CD review: Jaakko Kuusisto’s Glow

First published in the Guardian on 25 August, 2016

Jaakko Kuusisto: Glow
Meta4/Kuusisto etc. (BIS)

Finnish conductor/composer/violinist Jaakko Kuusisto writes nimble, muscular music that wears its influences proudly (Debussy, Stravinsky), sometimes roams into misty or overheated places but is mostly pretty spirited and playful. The titles are a bit of a give away on that last point: this survey of recent chamber music includes Play II and Play III, and the fact that Kuusisto is a violinist himself — like his brother Pekka — is everywhere in the quixotic, very physical-sounding string writing and the sparky dialogue between instruments. Play III collapses from hectic rhapsody into lament for solo violin with slow panting in the accompaniment; in Play III, the piano splutters and provokes while the strings hold out wan harmonics then fiercely retaliate. It all sounds like music written to be delivered with vigour and fluidity and these performances from (among others) the Meta4 quartet, pianist Paavali Jumppanen and Kuusisto himself run with that.

CD review: WDR’s Bernd Alois Zimmermann

First published in the Guardian on 25 August, 2016

Zimmermann: Symphony in One Movement etc
WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne/Hirsch

Bernd Alois Zimmermann was an anomaly in 20th century Euro-modernism — not so much because he refused to engage with the big trends, but because he took those trends and went rogue. His ballet suite Giostra Genovese is a weird marvel of anachronism, piles upon piles of quotations and non sequiturs; Music for King Ubu’s Dinner is a ‘ballet noir’ from 1966 that still sounds politically incorrect and bonkers. This WDR album contains both those works plus the Concerto for String Orchestra, all performed with a meticulously menacing, deadpan sense of drama, and the disc opens with the original version of the Sinfonie in einem Satz (1951) in all its lush, surreal, supremely foreboding glory. Zimmermann would later revise the score to make it more concise and regulate the bizarre instrumentation, but the grim organ in the original is marvellously creepy. This music has a terror that shouldn’t be softened, and conductor Peter Hirsch squares up unflinchingly.

CD review: Jurowski, LPO, Stravinsky

First published in the Guardian on 25 August, 2016

Stravinsky: Petrushka, Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Orpheus
LPO/Jurowski (LPO)

Vladimir Jurowski has been principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra since 2007 and what comes across brilliantly on this new Stravinsky disc — recorded live in concert in 2014 and 2015 — is how focused and un-faffy he and the orchestra sound together by now. The playing is bright, focused, elegant, occasionally too much so. Petrushka (original 1911 version) is short on crazed energy and urban hubbub, but instead we get chamber-like clarity and a really crisp sense of the score’s architecture. Orpheus has a sombre, stately beauty, and the Symphonies of Winds is performed in the original version with alto flute and alto clarinet giving excitingly mellow, gooey textures. Stravinsky described the piece as “an austere ritual” but also dedicated it to Debussy, and this performance clinches that balance between solemn observance and splendid colours. Best of all are the closing chorales, full of quiet, attentive poise.

Review: Minnesota, Vänskä, Kuusisto

First published in the Guardian on 24 August, 2016

Two years ago the Minnesota Orchestra emerged from a bitter lockout during which its music director Osmo Vänskä resigned in protest (he was later rehired). Now here they all are, touring Europe again against the odds, and that ultra-plush, super-charged Minnesota sound is back with a new added edge of tenacity. They played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony like a resounding declaration and Vänskä took big pride in those classic ringing trumpets, sleek winds and gloriously bottom-heavy strings. The match here has always been thrilling — his dynamism on the podium plus the powerful engine of this band — and now there seems something irrepressibly triumphant about it. Sibelius’s brooding tone poem Pohjala’s Daughter opened the concert and the surging energy was immense.

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Preview: Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder

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First published in The Herald on 24 August, 2016

Five friends gather of an evening to witness the once-in-nine-yearly flowering of an exotic cactus. While they’re waiting for this miraculous night bloom they keep themselves entertained in time-honoured tradition of telling heroic tales and reciting epic poems. The last recitation is the Gurresange — a grand tragedy of illicit love and jealous fury and the transcendental powers of nature to resurrect the human spirit.

