Interview with Stephanie Gonley, new part-time leader of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

First published in The Herald on 30 September, 2015

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra opens its season next week with a new leader in place: the violinist Stephanie Gonley takes up the role that the orchestra has been trying to fill since 2009. Or at least, she takes up the role for part of the time. Gonley lives in London and is leader of the English Chamber Orchestra, a position she won’t be giving up. Instead she will commute to Scotland for 35 percent of the SCO’s programmes and the orchestra is still on the hunt for a violinist to fill the remaining 65 percent of the job.

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Review: BBCSSO, Runnicles, Mahler Ten

First published in the Guardian on 28 September, 2015

There was bittersweetness to the brilliance of this concert: it was the start of Donald Runnicles’s last season as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and it stung a bit to be reminded just how chiselled and warm, how bold and honed and incisive the orchestra’s sound is under his baton. When Thomas Dausgaard takes over next year he will be inheriting an ensemble in astoundingly good shape.

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CD review: Nielsen/Sibelius Violin Concertos etc

First published in the Guardian on 25 September, 2015

Nielsen/Sibelius: Violin Concertos etc
Skride/Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra/Rouvali (Orfeo)

It’s handy for the music industry that Sibelius and Nielsen share an anniversary (both 150 this year). The two Scandinavian post-romantics can be neatly paired on one sparse, pine-forested postcard, but what’s so enticing about this recording from the excellent Latvian violinist Baiba Skride — besides her gorgeously rugged sound and straight-up, natural delivery — is that she clinches the distinct voice of each composer. Her Sibelius spins a silvery chill before sweeping headlong into brooding, furrowed-browed melodies. She navigates the storms of the Nielsen less smoothly but then it’s a rougher piece, and exactly right that her attack is skittish, vulnerable and ballsy in quick succession. Her Adagio is simultaneously luminous and intensely sad — so beautiful that I had to listen to that movement on repeat. The Tempere orchestra sounds clean, supple and boisterous under its young chief conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali; he, meanwhile, is the latest sit-up-and-listen talent to emerge from the great Finnish conducting tradition.

CD review: Halffter’s Homo electricus

First published in the Guardian on 25 September, 2015

Halffter: Homo electricus
Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid/Encinar (Stradivarius)

Cristobal Halffter, born in Madrid in 1930, is an electro-acoustician of the old school, just a couple years the junior of pioneers like Boulez and Stockhausen. He lived in Spain throughout the Franco regime and his music burns with the desire for non-violence and human rights. Meanwhile he kept up connections with the European avant-garde and the three works on this disc (Variaciones sobre la resonancia de un grito, Planto por las victimas de la violencia and Lineas y puntos) were all commissioned in the 1960s-1970s by the Donaueschingen Festival, vanguard of sharp-edged modernism. Nowadays Halffter’s techniques might only interest those particularly keen on vintage live electronics, but the sense of fear, repression and yearning for freedom in this music still resonates. The Madrid orchestras’ playing under Jose Ramon Encinar is impressive: mournful low clarinets, searching violins, restive flutes and punchy brass vie for space and are repeatedly thwarted by the dense, jagged din of the whole ensemble. Not the easiest listen.

CD review: Gesualdo/Dean/Tuur

First published in the Guardian on 25 September, 2015

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Tallin Chamber Orchestra/Kaljuste (ECM)

Gesualdo was the composer-prince who had a thing for self-torture, who murdered his wife and her lover one dark night in Naples, whose music inhabits the wildest chromatic reaches of the 16th century. No wonder the juiciest bad guy in classical music has sparked the imagination of so many composers since. This aptly angst-filled album conducted by Tonu Kaljuste includes stylish string arrangements of Gesualdo vocal music plus related works by Brett Dean and Erkki-Sven Tuur. We get the spicy opening chords of Gesualdo’s madrigal Moro lasso twice: first a transcription by Kaljuste, full of fine-sculpted space and slow-shifting contours, then Dean’s Carlo, an intensely atmospheric work from 2007 that opens with straight Gesualdo then implodes into a murky throng of whispering voices and tormented strings. The Estonians capture the dark psyche without overdoing it; most chilling is how they evoke glassy loneliness in hushed moments. Tuur’s Psalmody is the other big work on the disc, but at 20 minutes of jaunty neo-baroque minimalism it isn’t half as interesting.

