SCO. Egarr. (Queen’s Hall: 10 Nov. ‘16)

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Etienne-Nicholas Mehul (1763 – 1817)

“Richard Egarr skilfully coaxed every nuance out of the brilliantly orchestrated score so that the music was allowed to speak for itself in all its tranquillity and serenity.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Musicians will have their little jokes. The opening of HMS Pinafore starts with a drum roll. People think it is the introduction to the National Anthem and stand. The orchestra continues into the overture. Members of the audience sit back down in a mixture of moods. Most take the joke. It is, after all, Operetta. The Edinburgh Quartet, much lauded in these pages, do all their tuning off stage and get straight into the work when entering. SCO Conductor Richard Egarr took it a step further on Thursday night by starting Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture before the audience had finished clapping him on. I loved it. I noted that the Edinburgh Quartet’s second violin, Gordon Bragg, was sharing the front desk of the seconds on the evening in question. Must have felt at home.

The SCO and Egarr treated us to a confident and gutsy rendition of Prometheus with Egarr’s left hand so active it was as if the orchestra was a clock he was winding up. They certainly kept a fast tempo. This was a colourful, jolly opening number with trumpet and horn not holding back. “Was that lively enough for you?” Egarr asked as he chatted between numbers. You bet.

From research, I had found that the little known Etienne Mehul wrote his First Symphony at the same time as Beethoven wrote his Pastoral. Richard Egarr informed us that as it was being written “the French had just cut off the heads of a lot of rich aristocrats”. Hmm, talk about context. The work is more in the style of Mozart than Beethoven, with suggestions of Haydn; it is simple and repetitive, but by no means without merit and deserves its place in the canon. Lively, bouncy, with a fast pace and well orchestrated, definitely entertaining (probably deliberately so in the case of the bassoon scoring being more akin to flatulence) and well played. We went into the interval feeling very upbeat.

What more can be said, or indeed written, about Beethoven’s Symphony No 6, the ‘Pastoral’? Well, I shall try, because its fifth movement Allegretto has soothed my troubled brow on many an occasion, and I hold the work among my personal favourites.

Egarr’s pace was slightly fast, and he thereby avoided the work showing any tendency to cloy or sound clichéd. The SCO played throughout with an engaging fluency and naturalness. This was not some band trotting out a popular number at the end of the evening and the work was well crafted and treated with respect.As for that familiar fifth movement Allegretto (famously used for Lentheric’s Tweed fragrance in the 1960s) Richard Egarr skilfully coaxed every nuance out of the brilliantly orchestrated score so that the music was allowed to speak for itself in all its tranquillity and serenity.

Another fine evening with the SCO that is making an increasingly serious contribution not just to the Scottish, but to the international musical scene as well.

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 10 November)

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Edinburgh Quartet: Mozart, MacMillan, Dvorak. (Queen’s Hall 25 May ’16)

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“They played with zest, enthusiasm and perfect tonality”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars:  Nae Bad

I think the overriding reason I enjoy the concerts of the Edinburgh Quartet over many others is their understanding of how to put together a performance, rather than just playing. A lot of thought clearly goes into this, from the overall theme, whether it be Storm and Stress or New Horizons to the programme mix on the night: this evening it was Mozart and MacMillan, followed by Dvorak, leaping boldly from the eighteenth to the twenty-first and then back to the nineteenth centuries – and then there’s considerate way they always do their final tuning before coming on stage so that they just smile at us and get on with it – it’s not about them, it’s about the music.

And smiling was very much in evidence on Wednesday; they were clearly enjoying themselves, and so were we. They put us at our ease.

We started with Mozart’s String Quartet No 19 in C, K465, the “Dissonance”. The first twenty bars or so really were the most incredible piece of creative genius of its time; we could easily have been listening to Schoenberg, but after that the piece reverts to classical, Haydnesque form, and a charming work it is, too. Assured, beautiful playing with the violins parrying the melody with the cello in contrapuntal support. An honourable mention must go to cellist Mark Bailey whose warm tone really brought it all out in the last movement.

Next up was James MacMIllan’s String Quartet No 3. The full gamut of techniques was used here, long silences, not so much sul ponticelli but playing on the other side of the bridge, tapping and knocking the bodies of the instruments, crazy pizzicatos, and the first violin playing right at the very top of the register on the E string. The work started eerily with unison octaves before breaking out into a thrilling full tilt series of prestissimo arpeggios thrown from instrument to instrument.  The players gave total commitment throughout to a highly unusual but engrossing work. I cannot pretend all the audience found it to their taste, but they were all remarking on it at the interval, and I for one was bowled over. It is clearly a demanding work extremely well played.

