Review: Dunedin Consort’s St Matthew Passion

First published in the Guardian on 15 April, 2014

St Matthew Passion
Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

There can be no hurry when it comes to the St Matthew Passion. Plenty of performances scoot along, almost apologetic for the three-hours-plus that Bach’s full score takes to unfold, only slowing up to wallow in the crowd-pleasers. Not so in this thoughtful, lyrical and beautifully spacious Palm Sunday account from John Butt and the Dunedin Consort. Whereas Butt’s steering of the more concise St John’s Passion is thrilling for its racy dramatic thrust, here he embraced the Matthew’s scope for expansive reflection. The storytelling never dragged but the arias were platforms for deep contemplation: often Butt didn’t conduct them at all, leaving expressive direction up to the singers and the lithe continuo band.

Continue reading

Review: Counterflows (Friday night)

First published in The Herald on 7 April, 2014

Next time you’re hammering nails into a piece of wood, think of the covert musicality: the rough rhythms, the pinging overtones. In a disused underground car park off Renfrew Street, a pair of veteran Japanese improvisers, Akio Suzuki and Aki Onda, unearthed the sounds of industrial hammering and clinking, of bottles dragged across the floor, cassette tapes chucked at the wall and speaker feedback bounced back against their own bodies. They moved with the deliberateness of dancers, by turns spontaneous, urgent and precise, and their chemistry was intriguing: Ondo played the volatile troublemaker while Suzuki patiently constructed a makeshift xylophone from a bucket-full of nails then proceeded to play it with spry virtuosity. It was captivating sound art, unfussy and expertly executed.

Continue reading

Review: RSNO with Susanna Mälkki and Jack Liebeck

First published in the Guardian on 24 March, 2014

Susanna Malkki has a knack for weightlessness. The Finnish conductor brings luminosity to the darkest score and somehow makes a sprawling symphony orchestra sound feather-light. In this concert she drew the most poised and delicate playing I’ve ever heard from the strings of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and a terrific all-round clarity. There wasn’t enough brawn for the programme’s Russian repertoire, but the sound was just right for the UK premiere of a finespun work by Malkki’s compatriot, Kaaija Saariaho.

Continue reading

Review: Scottish Opera’s Macbeth

First published in the Guardian on 23 March, 2014

With its regular home (the Theatre Royal) currently under construction, Scottish Opera migrated south across the Clyde to the Citizens Theatre for its latest production. It’s a revival of Dominic Hill’s Macbeth, originally a 2005 touring piece that uses seven singers to cover cast and chorus. Instead of Verdi’s full orchestra we get a chamber ensemble – an awkward compromise in terms of timbre and balance. I wonder why the company didn’t just choose an opera that was written for smaller forces in the first place.

Continue reading

Review: Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek

First published in The Herald on 17 March, 2014

Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow

With its lofty vaults and vast central hall, Kelvingrove Museum doesn’t make the ideal venue for every vocal group: the sound tends to get mushy, diluted or plain lost. But the Hilliard Ensemble isn’t every vocal group. For a group that cultivates aesthetic austerity they really thrive on extravagant echo. Their performances with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek welcome resonant space like a collaborative partner. They’re never static, either: this concert began with Garbarek alone on stage and the four voices wafting in from all corners of the hall, setting up the mysticism that has become a key component of the Hilliard-Garbarek formula.

Continue reading

Review: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with James MacMillan and Danny Driver

First published in the Guardian on 11 March, 2014

City Halls, Glasgow

The occasion felt bureaucratic: a concert added to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s calendar to mark Commonwealth Day, the arbitrary figure of 135 days until the Commonwealth Games kick off in Glasgow and the orchestra’s upcoming diplomatic tour of India with James MacMillan conducting. I’ll take any excuse to hear a piano concerto by Erik Chisholm, though. The Scottish composer – nicknamed ‘MacBartok’ for his pioneering integration of folk idioms in the early 20th century – isn’t nearly as well known as he should be, even in his home country. Three years ago Danny Driver and the BBC SSO made a superb recording of his two piano concertos; here they returned to the Second, the Hindustani.

Continue reading

Review: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Andrew Manze and Steven Osborne

First published in the Guardian on 1 March, 2014

City Halls, Glasgow

Steven Osborne is currently making his way through Beethoven’s piano concertos with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and conductor Andrew Manze, and if one quality has headlined the cycle so far it has been his unerring, unassuming, often revelatory sense of clarity. There’s been plenty else to admire, too – the thoughtful invention of his Fourth, the blithe spark of his Emperor. But above all he and Manze seem to share a touch that’s lucid, fresh and brilliantly plain-speaking.

Continue reading

Review: Fred Frith, Roscoe Mitchell & George Lewis with the BBCSSO

First published in The Herald on 24 February, 2014

City Halls, Glasgow

In the programme note for his 2003 orchestral work The Right Angel, Fred Frith tells a story about the first time he played electric guitar with an orchestra. It was 1974, he remembers, and “the entire back row of the orchestra made a show of putting their fingers in their ears”.

What a difference a few decades can make. This concert hosted by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ilan Volkov celebrated three giants of improvised music: guitarist Frith, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and trombonist/computer musician George Lewis. They presented orchestral scores that were intriguing, especially Lewis’s: his 20-minute Memex (written for the occasion) channels the creative scope of computer music through the visceral brawn of an orchestra — cue exciting spacial flux, shifting perspectives and ultra-vivid timbre.

Review: RSNO with Peter Wiegold

First published in The Herald on 24 February, 2014

Tramway, Glasgow

Reviewing work in progress always present a bit of a quandary. What exactly is up for critique here? Is it the process, the potential outcome of that process, the concept behind that process, or more simply (as is the case with most reviewing) the calibre of the on-the-night performance? To my mind, when tickets are priced rather than free then the last factor still comes first. And it’s on that basis that this concert didn’t hold up.

Continue reading

Review: Chris Watson

First published in The Herald on 13 February, 2014

Chris Watson
University of Glasgow Concert Hall

Chris Watson’s art is epic, transporting and inspirational, and at the same time utterly straight-forward. In the 1970s he founded the Sheffield post-punk band Cabaret Voltaire; now 60, he records wildlife and natural environments all over the world. In the first part of this lecture/performance he talked about the Galapagos and Icelandic glaciers, about train journeys across Mexico and Scott’s Antarctic hut where nothing has changed since the explorer walked out. “Just the sound of wind catching the chimney,” he described. “Like listening back in time to next-to-nothing.” There was unfussy poetry to the way he explained his work. A broader climate change message was woven in lightly but persuasively: by making us imagine these environments, Watson’s recordings also make us care.