Edinburgh Quartet: Queen’s Hall (12 Nov.’17)

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Janacek’s “Intimate Letters’  to Kamila Stosslova

“The Edinburgh Quartet go on tour to all four points of the compass, to build lasting relationships with communities in the North, South, East and West of Scotland”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

 

I have not reviewed the Edinburgh Quartet since March when they played a combination of Mozart, Beethoven and Shostakovich as part of their “Revolution” series. They have been busy since, including a fascinating mixed media “Dance” performance reviewed in June by my colleague Steve Griffin. The Quartet are not a conventional, formal concert giving band, and have a clear market and music focus: different themes for every season, and outreach to the local community, including incorporating artists, makars, dancers, and, tonight, student musicians. Sunday’s 3pm matinee was one of only a few conventional concert hall offerings this season. Otherwise there are rush hour concerts, lunchtime concerts, free concerts and concerts all over Scotland including as far afield as Lerwick. It is almost as if ‘Edinburgh’ is a misnomer. Their publicity rightly states that “the Edinburgh Quartet go on tour to all four points of the compass, to build lasting relationships with communities in the North, South, East and West of Scotland”.  They are a quartet for the nation.

With this creative and outward looking disrespect for inertia we also have had change in the line up almost to the point of it being a band of session musicians, Mark Bailey on cello apart. This does not trouble the band, and nor should it us. The vacant seats give an opportunity for up and coming musicians to try out their playing in a quartet as opposed to an orchestra or solo role, and it brings something new for each concert, where all the different line-ups I have reviewed deliver a surprising homogeneity.

Yet the move from homogeneity to synergy requires players in total empathy with one another and second guessing them, often for years, which is why great quartets are always better than star studded put-together ensembles.  Only the first violin seat remains to be filled, probably, I understand in the New Year. On balance, this is to be welcomed.

The programme took us from Haydn, through Tchaikovsky and Janacek to a new work by Scottish composer Tom Harrold.

Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor Op 20 No5 is part of his ‘Sun’ series, but this stupid name, based on a cover illustration, belies an austere work that is satisfying rather than uplifting. It was competently and confidently played.

The Janacek String Quartet No 2 “Intimate Letters’ was written 150 years later (1772, 1927 respectively) and in style probably quite demanding for the largely elderly Sunday afternoon audience. Written in the last year of Janacek’s life it reflects upon the woman for whom he fell head over heels, Kamila Stosslova, nearly 40 years his junior and to whom he wrote over 1000 letters, 300 in his last eighteen months*.   Certainly all manner of feeling was in this work, amounting to a conviction piece that, while not easy listening by any stretch, was as rewarding as it was demanding. That the relationship was reciprocated only platonically no doubt contributed to his and the music’s angst. The Quartet despatched its considerable demands with ease. So much so that when the work stopped in order for second violin Tom Hankey to return to the anteroom to pick up the rest of his music nobody minded, such is the quartet’s informal rapport with their audience.

Following the interval the quartet was joined with a “shadow” quartet of students from St Mary’s Music School: Briona Mannion and Marie-Sophie Baumgartner on violin, Rachel Spence and Finn Mannion on viola and cello respectively. They were playing the world premiere of Tom Harrold’s short piece “Elegy”. Harrold described the work as simple but the timings were very difficult (and which the shadow quartet managed very well) and there was a considerable amount of pizzicato to handle. Intensely quiet at the opening the piece developed into a pleasing, romantic work in the modern vein.

The evening ended with Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No 2 in F, Op 22, a great, classical work relatively unknown outside of the musical world, for being within the chamber music genre, I suspect. Contrast it with the hugely popular Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor, Op 23. Both have the honour of being dismissed by Rubenstein: the Quartet “not really chamber music”, and the “Concerto “unplayable” It took considerable reserves of energy and musicality to deliver a work of this substance at the end of a long but engrossing Sunday afternoon. The elusive first violin seat was on this night guested by Nicolas Dupont from Belgium. He had most of the heavy lifting to do, ably supported by his colleagues. Whoever takes the first violin seat permanently has a lot to live up to.

