Review: St Magnus Festival 2016

First published in The Herald on 29 June, 2016

The St Magnus International Festival marked its 40th year with an extended 10-day programme, three chamber operas, a gleaming new Steinway grand piano, 40 world premieres — including one by the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies; more on that in a moment — and a visit from the BBC Symphony Orchestra that culminated with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Plenty to celebrate, then, not least the marvel of community involvement and deft politicking that has ensured the sheer survival of a classical musical festival in Orkney for all these years.

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Review: Hebrides Ensemble

First published in the Guardian on 24 June, 2016

Hebrides Ensemble
Cottier Theatre, Glasgow/St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall

The Hebrides Ensemble turns 25 this year with a fine heritage of commissioning new works, supporting Scottish composers and performing solid interpretations of 20th chamber music. But does today’s Hebrides still sound as “diverse, imaginative and inspiring” as its mission statement claims, at is once did? The group has some great regular members — clarinettist Yann Ghiro is a mighty player who keeps things buoyant whenever he’s involved —  but in recent years the general dynamic has felt a little tired and rigid. These two anniversary projects confirmed as much.

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Preview: Music at Paxton

First published in The Herald on 22 June, 2016

Music at Paxton just doubled in size. I’m not talking number of concerts or days or audience or ticket prices — that’s all still as bijoux and snug and reasonable as ever. This summer’s programme features, rather impressively, Angela Hewitt playing Bach and Scarlatti, Alina Ibragimova playing three concerts including an all-Beethoven recital featuring the Spring Sonata and the Archduke Trio, Pieter Wispelwey playing Bach’s cello suites, Rachel Podger playing Mozart. Any one of those concerts would sell well at major UK concert halls, but Music at Paxton is never going to be about mass entertainment, not when its main stage is an ornate picture gallery nestled within a neo-Palladian mansion on a B-road in the Borders that seats 140, max.

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Preview: St Magnus International Festival 2016

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First published in The Herald on 18 June, 2016

Around spring of 1973, a select troupe of contemporary music specialists made their way from London to Kirkwall at the behest of their director — the Salford-born composer Peter Maxwell Davies, recently taken up residence in a stone bothy with no running water or electricity on the storm-battered western cliffs of Hoy. The ensemble already had half a decade of gung-ho programming under its belt: it had been co-founded by Harrison Birtwistle in the late 1960s to play Schoenberg’s atonal melodrama Pierrot Lunaire and was originally called the Pierrot Players, but by 1970 Maxwell Davies had taken over the reigns and had blazingly rebranded it the Fires of London. That spring of 1973, to an audience of locals in St Magnus Cathedral, the Fires played a programme called ‘A Musical Tribute to Northern Britain’ packed with unflinching Maxwell Davies scores, included his fierce new Hymn to Saint Magnus.

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CD review: David Lang’s the national anthems

First published in the Guardian on 16 June, 2016

David Lang: the national anthems
Los Angeles Master Chorale (Cantaloupe)

Of the three Bang On A Can founder-composers, David Lang’s music has always been the glassiest, the sparest, for some listeners the most precious. In recent years his aesthetic has become leaner still, pairing down already-simple material to gaunt extremes in something approaching neo-plainchant. the national anthems (note the lower case; there is nothing vainglorious about these anthems) takes fragments of text from all 193 United Nations member states and unfolds at speaking speed, plenty of room for breaths between phrases, plenty of clarity to the words. It has the feel of sad and eerie intoning. The Los Angeles choir clinches the right sound for Lang — unflinching, spellbound — while the Calder Quartet gives sleek accompaniment. Also on the disc is a new choral version of Lang’s little match girl passion, the piece originally for four voices that won him the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and which in the mouths of many becomes a sort of collective prayer in the congregational tradition of Bach’s chorales.

