Four nights ago at the International Festival, Philippe Herreweghe’s account of Bach’s B Minor Mass was intimate, delicate and unhurried – a marvel, but too finespun for a venue the size of the Usher Hall. Last night found the Belgian conductor and his terrific Collegium Vocale Gent choir in altogether grander form, and the results were spectacular.
The English baritone Simon Keenlyside is tremendous in Verdi, gripping as Berg’s Wozzeck, a superb actor who can command the world’s grandest opera stages and turn them inwards for incisive psychological portrayals. So it was touching that his manner at the Queen’s Hall was almost shy. He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands and his demeanour was earnest. Pianist Malcolm Martineau gave warm support throughout, but the recital had a sense of genuine searching and introspection.
Everyone knows the overture to William Tell: that sweet cello section solo, those bucolic Swiss cowbells, peppy trumpet fanfares and – of course! – the rollicking finale, up there with the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as the most famous soundbite in classical music. (How many people can hear the overture and not immediately pretend to ride a galloping horse is a different matter. There’s even an old joke about it. Q: What’s the definition of an intellectual? A: Somebody who hears the William Tell Overture and doesn’t think of The Lone Ranger.)
In the programme for this concert, each piece was annotated with either a star or a cross: star meant the piece was written for Kronos Quartet, cross meant it was arranged for them. There are few ensembles that could boast responsibility for such a repertoire. In quick succession we heard Syrian wedding tunes, Malian balafon music and a quartet by Terry Riley (The Serquent Risadome – his 28th work for Kronos and not very interesting). There was a beautiful whispered miniature by Laurie Anderson called Flow, the best work of the night. There was Nicole Lizée’s take on 1960s East German Komische pop music that integrated quaintly archaic instruments like the Stylophone and the Omnichord.
The pianist Michael Houston is best known in his native New Zealand, where he lives and gives most of his performances. The 61-year-old isn’t a particularly well-kent name in the UK (which explains the number of empty seats at the Queen’s Hall yesterday) but this recital, broadcast live on Radio 3, had the potential to help change that.
Vladimir Jurowski has been principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra since 2007 and seems to have honed his conducting of them down to bare essentials. At times during this concert he hardly conducted at all, just a flick of the hand or a bob of the head indicating his intentions. The result was orchestral playing both relaxed and engaged: seductively loose around the edges, still clean and properly balanced when need be.
First there was an announcement informing us that Ms Prohaska hasn’t been feeling well for the past few days, then an unnervingly long wait for the Austrian soprano to appear on stage. When she did, though, her opening lines were fearless. She sang a foreboding German folk song (‘Es geht ein dunkle Wolk herein’), her rendition quiet, unaccompanied and unblinking. What a striking start to her Edinburgh debut.
Here’s a classic Edinburgh sight: Su-a Lee, blue streak in her hair and cello strapped to her back, sprinting across town from the Queen’s Hall to some bar or nightclub for her next gig. Su-a is a formidable cellist and a fantastically versatile musician. She’s been a member of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra since 1993 and also plays in any number of other bands, from folk to jazz to gypsy swing to you-name-it. She’s an irrepressibly gung-ho personality, buzzing with life, uproariously fun.
First published in the Guardian on 18 August, 2014
I, CULTURE is the new youth orchestra of Eastern Europe, four years old and politically charged. Its players come from the former Soviet states of the Eastern Partnership – a pro-European initiative comprising Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – and from Poland, which funds and runs the orchestra. They rehearse in English, although Russian would be a common language for many. Some arrive with no orchestral experience; others are already professional musicians at home.
First published in the Guardian on 17 August, 2014
Philippe Herreweghe’s approach to the B Minor Mass can be breathtaking in the right context. The Belgian baroque specialist makes Bach’s masterpiece into a platform for quiet self-reflection; the drama he builds is intricate and interior, and Collegium Vocale Gent – the revered period instrument ensemble and choir he founded in 1970 – typically plays and sings with a finespun, unpushy kind of poise. Even the way they tune reveals something of their ethos for careful listening: in painstaking slow unison, one note at a time.