First published in The Herald on 28 September, 2013
27 January, 1974. A band of intrepid wind players had broken ranks from the Scottish Baroque Ensemble and formed a loose orchestral outfit that could tackle small-scale symphonic repertoire. Calling themselves the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, they booked a venue (Glasgow’s City Halls), hired a conductor (James Loughran) and boldly invited a star soloist (the tenor Robert Tear) to sing at their debut concert.
The programme that wintry Sunday afternoon wouldn’t look out of place in an SCO season brochure today: Mozart’s 29th Symphony, Beethoven’s Fourth and Britten’s Les Illuminations. The mission statement of the fledgling orchestra still broadly rings true, too: “It will present the great Viennese classics as far as possible with the playing strength and with the style for which they were originally composed.” Here was an ensemble that started how it planned to continue.
First published in The Herald on 27 September, 2013
The mad genius, the belligerent loner, the deaf visionary. Beethoven’s mythical persona tends to be lurid and larger than life, fuelled by generations of dodgy Hollywood biopics and musicological conjecture. The image we conjure up of him shapes the way we hear his music, especially the brutish non sequiturs of the stormy late stuff.
But it’s often misleading to deduce too much about the man from the facts and fictions we’ve gathered about his life. For the most insightful autobiography of Ludvig van, just turn to his music. Few composers were able to communicate their internal world as directly as Beethoven, with all his blemishes and beauty there to hear. And nowhere is that more true than in his string quartets and piano sonatas.
First published in The Herald on 25 September, 2013
Handel composed some 40 operas. Inevitably there were one or two flops along the way, and more than a few recycled tunes, but the best of them are dramas of great power and pathos, jam-packed with some of the most sumptuous, sensuous, heart-on-sleeve arias ever written.
What no Handle opera can claim is a simple storyline. There’s usually a scheming monarch or several, some convoluted mistaken identities, the odd bout of madness or hocus pocus. The themes tend to be obvious enough (love, loyalty, revenge, vice, virtue) but with characters whose names all sound roughly the same and whose family trees look like tangly creepers, even the hardiest opera-goer can easily lose the plot, so to speak.
First published in the Guardian on 24 September, 2013
St Mary’s Church, Haddington
Hot on the heels of their superb set of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, John Butt and the Dunedin Consort have turned to turned to Mozart’s Requiem for the first time: they recorded it last week and performed it here for the closing concert of the Lammermuir Festival. As usual with Butt there’s a scholarly twist. He uses a new edition of the score – Sussmayr’s completion in original form – and reconstructs the orchestral forces that (probably) played the first performances in 1793. A fortepiano replaces the usual organ in the continuo ensemble, though I suspect that difference will show up more on the recording than it did in this boomy church acoustic. Generally the orchestra was dark-hued and brooding, brilliantly punctuated by husky brass and basset horns.
First published in The Herald on 23 September, 2013
Danish String Quartet with Mark Simpson
St Mary’s Church, Whitekirk
There’s a passage in the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet that gets me every time: just a brief sequence of downward-shifting suspended harmonies, crunchy and somehow timeless. I’ve never heard it more beautifully done than in this performance by the Danish String Quartet and clarinettist Mark Simpson. The upper strings were muted and nutty-warm, the cello pulsated richly, and Simpson’s honeyed tone wove weightlessly in amongst them. When the main theme finally returned it was carried on a mellow whisper (and, incidentally, a single vast breath on Simpson’s part â€“ no small feat).
First published in the Guardian on 21 September, 2013
City Halls, Glasgow
Donald Runnicles is a conductor who thinks operatic: grand sweep, singing lines. Even when he’s tackling a behemoth of the symphonic repertoire â€“ Mahler’s Fifth, in this case â€“ he shapes phrases so that they always sing, never adding a breath where a vocalist wouldn’t, never propping up a long melody on life-support. There have been times when his broad lyricism seemed to bypass the finer details of an orchestral score, but not here. This was an attentive, lucid account of Mahler’s symphony with some staggeringly good playing from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra to open their 2013-14 season.
First published in The Herald on 20 September, 2013
Mr McFall’s Chamber
Glad Cafe, Glasgow
As a teenager in the late ’60s, Robert McFall would while away the hours with Frank Zappa’s Freak Out! and Captain Beefheart’s ballsy swamp blues via John Peel’s radio shows. With typical classy eclecticism, Mr McFall’s Chamber â€“ the intrepid Edinburgh-based troupe of Scottish Chamber Orchestra musicians and friends â€“ make Beefheart and Zappa the backbone of their latest tour. The programme also showcases first-rate new works by Martin Kershaw and Paul Harrison, both of whom doff their caps to the brash rock iconoclasts but keep their jazz-accented language their own.
First published in The Herald on 18 September, 2013
Stormy skies and a new orchestral season: autumn is upon us, and tomorrow the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra launches its 2013-14 Thursday night series in the company of one of the great Mahlerian voices of our time.
American baritone Thomas Hampson is the latest of the big-name singers that Donald Runnicles, the BBC SSO’s chief conductor, has picked up along his travels to US and German opera houses and brought back to perform in Scotland (last season’s star guest was the magnificent Nina Stemme). And Runnicles has chosen a heavyweight opening-night programme to match. In the second half he conducts Mahler’s mighty Fifth Symphony, with its funereal trumpet fanfares and heartwrenching Adagietto. Leonard Bernstein once wrote that â€œMahler’s marches are like heart-attacks, his chorales like all Christendom gone madâ€: in this symphony we get both.
First published in The Big Issue, 16 – 22 September, 2013
Off of the telly, into the opera house. Welsh National Opera’s autumn tour taps the current fad for all things Tudor, but the programme is well worth a perusal even if Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour et al have never particularly been your bag. Gaetano Donizetti was among the reams of 19th century composers who latched onto the Tudors as ideal operatic fodder: all that jealous love, seething political intrigue and brutish violence. His ‘Three Queens’ historical operas (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux) make for gripping bel canto spectaculars and, typically inventive, Welsh National Opera is presenting the lot. It’s the first time that all three have been staged together in the UK, and with fine casts and conductors the tour should be a decent outing for these rarely-done gems. WNO is also laying on plenty of Tudor-themed extras, with the National Trust at hand to provide access to local Tudor houses and pre-performance talks at all of the evening shows. At Millennium Centre, Cardiff, until 6 October, then touring to Swansea, Oxford, Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham, Llandudno and Southampton until 29 November.
First published in The Herald on 16 September, 2013
St Mary’s Church, Haddington
How to do justice to an orchestra in a church acoustic? It is possible, for sure, but the repertoire needs to be right and the playing needs to adjust accordingly. Where the Scottish Chamber Orchestra ricocheted around Dunbar Parish Church on Friday, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra blurred at the edges at St Mary’s Haddington the following night.
Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila probably wasn’t the ideal choice of opener, with its glittering string runs and Martyn Brabbins’s flash-fire tempo, but the boisterous atmosphere came across regardless. Britten’s Violin Concerto was haunting, though, in a superbly judged performance from Anthony Marwood. Britten wrote this concerto in 1939 during an exile of sorts in North America, and it’s a troubled score, full of conflicted, fitful emotion. Marwood captured the nervy tension as well as the longing: his sound was silvery and subtle, never imposing, his cadenza was plaintive and insistent and he intertwined with the orchestra beautifully.