We were given an easier ride in part two, and gently led to the conclusion of the evening with Dvorak’s String Quartet No 12 in F Op 96, “The American”. From the confident and assured opening of Catherine Marwood’s viola to the many familiar melodies picked up individually and collectively by the band, they played with zest, enthusiasm and perfect tonality and were clearly enjoying themselves and we found their enthusiasm infective. Pure joy –  and a real treat to bring a thoroughly enjoyable evening to a close.

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 25 May)

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Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus (Queen’s Hall: 28 April ’16)

“A very appealing and appropriate choice of works”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars:

Thursday’s SCO concert at The Queen’s Hall was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the SCO Choir, and like at all the best gigs, the star attraction came on after the interval, following an impressive warm up by the band themselves.

Indeed, “warm up” is a particularly apposite description. The gallery was unusually crowded owing to the need for the ground floor to accommodate both the orchestra and 60 strong chorus, as half the centre stalls had been taken out. Heat rises, and for some reason the upper half of the house was uncomfortably warm, the lower a little too refreshingly cool.   Deliberate attempt to boost interval bar sales? Of course not; worried staff were toying with the radiators all evening.

Hot stuff? (Groan). Yes, it was an interesting programme, very much in the classical vein.

First up was Bach’s Overture from Suite No 3. Conductor Richard Eggar engaged with us immediately, explaining that this piece was “the one before Air on a G string” which I guess made us feel at home. My concerns about the Master’s orchestration including three trumpets playing very much in the high register, reminiscent of Handel and in truth slightly jarring (absolutely no reflection on the playing) was confirmed by the view taken by musicologist Joshua Rifkin that the piece may originally have been conceived for strings alone. Nonetheless it made for a lively opening to the evening’s entertainment.

Next came Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony. Yes, Fifth. Most people think he wrote only four, and in fact this work was composed probably somewhere between the first and second, much delayed in the performance. Nothing like the “Italian” or “Scottish” symphonies, it is a highly classical work, fitting in well with the Bach, and includes in the scoring a part for that intriguing instrument of yore, the Serpent, that I would imagine sounds rather like a cardboard tube made of brass.

A short while through the first movement I thought I was listening to Wagner. How could this be? Well, both Mendelssohn in this work, and Wagner in Parsifal, use the chorale-like orchestration of Martin Luther’s setting of Psalm 46, Ein’ feste Burg (“A safe stronghold’). Later on there were reminders of Haydn’s ‘London’ Symphony (no 104) with the use of the Dresden ‘Amen”. This ‘Reformation” symphony was an orchestral link between concert hall and church, a prelude of what was to come after the interval.

Mendelssohn featured again after the interval with the choir performing his hymn-like Verleih uns Frieden’, or “Peace in our time”, later to have such resonant connotations.   It was a pleasure to hear choral singing with such soothing melodic lines in this brief, dignified work.

Finally, the piece de resistance, Bach’s Magnificat in D. Confident choral singing with a strong, reassuring opening ably supported by brass and wind. The “Et exultavit…” that followed suffered from a slight lack of volume from the solo soprano, but the work as a whole provided a compleat combination of chorus, soloists and orchestra.

So Happy Birthday, SCO Chorus and Band, a very appealing and appropriate choice of works to celebrate this joyful occasion!

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 28 April)

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Scottish Chamber Orchestra: Ain Anger & Olari Elts

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“No musician could fail to admire, and secretly envy, the sheer bravura and chutzpah of this performance…

 Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Nae Bad

Thursday’s Scottish Chamber Orchestra concert at the Queen’s Hall was a fascinating melange of the contemporary, romantic and classical. As a result we experienced a variety of different musical experiences in an exciting evening’s musical entertainment.

I suspect the main draw must have been the evergreen Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but more of this later. The gig kicked off with Brett Dean’s “Testament”, a work some years in evolution that, to quote the composer “in some way related to Beethoven’s life and music”. I personally found it hard to trace this link back to the great man, notwithstanding the composer’s consultation with the string section of the Berlin Philharmonic and studying of the Heiligenstadt Testament. There were strong influences of Honegger, Adams and even Lutoslawski, as well as some clear 19th century style melodic lines in what was a mosaic of musical styles. It made for an entertaining and lively start to the evening and the orchestra dispatched it with enthusiasm and considerable skill.

