Interview: Hugo Ticciati

First published in The Herald on 27 June, 2015

It was near midnight on a cold Orcadian midsummer when I first encountered the violinist Hugo Ticciati. He was playing a solo recital in Kirkwall’s St Magnus Cathedral — a magical setting for concerts, built by 12th century Viking earls in thick-set red sandstone and one of the most miraculous church acoustics in the country. Inside the lights were dimmed low for the late-night performance, but outside the northern summer gloaming still lit the sky and the cathedral’s stained glass panels were glowing. Before the concert I spotted Ticciati standing by the alter, head cocked to one side. He looked as though he was tuning into the atmosphere of the place.

Continue reading

Interview: Christopher Bell

First published in The Herald on 24 June, 2015

There is a serious reason for the sparkly shoes. Initially it was a bit of fun, says Edinburgh Festival Chorus chorus master Christopher Bell, whose signature concert gear includes black leopard print brogues and shiny ties. Bell is the first to admit he’s not above a bit of playful bling, but there’s a deeper point here. He believes that a successful concert is all about partnership: between chorus and chorus master, between chorus and orchestra, between musicians and conductor, between stage and audience. And he believes in due recognition.

Continue reading

CD review: John Cage Aria from Nicholas Isherwood

First published in the Guardian on 19 June, 2015

American bass-baritone Nicholas Isherwood says it took him a long time to appreciate the music of John Cage, but it doesn’t show. Spanning 43 years of Cage vocal works not included in his Song Books, this collection is affectionate and forthright, meticulous when it matters and generally great fun. Isherwood’s voice is rich, clear and lyrical; the same delivery would suit a disc of American folk ballads. Recorded up-close to catch all its fragile edges, the set opens with the slip-sliding Aria, written for the fearless circus that was Cathy Berberian’s voice and here accompanied by Gianluca Verlingieri’s 2009 reconstruction of the bonkers tape piece Fontana Mix, cow moos and all. The unpublished A Chant with Claps is daft, catchy and joyful. Isherwood accompanies himself on Joyce settings The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs and a violent, claustrophobic little work called Nowth Upon Nacht. Word play abounds in the spry Sonnekus and Eight Whiskus, but his treatment is amusingly dry. The longest work is Ryoanji (1985), named after a Zen garden. Isherwood’s performance is intense and serene, potently atmospheric and never studious.

CD review: Grieg Lyric Pieces from Janina Fialkowska

First published in the Guardian on 19 June, 2015

There’s been a spate of Lyric Pieces recently: Stephen Hough’s no-nonsense collection on Hyperion, Javier Perianes’s sunny accounts for Harmonia Mundi, and this — an uncluttered, intimate, sweetly solemn offering from Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska. She doesn’t quite match the other two for colour or flare, but the elegant poise of her playing is all the explanation you’d need for why so many great pianists are seduced by the seemingly simple pieces. Grieg wrote 66 of them; Fialkowska begins and ends with the same selection as Hough — Arietta Op. 12 and Remembrances Op 71 — and includes luminous, spacious performances of Berceuse, Album Leaf, Notturno and Evening in the Mountains. Her Butterfly and Little Bird flutter weightlessly, her Wedding Day at Troldhaugen is chipper and joyous, but there’s a touching melancholy that lingers through all of it. I was a bit put off by the sound of the piano, a twangy thing recorded in Quebec’s Palais Montcalm. But Fialkowska is a Chopin interpreter at heart, and she would make these melodies sing on anything.

CD review: Monteverdi Madrigals from Les Arts Florissants

First published in the Guardian on 19 June, 2015

What was it with Cremona? The great luthiers Amati, Guarnari and Stradivari all had their shops in the sleepy Lombardy town. Claudio Monteverdi was born there in 1567, and although he was eventually lured away by the brighter lights of Mantua, Rome and Venice, his auspicious early works were all crafted at home. Paul Agnew and his stylish baroque ensemble Les Arts Florissants are currently performing Monteverdi’s complete madrigals — eight miraculous books spanning the composer’s career; Agnew calls them Monteverdi’s musical autobiography. They’re recording them, too, though not comprehensively or chronologically. More interestingly, they’re grouping according to city. Volume 2 was released last year, a lens into Monteverdi’s Mantua years. Now Cremona dips into Books 1-3 to show a ballsy young composer flexing his muscles, breathlessly setting love poems, brimming with clever tricks. Les Arts capture all the exuberant invention. Their delivery is fresh and colloquial, like animated conversation between friends. The vocal blend isn’t smooth — the character of each singer shines through, and the result is all the more colourful for it.

