Tag Archives: Scottish Chamber Orchestra

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

SCO / Schuldt

City Halls, Glasgow

Given all that has happened – or failed to happen – in recent years, it says a lot for the enthusiasm of the SCO for German conductor Clemens Schuldt that this was, by my reckoning, his fourth return visit in the past five years. By way of comparison, the soloist for this concert, Colin Currie, revealed that it was his first concert in the city since he moved back to Scotland and bought a home in Glasgow in November 2019.

Thus we have waited a long time to hear the 2018 Percussion Concerto written for him by Edinburgh-raised Helen Grime. It was a touching gesture that Currie dedicated the performance to two composers of an earlier generation – Lyell Cresswell and John McLeod – who died recently and had been an inspiration to both of them.

The work turns out to be a fascinating addition to the expanding catalogue of concertos the virtuoso percussionist has caused to be written. Rather than compose an explosive demonstration for the soloist with an accompaniment and underscore from the chamber orchestra, Grime has given Currie the lead with all the musical material – and there’s a lot of it – and invented a vast range of responses to it from the full palette of orchestral sounds at her disposal.

Currie’s “follow me” start on tuned percussion is immediately answered by slap bass and trumpet blasts and as the piece develops the percussive sounds of timpani, harp and celeste are crucial supports, as are the vibrant double bassoon, cor anglais and E flat clarinet colours in the winds.

The soloist is rarely required to hit the untuned percussion very hard, but some of the writing is very fast indeed. The third of three unseparated movements has a long marimba solo before it ends on a shimmer of glockenspiel, string harmonics and breath effects on the horns.

Grime’s radical modernity was framed by works of Beethoven, Haydn and Anton Eberl, the latter two overtures to operas about islands and women. While Eberl’s Overture to The Queen of the Black Islands made you feel you had seen the opera in its full-on drama, Haydn’s for The Uninhabited Island rather made one yearn to see a full staging of the shipwreck story.

Completing the programme was Beethoven’s Symphony No 4, a work that seems to have featured regularly in Scottish concert schedules of late. Schuldt’s version came in very clearly delineated chapters, with a very bouncy second movement Adagio and huge enthusiasm for the rhythmic games of the Scherzo. Among the fine wind solos, first bassoon Cerys Ambrose-Evans stood out.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow

With the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union giving its annual performance of the work in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall on Sunday, re-scheduled from the early days of the New Year because of pandemic restrictions then, there has been ample opportunity for Central-belt Scots to hear Handel’s oratorio masterpiece, Messiah, in the run-up to Easter.

Unarguably, the work sits better at that point in the Christian calendar in terms of its libretto – the Nativity actually gets pretty short shrift after the “Pastoral Symphony” in the middle of Part 1 – but Messiah is much less a narrative of the life of Christ than an expression of some of the knottier philosophical issues presented by the faith, as outlined in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament. It is not to diminish the achievement of Charles Jennens, who supplied the composer with the clever text, to note that Handel himself was as well-versed in these arguments and highly Biblically literate. That is why he was able to set the words so successfully.

Led by Stephanie Gonley, who contributed some fine solo playing of her own, this edition of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra included some old friends, some early music specialists, and the keyboard talents of both the Edinburgh Choral’s director Michael Bawtree and the newly-announced director of the RSNO Chorus Stephen Doughty, alongside the harpsichord of SCO Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev.

If the bouncy excitability of Emelyanychev seemed a little over-exuberant in the instrumental opening bars, there were some inspired touches in the conductor’s interpretation later on, notably the bagpipe-like drone with which he began the aforementioned “Pifa”, which here became more a stately dance. His ornamentation at the keyboard was a sparkling foil to the extra grace-notes the soloists added to their recitatives and arias.

They were a stellar quartet too. Tenor Hugo Hymas brought something of the personality of Bach’s Evangelist to his role, while Matthew Brook was as terrifically dramatic as only he can be on some of the most theatrical music of the work – and, of course, Why Do The Nations So Furiously Rage Together? seemed especially pertinent.

