Tag Archives: Scottish Chamber Orchestra

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

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow

Perhaps more than any other outfit, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra has contrived to combine elements of the season that fell victim to the pandemic with the work it did online during the hiatus in its programming since audiences were again permitted into concert halls.

This journey back in time from John Adams via Mozart to Bach’s Brandenburg No 5 was a case in point, as well as being another illustration of the sparkling relationship that now exists between the SCO and its principal conductor Maxim Emelyanychev.

The young Russian seemed especially hyper on Friday night, even as he introduced and then absented himself from the stage for Mozart’s Gran Partita. That was perhaps not entirely to the benefit of Adams’s Shaker Loops. The composer’s breakthrough work was much better in its more delicate moments than in the opening Shaking and Trembling, which was less precision-tooled and sharp-edged than the music requires. The many discrete string sections were not as distinct as they needed to be, and of the three violin groups, it was Marcus Barcham Stevens’s thirds that seemed the crispest.

The higher the volume, it seemed, the less the ensemble cohered and it is tempting to conclude that the excitable Emelyanychev’s expansive gestures at such moments were part of the problem.

Lovers of symmetry and mathematical precision in music were in hog heaven with this programme, and as much in the Mozart as the two composers either side. With string bass Ciro Vigilante flanked by pairs of horns and quartets of single and double reeds facing one another, principal clarinet Maximiliano Martin was in the leader’s chair for a truly expert and pretty much flawless account of the work. The third movement variations were delightfully individual and the balance of the 13 players in the City Hall acoustic about perfect, which was arguably especially impressive from the four natural horns.

The Brandenburg, from half a century before, could almost seem free-form by comparison, a showcase for soloists first violin Stephanie Gonley, flautist Andre Cebrian and Emelyanychev at the harpsichord, with a four-man string continuo led by cellist Philip Higham, who had added a fine solo to the Adams.

Cebrian looked to be running away with the show in the first movement but his lovely fluid playing drew a virtuoso response from Emelyanychev at the keyboard before the trio settled into a beautifully-measured account of the Affettuoso slow movement. The Allegro finale was a masterful example of warm, bubbling, ensemble playing, and the icing on the cake was an encore of a short Martinu Promenade.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Swensen

City Halls, Glasgow

The light and melodic early Mahler that preceded it was not enough to attract anything but a small audience to the more difficult delights of Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto, dedicated to his teacher at the Second Viennese School, Arnold Schoenberg.

Still a radical work almost a century on from its composition, the Berg is open to all sorts of interpretation both in its meaning and in its performance (Pierre Boulez eschewed the long repeat in the last movement). That was clear even before the concert began, with the psychological interpretation favoured by the work’s conductor, Joseph Swensen, in a lengthy spoken preamble, very different from – if not entirely at odds with – the more personal gloss put on the work in the SCO’s online programme.

Swensen, whose long association with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is clearly very close to his heart, took a surprisingly laid back approach to the work at first, which meant it was rather less sharp-edged than is ideal, but his strategy made more sense as the work progressed and the roles for the unusual forces onstage unfolded.

The focus on the soloists, violinist Kolja Blacher and pianist Roman Rabinovich, is far from exclusive, and both – and indeed the conductor – have passages of idleness between bursts of challenging activity. Blacher’s plaintive solos were memorable, but so too were the contributions of every individual in the 13-strong ensemble of winds (and brass).

Trumpeter Peter Franks was the first in the spotlight earlier in the evening, for Mahler’s Blumine, the piece of incidental music he incorporated and then removed from his First Symphony. Far from as sickly as its earliest critics suggested, it also has a long sequence of solos for the wind players before the focus returns to the trumpet.

Continuing the floral theme, Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of What The Wild Flowers Tell Me from Mahler’s Symphony No 3 was the evening’s showcase for the strings. Guest-led by Sarah Kapustin and with a number of unfamiliar faces in their ranks, they were a wonderfully coherent unit just the same, and Kapustin’s brief solos sparkled.

