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


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

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

Review: East Neuk Festival closing concert

First published in The Herald on 8 July, 2014

The tenth East Neuk Festival closed, as is becoming tradition, with a Scottish Chamber Orchestra concert in Cambo’s big potato barn. For most of the year the space houses a sizeable veg crop; during the festival it is cleared for orchestral concerts and turns out to be a bit of an acoustic gem. Certainly it suits the SCO just fine: on Sunday their strings sounded glowing, their winds warm and there was a real bloom to the cellos and basses that gave the whole ensemble a sunny, broad sort of blush.

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Review: Kristian Bezuidenhout and Ensemble Marsyas

First published in The Herald on 7 July, 2014

Kristian Bezuidenhout/Ensemble Marsyas
St Monans Church, Fife

There’s nothing quite like Mozart played properly on a fortepiano. By ‘properly’ I don’t mean primly or safely; I mean fiercely, passionately, full of the sweet, clanging, kaleidoscopic noises that only a fortepiano (classical predecessor to the modern piano) can muster. The South African period-specialist Kristian Bezuidenhout is an exemplar here. In the close acoustics of the stern old kirk at St Monans, his performance of Mozart’s stormy Sonata in C minor K457 bristled with drama and bright colours – he made such a range of sounds through finger articulation alone that I found myself triple-checking that the instrument had no sustain pedal or soft pedal. There was a great sense of adventure to his volatile first movement; the expansive Adagio was rhapsodic, almost operatic, with Bezuidenhout really savouring the ever-darkening key shifts. He flew into the finale at breakneck speed and gave Beethovenian gravitas to the wild flashes of temper.

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Review: MacMillan’s Second Piano Trio

First published in The Herald on 7 July, 2014

Gould Piano Trio
Crail Community Hall

James MacMillan’s Second Piano Trio was specially co-commissioned to mark this year’s 10th edition of the East Neuk Festival. The premiere was in Bath earlier this summer; for this first Scottish outing, the Gould Piano Trio paired it with an earlier MacMillan work for the same configuration.

That older work ended up eclipsing the new one. Fourteen Little Pictures (1997) is among the composer’s most compelling chamber pieces, full of hot-tempered vitality and trademark MacMillan soundbites. Craggy outcrops lapse into misty, keening threnodies; the piano lays down gravelly rumbles while the strings wrestle or intertwine in long-lined laments. The title refers to the stations of the cross, and as usual with MacMillan’s religious music the imagery comes in bold, passionate strokes. The work opens on an irrepressible surge and the energy never dissipates – it closes on repeated piano hammerblows, MacMillan never shy about the symbolism in his music.

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Review: Quatuor Ebène at East Neuk Festival

First published in The Herald on 7 July, 2014

Quatuor Ebène
Crail Church

It seems Quatuor Ebène are an unflappable bunch. They arrived at the East Neuk Festival several hours late (having ended up at Aberdeen rather than Edinburgh airport – one of those days) and walked on stage looking already knackered, yet proceeded to tackle some of the most challenging music in string quartet repertoire with dizzying technical command and breathtaking subtlety. To successfully scale two of Beethoven’s most sprawling and confounding late string quartets in one concert is a test of stamina on the best of nights; to do so after a day of missed flights and airport faff is a rare skill indeed.

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Review: St Magnus Festival 2014


First published in The Herald on 25 June, 2014

Here’s a thrill that never gets old: finishing a concert in the Norse-medieval vaults of St Magnus Cathedral then emerging into the musky, silvery gloaming of an Orcadian midsummer night. There’s no overstating the potent sense of place that underpins the St Magnus Festival. Sure, the festival’s programme is enticing enough – this year featured memorable performances from the Trondheim Soloists, BBC Singers, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Fidelio Trio and more. But roughly half of ticket-buyers are visitors, able to access decent concerts much closer to home. What lures them north to these islands are the same factors that first attracted the festival’s founder, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, when he moved here back in the 1970s: the promise of music set against the Orcadian landscapes, soundscapes and light.

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