But there was magnificent animation in the performance of counter-tenor Xavier Sabata as well, with a memorably huge “Shame” in the middle of He Was Despised, and Anna Dennis revelled in some of Emelyanychev’s brisk tempos. The soprano was in spectacular voice, very possibly the best I have heard her, with Part 1’s Rejoice Greatly as precise as it was speedy and Part 3’s I Know That My Redeemer Liveth devastating.

Chorus director Gregory Batsleer has the SCO singers – at 50 voices a large chamber choir as much as a chorus – drilled to perfection. There were some startling moments from them throughout the performance, including a very gentle start to All We Like Sheep, a wonderfully crisp “Let us break” from the nine tenors after Brook’s furious “Nations”, and the pinpoint dynamics and pitch of the unaccompanied Since by man came death in the final section.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Anna Dennis

Edinburgh International Festival 2022

It may be couched in terms of sustainability, and the avoidance of needless consumption of resources in the pursuit of artistic excellence from around the world, but the programme for the 75th Edinburgh International Festival also looks back to the shape of the event in the years after the Second World War with its residencies by companies and orchestras bringing more than one programme of work.

That the founding director of the Festival, Rudolph Bing, was a refugee from conflict is also marked in the programme – a thematic strand that has proved more appropriate than the EIF team could have foreseen as they shaped the anniversary event.

The orchestras “in residence” are the Philadelphia, with conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin, and the Philharmonia, under the baton of new Principal Conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali and Sir Donald Runnicles, making his debut with them. The Czech Philharmonic also has two Usher Hall concerts with Semyon Bychkov, as do Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic, one of them a concert performance of Strauss’s Salome with soprano Malin Bystrom.

The BBC SSO gives the Opening Concert, with Runnicles on the podium and the Festival Chorus singing Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, and the RSNO gives the closing one, Sir Andrew Davies conducting the Chorus in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. The RSNO also appears under the baton of Elim Chan to play Bartok and Tan Dun and with Thomas Sondergard to perform Mahler 3 with the RSNO Junior Chorus and the Festival Chorus.

The Chorus’s busy August also includes Janacek Glagolitic Mass with the Czech Phil and Beethoven 9 with the Philadelphia, while the National Youth Choir of Scotland sings in the opening and closing Usher Hall concerts as well as at the 2022 Festival’s free opening event at Murrayfield Stadium, which is expected to attract an audience of up to 20,000.

The Philadelphia’s residency also includes a free 75th anniversary concert at the end of the Festival, details of which have yet to be announced, as well as a further Usher Hall concert including Szymanowski and Florence Price, and Mozart chamber music at the Queen’s Hall, featuring Nezet-Seguin at the piano.

Douglas Boyd conducts the Philharmonia in the Festival’s only fully-staged opera, a Garsington production of Dvorak’s Rusalka by Jack Furness with Natalya Romaniw in the title role, and Runnicles conducts a concert performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio. In a further nod towards the Festival’s origins, its chamber music programme at the Queen’s Hall includes a String Trio by Hans Gals, another refugee who made his home in the Scottish capital and was a founding figure of the event.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra has two concerts, one with Nicola Benedetti, the EIF’s recently-announced artistic director designate, performing Bruch, and playing Gershwin, Bernstein and Copland under the direction of pianist Wayne Marshall, the musical director of last year’s A Grand Night for Singing.

The Usher Hall programme is completed by appearances from Les Siecles and Francois-Xavier Roth, featuring music from 1913 by Lili Boulanger and Igor Stravinsky, Hesperion XXI and Jordi Savall with music from the 14th century, the LSO, Sir Simon Rattle and a Daniel Kidane premiere, Zubin Mehta conducting the Australian World Orchestra, Bernard Labadie directing Handel’s Saul with Iestyn Davies and The English Consort, and the Festival debut of the Helsinki Philharmonic, conducted by Susanna Malkki.

