Monthly Archives: April 2015

CD review: Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria

First published in The Guardian on 9 April, 2015

Boston Baroque/Pearlman (LINN)

There is blood, guts and anguish aplenty in Monteverdi’s 1640 opera, but a nuanced account should also portray the hurt and isolation of an ageing war veteran. The drama covers books 13-23 of Homer’s Odyssey, in which the hero returns to his wife Penelope after 20 years, slays her suitors and leaves us pondering how such a casually brutal act can sit alongside his noble image.

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Radiophrenia

Radio for beginners

First published in The Herald on 8 April, 2015

A few year back, an episode of BBC Radio Four’s In Our Time focused on TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. Mostly the discussion covered the standard debates — was Eliot a snob for using so many obscure references? Was Ezra Pound’s editing too heavy-handed? — but a passing comment from one of the contributors stuck with me. “The Waste Land reads like a radio play before such a thing existed,” suggested Steven Connor, then professor of modern literature at Birkbeck University. “Ah yes,” replied Melvyn Bragg. “The voices.”

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Review: Jenufa

First published in the Guardian on 8 April, 2015

“Don’t abandon my joyful stepdaughter,” Kostelnicka implores of the rakish young Steva at the heart of Janacek’s desperately harrowing opera. But Steva walks away, disowning his baby and leaving its mother, Jenufa, with options that are anything but joyful in a society whose women pay for mistakes beyond their due.

Annilese Miskimmon’s intelligent and sensitive new co-production for Scottish Opera and Danish National Opera relocates the drama from Moravia to the west of Ireland in 1918, where interior decorations and social dynamics feel unnervingly close to home. The first act plays out against the whitewashed exterior of a life-size stone cottage; later the drama moves inside to a handsome period kitchen, astutely rendered down to the Brown Betty. With heartbreaking empathy and an eye for subtle gesture, Miskimmon makes every character reasoned, every disastrous decision explicable, every relationship as complicated as real life. It’s like watching a troubled slice of your own family history.

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Venues, why they matter, Glasgow – and a new book

dgsFirst published in the Sunday Herald on 5 April, 2014

Glasgow’s City Halls, built in 1841 between a couple of cheese shops in the Candleriggs, is one of my favourite places to hear orchestral music. The reasons are a mix of technical and sentimental. The technical stuff easy to pinpoint: the hall looks good — airy and elegant, unfussy and unpretentious — and sounds very good. The acoustic is alive, warm and immediate. To hear a beefy Bruckner symphony or a technicolour Stravinsky ballet here is to be utterly immersed in orchestral sound in way that less generous halls never allow.

One recent example of many. Last autumn, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra gave a performance of Berg’s opera Wozzeck at City Halls that I’ll never forget. It wasn’t a lavish production — only a handful of props and costumes — but the sound was immense. I’m sure the decibels broke recommend levels during that coruscating orchestral scream when Marie submits to the Drum Major’s sleazy advances, or those terrifying crescendos that well up after Wozzeck has done his violent worst. There was a sense of being overwhelmed by something bigger than the characters, bigger than ourselves, and the collective emotional wreckage among the audience that night was undoubtedly part of what made the performance unforgettable.

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Review: Counterflows 2015 (Friday/Saturday)

First published in The Herald on 6 April, 2015

Counterflows is no timid affair: here is a festival that trusts its audience to handle what it dishes out by way of bold, borderline mystifying experiments in sound art. Judging by sizeable and attentive Friday and Saturday crowds at this fourth edition, the trust goes both ways.

On Saturday round about teatime I had my eyes cast heavenwards along with the rest of the congregation at Glasgow University Chapel, trying to make sense of unworldly sounds being unleashed by Sten Sandell’s organ improvising. He made the beast throb, palpitate and squeal; he was clearly drawn to its extreme ends, with notes so high and piercing it hurt, and so low you didn’t so much hear as feel them at the back of the skull. Down on our level, saxophonist Evan Parker kept things grounded with softer-edged lines and the occasional frenetic Parkerian blast, so irrepressibly exuberant he had to circular breath for long minutes to uphold the flow. I’m not sure how much of a duo this performance really was, or whether each musician was simply doing his thing in the congenial company of the other. Either way, that the playing ended just as the chapel bells chimed time was a nice touch of straight-up synchronicity after the fray.

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Review: BBCSSO, Litton, Donohoe

First published in the Guardian on 3 April, 2015

It would be a stony heart that wasn’t charmed, at least a drop, by the zippy, genial sweep of Andrew Litton’s conducting. Appearing here as a guest with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, he gamely punched the air at climaxes and pointed to the brass section for more — brave move, or reckless, in the dazzlingly bright acoustic of City Halls.

Positives first: there was nothing remotely ponderous or tortured in his account of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. The strings gave well-oiled ardency; the winds were sturdy and soulful — the Adagio’s clarinet solo a rare moment of calm — and the brass made for a blazing, nuance-obliterating finale. The problem was it was so much, so soon, and so very loud: exhilarating until it became exhausting.

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Interview: Annilese Miskimmon on Jenůfa

japr02-bFirst published in The Herald on 1 April, 2015

Jenůfa was Leos Janáček’s first masterpiece: his first major venture into a kind of dramatic naturalism that presents people, situations and speech as they are. Written between 1894 and 1904 when the Czech composer was in his 40s, the music follows the contours of real conversation — the rhythms and melodies of dialect, the subtle inflections that happen subconsciously depending on who is speaking to whom and the unspoken innuendo of their relationship. The stripped-back emotional honesty is gripping, and can be discomfiting close to the bone.

The story of Jenůfa is galling. Janáček based the opera on a play called Její pastorkyňa (Her Stepdaughter) by the Czech writer Gabriela Preissová, and what’s striking here is that Preissová’s original work explicitly presents Jenůfa through the lens of her stepmother, the Kostelnička. The relationship between these two women is one of the most fraught, complex and commonly misrepresented in the operatic repertoire, too often oversimplified as an evil stepmother and a saintly young beauty. Annilese Miskimmon — director of a new production that opens at Scottish Opera next week — says she is determined to investigate the many tangled dimensions of this relationship, and to offer these intricate characters the nuanced reading they deserve.

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