Monthly Archives: October 2015

Review: SCO/Hannikainen/Kuusisto

First published in the Guardian on 30 October, 2015

One of the major joys of this year’s Nielsen anniversary (the Danish composer was born in 1865, same year as Sibelius) has been the chance to hear plenty of the strange marvel that is his Violin Concerto. Grand melodies blazingly erupt then go crooked or plain awol. Nothing stands still — it’s a storm of rogue spontaneity, an erratic, very human stream-of-consciousness, and maybe that flawed honesty is what kept it from becoming core repertoire until now.

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Interview: David Fennessy


First published in The Herald on 28 October, 2015

David Fennessy’s Caruso (Gold is the sweat of the sun) is a 20-minute piece for electric guitar and samplers whose UK premiere takes place at the Sonica festival in Glasgow at the end of next week. It is a hazy, feverish, wistful kind of music. At its heart is the voice of Italian opera tenor Enrico Caruso, famous in the early 20th century for the extravagant decibels and emotional clout of his mighty top notes. Fennessy’s piece fixates on those top notes — all cut from old gramophone recordings and stretched, looped, frozen in time. A twangy electric guitar spins warped lines around this impossibly heroic Caruso choir. It’s an unattainable fantasy: overblown and outlandish, yes, but also beautiful and strangely melancholic. “You get a piece that is always in climax,” Fennessy explains. “It’s a piece about obsession. Or maybe it is actually just obsessive.”

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Review: Red Note & Griffyn Ensemble at Sound festival

First published in the Guardian on 26 October, 2015

On paper it could have worked. Sound is an Aberdeenshire contemporary music festival with a bent for themes of landscape and northernness. This year’s opening concert paired Scotland’s new music outfit Red Note with an Australian counterpart called Griffyn Ensemble. Red Note played Northern Skies — a new piece by Scottish/Norwegian composer James Clapperton — while Griffyn played the UK premiere of Urmas Sisask’s Southern Sky. Both works contemplate the nature of wide horizons and wild environments.

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CD review: Teodor Currenzis’s The Rite of Spring

First published in the Guardian on 22 October, 2015

Greek-born, Russian-based conductor Teodor Currentzis — self-styled badass of early music — usually goes in for the kind of shock tactics that make Rameau sound roguish and Mozart sound plain hyperactive. So what does he do with the brutal violence of Stravinsky’s earth-shakingly radical ballet? Weirdly, he smooths it out. Currentzis’s account of The Rite with his excellent Russian period-instrument ensemble MusicAeterna begins captivatingly enough with a sweet, wan bassoon solo and quiet, chamber-like suppleness, but as things progress the work’s energy never quite erupts. It’s all too easy, too knowing. The Augurs of Spring is pert, jaunty; Spring Rounds has a bright, brawny swagger more Spaghetti Western than Russian steppe. Dance of the Earth is clipped, tight and very clean. I often found my toe tapping away while I was listening — the rhythms are sprightly and the orchestral playing is faultless, but there’s nothing of the earthy power or cataclysmic fear that the best performances of this piece unleash.

CD review: Alexandre Tharaud’s Goldberg Variations

First published in the Guardian on 22 October, 2015

Recording Bach’s Goldberg Variations is a hefty milestone for any keyboard player, like an actor braving a new take on Hamlet or Lear or Antigone. French pianist Alexandre Tharaud doesn’t try to wow us with anything flashy but has clearly given extensive thought to every single note. The opening Aria is deliberate, considered, borderline slow. There are fastidiously shaped contours in every variation, which gets a bit precious in the fastest ones, but the overall flow works. Tharaud has a great sense of broad pace even if he gets bogged down in one or two details. He conceives the whole piece like a drama that sucks us in and doesn’t let go, and carefully paints vivid character along the way: a chunky ho-down in Variation 4, hushed intimacy in Variation 13; pompous majesty in Variation 16, super-sweet delicacy with polite triple-time swing in Variation 24. The final Aria is serene and simple, unexpectedly turning the whole tale inwards for a nifty coup de théâtre.