The Festival’s return to the Queen’s Hall after the pandemic includes Brett Dean playing with the Hebrides Ensemble, pianist Malcolm Martineau with Florian Boesch for Winterreise and with Steven Osborne and a quartet of voices, soprano Golda Schultz, mezzos Magdalena Kozena and  Anne Sofie von Otter, Richard Egarr, Dunedin Consort, Ronald Brautigam and the Takacs and Pavel Haas Quartets.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs from August 5 – 28. General booking opens on April 8.

eif.co.uk

Picture: Natalya Romaniw by Antonio Olmos

SCO / Ticciati

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

It requires a sharp musical intelligence to take on the three-concert residency of such a distinctive musician as Pekka Kuusisto, stay faithful to the spirit of the project, but also add ingredients of one’s own. Not only has violinist Hugo Ticciati achieved that balance this month, he has met the challenge of responding to the plight of the people of Ukraine from the concert platform with compassion and imagination in his additions to the programmes.

When the concert already contains Barber’s Adagio for Strings, however, that last task is unnecessary. Deployed in many previous sombre contexts and a trope of screen soundtrack heart-string pulling, the achievement of the SCO, directed by Ticciati, was to make it work once again without seeming mawkish. That was entirely down to the quality of the ensemble playing. When, for example, the four cellos assumed the top line, it was the sound of a single instrument that we heard.

Ticciati’s substitution in this programme was the Third Symphony of Philip Glass, a work from 1995 that both fulfils and contradicts its categorising title. Composed for strings alone, and just 19 players here, unlike many a classical symphony its outer movements are short, while the second and third are more extended. Eastern influence permeates the work, particularly in the raga-like openings of the second and fourth sections, but the latter quickly sounds as if it would be at home soundtracking a cinema Western.

It is the third movement that sounds most characteristic of the composer, a limited “sample” of musical material repeated with small variations and Ticciati’s solo violin entering to soar above – music that is both “minimalist” and lyrical. Crucially though, the players brought an organic humanity to the performance of the work from its very first bars, so that it never sounded mechanical but was movingly meditative – the word violist Brian Shiele had used in his introductory remarks.

For the other two works, Ticciati was on a conductor’s podium for the first time in this short series. Contemporaneous with the Barber, Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks – played here by ten strings and five winds – and Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite both display rhythmic originality that pre-figure the Glass. That made it especially interesting to hear the Stravinsky straight after the Symphony, with Ticciati as eloquent an indicator of mood as of beat.

With the hall’s small platform filled with musicians for the only occasion of the night, the opening of the Copland struck a hopeful note after the Barber, and the work’s fantastic orchestration has never sounded clearer in every detail than it did here.

The concert is repeated at Glasgow City Halls this evening.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Ticciati / Polwart

City Halls, Glasgow

Recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on April 1, this collaboration between the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and folk singer/songwriter Karine Polwart has been long in gestation and had a tricky last few weeks before eventually reaching concertgoers. But not only is it well worth the attention of both classical and traditional music-lovers when they have the opportunity to listen in, it must surely be the basis for an album, or the substantial part of one.

The other crucial contributor to its composition is Pippa Murphy, Polwart’s regular collaborator, particularly on the award-winning Edinburgh Festival show Wind Resistance. That was categorised as theatre, but this four-movement work, Seek the Light, is close kin to it, not least because it begins with a song, You Know Where You Are, that also find inspiration in the migratory birds Polwart sees near her Midlothian home.

There are other themes in common, particularly in the third movement’s mix of spoken and sung narrative in a feminist revision of Greek myth A Love Too Loud, closely linked to the navigational use of constellations referenced in that opening song.

In between sits the most “trad” section, The Night Mare, musically redolent of the early Scots composition canon explored by Concerto Caledonia, and the suite ends with a beguiling lullaby, Sleep Now, its chorus melody distinctly East European in flavour and sung by the entire orchestra, as well as – encouraged by Polwart – bolder members of the audience.

Whether that audience was drawn from the fanbase of the chamber orchestra or its guest vocalist was the subject of a show of hands when cellist Su-a Lee introduced the concert. My guess is that there is a good deal of crossover, with many, like myself, having recordings by both at home. And this was, in the best sense, the acceptable face of “cross-over”.