By way of a contrast followed Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. Mussorgsky had planned to set eight songs by the poet Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov, with whom he shared rooms. In the event he set only four of them and died before he got around to orchestrate them, which his eminent fans Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich were happy to do, as has contemporary Australian composer James Ledger. This latter was the version chosen for us. Perhaps an unconventional choice in view of his illustrious forebears, the orchestration undoubtedly worked in an atmospheric and almost mysterious way, including an extraordinary clarinet glissando in the third song Trepak (described as “death dances with a drunk in the forest at night). Leading contemporary Wagnerian and Estonian born Bass Ain Anger gave a deep, clear and resonant account of this very Russian work in the folk idiom. The power of the magnificent, but I repeat pleasingly clear bass voice was enthusiastically supported, especially by the brass, as it drew to its sombre, striking conclusion.

And so on to the popular, oft played, recorded and interpreted Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in C minor. One almost wonders what the point of performing this work is; how can one possibly bring anything new? Everyone, from Von Karajan, the wonderful Carlos Kleiber, and even the Bee Gees in Saturday Night Fever, has had a crack at this gloriously barmy work, and the only person who hasn’t heard it properly in the civilised world is probably Beethoven himself.

To their credit the SCO did pull a rabbit out of a hat. They went off at a cracking pace like the crews in the Boat Race, taut, together, on the money with every new passage and actually managed to convey the excitement of hearing the piece for the first time. A confident opening by the cellos in the Andante con moto made the most of the crescendo in the initial cadence and there were good dynamics and clarity even in the small supporting parts, in particular woodwind and pizzicato strings, and the more so of this latter in the subsequent Allegro. The final, fourth movement Allegro brought the work, and the evening, to a resounding conclusion.

So what to make of this interpretation of the well-known work? Full marks for enthusiasm as caution was thrown to the winds, not afraid of turning up the volume, raw, earthy, almost ‘street’, spirited and raucous. I am sure my school director of music would think that conductor Olari Elts was being a bit naughty with the work, and there were a number of bum notes and other flaws, particularly in the often exposed brass. However, no musician could fail to admire, and secretly envy, the sheer bravura and chutzpah of this performance. Roll over Beethoven!

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 7 April)

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Edinburgh Quartet (Queen’s Hall, 17th Feb. ’16)

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“An interpretation of utter conviction, inspiration and stellar playing throughout”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Nae Bad

The Edinburgh Quartet continued the second phase of their 2015/16 Season under the banner of “Storm and Stress”, derived from the loose translation of the German ‘Sturm und Drang’ movement of the eighteenth century. In this movement passionate expression was given free rein in literature, but also in music with works by Haydn and Mozart at the forefront. The Quartet performed a typical Sturm und Drang work by Haydn, Op 76 No 2 “The Fifths” alongside Bartók’s thrilling, dissonant but rewarding 3rd Quartet and Grieg”s surprisingly complex and at times  dark Quartet in G minor.

The Quartet got straight into their opening number with final tuning completed off stage. This, along with their precision and togetherness, immediately gave the audience confidence that they were in safe hands and in for a treat. So it proved.

The Haydn has (if you will forgive the pun) no hidin’ place (geddit?) in the transparency and openness of 18th century music, and chamber music in particular. The quartet were not found wanting. Clarity, accuracy, full on expression and commitment were the order of the day, and brought this 200-year-old work fully to life. At the end of the first movement I could not stop myself whispering “Wow” under my breath. By the third movement what impressed me most about this band was their sheer synergy. Disciplined, supportive pizzicato to Tristan Gurney’s lead violin, lightness of touch in the final movement with lead violin again doing most of the heavy lifting, as well as the dramatic opening fifths that told us this band meant business.

I have to say I had my heart in my mouth for the Bartok. A complex, austere work with brutal sul ponticello and col legno bowing, glissando fingering and a deep contrapuntal architecture, all grafted on to Hungarian folk song in a collage of different shades and expressions, at times highly dissonant, at others wistfully melodic. A hard act to pull off and a work after which the string quartet genre was never quite the same again. It has probably only been done justice by the Alban Berg Quartet, although the Takacs have given a creditable performance, and it was refreshing to hear the Edinburgh Quartet’s assured version of this piece that makes demands of players and audience alike.

I particularly enjoyed how the musicians let the music speak for itself – the various techniques demanded by the composer contributed to the overall musical experience rather than distracting through novelty or sensationalism. By this I mean the disconcerting col legno (basically bashing the bow up and down on the strings, even reversing the bow so the wood strikes them) was artistically justified!

