First published in the Guardian on 7 November, 2016
“Symphonic boa-constrictors” is how Brahms famously slated Bruckner’s symphonies. A century and a half of might-is-right Brucknerian performance practice taught us to brace for august cathedrals of sound if we’re lucky, bloated juggernauts of Teutonic stodge if we’re not. But does this music have to be unrelentingly hefty? Various conductor have asked the question. Robin Ticciati has made a habit of redressing big romantic orchestral works through the neat, lithe lens of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra — together they’ve unveiled ravishing colours in Berlioz and Brahms and now Bruckner, making his Fourth Symphony sound all sorts of unBrucknerian adjectives like limpid, refined, nimble, inquisitive.
First published in the Guardian on 31 October, 2016
This concert wasn’t even supposed to happen, but the violinist of Red Note (Sound festival’s original Friday billing) cut her finger in a lemon-slicing incident and Montreal’s Bozzini Quartet stepped in last minute. It’s an impressive festival that has a group this good up its sleeve.
The new programme was brief and splendid: three works exploring the quietest possible sounds made with the fewest notes and a lot of silence in between. Alvin Lucier’s Disappearances is a study in dissipation and refocusing, all unison tones that darken and brighten until we hear the tiniest of gradations. As concert opener it was an exercise in what Murray Schafer calls ‘ear cleaning’ or Pauline Oliveros calls ‘deep listening’. Scelsi’s Third Quartet is a tetchier poke around the perimeters of quietness — movements with names like The Great Tenderness that throng in close intervals then dilate into surprising, glittering triads.
First published in the Guardian on 25 October, 2016
Mascagni’s first opera was the mega hit Cavalleria Rusticana and he spent the rest of his life trying to live up to it. His second effort, L’amico Fritz, is as pastel and sweet as Cav is blood-red and fiery; it’s flimsy, dated, occasionally gorgeous, mainly unmemorable. Given Scottish Opera’s thin provision it is debatable whether a diaphanous Mascagni romcom should be top priority here, but the company’s new-ish music director Stuart Stratford is mad for the composer (he held the score aloft as he took his bow) and has promised to bring us more Mascagni every season.
First published in the Guardian on 4 October, 2016
It’s the ultimate success story in DIY music promotion. A few days before Christmas, 1808, Beethoven rented out a performance space (Vienna’s Theater an der Wein) and organised arguably the most momentous concert in history. The hall was cold, the musicians were underrehearsed, at one point the performance was so shambolic it fell apart and had to be started again, yet the public stayed for four hours of new works including the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, movements from the Mass in C, the Choral Fantasy. “To judge all these pieces after only one hearing,” noted the overwhelmed critic of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, “especially considering the language of Beethoven’s works, in that so many were performed one after the other, and that most of them are so grand and long, is downright impossible.”
First published in the Guardian on 25 September, 2016
The Elixir of Love
Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling
It took Donizetti a fortnight to write The Elixir of Love: bish, bash, bel canto gold. Fair enough that plot doesn’t stray from default 1830s farce. Poor and hapless Nemorino loves the rich and beautiful Adina and, inspired by the legend of Tristan and Isolde, spends his last pennies on a phoney love potion hoping it will work the magic for him. Along come classic twists and caricatures (smug sergeant, quack doctor, sudden death of wealthy uncle) but the music bubbles with such effervescent fluency and cuts the comic fizz with such charming sentimentality that, done right, we should believe that these characters actually posses emotional depths. Sure, Adina regresses from free-loving independent spirit to predictably dependent creature, but she does so with such candid and tender song that it seems she really must be in love.
First published in the Guardian on 23 September, 2016
This was Thomas Dausgaard’s first concert as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra but there were plenty of spare seats at City Halls — possibly a lack of mass hysteria for an extra long version of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, possibly an indication of still-tepid feelings around the Danish conductor’s arrival. Dausgaard spoke at the start of the concert — demure, genial, standing earnestly with no microphone on an unlit patch of stage — about why it is important to hear Bruckner’s last symphony with its reconstructed finale. “He was finding an expressionistic, experimental voice, and the finale tips the balance to make it a piece that looks forward.” At least the sentiment was right for the start of a new era.
First published in the Guardian on 13 September, 2016
Gesualdo’s life was a shocker — the 16th century composer prince who murdered his first wife and her lover then lived out a life of debauchery and self-flagellation — but so too is his music shocking, so harmonically unbound that it was heralded as proto-serialism in the 20th century and still sounds superbly unnerving today, time after time.
First published in the Guardian on 29 August, 2016
Surely there’s an irony in the fact that some of the sweetest love music ever written — those impossibly tender strings when Waldemar utters the line “extraordinary Tove” — were penned by the man singularly blamed for the collapse of romanticism. But before he headed off into irrevocable atonality, a youngish Arnold Schoenberg made sure he had beaten the romantics at their own subjectively expressive game and created Gurrelieder as a resoundingly ultimate thing. The two-hour mega cantata comprises 11 French horns, four harps, eight flutes — basically imagine a standard symphony orchestra and double it, then add three male choruses, a mixed choir and six vocal soloists.
The sheer bigness made a splendid close to the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival (proper festival stuff, this) but there were deeper reasons why performing Gurrelieder on this stage made an apt last concert for Donald Runnicles’s tenure as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The Usher Hall was where it all began for the Edinburgh lad, who joined the inaugural Edinburgh Festival Chorus aged 12 for a performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, caught the craze of high romanticism and went off to become one of the world’s great conductors of Germanic opera. Musically, too, Gurrelieder made sense, because this is a work on the brink of 19th and 20th centuries grand idioms, simultaneously the overstuffed end of era and the birth of what came next. The unforgettable performances of Runnicles’s past seven years with the BBCSSO have been works positioned directly on either side: Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Berg’s Wozzeck.
First published in The Herald on 29 August, 2016
It’s a lofty orchestra that chooses Beethoven’s Egmont Overture as an encore. This is music about a Flemish resistance leader who was executed during the Spanish Inquisition: its spirit is violent, indignant, defiant, hardly your classic cheery add-on. But it brought out the fiercest playing we’d heard yet from the Leipzig Gewandhaus and for that it was definitely welcome. Because although the past two nights had showcased the exceptional discipline and elegance of this ensemble, the suaveness of its phrasing, the sleekness of its blend, what felt missing was the kind of abandon and dangerous attack that finally arrived in those brooding Egmont chords.
First published in the Guardian on 27 August, 2016
It’s the dregs of a war. Guglielmo and Ferrando are Italian Fascist soldiers stationed in Asmara, bored and unsupervised, and their pent-up machismo turns sexually abusive. Dorabella and Fiordiligi are colonial daughters whose relationship to local men pivots between disgust and desire — which adds to the fun when their boyfriends play a trick on them by blacking up as Dubat mercenaries. Ha ha.
After this production opened in Aix-en-Provence, letters were sent out to everyone who had bought tickets to see it in Edinburgh, warning of explicit adult themes. Film director Christophe Honore transplants Mozart’s opera to 1930s Eritrea and the curtain raises on a black girl dancing to Calypso then being raped by a Fascist soldier. And so it goes on, though in fact none of the violence is particularly explicit, not compared to even a 15-rated movie.