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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Review: Laus Concentus in Orkney

First published in The Herald on 23 June, 2014

Orkney’s Italian Chapel sits alone on Lamb Holm, tiny, humble and exquisite; blink and you’d miss it as you travel along the causeways between the mainland and South Ronaldsay. The chapel was cobbled together out of two Nissen huts in 1943, built by Italian prisoners of war who had been brought to Orkney to construct the Churchill Barriers (crucial defences to the British fleet stationed in Scapa Flow). The soldiers painted the exterior in dazzling whites and reds and the interior in sumptuous Catholic iconography – the resilience of their creative imagination is in every brush stroke.

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Review: Cottier Chamber Project

First printed in the Guardian on 10 June, 2014

Now in its fourth year, the Cottier Chamber Project is thriving. This gutsy, lo-fi concert series operates on a shoestring yet attracts the best of Scotland’s chamber musicians; it seems to run on plain good will, plus the appetite for decent grass-roots programming when plenty of festivals simply buy in lookalike bills of touring artists. Every year the Project’s professionalism notches up a peg – this year’s opening weekend unveiled a newly-acquired good piano (a loan from an audience member) and the full gorgeous interior of Cottiers Theatre, at last rid of endless scaffolding.

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Review: BBCSSO’s Elliott Carter retrospective

First published in the Guardian on 29 May, 2014

Elliott Carter: A Celebration
City Halls, Glasgow

How to sum up a composer like Elliott Carter in just two concerts? America’s great modernist had a staggering eight-decade career and produced some of the most intricate and vivid works in contemporary classical music. Any retrospective could only ever scratch the surface, but the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra have paid valiant tribute with theirs. Focusing on the effervescent late works plus a couple of major early-period examples, they grasped – crucially – that the complexity of Carter’s music shouldn’t ever be cold or alienating, but rich, expressive and brimming with life.

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Review: Der Rosenkavalier

First published in The Herald on 23 May, 2014

Der Rosenkavalier
Glyndebourne, Sussex

Richard Jones’s new production of Der Rosenkavalier made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Earlier this week, several prominent opening-night reviews included negative comments about the body shape of the mezzo-soprano playing Octavian (Tara Erraught). A media storm ensued, with cries of chauvinism from the singing world and defensive retaliation from some of the critics. The affair even earned its own Twitter hashtag: #taragate.

And so Robin Ticciati’s debut as Glyndebourne’s new music director came and went under a bizarre fracas. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s principal is the seventh conductor to hold the position in the house’s esteemed 80-year history. With its luxuriously long rehearsal periods and familial atmosphere, it should suit him to a T; no doubt #taragate was what he least expected in his first week on the job.

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Review: Tectonics 2014

First published in the Guardian on 13 May, 2014

There are some juicy anomalies at the heart of Tectonics, the festival of new music curated by Ilan Volkov and Alasdair Campbell and hosted by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Take the last part of that sentence for starters: an orchestra, most 19th century of beasts, hosting indie icons like Thurston Moore and Richard Youngs? The BBC, most upright of institutions, printing off running orders for interpretive dances about fracking and art-rock concrete poetry? It’s to the credit of the BBC SSO that they allow Volkov to pursue his boundlessly gung-ho thing. Few other orchestras could collate such an eclectic programme, and very few could deliver it all with such unwavering skill.

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