There are many routes the SCO might have chosen to present this new commission. The imaginative one chosen, in consultation with Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, was to intersperse the sections of Seek the Light with contemporary classical pieces from Scandinavia and the Baltic states, kicking the whole sequence off with the Adagio from Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. It was a tactic that was an exceptional success, keeping audience ears as sharply tuned as those of the performers.

There were many notable individual ones amongst the orchestra – and Polwart winningly selected a few of her favourites in her own remarks after the interval – but chief among them was Hugo Ticciati, who had stepped into the role mapped out by the absent Kuusisto. His largest contribution was as soloist in violin concerto Distant Light by Peteris Vasks, a huge work in itself that alternates between solo and ensemble, melody and cacophony, fast and slow, soft and loud and was played second from last here.

He was also responsible for inserting into the programme further eloquent recognition by the orchestra of the plight of the people of Ukraine, first clarinet Maximiliano Martin playing the country’s anthem as a brief solo after Polwart’s first song.

The SCO strings showed their superb individual technical range and ensemble coherence in the other two works in the programme. Swede Andrea Tarrodi’s fascinating Birds of Paradise begins in minimalist mode before becoming much more playful in tempo and featuring extraordinary imitation of bird calls, which were then echoed in the opening of Estonian Erkki-Sven Tuur’s Insula Deserta, a hugely evocative score using the sparest number of musicians.

If the music in the programme created imaginative landscapes, stories and ecologies beyond the auditorium, its final choral moments also brought the absent Kuusisto into the hall: I cannot be the only audience member reminded of his memorable encore at the BBC Proms in 2016 that had the Albert Hall joining him in a Finnish folk-song.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Karine Polwart by Suzanne Heffron

SCO / Ticciati

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

It is not to diminish the role of violinist Hugo Ticciati, brother of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s former principal conductor Robin, who stepped in to the breach when a tragic combination of bereavement and family illness prevented Pekka Kuusisto from fulfilling his residency, to say that Sunday afternoon’s first concert of the three would have been a very different event with the Finn in charge.

Entitled New York Counterpoint after the seminal Steve Reich work from 1985 that closed the concert, the focus on the sound of the US, never mind its Eastern seaboard, was diminished, although there was still plenty of music from there.

Few were likely to complain about the oldest addition in the new programme. Dating from 1931, the violin duos by Bela Bartok are playful delights and were charmingly performed by Ticciati and the Italian violinist leading the orchestra in the previous week’s concerts, Cecilia Ziano. Following those with Berio’s contemplative Aldo duet was Ticciati’s ingenious way of incorporating a moment of silence to think of the war in Ukraine.

By contrast, the violinist’s duo with SCO first cello Philip Higham was full of ferocious duelling, as well as some singing and chord strumming. Finnish composer Sauli Zinovjev’s Double Trouble followed Swede Albert Schnelzer’s violin solo Solitude and completed a quartet of works by musicians with connections to the world of pop and rock.

The other two were Bryce Dessner of The National, and Nico Muhly, whose collaborators include Bjork and Anohni. Dessner’s string quartet Aheym was composed for the Kronos, and its full-on opening and frantic folk-hued finish bracket some very Glass-influenced minimalism. In the palindromic pattern of the programme, it was mirrored by the penultimate work, Ziano again leading a quartet of SCO front-deskers in Entr’acte by Caroline Shaw, already a modern classic by one of the most celebrated contemporary composers, and a writer whose music has broad appeal.

Much of that description of course also applies to Steve Reich. In some performances of his New York Counterpoint it can be hard to identify the live lead line from the other eleven clarinet and bass clarinet parts on tape. Using an existing multi-track by English National Opera’s first clarinet Barnaby Robson, SCO principal Maximiliano Martin soared majestically over the backing in an interpretation that was marvellously climactic and cheered to the rafters.

Martin’s mastery of his instrument, on repertoire a long way from his new Delphian album of French sonatas with Scott Mitchell, also launched the afternoon, playing Nico Muhly’s It Goes Without Saying. Obviously owing a substantial debt to the Reich of two decades earlier, Muhly’s backing track involves an array of other intriguing percussive sounds, as well as clarinets, and is another work of ample charm.

