First published in The Herald on 31 January, 2014
Happy Hogmanay, all, and no better moment to rewind and fast-forward. Reminiscences first. These past 12 months have produced a clutch of unforgettable gems, a few inexcusable flops and an impressive contingent of fine performances. Overall we’re tremendously fortunate for the classical music on our doorsteps, especially those of us who live in the central belt.
As in every corner of the arts, the referendum forced the classical sector to do some mostly useful, occasionally fractious soul-searching. The Commonwealth Games inspired a proud showcase of back-to-back orchestral music. Jonathan Mills bowed out as director of the Edinburgh International Festival by staging his own oratorio. Creative Scotland unveiled a long-term funding strategy that threw several key components of our musical ecosystem into uncertainty. Scottish Opera remained artistically rudderless, appointed no music director and opened its expensive new Theatre Royal lobby extension seven months late.
First published in The Herald on 24 December, 2014
Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam Guebrou is a 91-year-old Ethiopian pianist, composer and nun. She writes slow, spacious waltzes that lilt to an impalpable beat in scales whose logic seems just out of reach. Her piano is a tinkly upright and there’s enormous grace in her delivery. Remote and intimate, refined and strangely simple, one listen and the music gets deep under your skin. Somehow it feels as though it’s always just been there.
These extraordinary pieces would probably still be unknown had it not been for the Ethiopiques albums released by French producer Francis Falceto in the late 1990s and 2000s. The series was pivotal in bringing Ethiopia’s vibrant 1960s jazz scene to global recognition – imagine the low-lit shuffle of Mulatu Astatke’s Yekermo Sew, later picked up by Jim Jarmusch for the soundtrack of his film Broken Flowers. But grouping the Ethiopiques artists too closely together would be a mistake. Emahoy’s music has strains of blues, folk and improvisation, but she has never seen herself as a jazz artist. Her lineage, she says, is Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann.
First published in the Guardian on 22 December, 2014
Messiah is all things to all performers: vast choral union epic to lithe period-band trot, Handel’s sturdy masterpiece accommodates them all. Of the latter, the annual account from John Butt and the Dunedin Consort tends to be something special. Butt strikes a fine balance. His instincts are exploratory but he respects the sense of ritual that comes from familiarity. He takes the work’s religiousness seriously but avoids sanctimony – there’s no trace of sickly elation but there is a proper dose of mystery. The big tunes are kept relatively plain while moments of musical intrigue are given real drama. Tempos aren’t extreme; if anything, arias are on the spacious side allowing the soloists room to delve. And still the three hours usually fly by.
First published in the Guardian on 19 December, 2014
Schumann’s Violin Concerto wasn’t premiered until 1937, when it was hijacked for Nazi propaganda eight decades after it was written. If the piece still has an awkward place in the repertory it’s easy enough to understand why: composed in his final years, this is Schumann at his most skittish, baffling and heartbreaking. Dark, urgent melodies go off in tangents that don’t behave how they should. The theme of the Adagio refuses to be tethered; the finale has a sad, stoic swagger and culminates in a desperate spasm of virtuosity.
First published in The Herald on 17 December, 2014
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a vast devotional masterpiece that covers the Nativity story from birth to the Epiphany. In its entirety it’s an amalgamation of six cantatas, originally divvied up between the feast days of Christmas and staged between two churches (St Thomas’s and St Nicholas’s) in Bach’s hometown of Leipzig. If the work is nowadays less familiar than its indelibly popular contemporary, Handel’s Messiah, that’s probably because it is sterner, denser and harder to perform. But the impact of hearing it whole is emotionally and dramatically epic. It is also an Edinburgh festive staple.
First published in The Herald on 15 December, 2014
Manuel de Falla left Spain in 1907 and spent several years living in Paris, soaking up the music of the time. The colours of Debussy and Ravel and the inflections of early jazz are there in his later orchestral works, but he never lost his love for the traditional culture of his home country and his music is full of the heat and earthiness of folk tunes from around Spain. Think the pioneering ethnomusicologist-composers like Vaughan Williams or Bartok, flavoured with flamenco and gypsy rhythms.
Lunchtime in central Glasgow. Sun just about making it above the skyline.
First published in The Herald on 10 December, 2014
‘A Messiaen premiere’: not the sort of statement you see on many new CD covers these days. For any performer or music historian, the prospect of unearthing a forgotten work by a great composer is tantalising enough. But when that work turns out to be a significant stepping-stone – the missing link that explains the composer’s subsequent creative evolution?
In 2012, the pianist and biographer Peter Hill happened upon a loose bundle of pages among Olivier Messiaen’s sketchbooks and soon realised he’d found a draft of an unpublished piece. The excitement didn’t stop there. The more Hill studied the scribbled pages and set them in context of when and where they were composed, the more he became convinced that this little piece was in fact the beginning of a whole new piano cycle – a sequel, perhaps, to Messiaen’s monumental Catalogue d’oiseaux.
First published in The Herald on 10 December, 2014
It’s hard to envisage a classier carol concert than The Sixteen – always a superlative bunch of singers – conducted by their founder Harry Christophers in a programme of Christmas music ranging from the 16th century to 2011. The Usher Hall might not be the cosiest venue but the choir filled the space like it was a cathedral, letting crystalline phrases drift without hurry and mustering enough umph in lower voices to give the sound a proper grounding. It was all fairly well-behaved – the ‘gloria’ in Angels from the Realms of Glory more graceful than exuberant – but the blend and polish of the voices was hard to fault.