Live Reviews

EIF 2014 review: Artemis Quartet

First published in The Herald on 15 August, 2014

The Berlin-based Artemis Quartet perform standing up (the cellist sits on a plinth so he can communicate eye-to-eye with his colleagues). Does it make any difference? For string ensembles and chamber groups, standing up has become visual code for engaged, youthful, sparky playing. In some cases the sound doesn’t match the image; with the Artemis, it most certainly does.

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EIF 2014 review: Paul Lewis

First published in The Herald on 14 August, 2014

Paul Lewis walks on stage in the way that he plays: straight-backed, matter-of-fact, giving little of himself away. The Liverpool-born pianist established his Beethoven credentials nearly a decade ago when he performed and recorded all the sonatas and concertos. In this concert he returned to four sonatas – two middle period, two late – and delivered them with steely, meticulous resolve. It was impossible not to admire his stamina and discipline, but the evening left me feeling little else.

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EIF 2014 review: Jordi Savall & co

First published in The Herald on 13 August, 2014

Jordi Savall described this concert as “a vast musical fresco” and that it was: the celebrated Catalan viol player gave us a generous guided tour of a century of music from southern Europe and the Ottoman Empire, told in chronological order and punctuated with drum rolls and Gallic voice-overs. The theme was War and Peace and Savall had gathered his troops; on the stage were his two instrumental ensembles (Hesperion XXI and Le Concert des Nations), his vocal group (La Capella Reial de Catalunya) and a quartet of Turkish traditional musicians. The colour spectrum of the amassed gaggle of ancient instruments was spectacular.

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EIF 2014 review: The Sixteen

First published in The Herald on 13 August, 2014

This concert opened with the gentlemen of The Sixteen intoning in stern unison: “ L’homme, l’homme, l’homme armé”. It’s a French renaissance ditty that was popular in its day – over 40 mass settings incorporate it – and at first glance the tune has the simple dimensions of something you could whistle, catchy and buoyant. Here, though, its message was altogether more menacing. The text tells forebodingly of an armed stranger clad in armour who should be feared. This little tune is the nub of this year’s International Festival programme: it’s the earliest manifestation of the theme of artistic responses to conflict.

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EIF 2014 review: SCO/Ticciati

First published in The Herald on 11 August, 2014

Somewhere in amongst the brawny trills and arpeggios that open Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, pianist Lars Vogt turned to the audience and flashed us a grin. Was he just having that good of a time already? Vogt’s playing was immaculate, of course; the German is a technical powerhouse who could most likely reel off the beginning of the Emperor in his sleep. The tantalising thrill of his playing comes not from the flashes of breezy grandeur (though these are undeniably fun) but from the attention he devotes to the little notes, the quiet moments, the sudden colour shifts and hushed rapture.

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EIF 2014 review: BBCSSO/Donald Runnicles

First published in The Herald on 11 August, 2014

The Usher Hall series kicked off on solid home turf: three Scottish orchestras, three consecutive nights. And if Friday’s opening concert successfully raised a few eyebrows with repertoire that some listeners found bafflingly oblique, there was no mistaking the festival’s war theme in this superbly executed programme from Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem opens with a brutal clatter and long, eerie passages that sound lost and rootless; he wrote the piece in 1940 and his anti-war message is stark enough. Runnicles drove the Lacrymosa with chilling inevitability, brought a dark grimace to the Dies irae and clinical precision to the Requiem aeternam. He and the BBCSSO are freshly back from the Proms and sounded on superb form: the ensemble airtight, the exchanges deft and weightless.

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EIF 2014 review: the opening concert

First published in the Guardian on 10 August, 2014

The theme of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival is art and conflict; the opening concert might have been bombastic or elegiac, but it could hardly have been outright celebratory. Instead the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and composer/conductor Oliver Knussen performed three of the most radical orchestral works composed in the years just before the First World War – works from Russia, France and Austria, each one extravagantly colourful, intensely strange and eerily premonitory. They made for an intriguing prelude to the next three weeks.

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Interview: Neil Bartlett on Owen Wingrave

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First published in The Herald on 5 August, 2014

Owen Wingrave is often described as Benjamin Britten’s pacifist opera, but it is far from peaceful. Neil Bartlett’s new production – first seen in Aldeburgh in June and coming to the Edinburgh International Festival later this month – is an intense and uncomfortable theatrical experience. It makes no attempts to quell the psychological violence at the heart of the work; it is thorny, unflinching and very powerful.

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Review: Lost Map’s Howlin’ Fling

First published in the Guardian on 21 July, 2014

Could there be a more magical setting for a music festival? The little Hebridean island of Eigg is a gem: tucked between Skye and Ardnamurchan, flanked by craggy Rhum and tiny Muck, topped by its iconic knobbly An Sgurr. The ferry trip involves whale and dolphin spotting; the campsite is a white sandy beach, perfect for morning swims among the seals. In recent decades Eigg has become famous for its progressive collective land ownership (it was bought by its residents in 1997) and that community spirit was everywhere about this festival, from locals giving punters lifts on the back of pick-ups to headline acts taking voluntary shifts on the bar. It’s a cliché but hey: the star of the show was the island itself.

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Review: East Neuk’s Schubertiad

First published in the Guardian on 8 July, 2014

Schubertiad
Crail Church, Fife

It isn’t every composer whose music could withstand six hours of concerts in one day; what is it about Schubert that makes us want to linger so long? Over the centuries, the Schubertiad tradition has morphed from the sort of boozy, freewheeling ceilidhs that he himself hosted into polite all-day marathons like this one, staged by the East Neuk Festival to celebrate its tenth anniversary. The programme here sighed under towering late works preoccupied with mortality, and what emerged through the afternoon was a tender, largely solemn, at times very painful portrait of this most human of composers. Had Schubert himself been throwing the party, I wonder whether he would have insisted on a bit of light relief. Continue reading