If Kuusisto’s personality would have made for a different afternoon, the shared focus on familiar SCO players and their guests was a different sort of success. With DJs from eh-fm before the live music and during the interval, it owed much to the trail blazed by SCO spin-off ensemble Mr McFall’s Chamber. When considered alongside Matthew Whiteside’s The Night With . . . events, it is clear that Robert McFall’s group did much to pave the way for colleagues.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Leleux

City Halls, Glasgow

At some point between my childhood and my teens the weirder offerings on television for young people stopped being from Eastern Europe and became programmes from Japan. Among those was Monkey, a sometimes impenetrable adaptation of a 16th century Chinese book, Journey to the West. French composer Laurent Petitgirard’s new concerto for his countryman Francois Leleux, entitled SOUEN WOU K’ONG, takes its inspiration from the same tale, with the oboe soloist cast as the Monkey King.

In the global journey that was the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s programme this week, however, our first, unscheduled, stop was in Eastern Europe with the addition of a work that may soon become very familiar. Mykola Lysenko’s Prayer for Ukraine dates from 1885 and first became popular during the country’s War of Independence after 1917. It has been part of the national liturgy ever since and has been sung often there, and across the globe, recently. The anthemic hymn prefaced the SCO’s concert after the orchestra’s Russian Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev had issued a statement making explicit his opposition to the war in Ukraine.

The orchestration, wherever the SCO sourced it, made use of the large ensemble required for the French music with which Leleux had intended to open the concert. Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite No 1 is the concert platform success of the music for a less celebrated play, and notable for being the first orchestral score to use one of those new-fangled saxophone things in 1872, played here by young Scottish virtuoso Lewis Banks.

Before we reached his eloquent solo, the performance had already been memorable for the driving, staccato strings of the opening bars in the conductor’s interpretation. This may be a piece that asks for a substantial orchestra, but it was as notable for the delicacy of much of the playing, and the drama in the contrast between the two.

Petitgirard’s new concerto calls for smaller forces in the brass and horns, but there was no diminishing the fullness of the sound, or the dramatic content of the work. With contrabassoon and bass clarinet at one end of the spectrum and delicate finger cymbals among the vast array of percussion deployed at the other, Leleux put in a big double-shift directing the musicians and as soloist. His oboe was most often in dialogue with the strings in a fascinating and vibrant narrative, and he was the Pied Piper drawing us all through the story to the plateau of contentment it reaches at the end.

After all that, it would have been asking a lot to expect the conductor to produce an exceptional account of Beethoven’s Second Symphony, and his historically-informed performance approach to the first two movements did struggle to follow such full-fat fare. With the Scherzo, however, there was a return of his fascinatingly idiosyncratic approach to some familiar phrasing, setting the tone for a finale that sounded more like a trial run for the conclusion of the Fifth than is usually revealed.

It was a powerful conclusion to an excellent programme that deserved a larger audience.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow

Sold, on the undeniable attraction of its star soloist, as “A French Adventure with Steven Isserlis”, that title really told only half the story of this concert.

After the interval we were once again in the repertoire territory the Scottish Chamber Orchestra explored so successfully in its online films concerts during lockdown, the intimacy of which Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev seems to relish projecting in live performance.

Just ten principals are required for Jean Francaix’s Dixtour, but these are not just any front-desk players, they are SCO front-desk players, not excepting guest leader Sophie Wedell who was outstanding all evening. Symphonic in structure, the work is one of those large chamber pieces that is vital, in all senses, and irresistibly vivacious. At its end principal flute Andre Cebrian, who also put in a full and colourful shift, swapped to the piccolo for the last bars, seeming to continue a conversation that had been started by Debussy at the concert’s opening.

No matter how often you may have heard the beginning of Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, Cebrian’s flawless playing made you bring fresh ears to the job. So too did Emelyanychev’s dynamic control of the strings and winds, pointing up all the smallest details as well as the swells of sound.

