First published in The Herald on 30 April, 2014
Vilde Frang tends to attract adjectives like feisty, quirky, organic, irreverent. “There is nothing polished or calculated about her playing,” wrote one German critic; “Vilde Frang is only herself,” wrote another. In an industry that churns out palatably photogenic young female violinists at a rate of knots, this 27-year-old Norwegian has managed to retain an image that is less manufactured and more interesting than most. Her publicity photos are modest, almost folksy, and in interviews she is open and unassuming. More to the point, her full-blooded playing is never for show. Her interpretive choices will throw up plenty of surprises, and probably some uncomfortable challenges, but they’ll always be her own.
First published in the Guardian on 27 April, 2014
Mahler’s Ninth Symphony lasts about 90 minutes, give or take. On paper that might look lightweight alone on a concert programme, but this towering score needs no side dish, no starter; with all its torment and transcendence it is more than enough. Still, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor Donald Runnicles has a thing for pairings: last season he coupled each act of Tristan und Isolde with works somehow linked to Wagner’s opera, and here he preceded the Ninth with Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. It was an impressively unsentimental reading of the ardent elegy, culminating in a gloriously warm warble from the strings. The problem was that the Cantus wends its own consuming emotional journey; as its blazing climax segued into the tentative, trembling opening of Mahler’s symphony (Runnicles had requested no clapping between pieces) I was already semi-sapped.
First published by Sinfini on 24 April, 2014
Week 1: Prom 6, July 22
If the Proms belong to any one composer this year, it’s Richard Strauss. For his 150th anniversary the festival delves into his various musical guises, from the violent modernism of Elektra and Salome (see below) to the intimacy of his love songs (ditto) to the grand bravado of his orchestral showpieces. First up is is Strauss the whimsical romanticist: Glyndebourne trade bucolic Sussex for Kensington and import a semi-staged version of their new Der Rosenkavalier. The superb English soprano Kate Royal makes her role debut as the Marschallin and Glyndebourne’s new music director Robin Ticciati conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra â€“ he should draw the elegant, heartfelt best out of them.
First published in The Herald on 23 April, 2014
There is a sea current that runs around the island of Foula to the far west of Shetland. It’s called the Moder-dy â€“ an old Norn name that means ‘mother wave’ â€“ and it occurs regardless of wind or weather in the place where two tidal streams collide. Local sailors use it as a navigational tool when travelling between Foula and the mainland; for the untrained eye it’s barely visible from the surface.
First published in The Big Issue, 20-26 April, 2014
Protesters in Ukraine sings songs of patriotism or pro-Russian allegiance; yet again, music is deployed as politics and group identity. This month the London Sinfonietta end a four-day residence at Canterbury Christ Church University with a programme that delves into the proud history of protest songs. They turn to the radical Maoism of Cornelius Cardew, a tousle-haired Englishman who penned passionate peoples’ music and founded a Scratch Orchestra that was intended for anyone and everyone to join in; his elegy for solo violin is called The Workers Song and is full of pathos. There’s also the crash-bang roguishness of Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, whose 1975 Workers Union is a clanging battle ground between individual freedom and imposed discipline. Four decades after the premiere it is still a raucous wake-up call. Canterbury, 5 May
First published in The Herald on 16 April, 2014
This week the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra perform one of the great behemoths of the orchestral repertoire: Mahler’s last complete symphony, his Ninth. It’s a work of huge, complicated and devastating emotion – the composer Alban Berg called it “the expression of a tremendous love for this earth, the longing to live on it peacefully…”
Certainly Mahler had death on his mind while he was composing the 90-minute score in 1909-10. His four-year-old daughter Putzi had recently succumbed to diphtheria and he himself had been diagnosed with a fatal heart condition; he died in 1911 without ever having heard a full performance of Ninth. Four huge movements shift through serene resignation, bitter-sweet nostalgia and brutal nihilism; the final retreat into silence speaks of either bleak despair or miraculous transcendence, largely depending on the state of mind of the listener and the performers. Either way, a good account of the Ninth should leave everyone in the concert hall feeling utterly pummelled.
First published in the Guardian on 15 April, 2014
St Matthew Passion
Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh
There can be no hurry when it comes to the St Matthew Passion. Plenty of performances scoot along, almost apologetic for the three-hours-plus that Bach’s full score takes to unfold, only slowing up to wallow in the crowd-pleasers. Not so in this thoughtful, lyrical and beautifully spacious Palm Sunday account from John Butt and the Dunedin Consort. Whereas Butt’s steering of the more concise St John Passion is thrilling for its racy dramatic thrust, here he embraced the Matthew’s scope for expansive reflection. The storytelling never dragged but the arias were platforms for deep contemplation: often Butt didn’t conduct them at all, leaving expressive direction up to the singers and the lithe continuo band.
First published in The Herald on 9 April, 2014
There is no real way to cram a raga. India’s classical music is traditionally passed down from guru to pupil over decades of tutelage that encompasses mind, body and soul â€“ it’s a near-spiritual relationship that cannot be replaced by books or online tutorials. The great sitar player Ravi Shankar once wrote that he felt â€œappalledâ€ when he heard of students learning from a tape: â€œhow can anyone even compare the foundation and solidity of knowledge learned for years directly from a guru to today’s hourly lessons and computer culture?â€
First published in The Big Issue, 6-12 April, 2014
JS Bach never wrote an opera, but he knew a thing or two about music drama. This time of year traditionally brings around a slew of Passion performances – the St John Passion and the later, longer St Matthew Passion. They are Bach’s most operatic works, with the vivid blow-by-blow of their storytelling, the gripping pace of their architecture and the ultra-anguished emotionality of their arias. Take your pick of excellent versions this year: I’d suggest the Britten Sinfonia for the John (Cambridge, 16 April; London, 18 April; Saffron Walden 19 April; Norwich 20 April), the Royal Northern Sinfonia and Thomas Zehetmair for the Matthew (Gateshead, 19 April) or the Dunedin Consort for both (Matthew in Glasgow, 12 April, and Edinburgh, 13 April; John in Perth, 16 April).
First published in The Herald on 7 April, 2014
Next time you’re hammering nails into a piece of wood, think of the covert musicality: the rough rhythms, the pinging overtones. In a disused underground car park off Renfrew Street, a pair of veteran Japanese improvisers, Akio Suzuki and Aki Onda, unearthed the sounds of industrial hammering and clinking, of bottles dragged across the floor, cassette tapes chucked at the wall and speaker feedback bounced back against their own bodies. They moved with the deliberateness of dancers, by turns spontaneous, urgent and precise, and their chemistry was intriguing: Ondo played the volatile troublemaker while Suzuki patiently constructed a makeshift xylophone from a bucket-full of nails then proceeded to play it with spry virtuosity. It was captivating sound art, unfussy and expertly executed.