 

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 * For those who want to know more about this extraordinary 11 year ‘non romance’ I recommend “Notes for a Hausfrau: Intimate Letters: Leos Janacek to Kamila Stosslova”, edited and translated by John Tyrell and published by Faber in 1994 at £25.  It may be out of print, so go to the excellent review in the Independent by Michael White that gives the gist of this extraordinary muse:  http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/book-review-notes-fof-a-hausfrau-intimaye-letters-leos-janacek-to-kamila-stooslove-ed-trs-hohn-1410383.html

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 12 November)

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RSNO: Oundijan; Vogler; Wang. Usher Hall. 3 Nov.’17

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Jan Vogler

“Great if you like twelve-tone. Not so great if you don’t”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars

 

Combined concerti for violin and cello are relatively rare, and on Friday at the Usher Hall we got two, separated in composition by 128 years. Such was the nature of the new work, however, that it was more like a comparison of the Viennese Salon of the 1890s and the 1930s’ Second Viennese School.

 

As is his custom, conductor and Director of Music Peter Oundjian gave us an introductory talk alongside cello soloist and this year’s Artist in Residence Jan Vogler. Not unreasonably, the majority of the talk was about the UK premiered work Duo Concerto by Wolfgang Rihm. Rihm was born in 1952 in Karlsruhe and is a professor of composition at the University of Music there. The work was commissioned by the Friends of Dresden Music Foundation to celebrate ten years since the reopening of the Frauenkirche and received its world premiere in Purchase, NY and in Europe in Dresden in 2015. It was written for performance by Vogler and tonight’s violin soloist, Mira Wang. Vogel’s association with the work, and his being the orchestra’s Artist In Residence, explains its choice on tonight’s programme in addition to its legitimacy as a composition.

 

The work lasts for 25 minutes in one movement. The soloists are in play almost the entire time, and the work has a heavy texture and is written in the twelve-tone technique. “Great if you like twelve-tone”, said Vogler. “Not so great if you don’t”. The work in fact had momentum, good orchestration, and a particularly demanding part for violin soloist Mira Wang. It was, perhaps, down to the limitations of twelve tone that it sounded remarkably similar to Schoenberg albeit composed seventy years later.

 

Our hardworking soloists carried straight on into the Brahms Double Concerto in A minor. Brahms is the master of melody, and we were into a glorious cello theme just four bars in. Whereas Wang did most of the heavy lifting in the Rihm, this work was Vogel’s and in fact a case could be made for writing out the violin part altogether, taking nothing away from Wang’s fine playing and   interplaying with Vogel beautifully when the score allowed it. The orchestra played with excellent phrasing and balance and were clearly very comfortable in their skin, supporting the soloists with all effortlessly harmonised under Oundjian’s baton.

 

After the interval we returned for Beethoven’s Symphony No 6 in F major, the ‘Pastoral’. What can a music writer add to the reams that have already been written about this glorious work? Well, you could feel the hall relax as we snuggled into this closing number, the orchestra were on top form, fully rehearsed and sure of foot, and familiarity did not disappoint. One notable difference in interpretation were the strings playing of the first subject in the final movement (Shepherd’s Song), Oundjian holding them back just a little so we could hear more of the supporting wind. He bought them back to the fore before the finale.

 

And did you know the Shepherd’s Song was used as music in the TV commercial for Lentheric’s Tweed fragrance in the 1960s? Now, you will find that degree of historical research only in Edinburgh49.

 

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Reviewd by Charles Stokes (Seen 3 November)

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Our Fathers (Traverse: 24 – 28 October ’17)

Rob Drummond (l) & Nicholas Bone (r)
Photo by Mihaela Bodlovic

“‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ this is not, as a caustic version makes clear.”

Editorial Rating:

4 Stars: Nae Bad

Yet this is a kind piece, just possibly milder and more forgiving than its writers first intended. Rob Drummond and Nicholas Bone got together – which is a mighty draw in the first place – and offer Our Fathers as a sincere appraisal of their own lives as the doubting sons of clergymen. Their text – for this is a messaging service too – is Edmund Gosse’s celebrated memoir Father and Son (1907) with its epigraph, ‘Belief, like love, cannot be compelled’.

 Written and performed by Rob Drummond and Nicholas Bone, I should add, which is testament to the play’s personal and affecting quality. Whilst they take the parts of Philip Gosse (Drummond) and Edmund (Bone), they are also themselves, appearing friendly and unassuming, and only getting cross with one another rather than with the world. If anyone disappoints, and it is as sorrowful as it is a raging disappointment, it is the God of their fathers, who has definitely messed up. ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ this is not, as a caustic version makes clear.