We needed a breather after that and the interval proved welcome respite. We returned to the auditorium expecting some dreamy Grieg. Not so. This was more Peer Gynt than the Holberg Suite. A major, serious work full of contrasts, based on Spillemand, a Norwegian song from 1876, that gave us a strong, dramatic opening leading into a more lyrical style as it progressed. The quartet rewarded us with an interpretation of utter conviction, inspiration and stellar playing throughout. Special mention here has to be made to Cellist Mark Bailey laying down a melody of plaintive yearning, sensitively supported by ripieno violins and viola.

So, taken in the round, once again some really creative programming delivered with enthusiasm and élan. Putting Haydn and Bartok together before the interval took some courage, and it worked, albeit lacking just a touch of the transcendental magic shown in the Quartet’s previous outing. An engrossing, rewarding evening’s music. Bravo.

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 17 February)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Scottish Chamber Orchestra: John Butt (Queen’s Hall: 10 Dec. ’15)

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“But few will now be able to forget the jazz-like syncopations and whirling demisemiquavers”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars

“Since 13 May 1871 Bach’s blood has ceased to flow in mortal veins!” concluded the Aberdonian scholar Charles Sandford Terry in 1930. Despite Johann Sebastian having 20 children, ten surviving to adulthood, it was for many years thought this centuries-old line of exceptional musicians had died out.

Genealogists have been delighted to discover, however, that the eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was not only a highly productive (if temperamental) musician, but through his fecund daughter a tiny band of U.S. based descendants have in recent years been discovered. At the Queen’s Hall on Thursday 10 December, it was for many the survival of W. F. Bach’s “Adagio and Fugue” F 65 (c.1740-5) which was the great discovery; the limpid flute-writing of adagio giving way to a vigorous and angular fugue of high order: subject, countersubject, stretto and inversion being hurled, attaco, by the enthusiastic players of the SCO.

Conductor John Butt firstly gave a stylish rendering of Johann Sebastian’s 4th Suite (Ouverture) in D, BWV 1069. The repetitive nature of gavottes, minuets and bourreés can sound tritely mechanical, but with subtle changes to phrasing and articulation, coupled with flexible tempi, the whole became animated and variegated, right up to the triumphal final Rejouissance.

Central to the programme was virtuoso bassoonist Peter Whelan, in the demanding C. P. E. Bach Concerto in A minor, Wq 170. Few will have heard this adaptation for bassoon before; but few will now be able to forget the jazz-like syncopations and whirling demisemiquavers. It is this superb instrumentalist who makes the galant writing a hit, and without him ovation and encore would be lesser or absent. Whereas the W. F. Bach work is a tribute to papa (reminiscent the more horribly difficult fugues of the Well Tempered Clavier (BWV 846-893), his brother at the court of Frederick the Great, namely Carl Phillip Emmanuel, is here in full rebellion against the structural emphasis of the father. The work swerves in mood and tempo: a son in a traffic-weaving go-faster Porsche, attempting to overtake the father in his stately processional Mercedes ……

The programme thus takes us from Baroque to Classical via the half-world represented by the Bach sons. To end: the well-familiar Symphony No 40 in G minor by Mozart; in the acoustic comfort-zone for many. Nevertheless, the minor key keeps the audience in thrall to the hints of tonal instability, and even menace, interplaying with the gracious theme of the first movement. At one point the strings’ suspirum seems more like expiration than sighing; and the natural horns are strangely dominant to one side of the hall. Their authentic resonance enlivens the sound universe for the work; more balance would be a further plus: try horns centre stage?

Meanwhile, let’s repeat this programmatic formula: the trusted repertoire enlivened by the Butt baton, and supplemented by the artful compositions of the younger Bachs. The audience went away filled with good things. May they return for more  …..

 

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Reviewer: Peter Smaill (Seen 10 December)
Peter is a guest contributor to Edinburgh49 and Chairman of Bach Network UK, a charity founded by John Butt and others to facilitate international dialogue and understanding of the works and context of Johann Sebastian Bach, amongst musicologists, performers and enthusiasts.

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♫ Edinburgh Quartet (Queen’s Hall: 11 Nov. ’15)

“Precision mirrored with passion”

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Editorial Rating: 5 Stars:  Outstanding

One of the many appealing aspects of our home string quartet is the creativity of their programming.  Chamber Music is beautiful but a full concert can be a little samey.  Not so tonight.  Who else would start with the young Schubert, and then follow it immediately with Shostakovich, a leap of almost 150 years in composition, and make it work?