With a full platform for the Mahler and spare instrumentation for the Berg, this was a curious but fascinating programme, and the performance history of the works made for a complex chronology as well. The quality of the playing, however, was consistently high from start to finish.

Keith Bruce

SCO / MacMillan

City Halls, Glasgow

Those familiar with the work of young Ayrshire composer Jay Capperauld will recognise that he finds inspiration in his eclectic taste in other, non-music related, art, often with a scientific dimension.

That tendency may explain his new work for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the culmination of a concert programme conducted by his mentor, Sir James MacMillan, but it doesn’t make the journey to his composition, Death in a Nutshell, any less bonkers.

The well-to-do American Frances Glessner Lee was a pioneer of forensics as a route to solving crime, and as a teaching aid she created little models of real crime scenes, like rooms in a doll’s house of death. The clues to the mystery are all in the little dioramas, of which the focal point is the corpse.

Exhibited at the Smithsonian a few years ago, Capperauld has taken six of them and created a 20-minute suite of soundtracks to the macabre pictures, which were helpfully reproduced in the SCO’s online programme, with a fat caption beneath outlining each case.

Which is all very curious and fascinating of course, but what about the music? I’ll go out on a limb and say that Capperauld’s colourful composition could happily be enjoyed without any knowledge of the background to Death in a Nutshell, although any listener would guess that there is something cinematic going on, especially if they are also watching the players.

Opening movement Malleus Dei (in the Parsonage Parlour) had percussionist Louise Goodwin wield a steel claw-hammer down upon a sheet of metal, and she and her section associate Ally Kelly were kept on the move throughout the work, on every form of tuned instrument, bass drum, blocks and tom-toms, a full kit and a selection of empty bottles. For the final movement Hanging upon your every word (in the Attic) they were joined by their neighbours in the trumpets on paper-shuffling duties.

There was also a full range of sinister effects required of the strings, as well as delineating every step in the fourth movement’s Interlude pour l’esprit de l’escalier (on the Stairs). The kit and the bottles featured in the preceding A Drowned Sorrow (in the Dark Bathroom), which was dominated by the bluesy alto sax of Capperauld’s Royal Conservatoire of Scotland associate Lewis Banks, whose instrument was integral elsewhere in the score, alongside William Stafford’s bass clarinet and Alison Green’s contrabassoon.

Sir James was all over every detail of this, ensuring a performance that understandably had the composer beaming when he took his bow. For the sort of musician who enjoys the challenge of new music, it also looked enormous fun and that infectious enthusiasm transferred easily to the audience.

The skill of Capperauld’s orchestration was particularly appreciable because of the company it was keeping in following a reverse chronological journey through Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question, the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll.

Think of any of these works and it is big string chords that come first to mind, but the other elements are just as crucial: the horns, wind ensemble and solo oboe in the Idyll, En Hudson’s harp in the Mahler and Peter Franks’ trumpet, high in the choir stalls and the vibrant wind quartet in the Ives.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Symbiosis

To my mind, but probably not in those of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra management and musicians, their guest leader and soloist Pekka Kuusisto or, most pertinently of all, composer Greg Lawson, there is an inescapable irony in the title that has been given to the work that partnership has written, performed and filmed as its cultural contribution to the UN Climate Conference in Scotland this autumn.

In the glory days of Glasgow’s self-confidence as Culture City, the arts activity around COP26 would have been carefully curated, promoted and marketed from an expertly-staffed central office. In 2021, however, everyone has to fend for themselves. National companies and small organisations have all stepped up to make contributions to coincide with the event and mark the occasion, many of them very thoughtful indeed, and often forging new partnerships and premiering new work. You will search in vain, however, for any guide or directory to the artistic side of COP, far less any co-ordination of the programme for the benefit of delegates, activists or interested observers. As a result few of the events are finding the audience they deserve. See Glasgow? See Symbiosis? Not as such.

