Review: Scottish Ensemble / Alina Ibragimova

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First published in the Guardian on 17 February, 2017

The Scottish Ensembles’s default setting is all flux and dynamism: that’s the mission of this string orchestra, and it makes for nimble conversations within the group. So it was a thrill to hear what happened when they were joined by Alina Ibragimova — violinist of uncompromising focus and intensity who made the sparring go deeper, quieter, fiercer. Ibragimova is a chamber musician as well as soloist, acutely attentive to group texture and counterpoint, but there was no question who was in control. She didn’t so much invite as command their attention, and ours.

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CD review: Beethoven from James Ehnes & Andrew Armstrong

First published in the Guardian on 16 February, 2017

Beethoven: Violin Sonatas nos 6 & 9
Ehnes/Armstrong (Hyperion)

Violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong play together with that intuitive spark and easy suppleness that only old friends really can. In the past they’ve done excellent things with Franck and Strauss, with Debussy, Elgar and Respighi; now they turn to Beethoven with the same combination of light touch and searing focus. There’s a clarity of ideas that means they never have to overstate — take the initial phrase of the Kreutzer sonata, the impeccably eloquent way the radiant opening chord clouds over so quickly and so decisively. Flashes of white heat in that first movement subside into a graceful reading of the Sixth sonata, full of featherweight diction. For some listeners the sound won’t be brawny or volatile enough for mid-period Beethoven, but it would be wrong to mistake cleanliness for lack of emotional depth. The simple, conversational generosity of this duo speaks volumes.

CD review: Byrd/Britten choral music

First published in the Guardian on 16 February, 2017

Byrd/Britten: Choral music
Choir of Jesus College Cambridge/Williams (Signum)

William Byrd was a Catholic in the service of an Anglican monarch; Benjamin Britten was a gay pacifist in wartime England. It never hurts to remember how many of the artists we end up deifying faced some sort of bigotry in their day. This album presents Byrd and Britten as a pair of outsiders, alternating works by both in a programme that illuminates but doesn’t force the parallels. Conductor Mark Williams opens with a Byrd anthem (O Lord, make they servant, Elizabeth our Queen) and closes with Britten’s youthful Te Deum. In between we get a considered performance of Britten’s Missa Brevis and Byrd’s sublimely introspective Quomodo cantibimus. 350 years separate their careers but Byrd’s scraping harmonies often sound no older than Britten’s. The singing of Jesus College isn’t always sharply defined but it is warm and breathy, topped by excellent boy choristers and best in stately slow pieces like Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus.

CD review: Cedric Tiberghien’s Bartok

First published in the Guardian on 16 February, 2017

Bartok: Piano Sonata, Sonatina, Sonata for two pianos & percussion etc.
Cédric Tiberghien (Hyperion)

Cédric Tiberghien’s Bartok series has been an ear-opener of expressive and sharp-witted performances that clinch the music’s essence in original terms. The French pianist has saved some of Bartok’s most straight-out tuneful material for last: this final instalment includes the Three Hungarian Folksongs from the Csík District (melodies Bartok learned in August 1907 from a Transylvanian flute player), the Three Rondos on Slovak Folk Tunes and the slight, blithe Sonatina. He balances these with the fiery Études and the motoring Sonata — and in all of it, the angular as well as the earthy, he has a way of making rhythms sound stretchy, precise and personal. He’s joined by fellow pianist François-Frédéric Guy and percussionists Colin Currie and Sam Walton for the astoundingly inventive Sonata for two pianos and percussion from 1926 — a jostling, gracious and generally deft performance to round off the disc.

Interview: Rory Kinnear

First published in the Guardian on 14 February, 2017

Rory Kinnear is walking through a Shakespeare scene. It’s The Winter’s Tale, week one of rehearsals, jeans and t-shirts all round, and Kinnear is delivering a intent stream-of-consciousness while acting out what the character Leontes might experience the moment when he realises the daughter he thought he’d killed as an infant is now standing before him as a woman. “When you’re guilty and someone is nice to you, how good does that feel,” he murmurs. “And now I’m clocking her face, her hand, and now there’s this incredibly slow sensation of, oh wow, what the fuck.”