It was a skill he demonstrated again in the far-from-French Divertimento for String Orchestra by Bela Bartok that concluded the evening. The SCO plays more propulsively for Emelyanychev that anyone else and he was hugely alive to the work’s folk rhythms while Wedell added a beautifully-shaped solo to the last movement.

There must also be few regular concert goers who have never heard Isserlis play the Cello Concert No 1 by Saint-Saens, a work he has proselytised for persistently. Yet this too sounded burnished and sparkling with the chamber orchestra. With Cebrian taking the lead in the winds’ work with the soloist, there was a real partnership in the performance, with a startling neo-baroque style in the string playing. Isserlis never seemed to be holding back at all, and yet the balance with the smaller forces was just about perfect.

He assuredly thought so too, as the generous encore he chose to play featured the whole orchestra in Faure’s Elegie.

Keith Bruce

A Well-Tempered Pianist

Benjamin Grosvenor talks to KEITH BRUCE about playing Liszt with the SCO

Still six months shy of his 30th birthday, Benjamin Grosvenor has had a very busy career since he was runner-up to Nicola Benedetti in the 2004 BBC Young Musician competition at the age of 11. As he recalls now, with obvious fondness, “the final rounds were held in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and my first real tour was with the Scottish Ensemble, so these cities hold a lot of great memories for me.”

Having formed a rewarding partnership with the RSNO and its principal guest conductor Elim Chan, recording an award-winning album of Chopin’s Concertos in that orchestra’s home studio in Glasgow, the pianist is this year working with Edinburgh’s Scottish Chamber Orchestra as a resident artist.

At the end of April he will play Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 with the SCO under Joana Carniero, but this week his focus is on the composer who was the subject of his most recent Decca recording, Franz Liszt, and Liszt’s First Piano Concerto, with the SCO’s Principal Conductor, Maxim Emelyanychev.

“Liszt wrote so much music, and there are a lot of wonderful works that don’t get so much attention,” says Grosvenor. “One example would be the second version of the Berceuse that I recorded for my recent Liszt disc, which is such an atmospheric piece.

“In the context of other romantic piano concertos, the Piano Concerto No 1 strikes one as unusual and innovative in form, with this idea – as in the B minor Sonata – of a one movement (though divided into four) work united in its content by certain themes that transform throughout.

“Liszt took things very seriously when it came to these large-form pieces, and he spent 23 years polishing this one off. As one would expect, there is piano writing of great virtuosity, but also some incredibly beautiful lyrical episodes. The climbing melody in the piano solo at the beginning of the Adagio would be worthy of Bellini for sure!

“Interestingly, what was seen as startlingly modern at the time was Liszt’s use of the triangle in this piece – in the scherzo it is there in the forefront – in a way which was (though this seems really odd to us now!) seen as ‘distasteful’, as was the idea of elevating any percussion other than the timpani. It still comes across as a most unusual bit of orchestration in a piano concerto, but a wonderful effect in the context of this impish scherzo.”

There speaks a musician who has ears for much more than the virtuoso piano part, and Grosvenor has, like Benedetti, performed with a chamber orchestra without a conductor. He’s very happy to have Emelyanychev on-board for these concerts however.

“I have enormous admiration for Maxim both as a keyboard player and a conductor, and I thought their Prom last year with Mozart symphonies was thrilling. Even with a conductor involved, working with a chamber orchestra is a much more intimate experience and you can feel a lot more connection with the orchestra than in other settings. It will be my first time with Liszt in this context so I am looking forward to that.

“I have worked as a director before, but without really physically conducting as that is not really a skill I have acquired yet with any finesse.

“In the right repertoire and with a good leader it is not entirely necessary, but one’s role is obviously still quite different, as there is a responsibility to comment on and to mold some of the orchestral playing. I think Liszt could be challenging in that context but perhaps not impossible, but I would probably have to develop a slightly more advanced ability to conduct!”

You get the impression that it is a skill that is not an immediate priority for the pianist. Although he appeared to be working fairly consistently through the recent health emergency, as a solo recitalist and in his established chamber music partnerships as well as with orchestras, Grosvenor says he was profoundly affected by the hiatus.