This was the second Edinburgh Quartet concert in their Intimate Voices series.  Following its successful launch at St Andrew’s and St George’s West almost a month ago, the Intimate Voices concept highlights the extraordinary intimacy created by the intense exposure and interdependence of the string quartet genre.

The publisher who mistook Schubert’s 10th String Quartet when discovering it posthumously could be forgiven for mistaking it to be a more mature work, but we now know Schubert wrote it when he was sixteen.  Properly fashioned nonetheless, the Edinburgh Quartet immediately developed its luscious, rich and warm tone that quickly drew us in.  Confidently and perfectly executed, this delightful piece with its nuances of Haydn and Mozart set us up for the treats to come.

The Shostakovich String Quartet No 7 proved an exciting thirteen minute contrast.  The F sharp minor key created an atmosphere of loss (Shostakovich’s first wife Nina died suddenly of undetected cancer of the colon. Their marriage had had its moments, but he was irreconcilable to the loss and the work is dedicated to her).  As so often with Shostakovich, the sparse strings have all the unstated menace of a horror movie, the fearful anticipation that worse is to come.  Throughout the three movements the tension gradually built into a cacophony of searing anguish only to fade away into the ether at the end.  Here the Edinburgh Quartet’s playing was undoubtedly world class. Precision mirrored with passion.

After the interval we dropped back fifty years and settled down to Sibelius’ String Quartet “Voces Intimae”.  Even though Sibelius himself was extremely wary of “names” for his compositions, (“You know how the wing of a butterfly crumbles at a touch? So it is with my compositions; the very mention of them is fatal”) the applied nomenclature is apt as it was self-penned.  The intimate nature of the work was immediately set by the opening violin and cello passage.  It is almost a feeling of reassurance that one gets from the Quartet’s complete homogeneity; they are at ease with each other and handled the frequent dynamic and tempo changes assuredly. They kept the spirit going all the way through the five movement work; their playing at times spellbinding, with aching tenderness in the Adagio di molto where Sibelius wrote the words Voces Intimae on the manuscript, and then frantic, with a wild moto perpetuo in the final Allegro, as they drove it to a breathtaking finish.

Not many promoters would put on a programme as varied as we had tonight.  It gave us a rich panoply of romantic music spanning 150 years.  The Quartet’s reputation continues to grow.

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 11 November)

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♫ Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Queen’s Hall: 29 Oct ’15)

“A Melodious Maiden”

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Editorial Rating: 4 Stars:

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra offered a diverse programme of Nordic delight at their recent gig at the Queen’s Hall.

First off was the world premiere of Verdigris by Finnish composer Lotta Wennakoski.  This was an arresting work; the astonishing opening pianissimo glissandi giving way to scary strings with woodwind interjections in a whole that was hard to reconcile with its claimed Sibelian, En Saga and Andante Festivo influences.  Unmelodic with little in the way of harmony, it reminded one of a twisted Nordic Noir one might see on BBC4.  Unfortunately, the coda was as unexpected as it was ineffective.

Denmark came next with one of the most full throated, committed renditions of Nielsen’s Violin Concerto I have had the pleasure of hearing.  Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisti took complete command of the work and gave an electric performance including not one, but two virtuoso cadenzas.  Warm, well balanced sound between soloist and orchestra with french horns skilfully intervening between strings and soloist.  This was a thoroughly assured, well crafted performance in which the tension built irrevocably into a pulsating climax that brought prolonged and deserved applause from a grateful audience.  Kuusisti’s easy personal style built a popular rapport, and the two polkas he played by way of encore were a treat.

The second part of the programme was an ingenious piece of musical craftsmanship by conductor Tuomas Hannikainen.  Sibelius’s one published opera, The Maiden in the Tower, has a feeble plot and a poor libretto.  It also contains some of the most glorious, melodic passages the composer has ever written, all in the space of less than three quarters of an hour. Hannikainen cleverly reorchestrated the work as an orchestral suite.  So often this doesn’t really work, but in this case it really did.  We started with a bright, colourful overture in almost Hollywood style, a glorious romp, even Operetta, which morphed into something more akin to the great Finn’s gorgeous and melodic house style. If the brass had it in the Nielsen, the strings came into their own in this work, with a breathtaking idyll played by the flute, answered by urgent, plangent cellos. Hannikainen has created a work of real integrity that deserves committing to recording.

We had a wonderful joyride through the best of Finnish music, and the huge smiles and embraces amongst the band showed that they had too.  Bravo!

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 29 October)

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