With the sponsorship support of Aviva Investments, the SCO has commissioned this new piece from the man behind the multi-disciplinary GRIT orchestra and former principal second fiddle with the BBC SSO, Greg Lawson, and – as the composer makes clear-ish in the introductory film segment of the package – his hope of Symbiosis is between humankind and the natural landscape.

The orchestra has built on the expertise it acquired during lockdown, when its online chamber music concerts were some of the most attractive produced in Scotland, to make this short film of the 15-minute piece, preceded by footage of Lawson in his home environment at Moniaive in Dumfries and Galloway at work on it.

The countryside looks terrific, and Lawson’s more practical observations on the reality of turning the inspiration to be found there into a score are well worth hearing, but the meat of the work is the performance, in a beautifully-lit studio, by the strings of the SCO, led from the violin by Finnish star Kuusisto.

Symbiosis is in five neatly-dovetailed movements, beginning and ending with meditations on the nature of time. Anyone expecting Lawson to mine Scottish traditional music for his material, as the GRIT orchestra often has, may be surprised. The themes here owe more to the scales and cadences of Middle Eastern music, and perhaps to Lawson the violinist’s work with the small group Moishe’s Bagel.

The gentle, slow beginning takes a darker tone in the third and fourth movements when “Foreboding and Trouble” leads into “Waltzing to Oblivion”. That triple-time section is the undoubted highlight of the composition and perhaps likely to find a life of its own outside Symbiosis, but it did present the composer with a dilemma about how to end the work, whether as a prophet of doom or on a more optimistic note.

What makes the whole package is the way Lawson side-steps this difficulty by handing the baton to Kuusisto, who supplies a wonderful improvisation – an extended cadenza in a sense – over a simple chordal figure as the last movement. Somehow it is clearly up-beat, but it also explicitly states that the future is in the hands of each of us, individually.

Keith Bruce

Symbiosis is available to watch free on the SCO’s YouTube channel.

SCO / Whelan

City Halls, Glasgow

Lasting under an hour from start to finish and with around 45 minutes of actual music, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra has certainly played longer programmes than this one directed, initially from the harpsichord, by its former principal bassoon Peter Whelan. It is unlikely, however, that anyone felt short-changed, such were the riches within it.

Entitled Hidden Gems, the music would perhaps more accurately be described as “neglected”, although composed by Bach, Mozart and Haydn.

Mozart provided the concert’s show-stopper in the second of two concert arias sung by Anna Dennis. It is probably fair to say that Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio! (Let me explain, o God!) is rarely heard because few sopranos are able to sing it with confidence. Written for his sister-in-law Aloysia Weber, to be dropped into another composer’s opera as a showpiece for her talents, it requires a huge range and features some extraordinary interval leaps from the mezzo range to stratospheric top notes. Dennis was in spectacular voice, and ably supported by the duetting oboe of Michael O’Donnell, although his part did not include the same pyrotechnics.

The other song was also written by Mozart for his wife’s sister, and why it is not more often heard is more of a mystery, as Nehmt meinen Dank, ihr holden Gönner! (Accept my thanks, kind patrons!) is a delightful address to the audience about the musical life. With crisp diction from Dennis and some lovely wind playing, it came across as an 18th century precursor of Abba’s Thank You For The Music.

The Bach in question was Carl Philip Emmanuel, son of J S Bach, a composer more revered in his day than he probably is now, and a trailblazer of his time. That boldness was audible from the start under Whelan in a first movement of his Symphony in F that is more about rhythm and dynamics than tunes, especially in the string parts, with what melody there is lying with the winds. After a brief slow movement, the violins regained the upper hand in the bright finale.

There were wonderfully balanced forces on stage for that work, and for the Haydn symphony, No 102, that ended the concert when the 22 strings (six in the first and second fiddles, four each of violas and cellos and two basses) were joined by four pairs of wind instruments and two natural trumpets. The singular voice was that of Louise Goodwin behind the timpani, in a score that gave the percussionist very little time to sit on her hands.

