First published in The Herald on 23 August, 2016
Some orchestras tend to run themselves, self-directed from within while the conductor adds interpretative detail or navigates tricky corners, or possibly doesn’t do much at all. Not so with the Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop. Brazil’s flagship orchestra made its Edinburgh debut and lived up to its reputation for bright energy and big punch, but I’ve rarely seen a conductor work so hard to get it. Alsop was utterly cool on the podium: decisive, clear, brisk with tempos, totally in control. She takes a no-bullshit approach, never baggy or indulgent and always aware of who-needs-what-when. Her complete alertness seemed to compel the musicians to respond with the same — audience, too, because despite not-always-remarkable constituent parts of the orchestra, this was a remarkable concert.
First published in The Herald on 20 August, 2016
Mahler had dark things on his mind while he was writing his Ninth Symphony in 1909-10. Antisemitism had cost him his job at the Vienna Court Opera, his daughter had died of diphtheria and he had developed a heart condition that meant he wouldn’t live to hear a full performance of the score. The epic emotional gamut in the music — despair, resignation, twisted nostalgia, nihilism — eventually trails off into a silence that feels like the bleakest oblivion or the sweetest transcendence or, if you’re Adorno, like simply “peering questioningly into uncertainty.”
First published in Gramophone, September 2016
“I’ve always been fascinated in the byways of music,” says conductor John Wilson, picking up the score to Aaron Copland’s Second Symphony and half-studying the typeface while he talks. “Back at college when all my friends were getting in a lather about Mahler, I was more into Lord Berners and bits of Walton that people hadn’t heard for years.”
Wilson is a self-styled anomaly in the conducting world. He’s utterly serious about light music, cheerfully and loquaciously Geordie in a profession that traditionally trades on pomp and grand personas. He’s as fastidious about authentic performance practise as any baroque specialist, but the repertoire to which he applies those principles of original instrumentation and historically informed interpretations is one that only recently earned enough clout to make it into the Proms. If the classical music world now shows respect for the film scores of vintage MGM musicals, that shift in attitude can be largely attributed to two decades and counting of championing by Wilson himself. Because since founding the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, his dedication to the music of Hollywood’s golden age has achieved a two-way thing: on the one side he has enticed fans of light music into the concert hall. On the other side, his attention to detail and the calibre of his hand-picked band have brought new status to music once dismissed as gushy, camp and saccharine.
First published in the Guardian on 18 August, 2016
There were moments when Daniil Trifonov’s forehead almost hit the keyboard and moments when he launched himself right off the piano stool — which might sound like showmanship from the wunderkid of old-school Russian powerhouse pianism, but nothing was mannered or bombastic in this recital. At 25 Trifonov is still the blaze of fearless, joyous virtuosity he was when he first played in Edinburgh four years ago, but what’s so exciting to witness is how he increasingly channels all that technical prowess into making softer rather than louder sounds. It’s as though the flashy stuff comes so easily that he’s far more interested in finding ways to make the piano sing or whisper or melt into liquid.
First published in The Herald on 18 August, 2016
Think Brahms and Bruckner, think symphonic heft, teutonic massiveness, those gothic-romantic ‘cathedrals in sound’ that juggernauted German orchestral music to its 19th century zenith and beyond. Or maybe not. Because for all the girth and sumptuousness of their biggest scores, both composers were fastidious contrapuntalists, too, deeply indebted to Palestrina and the polyphonic vocal repertoire of the 16th and 17th centuries. Those clean-sculpted lines are at the heart of the symphonies if you’re lucky enough to hear a performance that doesn’t smother them. And as the chamber choir Tenebrae proved with their sublimely clean phrasing and lucid, glowing ensemble sound, those lines are etched into Brahms’s and Bruckner’s music for unaccompanied voices.
First published in The Herald on 17 August, 2016
It’s marvellous what you find behind closed doors on an unsuspecting street in south Edinburgh, where ambulances screech past furniture shops and defunct tanning salons. John Kitchen has five keyboard instruments in his house and not one of them is a normal piano. 1811 square piano, yes, various harpsichords, naturally, even an oak chamber organ with a handsome set of pipes. “The only time I got a complaint from the neighbours was when a few students were round and one guy used the organ to accompany himself on a Spice Girls number,” Kitchen recalls. “The neighbours banged on the wall and told him to shut up, which I thought was fair enough.”
First published in the Guardian on 14 August, 2016
Usher Hall; Queen’s Hall
Here’s a dismal statistic. The entire classical music programme of the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival — 41 concerts, three operas — contains works by just eight living composers (that includes re-arrangements) and one woman (that’s Alma Mahler, dead since 1964). The ratio seems about a century out of place. Two years ago the festival added a strand of pop and folk music under the promising heading ‘contemporary’ and I got excited that classical audiences might hear some fresh stuff too — even that the notion of ‘classical audience’ verses any other kind of audience might genuinely start to blur into irrelevance. Instead we’ve been packed off to a museum full of lovely old things with the message that ‘contemporary’ and ‘classical’ are destined for two different stages.
Very much enjoyed talking to Charlotte Bray at the Proms before the premiere of her new bold and apposite cello concerto Falling in the Fire. You can listen to the interview here.
First published in the Guardian on 11 August, 2016
Reich: Double Sextet, Radio Rewrite
Ensemble Signal/Lubman (Harmonia Mundi)
“Most people never get the chance to change the world — it is really hard!” This is David Lang writing in the sleeve notes of Ensemble Signal’s new recording, acknowledging the rare predicament faced by fellow American composer Steve Reich. “If you are one of those people who changes the world, what do you do next?” Reich turns 80 in October and Signal’s tribute is a buoyant disc of two recent-ish pieces, both scores full of finesse and detail, both still bobbing to that definitively Reichian thrum that was once so game-changing. Six musicians play against recordings of themselves in the Double Sextet (2007) while snippets of Radiohead songs are woven through Radio Rewrite (2013) — a neat gesture from a composer whose influence on contemporary art rock is inestimable. Signal keeps the music lucid and elegant if fairly low-key; you’ll find peppier recordings of both works, but I enjoyed the warm sounds and lack of hysteria here.
First published in the Guardian on 11 August, 2016
Bartok: The Miraculous Mandarin, Dance Suite, Contrasts
Most music doesn’t suit safety, and the stakes are always higher when an orchestra knows it is being recorded live — no studio retakes, no patching (probably). This Bartok disc comes from the Philharmonia’s 2011 Infernal Dance series and the now-or-never concert adrenaline is palpable. There’s unflinching attack in the savage pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin, deadpan wit in the gentler Dance Suite, and it’s all delivered with that unnervingly meticulous, steely focus that conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen gets from the Philharmonia. His interpretations aren’t the wildest and some might like their Bartok rougher-edged, but I was drawn in by the cool ferocity and steadfast virtuosity of these performances. As a very nice extra we get Contrasts, a glory of a trio commissioned by Benny Goodman in 1938, played with poker-faced charisma by pianist Yefim Bronfman, violinist Zsolt-Tihamer Visontay and clarinettist Mark Van de Wiel.