Interview: Camilla Panufnik

1990. AP,CP,Myszka

First published in The Herald on 17 June, 2015

A BBC orchestra devoting an entire weekend of concerts to the music of Andrzej Panufnik? The notion would have been unimaginable for most of the composer’s life. When Panufnik arrived in the UK in 1954, having fled a communist Poland that no longer allowed him the artistic freedom he needed to compose, his lush, expressive orchestral music found scant favour with the broadcaster’s new music programmers: they were preoccupied with a kind of arch-modernism that Panufnik never fully embraced. He would later joke that he went “from Number One to No One at All” — from Poland’s foremost post-war composer to an outmoded London refugee.

Continue reading

Review: Simoon

First published in the Guardian on 11 June, 2015

There’s a tricky mystique to the music of Scottish composer Erik Chisholm, who died 50 years ago this week. Partly it’s his deft brew of exotic and local, modernist and earthy, so enthralling in his finest works — listen to the piano concertos or the gorgeous Violin Concerto. But there’s also the prosaic factor that most of his music is hardly ever played; we just don’t hear enough to form a full picture of this composer at his best and his less-good.

Continue reading

Interview: Lisa Milne

First published in The Herald on 10 June, 2015

Lisa Milne, one of the finest operatic voices Scotland has ever produced, has announced she will be quitting the main stage and devoting the rest of her career to teaching. “I felt I had come to the end of my life as an artist,” Milne says, typically frank during the first detailed interview she has given since making the decision. In October she takes up an official position in the vocal department at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, her own alma mater and an institution that says it is “over the moon” to welcome the world-renown soprano onto its faculty.

Continue reading

CD review: Ivan Fischer, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Mahler 9

First published in the Guardian on 4 June, 2015

Mahler: Ninth Symphony
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Fischer

I can’t stop playing the last movement of this recording. Mahler’s long farewell — Adorno once called it ‘staring into oblivion’ — is given heartbreaking intensity and tenderness by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, always an ensemble of great character and conviction. If BPO concerts usually entail novelty stage tricks or surprise choral encores, the actual interpretations of music director Ivan Fischer can be surprisingly traditional. And what a fine Mahlerian he is: this account is superb for the orchestra’s deep, old-world sound, for a generosity of expression that clinches the work’s turmoil but draws radiantly life-affirming conclusions. Fisher whips through the score in just 75 minutes but pauses for breath when the music needs it. There’s fondness in opening and raw violence as the calm ruptures; the Landler is sturdy and sincere, a blur of swirling couples from a bygone Vienna, and the Rondo has an earthy vigour that reminds us where this orchestra comes from. The close is less Adorno’s gloomy oblivion, more the glowing hope of Berg’s description: “a tremendous love for this earth, the longing to live on it peacefully.”

CD review: Folke Gräsbeck plays Sibelius

First published in the Guardian on 4 June, 2015

Sibelius: piano music
Folke Gräsbeck (BIS)

We’re deep into composer anniversary geekery here, but bear with me. The piano used for this recording is the Steinway that Jean Sibelius — 150 this year — played at Ainola, his forest home overlooking Lake Tuusula in rural Finland. The disc’s liner notes enthuse that this very same keyboard witnessed the birth of Sibelius’s Sixth and Seventh symphonies and was played by pianist friends as illustrious as Wilhelm Kempff and Emil Gilels. Even if you’re not enough of an instrument anorak to go weak over such details, the sound of the piano really is lovely: sweet, nutty, with soft articulation and endearingly warbly tuning. Folke Gräsbeck — a Sibelius specialist and an admirably unfussy player — offers a wide selection of the composer’s piano music, from affectionate miniatures to ballsy Finlandia transcriptions, and through it all we glimpse Sibelius at his most intimate, most charming and most delicate. And yes, hearing the instrument he composed for, recorded in situ in the home where he composed, turns out to be quite a thrill.