Review: Cosi fan tutte

First published in the Guardian on 25 September, 2015

Scottish Opera’s new pocket-sized Cosi fan tutte is a sweet, unadventurous period piece set in 1950s Naples. Directed by Lissa Lorenzo, the staging is handsome — vintage dress fans, beware — and easy to follow in Martin Fitzpatrick’s chipper English translation. On surface it’s as straight a telling of Cosi as you’ll find, but it says little about the moral murk at the heart of Mozart’s opera until the disconcerting final image, when the two philandering couples are forced into uneasy poses of socially acceptable monogamy. Until that point, three hours in and beginning to feeling it, the most wicked temptation has been a tray of chocolates and the most dangerous weapon a scoosh of perfume. Surely any new Cosi has got to be more than wedding-obsessed women and swaggering blokes.

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Colin Matthews on reconstructing Mahler Ten

mahlerFirst published in The Herald on 23 September, 2015

This week, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra opens its season under outgoing chief conductor Donald Runnicles with one of the most savagely personal and philosophically thorny works in musical history: Mahler’s incomplete final symphony, his Tenth.

There’s no avoiding autobiographical dirt when it comes to the Tenth — the piece emerged out of a domestic crisis so traumatic that it set Mahler’s entire life on the brink. Sometimes the depth of its musical heritage gets eclipsed by that salacious melodrama, but the piece is the culmination of two decades of blazing symphonic experimentation through which Mahler exploded the form and synthesised a new amalgam of the philosophical and the personal, the elemental and the archetypical. Back in the late 1880s he had opened the door with his First Symphony and in came the whole world: in came street tunes and klezmer bands, blazing expressionism and dizzy elation, earthy brawn and satirical bite. And, of course, the stormy existential narratives of his own personal life, writ large across that epic canvass and the eight complete symphonies that were to follow.

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Review: Phantasm & Danny Driver at Lammermuir

First published in the Guardian on 20 September, 2015

Whisper it, but this must be one of the best-kept secrets in the UK classical calendar. The Lammermuir Festival happens in churches and stately homes around East Lothian, the part of Scotland with the softest contours and most hours of sunlight per annum. There’s a quiet class about the whole thing that generates a special kind of listening; for all the dark arts of construing festival ambience, Lammermuir tends to simply programme right and let the music do the talking.

A late-night concert at St Mary’s in Haddington — a riverside church, staunchly gothic and moodily floodlit — featured the viol quartet Phantasm delving into some of the most searching music ever written. JS Bach never finished his epic contrapuntal masterpiece The Art of Fugue: the final passage, in which he enigmatically encrypted his own initials, simply cuts out mid-sentence and nobody quite knows why. The manuscript doesn’t specify instruments and Phantasm made it their own, spinning each line with a sense of lyrical, wide-eyed storytelling that summed up Bach’s love of song and dance as much as the formidable mathematics of his counterpoint. I only wish they hadn’t played an encore: sure, their Purcell Fantasia was gorgeously lissome, but I wanted to leave with Bach’s mystery still hanging in the dark.

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Interview: Katherine Bryan

First published in The Herald on 16 September, 2015

Katherine Bryan’s new album, Silver Bow, begins in a gentle lull: that lush, hazy thicket of strings, that bucolic, bygone Englishness setting the scene for Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending. But across this particular idyll there is steely intent writ large. Out out of the muted strings comes the lark: flitting and spinning and soaring as usual, but it isn’t the lissom violin Vaughan Williams wrote for.

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Bucharest & the Enescu Festival


First published in The Herald on 9 September, 2015

Bucharest’s main concert hall is the Sala Palatului: a vast 1960s period piece upholstered in multiple shades of yellow and once used as the conference centre for Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist regime. The auditorium holds a mighty crowd of 3,000 — in Ceausescu’s heyday it was 5,500 or more —  and it was packed to the gunnels last week for Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. I found myself sitting crosslegged on a bank of mustard-yellow steps, listening to Sir Simon delve into the dark, stoical, sardonic and transcendent episodes of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. A mother and toddler were wedged by my feet; to my side was an elderly gentleman with his eyes closed, discreetly conducting along to every bar. Music about the terrors of communist authority played in a hall made epic by Ceausescu: the associations felt as loud as any note.

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