Monthly Archives: November 2015

Review: John Lill

First published in The Herald on 9 November, 2015

Something about the way John Lill walks onto a stage — stately pace and poker face, tails and white bowtie — gives the impression he’s done it no other way for the past six decades. The 71-year-old English pianist is a real gentleman of the keyboard, entirely unhysterical and devoid of superficial gesture. His name is mostly associated with no-frills interpretations of Beethoven and that’s exactly what we got here: four piano sonatas in a row, each as matter-of-fact as the last. It was a headline billing of Glasgow’s current Piano series but apparently it was too dry a prospect for a Friday night. The Royal Concert Hall can’t have been more than a quarter full.

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CD review: Kurtag’s Jatekok

First published in the Guardian on 5 November, 2015

Jatekok is a joyously sprawling collection of tiny piano pieces that Gyorgy Kurtag has been writing since the 1970s. The music darts in all directions, blithely unpindownable, and many of the pieces last for just a few seconds. Hearing several together makes for a kaleidoscopic world of wit and rich imagination; Kurtag often performs the duets with his wife, Marta, and they’re full of fond jokes and criss-crossing lines. This recording of the collection’s duets is hard to fault in terms of technique and execution, but pianists Helen Bugallo and Amy Williams miss a trick by taking the music so unremittingly seriously. The earnest approach works for contemplative numbers like the Kyrie and Sarabande from Book IV, or the mournful In memoriam Sebok Gyorgy from Book VIII, but elsewhere there could be bags more fun and feistiness — Jatekok is the Hungarian word for Games. Bugallo and Williams are more at home in Kurtag’s wonderful duet transcriptions of early music: Machaut, Fescobaldi, Schutz, Purcell and Bach, taken to some stark and beautiful places.

CD review: Dvorak/Bartok/Dohnanyi string quartets

First published in the Guardian on 5 November, 2015

There’s a bright, youthful spark to the Modiglini Quartet’s playing — and I mean ‘youthful’ in the best possible way. The interpretations are fresh, enthusiastic and ephemeral, with a liberating sense that these performances don’t need to be the last word on these pieces. Turns out the Parisian ensemble tackles Czech and Hungarian repertoire with the same up-for-it, boyish, slightly rough-hewn energy that made its previous recordings of Haydn or Ravel so much fun. Fast passages in Dvorak’s American, Bartok’s Second and Dohnanyi’s Third quartets are full of spontaneity and buoyancy, with a great conversational bravura between the players plus an added refinement that I haven’t heard from them before. The sound is mainly light and silvery — not rich enough for my liking in Bartok — but the litheness is invigorating, and there’s a stripped-back beauty in the slow movements that stopped me in my tracks more than once. Try the stunning chorale of the Dohnanyi’s Andante to see what I mean.

CD review: Kancheli’s Chiaroscuro

First published in the Guardian on 5 November, 2015

Considering how good this disc’s performers are — violinists Gidon Kremer and Patricia Kopatchinskaja, both sensational players with huge personalities, plus Kremer’s talented young chamber ensemble Kremerata Baltica — it’s impressive how excruciating a listen it still manages to be. The two featured works are Chiaroscuro (2010) and Twilight (2004) by the Georgian composer Giya Kancheli. Crude, moody harmonic slabs butt up against wan, sickly-sweet expanses: imagine a claustrophobic mashup of schmaltzy melodies and angsty outbursts with a thumping bass drum at every clunky suture. “I write for myself,” Kancheli explains in his sleeve notes, “without having any illusions that ‘beauty will save the world’,” and he makes a keen point of his music’s “deliberate simplicity”. Simplicity would be lovely: instead the textures of Chiaroscuro are dank and smudgy and any spacious moments in Twilight are undermined by grim clichés. A weird mixture of vacuous and inflated, murky and saccharine all at once.

Review: Nocturnal

CS-vW7vWoAAkEGH.jpg_largeFirst published in The Herald on 4 November, 2015

Classical music is generally yonks behind other performance arts when it comes to the visuals of staging. Houselights are kept blindingly bright during concerts; musicians walk and bow and sit and dress according to rituals invented generations ago. Sometimes those rituals feel right and noble, but it doesn’t take much to shake things up. In a space as innately beautiful as Cottiers — the former Dowanhill Church, resplendent with Daniel Cottier stained glass and wallpaper — all we really needed was permission to look.

Nocturnal is a beautifully conceived project from cellist Sonia Cromarty and violinist Alice Rickards exploring the sound (and sight) of darkness and night. Last year the same pair — who perform under the moniker High Heels and Horsehair — commissioned a vivid collection of new work inspired by the botany of Scottish wildflowers. Clearly they’ve an intuition for programme concepts that set the imagination spinning.

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Interview: Unsuk Chin

First published in The Herald on 4 November, 2015

There’s a bright knock on the door and Unsuk Chin pops her head into the room, punctual to the millisecond. The Berlin-based composer is a compact, glamorous woman in her early 50s, crisply dressed and briskly friendly. “I guess I know my way around here by now!” she says, hanging up her coat with a familiarity that proves her point. Chin is Artistic Director of the Philharmonia’s Music of Today series and I’ve come to meet her backstage at the Southbank Centre in London on the day before her glossy Clarinet Concerto receives its British premiere from Kari Kriikku and the Philharmonia. Later the same week she will fly to the United States, then Korea, then back to Europe — a list she reels off with the efficiency of someone who regularly flits around the globe for brief and important engagements.

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House concerts in Edinburgh: when a house is not a home

First published in The Herald in December, 2012

Around the turn of the millennium, an Edinburgh photographer bought the old Co-op grocery on Royal Park Terrace and set about converting it into a home. The conversion was stylish and roomy, cleverly laid out over two floors with metal staircases and double-height ceilings. The basement was low and damp but the photographer’s musician friends – the likes of Shooglenifty and Salsa Celtica – didn’t turn up their noses at a free space to rehearse. One day someone suggested holding a little concert among friends in the open-plan living room.

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