First published in the Guardian on 19 January, 2014
City Halls, Glasgow
How to breathe fresh life into an old warhorse like Grieg’s A-minor Piano Concerto? For German pianist Lars Vogt the answer is to treat the work like an improvised rhapsody: to oust all stock gestures and blow strange, dark drama in their place.
Vogt’s performance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Donald Runnicles was steely and volatile, not always comfortable but totally gripping. He pulled around phrases with the authority of someone who doesn’t suffer compromise â€“ it was wilfully fitful, refusing to settle even when Grieg offers respite (the tender Adagio was sumptuously played by the strings but thorny from the keyboard). Vogt’s casual gloss through chunky passages sounded borderline flippant, and in tuttis he turned to eyeball the orchestra as if defying them to wallow. Yet his glassy touch and cool detachment brought a stark, chilly grace to the work, and his sense of flux was breathtaking â€“ the simple second subject of the opening movement had the loose beauty of a Brad Mehldau ballad.
First published in The Herald on 15 January, 2014
Sir Neville Marriner and The Academy of St Martin in the Fields: names that can hardly be imagined apart. Marriner, originally a violinist, founded the Academy as an ensemble of friends who met in his London living room and played together without a conductor. They made their public debut in 1958 at the church on Trafalgar Square that gave them their name; Marriner directed from the leader’s chair and every hand-picked member of the small band responded with the vibrancy and alertness of chamber musicians.
This year Marriner turns 90 â€“ there are birthday concerts planned in London and Germany in the spring â€“ and for the past two seasons the Academy has been under the musical directorship of another, much younger musician for the first time in its history. Needless to say that’s no easy mantel to take on, but for violinist Joshua Bell there is no question of trying to replace the orchestra’s illustrious founder.
First published in the Guardian on 13 January, 2013
City Halls, Glasgow
There often comes a time when nostalgia and the safe distance of decades draws composers back to their earliest works. James MacMillan has been rifling through his dusty bottom shelves of late and unearthed a pile of student scores that he’d all-but forgotten. He used this BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra showcase, which he conducted himself, to air two of them for the first time. â€œIt’s like re-reading old letters,â€ he explained from the stage. â€œYou recognise yourself but you realise kind of wistfully how much you’ve changed in the intervening years.â€
First published in The Herald on 30 December, 2013
Happy birthday, Lutoslawski. 2013 was headlined by the hefty centenary celebrations for Benjamin Britten, but cast your minds back to the (more modest) 100th birthday of Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Ilan Volkov paid excellent tribute with a stormy Fourth Symphony and an earthy Concerto for Orchestra.
Anderszewski and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The intensely charismatic pianist Piotr Anderszewski is a regular visitor to the SCO and tends to bring out the boisterous best in them. In February he and violinist Alexander Janiczek co-directed a programme of Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven: the result was a wild mix of tenderness and sparky to-and-fros.
Brotzmann at Counterflows. The second Counterflows festival closed with an unforgettable blast of ferocious free improv from legendary German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann. His sparring partner was Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love; a packed Glad Cafe provided the perfect sweaty, intimate arena.