Reviews

Review: Royal Scottish National Orchestra with Peter Oundjian

First published in The Herald on 14 October, 2013

RSNO/Oundjian
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

During his customary mid-concert chat to the audience, Peter Oundjian noted that Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra isn’t usually heard by anyone over than the age of about ten. (“Which excludes at least a few of you,” he teased the overwhelmingly silver-haired congregation.) Oundjian has a point, and he’s right to feature the Guide as ‘serious’ music – as the vivid and vivacious set of theme and variations that it is.

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Review: Scottish Chamber Orchestra with Alexander Janiczek and Llyr Williams

First published in The Herald on 14 October, 2013

SCO/Janiczek
City Halls, Glasgow

There was a smallish turnout for this Friday-night concert, surprising given the easy appeal of the programme. Perhaps that the soloist, pianist Llyr Williams, had performed a weekend of concerts in Glasgow only a fortnight ago was a factor, or that we’ll be hearing a lot of him anyway as the city’s new artist-in-resident. Either way, the audience energy seemed to reflect back onto stage: it was one of the most subdued Scottish Chamber Orchestra performances I’ve heard.

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Review: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Jun Märkl

First published in The Herald on 14 October, 2013

BBC SSO/Märkl
City Halls, Glasgow

German conductor Jun Märkl has a reputation for stylish interpretations of French music: six years at the helm of the Orchestre National de Lyon and a full nine-disc set of Debussy’s orchestral works earned him his solid Gallic stripes. And there were moments during this BBC Scottish Symphony programme of Messiaen and Debussy when those stripes shone through, yet the overall picture never quite lived up.

The concert opened at its best with Messiaen’s rarely-performed Les offrandes oubliées: a bold ‘méditation symphonique’ and (incredibly) the composer’s earliest orchestral work. Märkl’s brush strokes were clear and decisive and the orchestra responded in kind – it made for a striking reminder that musical mysticism doesn’t need to be told in a whisper, nor French orchestral colours always painted through a haze.

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Interview: director Chris Rolls on Handel’s Rodelinda

First published in The Herald on 25 September, 2013

Handel composed some 40 operas. Inevitably there were one or two flops along the way, and more than a few recycled tunes, but the best of them are dramas of great power and pathos, jam-packed with some of the most sumptuous, sensuous, heart-on-sleeve arias ever written.

What no Handle opera can claim is a simple storyline. There’s usually a scheming monarch or several, some convoluted mistaken identities, the odd bout of madness or hocus pocus. The themes tend to be obvious enough (love, loyalty, revenge, vice, virtue) but with characters whose names all sound roughly the same and whose family trees look like tangly creepers, even the hardiest opera-goer can easily lose the plot, so to speak.

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Review: Dunedin Consort’s Mozart Requiem

First published in the Guardian on 24 September, 2013

Dunedin Consort
St Mary’s Church, Haddington

Hot on the heels of their superb set of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, John Butt and the Dunedin Consort have turned to turned to Mozart’s Requiem for the first time: they recorded it last week and performed it here for the closing concert of the Lammermuir Festival. As usual with Butt there’s a scholarly twist. He uses a new edition of the score – Sussmayr’s completion in original form – and reconstructs the orchestral forces that (probably) played the first performances in 1793. A fortepiano replaces the usual organ in the continuo ensemble, though I suspect that difference will show up more on the recording than it did in this boomy church acoustic. Generally the orchestra was dark-hued and brooding, brilliantly punctuated by husky brass and basset horns.

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Review: Danish String Quartet with Mark Simpson

First published in The Herald on 23 September, 2013

Danish String Quartet with Mark Simpson
St Mary’s Church, Whitekirk

There’s a passage in the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet that gets me every time: just a brief sequence of downward-shifting suspended harmonies, crunchy and somehow timeless. I’ve never heard it more beautifully done than in this performance by the Danish String Quartet and clarinettist Mark Simpson. The upper strings were muted and nutty-warm, the cello pulsated richly, and Simpson’s honeyed tone wove weightlessly in amongst them. When the main theme finally returned it was carried on a mellow whisper (and, incidentally, a single vast breath on Simpson’s part – no small feat).

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Review: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Thomas Hamspon & Donald Runnicles

First published in the Guardian on 21 September, 2013

BBCSSO/Runnicles
City Halls, Glasgow

Donald Runnicles is a conductor who thinks operatic: grand sweep, singing lines. Even when he’s tackling a behemoth of the symphonic repertoire – Mahler’s Fifth, in this case – he shapes phrases so that they always sing, never adding a breath where a vocalist wouldn’t, never propping up a long melody on life-support. There have been times when his broad lyricism seemed to bypass the finer details of an orchestral score, but not here. This was an attentive, lucid account of Mahler’s symphony with some staggeringly good playing from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra to open their 2013-14 season.

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Review: Mr McFall’s Chamber

captain beefheart - photo by andy freeberg

First published in The Herald on 20 September, 2013

Mr McFall’s Chamber
Glad Cafe, Glasgow

As a teenager in the late ’60s, Robert McFall would while away the hours with Frank Zappa’s Freak Out! and Captain Beefheart’s ballsy swamp blues via John Peel’s radio shows. With typical classy eclecticism, Mr McFall’s Chamber – the intrepid Edinburgh-based troupe of Scottish Chamber Orchestra musicians and friends – make Beefheart and Zappa the backbone of their latest tour. The programme also showcases first-rate new works by Martin Kershaw and Paul Harrison, both of whom doff their caps to the brash rock iconoclasts but keep their jazz-accented language their own.

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Review: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Martyn Brabbins and Anthony Marwood

First published in The Herald on 16 September, 2013

BBC SSO/Brabbins
St Mary’s Church, Haddington

How to do justice to an orchestra in a church acoustic? It is possible, for sure, but the repertoire needs to be right and the playing needs to adjust accordingly. Where the Scottish Chamber Orchestra ricocheted around Dunbar Parish Church on Friday, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra blurred at the edges at St Mary’s Haddington the following night.

Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila probably wasn’t the ideal choice of opener, with its glittering string runs and Martyn Brabbins’s flash-fire tempo, but the boisterous atmosphere came across regardless. Britten’s Violin Concerto was haunting, though, in a superbly judged performance from Anthony Marwood. Britten wrote this concerto in 1939 during an exile of sorts in North America, and it’s a troubled score, full of conflicted, fitful emotion. Marwood captured the nervy tension as well as the longing: his sound was silvery and subtle, never imposing, his cadenza was plaintive and insistent and he intertwined with the orchestra beautifully.

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Review: Hebrides Ensemble with François Leleux

First published in The Herald on 16 September, 2013

Hebrides Ensemble/Leleux
Yester House, Gifford

A cheer went up when it was announced French oboist François Leleux will be artist-in-residence of next year’s Lammermuir Festival. This is good news indeed for East Lothian audiences. Leleux makes an unparalleled sound on the instrument and his musical personality is generous and inventive. If he’s not as well known in the UK as he is in France and Germany, hopefully Lammermuir’s platform should go some way to correcting that.

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