“Initially I took some time away from the piano, which I hadn’t done for many years. I returned to it again and explored some new repertoire, and found the break to be refreshing, though it was then difficult to work in a focussed way with no concerts to prepare for.

“The pandemic hasn’t necessarily changed my focus now that that things have somewhat normalised, but certainly over the last years it has posed many challenges. I must admit I never really got used to streaming without an audience, and certainly when it came to a piano recital (without any other musicians involved) it was a very strange experience. I am very glad to see audiences back again.

“Coming out of the first lockdown the thing I really wanted to do most of all was play chamber music, and I actually put on some chamber music concerts where I currently live in southeast London. We were some of the first concerts to take place with audiences, and it was a very fulfilling experience and also hugely interesting to see things from the promoter’s side.

“And the situation is still throwing me curved balls. Recently in Pittsburgh a positive case in the orchestra on the day of the first concert meant we had to go from Rachmaninov Second Concerto to Brahms Piano Quintet with just seven hours’ notice!”

Grosvenor may have been a precociously young signing to a major label, Decca, but being a pragmatic musician with the ability to deal with such situations, rather than a glamorous star, seems to be his chosen path.

“I have always had very varied tastes in repertoire, with no real inclination to specialise, and I still feel there is so much to explore. It can be tricky therefore to find a balance between exploring the old and the new, and while I have a great interest in contemporary music I must admit I haven’t played a great deal. As to early music, of course I play Bach, but going even earlier, there is a lot of wonderful 17th century keyboard music that I’d like to explore at some point.”

So, does he envy Liszt the superstar status he enjoyed in his lifetime?

“Not really!”

Benjamin Grosvenor plays Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on Thursday February 3, Glasgow’s City Halls on Friday February 4 and Aberdeen Music Hall on Saturday February 5.

SCO / Benedetti

Perth Concert Hall

There are some programmes that can appear a somewhat surprising fit, and here was one of those. A pre-Vienna Mozart, exploring the possibilities of the violin concerto with the experience of his early catalogue of grander works, sitting comfortably amongst music from the Austrian city in a state of flux over a century later by Johann Strauss II and Arnold Schoenberg – the latter as revised in the mid-20th century.

The coherence of all this was entirely a virtue of the ensemble performance. Violinist Nicola Benedetti may be the name that sells the tickets – alongside that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – but there was nothing of the star vehicle about this concert. Even for the Mozart, when she stood in front of the band, Benedetti was always immersed in the ensemble sound, right down to the cadenzas in each movement, which she was at pains to integrate into the flow of the music.

Benedetti now plays in a style much closer to that of Baroque specialists than earlier in her career, although still with a little more theatre than some of the historically-informed performance brigade. Her first movement cadenza was a case in point – more about the music, less the violin-playing.

In the hands of the players of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, of course, the work could hardly be safer, and the balance of the strings and the four winds was exemplary.

The concerto was surrounded by examples of exquisite musical story-telling, and Benedetti was even more the ensemble player in Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht, leading the strings from the front-desk alongside the concert’s co-director Benjamin Marquise Gilmore. This orchestrated chamber work was sumptuous stuff, beautifully performed in an acoustic that suited it perfectly. With SCO first cello Philip Higham and other front-desk players joining Benedetti in the soloing duties, and a beautiful sectional balance throughout its half-hour, it was a superb account of a sensational work.

Gilmore took charge of the Strauss, which gave the concert the liveliest of starts as well as a party finish. Here were opportunities for the SCO’s wind soloists to grab a slice of the action, with flautist Andre Cebrian stealing the honours in the closing Tales from the Vienna Woods. His solo is only a few bars before the tune everyone knows eventually bursts forth and with brass and percussion bolstering the sound, the melody is given every opportunity to worm its way into the brain.

There are also plenty of hooks in Strauss’s Overture to The Gypsy Baron, which opened the concert. While it is concerned with a very specific, if fantastical, story, the musical tale the whole concert told was no less compelling.

Keith Bruce

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