Monthly Archives: December 2013

Top ten classical CDs of 2013

First published in The Herald on 18 December, 2013

This year the full might of the classical music industry fell behind an unlikely trio of composers (Wagner, Verdi and Britten) and triggered an avalanche of tribute recordings and reissues. But the most rewarding discs often come from the sidelines. Quietly revelatory takes on familiar ground, new outings for unsung repertoire… Whittling down 12 months’ worth of classical releases is a heart-wrenching business, and I’ve cheated by adding five extra titles at the end. It’s also worth noting that while The Herald takes a special interest in music being made in Scotland, every one of the following selection made the cut on blind merit. It’s a list that speaks not of geographical bias but of the extraordinary calibre of Scotland’s classical ensembles.

1 Berlioz: Les nuit d’ete and La mort de Cleopatre. Cargill/SCO/Ticciati. LINN 421
Robin Ticciati has by now embedded the unique soundworld of Hector Berlioz into the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s DNA – the impact is audible in the way they play core repertoire like Beethoven and Schumann. Meanwhile the orchestra brings fresh style and insight into the French composer’s orchestral writing. Last year’s period-ish account of the Symphonie fantastique was a real ear-opener; this year’s follow-up – a gorgeous collection of Les nuits d’été, the Love Scene from Roméo et Juliette and La mort de Cléopâtre – is even more seductive thanks to the poetic, tender, captivating voice of Arbroath-born soprano Karen Cargill. The sound engineers at Linn capture every shimmering hue.

2 Bach: Brandenburg Concertos. Dunedin Consort/Butt. LINN 430
The world hardly suffers from a dearth of Brandenburg recordings, but as usual John Butt and the period-instrument Dunedin Consort bring something totally new to these well-trod concertos. This is lean, spry, spirited playing. Solos are taken from within the group and there’s a real sense of shared ownership from every gutsy, exuberant player. Butt’s academic authority reveals some fascinating relationships and instrumental colours, and there’s the added bonus of his edifying sleeve notes, but the performance never sounds fastidious: its learnedness never gets in the way of a good tune or a swinging dance rhythm.

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Review: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Donald Runnicles and James Ehnes

First published in the Guardian on 13 December, 2013

City Halls, Glasgow

At the heart of this concert by Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was an staggeringly powerful performance of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, with playing so eloquent and direct from Canadian violinist James Ehnes that it just about eclipsed the rest of the programme.

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Review: Scottish Ensemble

First published in the Guardian on 12 December, 2013

Scottish Ensemble
Wellington Church, Glasgow

Scottish Ensemble concerts are never straight-up concerts these days: there’s always some perky twist. For this Nordic-themed programme there were Christmas jumpers and sleigh bells. Management played along in the encore (a peppy string arrangement of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride) and dished out party hats to the audience, a handful of whom gamely stuck them on.

The real novelty was the Ensemble’s approach to Grieg’s Holberg Suite, whose five movements they spliced with music by Rautavaara and a new work written for the project by Danish composer Christian Winther Christensen. The architecture was thoughtfully put together. The three scores were bound together by their shared folk roots yet set each other in striking relief with clashing textures and harmonic languages. Rautavaara’s early suite The Fiddlers is gutsy, free-spirited and gleefully dissonant; Christensen’s Pre-Air explores the percussive noises made by fingers on strings and bows scraping out harmonics. It’s whispered, poised and playful, reminiscent of wintry evocations by Vivaldi and Purcell with a nod to Grieg in its bright rhythms.

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Interview: Gregory Batsleer

First published in The Herald on 11 December, 2013

“It must be really satisfying to know that you’re singing some of the most difficult choral music ever composed – and that you’re singing it really well.” The words of conductor Jonathan Cohen, spoken on Sunday night to the members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus.

The music in question was Bach’s B Minor Mass: pillar of the repertoire and still some of the most intimidating vocal music ever written. Clocking in at around two hours (give or take several minutes depending on stylistic whims) this is a score that demands a huge amount of mental and physical stamina to pull off. It’s set high for the voices, especially when performed at modern tuning rather than the lower Baroque pitch, and it’s infused with the all the technical might of Bach’s experience, from plainchant to staggering counterpoint to florid operatic ornaments to feisty dance rhythms. A degree of mystery shrouds its composition – why did the devoutly Lutheran composer pour so much energy into a full Catholic mass setting? – but what seems fairly clear is that Bach didn’t expect it to be performed in one go. Nowadays complete runs are standard procedure, but that shouldn’t detract from the awesomeness of the experience for audience and performers.

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Why we can’t take silence as an answer from Scottish Opera

First published in The Herald on 4 December, 2013

It has been nearly ten weeks since Scottish Opera announced that its new music director, Emmanuel Joel-Hornak, was to resign with immediate effect, and still the company’s general director Alex Reedijk refuses to talk. What to do? With the orchestra sworn to secrecy (members’ contracts ban them from talking to the media), board members unwilling to comment and any freelance singer or production worker too professionally compromised to risk sticking their neck out, the murky silence holds fast.

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Review: Acis and Galatea

First published in The Herald on 28 November, 2013

Acis and Galatea
Mono, Glasgow

The first inspired move by this Music of the Spheres/Glasgow Opera Collective student production was to set it in a Trongate bar that usually hosts indie bands, not baroque opera. The place was packed with eaters and drinkers, including reams of those elusive ‘young people’ whom opera companies covet so much. The bar served burgers and pints during the show yet noise wasn’t an issue. The up-close informality really worked; the singers didn’t have to overstretch their voices and the audience listened with more genuine intent than I’ve witnessed in many an opera house.

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Review: Colin Currie and Nicolas Hodges

First published in The Herald on 28 November, 2013

Colin Currie/Nicolas Hodges
Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow

There can’t be many musicians able to bring Stockhausen’s Kontakte to life quite as vividly, and with quite as much cool authority, as percussionist Colin Currie and pianist Nicolas Hodges. It’s not that their performance in the Old Fruitmarket was particularly showy or grandiose; somehow it was their distillation of grace and ferocity, the subtle balance between Hodge’s composure and Currie’s poised athleticism, that made for such an enthralling account.

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