Review: Watching Over You

First published in the Guardian on 20 May, 2015

Watching Over You, a new song cycle by composer Rory Boyle setting texts by Dilys Rose, is a hushed and intimate account of new motherhood. Seven poems share the first-person thoughts of a woman shortly before, during and just after childbirth. The language is unambiguous, occasionally simplistic; there are plain descriptions of trepidation, doubt, bafflement, gushing tenderness. Boyle treats the verse with carefully luminous textures, leaving plenty of room for the words to resonate and painting warm colours with vibraphones, low flutes and lapping violins. Red Note Ensemble played it all sensitively under conductor Jean-Claude Picard.

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Scottish Opera’s 2015-16 season

First published in The Herald on 20 May, 2015

“We are a triumvirate!” chuckles Sir Thomas Allen, gesturing around an airy meeting room off the Theatre Royal’s new foyer. And indeed they are three: to the left of Allen sits conductor Stuart Stratford, Scottish Opera’s newly appointed Music Director, and to his right is Alex Reedijk, the company’s General Director, who indicates the corporate-looking board table and jokes that they are like a panel interviewing me for a job.

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Q&A: Mark Simpson

First published in the Guardian on 16 May, 2015

What’s the idea behind The Immortal, the new oratorio you’ve written for Manchester International Festival?

I was reading John Gray’s book The Immortalization Commission, about occultism and the paranormal. The piece is based on Frederick Myers, who founded the Society of Psychical Research; Melanie Challenger based the libretto on the Society’s automatic writings. You realise that what these people were searching for in occultism was lost love. They were grieving. The idea of the piece is to make listeners feel as though they are in a seance themselves. It’s kind of a requiem, kind of a sound installation with these mobiles of text. It’s symphonic, too. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done.

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Review: Lau

First published in the Guardian on 15 May, 2015

There’s devious melancholy to the verse depicted on Glasgow’s coat of arms: Here is the bell that never rang/ Here is the fish that never swam. Actually the lines refer to the miracles of St Mungo and that cheeky dolefulness masks a ballsy chutzpah; to me it always seemed a quintessentially Glaswegian trick.

Lau are currently touring their latest album, The Bell that Never Rang, whose long title track was commissioned around last year’s Commonwealth Games and whose subtle, boisterous cleverness treads a similar line to that verse. Lau are typically referred to as ‘experimental folk’, usually with various glowing superlatives attached. They compose in intricate layers, play about with form, motor along to fun, glitchy beats and the odd bout of grungy electro-acoustic noise-making. Bartok’s string quartets were an inspiration and it shows in the motivic development. Mainly the tunes on The Bell That Never Rang are sturdy and supremely singable, thrumming with the exuberance of dazzling players and inventive musical minds.

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Interview: Harry Christophers

harry_christophers_high_res_3_-_credit_marco_borggreve

First published in The Herald on 13 May, 2015

This week the Scottish Chamber Orchestra closes its main season with The Creation: Joseph Haydn’s resounding oratorio, a work so jubilant and life-affirming that the conductor Harry Christophers describes it as being “like one long wedding reception”. The Creation is “full of wit and full of joy,” he says; “there aren’t many piece whose music just smiles the whole way through.”

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Review: Il Trovatore

First published in the Guardian on 8 May, 2015

It has not been the cheeriest spring season at Scottish Opera. Physical and psychological brutality prevail in MacMillan’s Ines de Castro, Janacek’s Jenufa and now Verdi’s Il trovatore, three operas dealing in infanticide and maternal trauma. Oddly, this production of Verdi’s dark tale — an old Martin Lloyd-Evans staging — opens in slapstick when a lone soldier gets a fright and tumbles from his perch, but the laughs soon fizzle as Ferrando recounts how a gypsy woman once threw a baby into the fire to avenge her mother’s death.

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CD review: William Lawes’s The Royal Consort

First published in the Guardian on 7 May, 2015

Lawes: The Royal Consort
Phantasm (Linn)

The viol music of William Lawes (1602-1645) is like none other: weird phrase lengths, irreverent weightings and rogue, sumptuous harmonies that’ll make you gasp for joy every time. Sometimes he seems to repeat a snatch of melody simply because it’s too gorgeous not to, which must have caused havoc for anyone trying to actually dance to his numbers. The Royal Consort comprises ten sets (or setts in 17th century lexicon) composed for the court of Charles I and recorded here for the first time in its complete original version for four viols and theorbo. In his sleeve notes, treble viol player and Phantasm director Laurence Dreyfus makes the point that “Lawes composes his parts as if the performing musicians are themselves dancing”. It’s a brilliant starting point and the Phantasm players really run with it: twist after turn of lapping, pliant lines and spirited counterpoint, all done with a real sense of swing. The ensemble sound is luxuriantly rich, powered forward by the feisty theorbo strumming of Elizabeth Kenny.

Kate Molleson

CD review: Penderecki’s Magnificat

First published in the Guardian on 7 May, 2015

Penderecki: Magnificat
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir/Wit (Naxos)

Krzysztof Penderecki first began writing sacred music in response to religious repression in the communist Poland of his youth, and through all his stylistic evolution — vehemently embracing then abandoning post-war modernism — his spiritual works have retained that thrust of blazing, deep-felt defiance. His Magnificat dates from 1974, a crossroad between early-period astringency and the effusive neo-romanticism he turned to from that point. It’s a peculiar and gripping mix: clammy tone clusters and slithering violins cut to resounding diatonic chords and bellowing bass solos — a massive sound here from Wojtek Gierlach. Antoni Wit conducts it all at full throttle, but the orchestra sounds more incisive than the choir, which is unfocused and a little stretched at the top. The other work on the disc is Kadisz, a 2009 memorial to the decimated Jewish ghetto of Lodz full of lush chords, triangle halos and sombre, scented choral passages. Soprano Olga Pasichnyk is ardent and lyrical in her solos; Daniel Olbrychski provides cartoonishly lurid narration.

CD review: Maxim Rysanov plays Martinu

First published in the Guardian on 7 May, 2015

Martinu: Rhapsody-Concerto, Sonata for Viola and Piano etc
Maxim Rysanov/BBCSO/Belohlavek (BIS)

It makes perfect sense that Bohuslav Martinu was a fan of the viola; the instrument’s generous, conversational voice is exactly right for his music, and this recording from Ukrainian violist Maxim Rysanov is easy proof of why. Martinu grew up in a church tower in small-town Moravia, watching the sporadic stream of townspeople down below. Those organic real-life rhythms are everywhere in his music — listen to the second movement of the Rhapsody-Concerto (1952) to hear fleeting modal shifts, folk melodies laced with trepidation and motoric outbursts jostling against lush pastoralism. Rysanov clinches the shifting characters and always makes his lines sing; conductor Jiri Belohlavek draws warmth and brawn from the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In the sunny Three Madrigals (1947) and restive Duo No. 2 (1950) Rysanov soars and spars with violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky; the Sonata for Viola and Piano (1955) sounds like it’s been recorded from far away, but I love the stately breadth that Katya Apekisheva brings to the piano lines.