Interview: Martin Suckling & Katherine Bryan

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First published in The Herald on 18 January, 2017

Composer Martin Suckling and flutist Katherine Bryan are old friends. They have known each other since National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain days, aged 11 or 12, though “you never  spoke to boys then,” he teases her now, over coffee in Glasgow where he grew up and she is now principal flute with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. It was when they graduated to National Youth Orchestra aged 14 that they started spending all of their time together. Between courses they would write letters and Bryan would send mix tapes. Both of them remember the Joni Mitchell tracks, but can’t or won’t recall anything more embarrassing.

Suckling was in NYO as a violinist but had already started composing, and one of his first ‘official’ pieces was an ensemble work for all of his friends. After some cajoling he admits it was was called Delirium. “It had a double bass doing a heart beat kind of thing and a big flute solo for Katherine at the end that went up to a top C-sharp. I thought that was very daring.” Does he still have a copy of the score? “No. Yes. No!” He studies his sandwich.

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Review: The Last Supper

First published in the Guardian on 15 January, 2017

The Last Supper is Harrison Birtwistle’s intense and mysterious ‘dramatic tableau’ — an opera, but more static and more stylised — with a libretto by the late Canadian poet Robin Blaser. It premiered in 2000 and was specifically a millennium piece: it deals with time, the weight we put on single moments (the striking of midnight, the Crucifixion), how we rework those moments in hindsight, how we replay old stories with horrible inevitability and reenact rituals we would rather escape. Hearing the work in 2017, its depiction of historical amnesia and collective entrapment felt starkly relevant.

This is not easy entertainment by anyone’s standards. Birtwistle himself has called it “a tough grub”, and though we all know the story, broadly speaking, the detailed implications are obscure. Time telescopes across two millennia but for two hours nothing much happens. The premise is that Ghost — Greek chorus, conscience of the audience, sung with superb conviction by Susan Bickley — invites the disciples to reconvene for another Last Supper. The men trickle in, greet each other, chat about what they’ve been up to for the past 2000 years. Judas turns up against the odds and the others shun him; I was deeply moved by Daniel Norman’s diffident and remorseful portrayal. Then Jesus arrives, a tremendously noble and resonant performance from Roderick Williams, and begins to play out Passover events.

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Interview: Harrison Birtwistle

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First published in The Herald on 11 January, 2017

At the end of our interview, Harrison Birtwistle pours a couple of glasses of whisky that contain at least five drams each. We’ve been talking about Raasay — the composer spent seven years living in the Hebrides in the 1970s — and he jokes that the reminiscing has brought out old island drinking habits. “I still know every inch of that place,” he says. “I mean, the way of the land. I used to go fishing. I loved the east coast, where nobody ever went.”

Now we’re at his current home in the Wiltshire village of Mere, approximately a universe away from the Hebrides. There is a pot of tea on the kitchen table next to the whisky, and a bowl of lemons, and a potent Camembert that I brought with me from London and which seems to have ripened precariously on the train. “Aha, I know just what to do with that,” Birtwistle said when I handed it to him, eying the label. After Raasay he and his family moved to France, an hour outside of Toulouse. He claims his French is about as good as his Gaelic.

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CD review: Wozzeck from Houston

First published in the Guardian on 5 January, 2016

Wozzeck
Houston Symphony / Graf

A working class guy tries and fails to get by in a society that ignores poverty and disdains mental illness, and the consequences shame us all. Schoenberg thought the message inappropriate for opera (“one writes about angels, not batmen”) but today Alban Berg’s Wozzeck should feel more brutally urgent than ever. This new recording from the Houston Symphony under Hans Graf is as lustrous and well-fed as you’d expect from a Texan outfit, with thundering lower strings and glossy, supple wind lines that cushion the characters rather than taunt them. Adorno believed that “the depiction of fear lies at the centre” of expressionist music but Graf’s account never gets truly terrifying — the orchestral commentary, where Berg stores the drama’s deepest angst, remains too contented, too shy of real cruelty. But the singing is gripping: baritone Roman Trekel is one of today’s top Wozzecks, full-on and volatile, his violence cracked with frailty, and Anne Schwanewilms plays Marie with devastating dignity.

CD review: Elschenbroich’s Schnittke

First published in the Guardian on 5 January, 2016

Schnittke: Musica Nostalgica
Leonard Elschenbroich/Petr Limonov (Onyx)

Cellist Leonard Elschenbroich puts himself right at the heart of this recording: he sees his relationship with the music of Alfred Schnittke — Soviet composer of German Jewish heritage — as a personal identity quest by way of “journeying from my longing for Russian towards my homecoming to German music”. The disc even culminates in a short piece called Shards of Alfred Schnittke that Elschenbroich wrote in his early 20s as “a sort of composed interpretation”. The playing is introspective and intense, with plenty moody self-reflection in the dark ebbs and whispered nostalgia of Schnittke’s First Cello Sonata. The Suite in the Old Style is a reworking of film music from the excellently named Sport, Sport, Sport and Adventures of a Dentist; here Elschenbroich’s seriousness misses the caustic wit in the music, but he makes up for it with a cello sound that growls and gleams. Petr Limonov provides immaculately chiselled piano counterparts throughout.