It goes something like this. Back in 14th century Denmark, King Waldemar loves the beautiful maiden Tove and they meet for secret passionate trysts at the castle of Gurre. Queen Helwig poisons Tove in a jealous rage (the original ballad has her locked in a sauna, which seems a uniquely Scandinavian revenge) and Tove’s funeral is recounted in vivid verse by a wood dove. The grieving Waldemar curses God and is condemned to forever fly through the night skies while Tove is splendidly transfigured through the glories of nature and, to top it all, off the poet himself appears to reassure us of the renewing forces of each new sunrise.

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Review: Sao Paolo & Marin Alsop

First published in The Herald on 23 August, 2016

Some orchestras tend to run themselves, self-directed from within while the conductor adds interpretative detail or navigates tricky corners, or possibly doesn’t do much at all. Not so with the Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop. Brazil’s flagship orchestra made its Edinburgh debut and lived up to its reputation for bright energy and big punch, but I’ve rarely seen a conductor work so hard to get it. Alsop was utterly cool on the podium: decisive, clear, brisk with tempos, totally in control. She takes a no-bullshit approach, never baggy or indulgent and always aware of who-needs-what-when. Her complete alertness seemed to compel the musicians to respond with the same — audience, too, because despite not-always-remarkable constituent parts of the orchestra, this was a remarkable concert.

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Review: Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

First published in The Herald on 20 August, 2016

Mahler had dark things on his mind while he was writing his Ninth Symphony in 1909-10. Antisemitism had cost him his job at the Vienna Court Opera, his daughter had died of diphtheria and he had developed a heart condition that meant he wouldn’t live to hear a full performance of the score. The epic emotional gamut in the music — despair, resignation, twisted nostalgia, nihilism — eventually trails off into a silence that feels like the bleakest oblivion or the sweetest transcendence or, if you’re Adorno, like simply “peering questioningly into uncertainty.”

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Interview: John Wilson on Copland

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First published in Gramophone, September 2016

“I’ve always been fascinated in the byways of music,” says conductor John Wilson, picking up the score to Aaron Copland’s Second Symphony and half-studying the typeface while he talks. “Back at college when all my friends were getting in a lather about Mahler, I was more into Lord Berners and bits of Walton that people hadn’t heard for years.”

Wilson is a self-styled anomaly in the conducting world. He’s utterly serious about light music, cheerfully and loquaciously Geordie in a profession that traditionally trades on pomp and grand personas. He’s as fastidious about authentic performance practise as any baroque specialist, but the repertoire to which he applies those principles of original instrumentation and historically informed interpretations is one that only recently earned enough clout to make it into the Proms. If the classical music world now shows respect for the film scores of vintage MGM musicals, that shift in attitude can be largely attributed to two decades and counting of championing by Wilson himself. Because since founding the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, his dedication to the music of Hollywood’s golden age has achieved a two-way thing: on the one side he has enticed fans of light music into the concert hall. On the other side, his attention to detail and the calibre of his hand-picked band have brought new status to music once dismissed as gushy, camp and saccharine.

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Review: Daniil Trifonov

First published in the Guardian on 18 August, 2016

There were moments when Daniil Trifonov’s forehead almost hit the keyboard and moments when he launched himself right off the piano stool — which might sound like showmanship from the wunderkid of old-school Russian powerhouse pianism, but nothing was mannered or bombastic in this recital. At 25 Trifonov is still the blaze of fearless, joyous virtuosity he was when he first played in Edinburgh four years ago, but what’s so exciting to witness is how he increasingly channels all that technical prowess into making softer rather than louder sounds. It’s as though the flashy stuff comes so easily that he’s far more interested in finding ways to make the piano sing or whisper or melt into liquid.

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Review: Tenebrae

First published in The Herald on 18 August, 2016

Think Brahms and Bruckner, think symphonic heft, teutonic massiveness, those gothic-romantic ‘cathedrals in sound’ that juggernauted German orchestral music to its 19th century zenith and beyond. Or maybe not. Because for all the girth and sumptuousness of their biggest scores, both composers were fastidious contrapuntalists, too, deeply indebted to Palestrina and the polyphonic vocal repertoire of the 16th and 17th centuries. Those clean-sculpted lines are at the heart of the symphonies if you’re lucky enough to hear a performance that doesn’t smother them. And as the chamber choir Tenebrae proved with their sublimely clean phrasing and lucid, glowing ensemble sound, those lines are etched into Brahms’s and Bruckner’s music for unaccompanied voices.

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