First published in The Herald on 23 February, 2018
It’s Bartok week at City Halls. The Hungarian composer is the latest to get the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s ‘composer roots’ treatment, which means his works will be presented in the context of the rich traditions that inspired him. For Bartok, that’s easy: folk music. He was an avid collector of folk songs in the early years of the 20th century, lugging around the latest recording technology (Edison wax cylinders) to Carpathian mountain villages and further afield to North Africa and the Middle East. There’s no overstating the impact of what he called ‘peasant culture’ on his music — and if that phrase sticks in the mouth nowadays, he meant with the highest possible reverence.
First published in the Guardian on 28 January, 2018
The second track of Martyn Bennett’s 1998 dance album Bothy Culture features the word ‘aye’ muttered in multiple inflections. It’s a stroke of deadpan brilliance, spoken word stripped back to a single redolent syllable. Bennett never overdid things.
Three years ago Celtic Connections commissioned a full-scale orchestration of Grit, the last album Bennett made before he died of Lymphoma at 33. Now conductor Greg Lawson and his Grit Orchestra were back, this time upscaled to the biggest venue in town. Sound quality was never going to be priority here, a fact driven home by the appearance of trials cyclist Danny MacAskill as soloist. (Not as random as it sounds: MacAskill used the track Blackbird for his global hit video The Ridge.)
First published in the Guardian on 25 January, 2018
Revamping a cult masterpiece is a dangerous business, and Bright Phoebus — the 1972 album by Mike and Lal Waterson — really is a masterpiece. Imagine the most severe voices in folk music pitched against lush, boozy, crushingly tender instrumentals. The songs have a gnarled lyricism, a concise and dreamy poetry. If you’ve never heard the album that’s probably because half of the original vinyl copies were pressed with the hole in the wrong place and it took until last summer for Bright Phoebus to be remastered and rereleased — largely thanks to the efforts of Lal’s daughter Marry.
And if anyone’s got the credentials to risk putting these songs on stage, it’s Marry and her family. The evening featured her cousin Eliza Carthy, Eliza’s dad Martin. Marry’s son Joe Gilhooley unleashed a sweet baritone during the trippy psych-folk interlude of Magical Man. Even Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire, who appeared as a sensitive guest singer, has family connections: his parents sang with the Watersons in Hull in the 1960s. The odd one out was John Smith, whose stylised crooning and Americanised vowels sounded pallid next to Eliza’s force in the devastating To Make You Stay.
First published in The Herald on 24 January, 2018
New year, new batch of orchestral behemoths. At its Glasgow HQ on Killermont Street, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is limbering up to play some of the biggest symphonies in the repertoire, from the blazing fanfares of Sibelius’s Fifth this week (Carlisle, January 26; Aberdeen, January 28) to the epic life force that is Bruckner’s Eighth (Perth, February 22; Edinburgh, February 23; Glasgow, February 24) to Mahler’s obliterating Ninth (Edinburgh, June 1; Glasgow, June 2).
Fans of Leonard Bernstein should look forward to a collaboration between the RSNO, its chorus and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland marking 100 years since the birth of the iconic American composer/conductor (Glasgow, April 27 – May 5). Concerts include his Chichester Psalms, his Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and his controversial pop-classical fusion 1971 Mass, written in opposition to the Vietnam war and to mourn the deaths of JF Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Richard Nixon famously refused to attend the first performance; if only classical premieres still held such political charge.
First published in the Guardian on 21 January, 2018
“Because this is happening in a Gaelic song,” jokes Julie Fowlis, “we know it won’t end well.” Fowlis wears her tradition lightly and deeply at once. It’s a pivot that comes with assurance; the Gaelic singer/multi-instrumentalist is a seasoned TV presenter, a poster girl for Gaelic culture, a bonafide trad music star whose slick fifth studio album, Alterum, has just been released. Nothing to prove here.
The new album explores supernatural places and spaces: an orphic world of selkies, kelpies and whispering birds. And, like everything else at her Celtic Connections show, Fowlis treats the theme with a gentle touch. Her voice is flawless, glossy, just a bit breathy. A Gaelic version of Paul McCartney’s Blackbird sounds inescapably fey but elsewhere there is edge. “I’ll do something radical now,” she says; “I’ll sing in the other language.” A stripped-back Americana version of Anne Briggs’s Go Your Way gives her warble a touch of Emmylou Harris. Fowlis can do diva, but she keeps it sweet.