CD review: Graham Fitkin’s Vamp & Veneer

First published in the Guardian on 5 January, 2016

Graham Fitkin: Veneer & Vamp
Fitkin Band / Melanie Pappenheim (Real World)

Veneer and Vamp make a double album, part instrumental, part vocal, that British composer Graham Firkin calls “a kind of urban symphony”. Influences include Labelle, Sly and the Family Stone, early Jacksons — it’s all classic Fitkin, from the punchy names (previous works include Flak, Cud, Pawn, Hook) to the low-fi disco vibe. There’s chintz and irony, knowing nods to lounge and muzak and a general thrust of clanging post-minimalism inherited from Fitkin’s teacher Louis Andriessen. Nervy backbeats fizzle behind warped waltzes that the Fitkin Band delivers po-face like a mechanical jewellery box with pop-up gypsy band instead of ballerina. Melanie Pappenheim channels a sweet-breathy Astrud Gilberto cool on the vocals of Veneer, but Vamp’s burly dance drive starts to feel forced: the cleanness and straightness of it all, the soloing that isn’t quite brash enough, the peppy rhythms that simmer rather than scald.

Scotland / 2017 / concert diary

First published in The Herald on 4 January, 2017

First highlight of the new year comes as early as next week, when the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra performs a rare concert-staging of Harrison Birtwistle’s opera The Last Supper. Imagine grand ritual meets temporal implosion — a morally confrontational, perception-warping, very human music drama that telescopes two millennia of Christian mythology into a kind of friends reunited scenario for Jesus and his disciples. Roderick Williams sings Jesus, Jennifer Johnston sings Ghost, Martyn Brabbins conducts. (City Halls, Glasgow, January 14.) Brabbins and the BBCSSO also continue their exploration of Michael Tippett’s symphonies with the Second, a searing work from the 1950s that avows its message with bright and rigorous optimism. (City Halls, Glasgow, February 9.)

Scottish Opera’s spring season features, refreshingly, not just one but potentially two worth-travelling-for productions. Debussy’s symbolist glory Pelléas et Mélisande — lush, penumbral, limpid — was one of the first works Scottish Opera ever staged back in 1962 when it was a bold young Turk of a company. Now director David McVicar teams up with the design team behind War Horse for a production “inspired by the paintings of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi”. Carolyn Sampson is Melisande, Andrei Bondarenko is Pelleas, Stuart Stratford conducts. (Theatre Royal, Glasgow, February 23 – March 4; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, March 7 – 11.)

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Favourite classical recordings of 2016

First published in The Herald on 21 December, 2016

Here are ten of my favourite classical releases of 2016. I’ve taken a pretty relaxed approach to the term ‘classical’. It’s a subjective list. I’ve cheated by adding an extra five at the end. And no rankings: how to score late Beethoven sonatas against the final recording by Pauline Oliveros? Basically these are the recordings of the year that most opened my ears and that kept me coming back.

In mid-November, those confounding days after the American election, I kept coming back to Laurence Crane’s Sound of Horse (Hubro). Crane is an English composer who builds graceful, discreet music out of ordinary things. He sets musical objects spinning like points on a Calder mobile with plenty of space and time and elasticity between them. It’s about the beauty of small and immediate sounds, precise and properly done sounds. Experimental Norwegian ensemble Asamisimasa treats his ensemble pieces with exactly the right tenderness and deadpan anarchic humour. Everything appears new and not new, and in November that seemed to fit. The album has been released on vinyl as well as CD just in time for Christmas with a gloriously blissed-out bonus track called Sparling on the vinyl edition.

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CD review: Mendelssohn’s Elijah

First published in the Guardian on 16 December, 2016

Mendelssohn: Elijah
Balthasar-Neumann Choir & Ensemble/Hengelbrock (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi)

Premiered in Birmingham Town Hall in 1846, fixture of amassed British choral societies ever since, Elijah is a prime culprit of George Bernard Shaw’s quip accusing Mendelssohn of “despicable oratorio-mongering”. But get a performance as fleet-footed and intelligent as this one — conductor Thomas Hengelbrock with his excellent period instrument ensemble and choir — and all stodge and sanctimony are swept away. There is still heft when it matters, in Yet Doth the Lord and drama-charged recitatives from fulsome voiced soloists (soprano Genia Kuhmeier, alto Ann Hallenberg, tenor Lothar Odinius, bass Michael Nagy). But what’s more compelling is the nimbleness, the swift-moving parts. There are quick corners and shapely inner voices, subtle weft even in classic fat chorus numbers like Blessed are the Men who Fear Him. Raspy period strings add God-fearing menace, the choir sound rich but luminous in detail.

CD review: Martinu Cantatas

First published in the Guardian on 16 December, 2016

Martinu: Cantatas
Prague Philharmonic Choir/Vasilek (Supraphon)

In the late 1950s, Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) turned his mind to Moravian folk poetry — images of the Czech highlands where he grew up — and wrote four little cantatas with wistful names like ‘Romance of the Dandelions’ and ‘Legend of Smoke from Potato Tops’. The last one, ‘Mikes of the Mountains’, tells of a shepherd who saves his goats from a snowstorm. It all tastes of soil and nostalgia but these are more than simple rustic tone paintings. Martinu instructed that they shouldn’t sound sentimental and he spliced the folksy choral passages with stark harmonies and off-kilter percussive stuff. Instrumentation includes accordion and ‘drumming on a chair’ — the sounds creak, jolt, motor and soothe. The Prague choir gets the balance right: vivid character and resonant voices but never saccharine and rhythmically taught. This is the ensemble that premiered three of the cantatas (in a previous guise) and it’s hard to imagine singing of more authority in Martinu’s music.