Throughout the piece she was providing crucial punctuation in a work that is Haydn at the absolute zenith of his powers as an orchestrator, full of variety in its combinations of instruments and ear-catching voicings. After what might be called a book-keeper’s opening bar – there was a distinct double-entry – the musicians responded with enthusiasm and precision to Whelan’s clear direction.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Anna Dennis

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Dmitry Sinkovsky

SCO / Emelyanychev


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

Lammermuir Festival: SCO/Denk

St Mary’s, Haddington

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

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

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

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

Keith Bruce

pictured: Stephanie Gonley

SCO’s Russian season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCO: MacMillan / Currie

Perth Concert Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCO / Boyd / Osborne

Perth Concert Hall

It is not a strategy any sane person would recommend, of course, but the long period without performances at full strength has surely produced an audibly re-energised Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Or perhaps that is to do an injustice to oboist and conductor Douglas Boyd, whose direction of this concert shows that every section of the band is within reach of his eloquent arms.

Nonetheless, it is the wind section that shines brightest in the opening performance of Mendelssohn’s Overture: The Fair Melusine, and in particular the flute of Bronte Hudnott and the clarinet of Maximiliano Martin. With natural trumpets and horns, there is a robust period-band approach from Boyd and an appreciation that the narrative of the daft mermaid story is still a tragic one.

This reviewer is not much given to tears, but the performance by pianist Steven Osborne and the orchestra of the Adagio slow movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G brought a lump to the throat. That this achingly melody should have been the last thing Maurice Ravel wrote for these forces is poignant, but the emotional power of the unfolding line – a real challenge for the soloist to express as beautifully as Osborne does here – is all in the notes themselves.

The muscularity that was apparent in the Mendelssohn continues into the first movement’s percussive opening, from orchestra and then piano. This is the richest of early-20th century compositions, full of echoes of dance, jazz and ethnic music, the movement ending as boldly and expressively as it begins. The closing Presto movement goes at full pelt from the off, with Osborne’s lightning work at the keyboard matched by piccolo, E-flat clarinet and impressively zippy bassoon playing. Especially memorable in the online incarnation is the piano’s partnership with the cor anglais of Imogen Davies, given a lovely retro realisation in the vision-mix by film partner Stagecast and director Phil Glenny.

The programme ends with Mozart’s “Paris” Symphony, No 31, and the SCO knows playing Mozart’s symphonies in the way that Rick Stein is worth listening to on cooking fish. This was the composer’s first “full-strength” symphony, new-fangled clarinets and all, even if the instrument is strangely undeployed in the flowing dynamics of the Andantino. The outer Allegro movements were as Boyd’s Mendelssohn predicted, with the timpani-driven march at the start of the finale emblematic of commitment evident across the programme as a whole.

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Keith Bruce

SCO / Swensen

Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Swensen

Perth Concert Hall

Given his remarkably prodigious output, it is not so astonishing that French writer Jules Verne set his 1882 romantic novel The Green Ray in the West of Scotland. Over the course of his career he ran through a vast number of global locations in his work, as well as those that were out of this world.

Composer Gavin Bryars borrows the title of the book, and to some extent its subject matter, for his 1991 saxophone concerto, originally written for John Harle and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta. It was played here, at the centre of a concert conducted by Joseph Swensen, by Jess Gillam, the young virtuoso of soprano and alto saxes who has her own Saturday series on BBC Radio 3 and is the presentational face of this year’s BBC Young Musician finals, a competition in which she was a runner-up.

The was her debut with the SCO, and the work presented a side to her personality that contrasted with her engaging ebullience as a broadcaster. On an instrument, the soprano sax, that can be shrill, Gillam had a beautifully mellow tone throughout a score that is played as a continuous sequence and in which the soloist rarely has a break. It is not by any measure a virtuoso showpiece, however, with no flashy cadenzas or lightening fingerwork. Instead the sax has a lead role in the ensemble, perhaps depicting that rarely glimpsed, but ever-present, shaft of verdant sunlight seen at sunset in certain latitudes. The piece has a lovely arc to its construction, which Swensen clearly appreciated, underpinned by bass clarinet and contra-bassoon, with a significant orchestral piano part (played by Michael Bawtree, briefly credited on screen but mysteriously missing from the downloadable programme) and ending with an unmistakeable echo of the pipes.