First published in The Herald on 10 January, 2018
This time last year, Scottish mezzo-soprano Catriona Morison was a hard-working young opera graduate who was quietly building a career in Germany but had yet to make much of a name in the UK. By the time I interviewed her in October, she was a star. Morison flew into Glasgow for a few hours to pick up an honorary professorship at her alma mater, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and dispense a few kernels of wisdom to current students. On route from the airport she fended off the latest influx of concert requests and organised her schedule as one of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists. She could fit me in, she apologised, for half an hour over lunch.
First published in the Guardian on 2 January, 2018
Last summer, a video from Cardiff went viral in Ulaanbaatar. It showed the opera coach Mary King moist-eyed and lost for words during the finals of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. The man who had moved her to tears? 29-year-old Mongolian baritone Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar: towering, broad shoulders, huge smile, mighty voice. He sang Rossini, Verdi and Tchaikovsky and charmed everyone — including the judges, who declared him joint winner of the coveted Song Prize. “There was something so imposing about the sound,” King later reflected. “Contained and glorious. It’s very unusual to find this combination of presence, power and effortlessness in any singer.”
First published in the Guardian on 18 December, 2017
Make America Great Again. Put the Great Back into Britain. Today’s populist slogans are obsessed with some imagined past. What does that have to do with baroque Christmas music?
In his book Playing With History, John Butt — keyboardist, Bach scholar, Glasgow University’s Gardiner Professor of Music, director of the Dunedin Consort — writes about why we look back. The book was published in 2002 but the prescience for now is striking. Butt discusses the historically informed performance (HIP) movement in the context of populist nationalism, and climate change (“as we begin to perceive the limits of the earth’s resources, a culture of recycling becomes vital for our future survival”), and collective trauma (“the burgeoning of authoritative collected editions from 1950 might come in the wake of a war that had threatened to destroy virtually all the manuscript sources of western music”).
First published in The Herald on 13 December, 2017
It’s that time. Here are twenty of my favourite classical releases of 2017. Expect a loose take on the term ‘classical’, and no rankings: how to score Bartok against Beethoven against Eliane Radigue against Roland Kayn? Oops, I’ve given away the shortlist.
Certain names seem to keep cropping up in these end of year lists. I always love the way pianist Steven Osborne plays French music – forget cliches of hazy impressionism, because his latest Debussy album (Hyperion) makes the boldest aspects stand out in ultra high definition. The goldfish in Poissons d’or move in jerks and sudden flashes. The water droplets in Reflets dans l’Eau are super crisp, like pointillism writ large. At the end of Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum, the tune rings out like a defiant shout. It’s not pretty, but it is exhilarating.
Another regular: the Chiaroscuro Quartet, who this year turned their collective hand to Haydn’s ‘Sun’ Quartets Nos. 4-6 (BIS), music of huge daring and rogue vision. The Chiaroscuros do big contrast with exquisite taste; Alina Ibragimova leads with grace and ferocity but this is real chamber music and the attack comes from all four corners.
“The experiment is always about whether something will hold,” says Toronto-based composer Linda Catlin Smith, who deals in subtler contrasts. She tests how sounds can be longer or shorter, thicker or thinner, higher or lower, more distant, more intimate. The results are mesmerising on her double album of chamber music, Drifter, with poised performances from Apartment House and the Bozzini Quartet (Another Timbre). Music of lilting, lonely beauty.
First published in the Guardian on 10 December, 2017
Beethoven: Quartets, vol 4
Elias String Quartet (Wigmore Hall Live)
The world doesn’t need yet another recording of Beethoven’s string quartets, you might well argue, but this terrific cycle from the Elias String Quartet demonstrates how fresh, probing and confrontational a new account can be. The complete set was recorded live at the Wigmore Hall four years ago and is now being released in tantalisingly slow instalments. Volume Four covers early, middle and late-period Beethoven and the Elias distils the special energy of each: Opus 18 No 2 is assertive and coltish, a dance of bright, volatile exchanges; Opus 59 No 1, first of the ‘Razumovsky’ quartets, is confident, glowing, exploratory, while the mighty opening chords of Opus 127, first of the late quartets, are a statement of intent for an interpretation of huge emotion, thoughtfulness and vulnerability. It’s exciting playing, and a reminder of how the Elias players put every bit of themselves into their performances.