummel.

Former principal bassoon Peter Whelan conducts the full orchestra in concerts, with Cebrian as soloist, in Castle Douglas, Langholm and Selkirk as June ends and July begins, before the SCO makes its annual visit to the East Neuk Festival with a programme that includes soprano Anna Dennis singing Mozart.

Principal conductor Maxim Emelyanychev joins the touring party later in July with Maximiliano Martin playing Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No 2 in Stirling and Dunoon and Philip Higham Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C in Glenrothes and Musselburgh.

At the start of September, after the SCO’s involvement in the Edinburgh Festival, Catherine Larsen-Maguire picks up the baton and Higham is joined by current first bassoon Cerys Ambrose-Evans as soloists in music by Dvorak and Mozart. That programme can be heard in Kingussie, Findhorn, Fraserburgh and Arbroath.

Ten days later the epic trek to a’ the airts winds up in Blair Castle, Linlithgow and Greenock with Estonian conductor Kristiina Poska, and the music of Shostakovich and Beethoven.

Full details are available at sco.org.uk

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