Live Reviews

Review: Mike Vass’s In the Wake of Neil Gunn

First published in the Guardian on 22 January, 2015

In 1937, the writer Neil Gunn quit his job as an Inverness customs officer, sold his house, bought a small boat and set off sailing around the Western isles. If this was a mid-life crisis it was seriously constructive: the following year he published an account of the trip, Off in a Boat, full of soft wit and poetic musings on the sea and its mythologies. It solidified Dunn’s status as central figure in the Scottish Renaissance.
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Review: Hans Abrahamsen portrait concert

First published in the Guardian on 20 January, 2015

In the late 1980s, Hans Abrahamsen stopped composing for several years, stumped for direction. This biographical detail was hard to fathom during the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s portrait concert because the Dane’s music seems to know exactly what it wants to say, and how, and why. It doesn’t waffle or shy away; it contains much quiet mystery and evocation but never dodges the point. “The most interesting thing is an idea expressed using one pitch,” Abrahamsen told us from the stage, and that drive for clarity and concision sums up the evening.

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Review: Le Vent du Nord at Celtic Connections

First published in The Herald on 19 January, 2015

It would be a stony-hearted listener who wasn’t charmed, thoroughly, by Le Vent du Nord. These four indelibly cheerful Quebecers have been touring the world together for more than a decade and still appear to be having a whale of a time. They’re wonderfully uninhibited at showing it, too, in a way that can take us dour Scots aback. From any less lovable a quartet, the cheeky antics of accordionist Réjean Brunet or the persistently daft jokes of hurdy-gurdy player Nicolas Boulerice might induce eye-rolling. There’s a polish to their stage show that might grate against the earthy grain of their music — if that music wasn’t delivered with such robust spirit. Le Vent du Nord are the genuine article: a vibrant, big-hearted slice of Quebecois culture, happy banter and all.
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Review: Le nozze di Figaro at RCS

First published in The Herald on 19 January, 2015

Opening night of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s fine new Le nozze di Figaro began with an announcement that nearly the entire cast (understudies too) had been struck down with a nasty virus just days earlier. In the event Fiona Flynn sang Barbarina’s aria from the wings, and although Heather Jamieson acted the Countess compellingly, her role was sung, valiantly and persuasively, by Charlotte Drummond — the understudy Susanna.
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Review: Nae Regrets at Celtic Connections

First published in the Guardian on 16 January, 2015

Piper, fiddler, composer and producer Martyn Bennett died of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma ten years ago this month. He was 33 but already a game-changer in Scottish folk music. His final album, Grit, is a stunning electronic studio work (he was by then too ill to play his instruments) that mixes dance beats with archive song and spoken word from the powerful voices of Sheila Stewart, Jeannie Robertson and others. If eyebrows were raised at the time of its 2003 release, Grit is now broadly recognised for what it is: a bold celebration of melody and the voice, an inspiring act of personal defiance, a clear statement that traditional culture in Scotland is alive and can handle the shake-up.

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Review: Dunedin Consort’s Messiah

First published in the Guardian on 22 December, 2014

Messiah is all things to all performers: vast choral union epic to lithe period-band trot, Handel’s sturdy masterpiece accommodates them all. Of the latter, the annual account from John Butt and the Dunedin Consort tends to be something special. Butt strikes a fine balance. His instincts are exploratory but he respects the sense of ritual that comes from familiarity. He takes the work’s religiousness seriously but avoids sanctimony – there’s no trace of sickly elation but there is a proper dose of mystery. The big tunes are kept relatively plain while moments of musical intrigue are given real drama. Tempos aren’t extreme; if anything, arias are on the spacious side allowing the soloists room to delve. And still the three hours usually fly by.

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Review: SCO, Ticciati, Tetzlaff

First published in the Guardian on 19 December, 2014

Schumann’s Violin Concerto wasn’t premiered until 1937, when it was hijacked for Nazi propaganda eight decades after it was written. If the piece still has an awkward place in the repertory it’s easy enough to understand why: composed in his final years, this is Schumann at his most skittish, baffling and heartbreaking. Dark, urgent melodies go off in tangents that don’t behave how they should. The theme of the Adagio refuses to be tethered; the finale has a sad, stoic swagger and culminates in a desperate spasm of virtuosity.

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Review: SCO, Josep Pons

First published in The Herald on 15 December, 2014

Manuel de Falla left Spain in 1907 and spent several years living in Paris, soaking up the music of the time. The colours of Debussy and Ravel and the inflections of early jazz are there in his later orchestral works, but he never lost his love for the traditional culture of his home country and his music is full of the heat and earthiness of folk tunes from around Spain. Think the pioneering ethnomusicologist-composers like Vaughan Williams or Bartok, flavoured with flamenco and gypsy rhythms.

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Review: The Sixteen’s A Chirstmas Carol

First published in The Herald on 10 December, 2014

It’s hard to envisage a classier carol concert than The Sixteen – always a superlative bunch of singers – conducted by their founder Harry Christophers in a programme of Christmas music ranging from the 16th century to 2011. The Usher Hall might not be the cosiest venue but the choir filled the space like it was a cathedral, letting crystalline phrases drift without hurry and mustering enough umph in lower voices to give the sound a proper grounding. It was all fairly well-behaved – the ‘gloria’ in Angels from the Realms of Glory more graceful than exuberant – but the blend and polish of the voices was hard to fault.

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Review: BBCSSO, Brabbins, Liebeck

First published in The Herald on 10 December, 2014

This was violinist Jack Liebeck’s first concert appearance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra but he has already recorded with the orchestra: a disc of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy and the obscure Third Violin Concerto conducted by Martyn Brabbins was released on Hyperion earlier this year, part of the label’s Romantic Violin Concertos series. Later this week the same team are back in the studio to record two more Bruch rarities – the Second Violin Concerto and the Konzertstück Opus 84. Both were on the programme here.

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