CD review: Scottish Ensemble’s Debussy/Takemitsu

First published in the Guardian on 16 June, 2016

Debussy/Takemitsu: works for strings
Scottish Ensemble (Linn)

The immediate thing I noticed about this recording, and which I kept noticing all the way through, is how broad, expansive, lush and generally huge the Scottish Ensemble sounds. Most of the time it performs with just two cellos and a double bass (though it bulked up a bit for this album) and has always made a thing of playing standing up for a lithe, chamber-music kind of vibe. But the SE house style is also all about muscular attack and that comes through in director Jonathan Morton’s charged and opulent arrangement of Debussy’s String Quartet. I miss the fragility and elusive shimmer of the original, whereas Colin Matthews’s arrangement of Debussy’s piano prelude The Girl with the Flaxen Hair is wonderfully hazy, subtle and indirect. Three short Takemitsu works complete the album, including his gushing 1980s Tarkovsky tribute Nostalghia — the word means a specifically Russian sort of homesickness — with Morton as rapt and eloquent soloist.

CD review: Lawes music for lyra viol

First published in the Guardian on 16 June, 2016

Lawes: Complete music for solo lyra viol
Richard Boothby (Harmonia Mundi)

Of all the early instruments to have gone extinct — or at least fallen out of everyday use — we should mourn the decline of the lyra viol. Imagine an instrument chunkier than a modern viola, held upright like a little cello with a voice that is noble, fragile, melancholy, sweet. It fell out of fashion in the mid 1600s but luckily we still have a small but gorgeous body of solo works including these pieces by William Lawes, court musician to Charles I and composer of some of the most inventive, playful and striking music of the early 17th century. Richard Boothby’s handling of them on bass viol is supple and genial if a little careful and reverent: all except one of the 34 pieces on the disc are dances, but he makes them sound more like gentle meditations. It is a sumptuous album — just don’t be fooled by the dancing shoes on the cover.

Interview: Anaïs Mitchell on Hadestown

First published in the Guardian on 14 June, 2016

“Why do we build the wall, my children?” growls Hades, king of the underworld, in Anaïs Mitchell’s folk opera Hadestown. This demon is a slick business guy, a billionaire steel tycoon who sings in an oily, impassive bass. The response comes from a thrawn chorus of the desperate and the damned. ”Because we have and they have not/ because they want what we have got/ the enemy is poverty/ and the wall keeps out the enemy/ and we build the wall to keep us free.” Hadestown opened in a new off-Broadway music theatre production just as Donald Trump detailed plans for a multibillion-dollar wall along the US border with Mexico. Mitchell wrote her song a decade ago, but its resonances right now are inescapably loud.

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Mendelssohn at East Neuk

First published in The Herald on 8 June, 2016

Was it George Bernard Shaw’s fault? “Despicable oratorio-mongering” was how the irascible critic described Felix Mendelssohn in 1898. “Not in the foremost rank of great composers.” Or maybe it was Wagner, who sowed insidious seeds of doubt in an 1850 diatribe called Jewishness in Music. He acknowledged how Mendelssohn had “shown us that a Jew can possess the richest measure of specific talents, the most refined and varied culture,” yet still — and here’s the masterfully corrosive bit —  “without even once through all these advantages being able to bring forth in us that profound, heart-and-soul searching effect we expect from music.” How very handy for him to ride a wave of anti-Semitism to drown out the talents of a rival.

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CD review: Spellweaving

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First published in the Guardian on 2 June, 2016

Spellweaving: Ancient music from the Highlands of Scotland
Barnaby Brown, Clare Salaman & Bill Taylor (Delphian)

This is the kind of album whose sleeve notes feature photos of instruments and old manuscripts bigger than photos of their players: in other words, we’re in pretty niche territory here with what is essentially a research project on historic pibroch performance practice — pibroch being the highly regulated ancient classical music of the Scottish bagpipes. But there’s grace and beauty in it, too, so it is worth braving the close-ups of bone flutes and hurdy-gurdies. Piper Barnaby Brown explains that the intent is to “break out of the piping ghetto” and see what happens when other instruments are let loose on that hallowed repertoire. What happens is the music becomes softer, more malleable and (piping purists, look away) more tonally expressive. Bill Taylor gives gentle if learned accounts on clarsach and lyre and Brown takes a spacious solo on a vulture bone flute, but the highlight is Clare Salaman doing bold and sensitive things on Hardanger fiddle with a majestic 15-minute account of The Sutherlands’ Gathering.