CD review: Pamela Thorby’s Telemann

First published in the Guardian on 22 October, 2015

Georg Philipp Telemann was a canny operator. He published a magazine called The Faithful Music Master — first ever music journal in Germany — and kept subscribers hooked by drip-feeding sonatas in instalments. Keen readers were rewarded with chamber music full of dance rhythms and big melodies: this instrumental writing is supremely singable, and Pamela Thorby, one of today’s most boldly stylish and charismatic recorder players, makes every shapely line count. She’s bolstered by a spirited ensemble of Peter Whelan (bassoon), Alison McGillivray (cello), Elizabeth Kenny (archlute) and Marcin Swiatkiewicz (harpsichord), who bring a light touch and conversational spark to seven of the sonatas. Occasionally in group context the humble recorder seems too contained for Thorby’s hugely generous phrasing. For example, the opening movement of the Sonata in F-minor, TWV 41: F1 — instructively marked Triste — is so saturated with sentiment that things start to get woozy. Her solo Fantasias are absorbing: intimate, exploratory, captivating for the virtuosic way she can spin several lines of counterpoint at once.

James Clapperton & the sound of North


First published in The Herald on 14 October, 2015

At the end of December, 1967, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) aired an experimental radio documentary called The Idea of North. It was the first of what became known as the Solitude Trilogy produced by pianist Glenn Gould, whose poetic, slightly bashful, very personal narration explores notions of isolation and frontier living across the remotest parts of Canada.

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Review: Scottish Opera’s Carmen

First published in the Guardian on 13 October, 2015

This old production by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser premiered in Cardiff in 1997 and has resurfaced at both Welsh National Opera and Scottish Opera several times since. It’s easy to see why. It’s a fail-proof Carmen, dark and sumptuous, full of soft-lit Seville oranges and sultry poses. It will never look old or ruffle too many feathers. It doesn’t really push a particular reading of Carmen either as feminist maverick or figment of male fantasy, but there’s just enough subtlety in the power play to keep things tantalising. The final confrontation between Carmen and Don Jose happens on a stripped-back stage with a sudden emotional starkness that lingers after the curtain falls.

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CD review: Tigran Hamasyan’s Luys i Luso

First published in the Guardian on 8 October, 2015

Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan can be a hectic stage act — think high-voltage fusions of hip-hop, pop and buzzy, polished jazz — but his debut ECM album strips right back to his most lyrical folk intuition. Luys i Luso is a meditation around the sacred music of his home country on the centenary of the Armenian genocide. The material ranges from fifth century sharakans to newer hymns arranged for piano and voices. At its heart is the beautifully rough-grained sound of Armenia’s leading choir conducted by Harutyun Topikyan, with its gentle, unwavering sopranos and spine-tingling low bass drones unfolding in intense slow builds and thick chordal textures. Around them Hamasyan improvises contemplative, spacious and only occasionally nervy commentary. Hints of American post-minimalism are there and he lost me with one or two overblown climaxes, but mostly the language is sensitive — best when he does the least and lets the voices speak for themselves.

CD review: Leonard Slatkin conducts L’Enfant et les sortileges

First published in the Guardian on 8 October, 2015

Ravel’s dark fairytale opera L’enfant et les sortileges opens with just a pair of roaming oboes, one of the most ambiguous and beguiling 90 seconds in all opera. Leonard Slatkin’s new recording with the Orchestre National de Lyon is solid, affectionate and tinged with a melancholy that is touching, but it all feels a bit grownup. Things never get properly zany, magical or sinister. Orchestral colours are well defined but a bit tame. The galling final scene is matter-of-fact. Those oboes roam with feet staunchly on the ground. Vocal performances are relaxed and characterful, cabaret louche in parts and sparky in dialogue. Helene Hebrard sounds beautiful in the title role, though this naughty Child is more tender and reflective than brazenly petulant. The other work on the disc is the ballet music to Mother Goose, and again Slatkin’s fairytale world is beautifully calibrated but rather solemn and literal. Ravel, composer with the most wondrous imagination, can take a little more conjuring.