It also shares some sonic elements with the work that preceded it, Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, most obviously the tubular bells but also in the string writing and deliberate pace. Part may never have met the English composer, but this is an exquisite eulogy, and also as perfect an encapsulation of the Estonian’s method: using the simplest materials to make the most profound music.

Arguably Beethoven was at something of the same game with his First Symphony. The opening bars of his symphonic odyssey can still sound startling 220 years on, and they did so here. With natural trumpets and baroque horns, there was a clear historically-informed approach from Swensen with brisk tempi and crisp playing across the orchestra. It was far from straight-laced, though, the brief third movement full of rhythmic playfulness, and clearly anticipating the finale of the Fifth and the dancing Seventh.

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Keith Bruce

SCO / Farnsworth

Perth Concert Hall

One of the most exhilarating aspects of the online experience we are currently enjoying in response to Covid is the freedom it has given for experimental concert presentation, none more informative and characterful than when the very players themselves are given screen time to offer their own illuminating introductory thoughts on the music.

Here is a prime example – a gorgeous cornucopia of relatively peripheral Baroque music selected by violist Brian Schiele and harpsichordist/organist Jan Waterfield, introduced by them and baritone Marcus Farnsworth, and played by a stylish coterie of fellow SCO players. Yes, the music itself is rendered with lively affection and stylistic panache, but the intervening introductions are what bring the connection up close and personal. We shouldn’t lose this factor when things get back to the so-called new normal.

It’s to the early Baroque that this programme turns first, a lush and stately Pavan à 6 by Johann Schop, the late 17th century Lower Saxon who made his name in Copenhagen and Hamburg. Foremost in this performance is the clarity of texture emanating from the purity of tone, particularly the fruits of inner detail issuing from the second violin and violas. 

It sets an anticipatory atmosphere for Telemann’s Devil-slaying solo cantata So grausam mächtig iso der Teufel, which Farnsworth, as solo protagonist, imbues with determined and triumphant fervour. Then to Sperantis Gaudia from Florilegium 1 by the much travelled Georg Muffat – a composer, we are informed, whose Scottish grandparents fled 16th century Catholic persecution to mainland Europe – and an instrumental work enriched by the multiple viola presence and consequentially soulful inner voices.

If anyone set Baroque string writing ablaze, it was surely Bohemian-born Heinrich Biber, famous for the often extreme literalism of his instrumental effects, heard here in much more tempered vein, though no less rewardingly, at the core of his Serenata “The Night Watchman” – that dramatic moment when Farnsworth appears on stage with an apparently authentic 17th century nightwatchman’s song, to the serenading accompaniment of a pizzicato string band.

Then a palate-cleanser, Waterfield’s crystalline solo performance on harpsichord of Froberger’s Toccata III – crisply disciplined finger-work with neatly-judged expressive fluidity – before an unexpectedly reflective finale from the pen of Johann Christoph Bach, uncle and one-time guardian of the younger Johann Sebastian. 

Again, Farnsworth is at the forefront as soloist in this mesmerising lament, Ach, dass ich Wassers g’nug hätte,  and the Bach signature is unmistakable: aching musical sighs that penetrate to the very core of the texts (taken from Jeremiah and the Psalms) and a musical offering as consummate as any of the more famous Bach. If Farnsworth’s interpretation very occasionally eschews complete focus, the bigger picture wins out. The ending is magical.

Ken Walton  
Available to watch on www.sco.org.uk

Perth Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin / Mitchell

Maximiliano Martin/Scott Mitchell

Perth Concert Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keith Bruce

Available to watch via horsecross.co.uk

Quartet For The End Of Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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