St Mary’s & the Old Royal High

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First published in The Herald on 29 July, 2015

Is there any school building in any city — and I mean globally — that occupies a more astounding location? This is not parochial hyperbole talking. Edinburgh’s Old Royal High School sits resplendent against the south face of Calton Hill, its broad neoclassical facade looking out uninterrupted over Arthur’s Seat. The aspect is staggering. Purely as a piece of architecture, it’s the jewell in the crown of Georgian Edinburgh: Thomas Hamilton’s master statement that, along with Nelson’s Column and the Parthenon-inspired National Monument atop Calton Hill, earned the city its nickname ‘The Athens of the North’. And yet arguably more important is the building’s symbolism as a place of learning. Step out of its monumental doors as a student and the world lies at your feet.

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Hitchcock’s music

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First published in The Herald on 22 July, 2015

In another life Alfred Hitchcock would have been a composer. His use of music in films was revolutionary; his collaborations with Hollywood’s finest musical minds — Miklos Rozsa, Dmitri Tiomkin, Franz Waxman and especially Bernard Herrmann — still stand as the greatest director-composer partnerships in cinema history. But it was more than that. Hitchcock’s understanding of musical form went to the very heart of how he structured his films, like a symphonist whose mastery of emotional suspense was built on acute timings, fastidious cutting and thematic references that could mean everything or nothing. “Hitchcock changed the way we think about music in film,” declared the American academic Jack Sullivan in his 2006 survey Hitchcock’s Music. “With lesser directors, music is often a form of hyperbole, blasting defensively onto the soundtrack to make up for a lack of pictorial distinction; with Hitchcock, the latter is taken for granted, and music is freed up to create its own realm of meaning, keeping or counterpointing memorable images with sounds that are far more sophisticated than what we hear in standard Hollywood scores.”

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CD review: Widmann’s String Quartets

First published in the Guardian on 17 July, 2015

Jorg Widmann’s five string quartets make up a kind of meta quartet — a massive web of musical dialectics that celebrate, explode and generally redefine the genre’s lofty, loaded heritage. No other contemporary composer has grappled with quartet form quite so intelligently or so probingly. It’s astoundingly virtuosic stuff, mentally and musically, and jaw-droppingly beautiful at times: just listen to the gossamer-fine and haunting textures of the fourth quartet, or the stark violence that ends the third. The Minguet Quartet does it all justice. Theirs is only the second complete set available on disc, and what’s possibly most impressive is how they manage to chart the big architecture — the way the pieces fit together, or don’t quite — while pouring loving attention into the intricacies of individual scores. Claron McFadden adds rallying, blazing-clear soprano lines to the fifth quartet, while two early works make for fascinating bonus tracks: a restless movement from a schools opera, Absences, and the bolshy, techno-inspired string sextet 180 Beats per Minute.

CD review: Bruckner’s Symphony no 1

First published in the Guardian on 17 July, 2015

Bruckner has never sounded quite so upbeat. Conductor Jaap van Zweden began his career as a violinist — at 19 he was the youngest-ever concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, just up the road from where he is now Honorary Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. Given he knows orchestras from the inside out, it’s not surprising he gives plenty of agency to individual sections and players: this performance brims with conversation and unfolds without force. It’s less urgent than a lot of interpretations and Van Zweden almost always prioritises warm sound over brusque energy. The first movement is all optimism, an adventure of good, clean fun; the Adagio is more Mendelssohn than Mahler in its sweetness and buoyancy; the Scherzo and Finale bounce along with neat, clipped rhythms. Textures are luminous throughout: those who like their Bruckner laid on thick will want darker colours, but for me the classical lightness and clarity is a breath of fresh air.

CD review: Lewis Nielson’s Axis

First published in the Guardian on 17 July, 2015

Lewis Nielson, garage rock guitarist turned composition professor at Oberlin College, writes music that loiters on the fringes: almost tangible, nearly lyrical, subversive to a point. Strands of moderate wit and eloquence mix with stylised modernism but are gone just as soon as they’ve surfaced. This disc features three recent-ish chamber works. The JACK Quartet gives an acrobatic account of Le Journal du Corps, all squeaking, bouncing, grunting bows and a ticking clock that makes a heavy-handed metaphor. Another laboured jolt comes when the players start to sing vehement passages of Aime Cesaire over fragile chords. The nervy Tocsin uses six percussionists (a fiery-sounding red fish blue fish led by Steven Schick) to whip up the discord, belligerence and doubt of crowds on the brink of revolution. Axis for percussion (Schick) and string quintet is a sequence of gestures that don’t seem to have much impact on what comes before or after. The take-home message is disquieting, but the JACK’s playing is bright and shimmering.

Interview: Philip Higham

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First published in The Herald on 15 July, 2015

Philip Higham says the only way he could fathom recording Bach’s Cello Suites was to do it young — to do it now, in fact. The longer he left it, the more likely he might feel that his interpretation “had to be in some way definitive. I wanted to capture something of how I understood these pieces at this point in my career, with full acceptance that there is room for that understanding to grow and change in the future. Doing it now feels like there’s an open road ahead of me.”

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Interview: John Purser

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First published in The Herald on 8 July, 2015

John Purser names his highland cattle after early Scottish composers. Over the years there has been Robert and Carver, Tobias and Hume. When I arrive at his croft in south-west Skye, he brightly informs me that the beef casserole stewing in the bottom of the Aga is, or rather was, Robert. “You do know Carver’s 19-part motet?” he demands before I’m through the door, and only after an extended and animated analysis of the 16th century choral masterpiece O bone Jesu am I permitted to sit down and eat.

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Review: JLA’s Across the Distance

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First published in the Guardian on 7 July, 2015

“Can music resonate with the world around us, and yet still create a world of its own?” This is a typical question posed by the composer John Luther Adams, and his own music resolutely answers it: yes. JLA’s outdoor works make us hear our environment as much as the notes themselves. He calls the process ‘ecological listening’, and though he dislikes the term ‘political art’ (“bad art, bad politics,” he once told me), his nature pieces are eco activism by stealth. It’s a simple strategy and it works: the more we pay attention to our environment, the more we might care about it.

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Review: Dunedin Consort at East Neuk 2015

First published in The Herald on 6 July, 2015

Relaxed, boisterous and a little bit raucous, John Butt and the Dunedin Consort made an overdue East Neuk debut at Cambo Barn — an industrial potato shed cum festival staple for larger ensemble concerts. This year the venue had added feature of farmyard-chic tattie crates lining the back of the stage, which if anything seemed to improve acoustics.

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