Kinnear is a solidly respected British actor, born into a theatre family and acclaimed for intelligent portrayals of Hamlet and Iago at the National Theatre as well as his marvellously dependable and subtly wry Bill Tanner in recent Bond films. “What I admire about Kinnear is that he pays scrupulous attention to language,” wrote the Guardian’s Michael Billington in 2010 — and even in early-stage rehearsals there is plain evidence of how his ultra realistic and unhysterical articulateness can bring a room to standstill.

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Interview: Elim Chan

First published in The Herald on 15 February, 2017

Neemi Jarvi has withdrawn from conducting his own 80th birthday concerts with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra this week, having been instructed by doctors to keep weight off a bad knee. His replacement is Elim Chan: a 30-year-old rising star from Hong Kong who came to international attention two years ago as the first woman to win the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition and was introduced to Scottish audiences two weeks ago when she conducted the RSNO in Kirkcaldy and Musselburgh.

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Preview: Tectonics 2017

First published in The Herald on 8 February, 2017

Yesterday the BBC Scottish Symphony announced the lineup for the fifth annual Tectonics — that’s the orchestra’s springtime weekend festival of new, experimental, DIY, improvised, collaborative and/or non-categorisable music. Five years might be time enough for various things to take place: for the festival’s adventurous spirit to soften, for the energy to dissipate, for the BBC to reconsider its funding priorities and roll back support for such a relatively risky and out-there venture.

None of which appears to have happened. Partly that’s because the BBC knows it’s on to a good thing here. Tectonics has raised the bar internationally for the way orchestras engage with new forms and noises made outside their venerated walls. The model has caught on all over the place: as the programme points out, this is the fifth Tectonics in Glasgow but the 19th globally, with Athens poised to be the next city to join the rostrum this summer.

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Review: Shirley Collins

First published in the Guardian on 5 February, 2017

For decades Shirley Collins was the lost icon, the secret treasure of English folk whose own story was as tragic as the ballads she used to sing. In the 1970s she lost her voice through heartbreak and dysphonia and eventually stopped performing altogether. Those in the know rehearsed the details like a legend. Her early recordings were coveted for their ultra-direct pathos — in an age of divas, here was a totally unadorned and unflinching way of singing that bypassed ego and mainlined the authenticity of words and music no matter how disturbing the tales they told. She was revered as an archivist, too, who had travelled the US with Alan Lomax and unearthed the dark, scary ballads of her native Sussex. She inspired acid folk and psych folk and folk punk-rock and pure folk, all the while living a quiet life in Lewes without much inkling of her impact.

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Review: Trilok Gurtu & Evelyn Glennie

First published in the Guardian on 3 February, 2017

This was a one-off Celtic Connections commission to mark the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and featuring the first formal collaboration between Scotland’s Evelyn Glennie and India’s Trilok Gurtu, two of the world’s most famous percussionists. The programme — called The Rhythm In Me — was partly improvised, partly reworkings of existing material by Glennie and Gurtu, and had been devised via Skype then rehearsed a day before the concert. It sounded accordingly: a kind of meandering east-meets-west scratch project injected with signifiers of meaningfulness (Glennie opened and closed with heartfelt voice-over readings of Rabindranath Tagore’s Where The Mind Is Without Fear and Robert Burns’s A Man’s A Man) and saved by flashes of genuine conviviality and flair.

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CD review: Momo Kodama plays Debussy & Hosokawa etudes

First published in the Guardian on 3 February, 2017

Debussy/Hosokawa: Etudes
Momo Kodama (ECM)

Debussy looked east for inspiration, enthralled by Javanese gamelans and Japanese woodcuts. Toshio Hosokawa, born in Hiroshima in 1955, writes wispy music rooted in the Western tradition. Pianist Momo Kodama grew up in Osaka and studied in Paris; her first ECM album paired Takemitsu with Ravel and Messiaen. You can guess where this is going: a programme that alternates piano studies by Debussy and Hosokawa, intended to illuminate the cross-cultural influences of music written a hundred years apart. The album is called Point and Line after one of the Hosokawa studies, but that name also hints at the cool definition of Kodama’s playing. Her touch is immaculate and diligent, neatly flamboyant in the Debussy and reassuringly robust in the Hosokawa. She writes that both composers are “between meditation and virtuoso development, between light and shade, between large gestures and minimalist refinement” — and it’s those places in between that make her interpretations interesting.