Gosse the father was a biologist as well as an evangelical churchman, putting him squarely in the round hole of being a Christian scientist. He could write Evenings at the Microscope (1859) and still find plenty of time to rubbish the idea of evolution. One of his vivid illustrations of a jellyfish is revealed in the church hall cupboard, upstage right. Karen Tennent’s jewel of a set, so precisely lit by Simon Wilkinson, is particularly successful at focusing attention. The Victorian underslip is puzzling (a beloved dead mother?) but the fossils next to the plain wooden cross speak volumes. And there’s the fishbowl in which to dunk the book – [Told you that they get cross]. There’s an available reference to Prospero, promising to drown his learning [Like hell he will!] but then you could see it as some inventive gloss on baptism, which Drummond is especially keen to dish and seeks audience support to do so.

In Chapter 1 of Father and Son Edmund Gosse writes, ‘Several things tended at this time to alienate my conscience from the line which my father had so rigidly traced for it’. That ‘line’ is in the severe  clerical dress, the chalked up 5th commandment, and in the earnest hymn singing, but there’s also the sheer size of Philip (Drummond) alongside the much slighter Edmund, who draws up his little chair to his father’s big table. So it’s amusing that it’s Nicholas Bone who stands firm against Rob Drummond’s pleading to ‘play’ the son and it’s sad when young Edmund’s prayers fail and his looked-for faith is nowhere to be seen.

But all told Our Fathers is an easeful piece. Drummond makes light of the ribbing he got at school for ‘being the son a preacher man’. Hopefully it was good-natured, for let’s presume that he was, indeed is, ‘the sweet talking son of a preacher man’. Both men – tricky to call them actors at this affectionate point – hold up photographs of their fathers, whose recorded voices we hear.

On reflection, which is very much the point, I’m with the storyteller of Genesis 1:31: ‘God saw everything that he had made [including sons], and, behold, it was very good.’ This original, deceptively modest work, is also very good at what it asks and does.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 25 October)

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RSNO: Norrington (Usher Hall 21 Oct’ 2017)

 

 

Sir Roger Norrington
Photo: Alberto Venzago

“Sometimes good things come in small packages”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

 

There was much more to Friday’s excellent RSNO/Roger Norrington gig than met the eye. Of course it was a thrill to be in the hands of the maestro of historically informed musical performance, last seen here at the Edinburgh Festival for his assured and thrilling Monteverdi performances, as well as for the reassurance of an evening’s accessible, if not easy listening, classical music. Yet we got so much more, namely an insight into the deceptively futuristic ahead-of-its-time works of Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.

The first question one was forced to ask oneself was, “When is a symphony not a symphony?” The initial work, Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale was originally titled Symphonette and played out in three movements in around 19 minutes. Both Prokofiev and Shostakovich wrote symphonies of lesser duration, the former at the beginning and the latter towards the end of their symphonic canon, so why the name change? In admittedly three movements rather than four, it was greater than the sum of its parts and was a satisfying, rounded piece developing all the way through towards a Finale: Allegro molto vivace that was recognisably mature Schumann as compared to its more Mozartian beginnings.

After the deftest of scene changes (only three first violin desks to move out of the way in this cut down band) to bring on the concert grand Steinway, Roman Rabinovich delighted us in a relaxed, assured and thrilling interpretation of Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 1 in G minor.   In an underrated work clearly ahead of its time – that reminded me of Brahms and Tchaikovsky a generation later  – we were treated to excellent solo and ensemble playing of a dramatic operatic opening followed by a strong melodic line and taut together playing under Norrington’s understated, enabling direction.

The evening concluded with Schumann’s Symphony No 1 in B flat minor (Spring). I cannot find any reference to Tchaikovsky being influenced by Schumann in his ground breaking fourth symphony but the opening two bars of the Spring symphony were near identical. The orchestra were sufficiently beefed up for this work to make one forget it was contemporaneous with the opening number. We went from two French horns to five, nought to three trombones and were full on for more than half an hour. The playing and direction were disciplined and effective with well-managed crescendos and an elaborate brass coda in the first movement. The band continued to provide a rich tone in the second, but in the elaborate and extended finale, following on a beautiful flute intervention, the brass gave into themselves showing tone a little coarsened by virtue of their evident enthusiasm. Never mind, this was joyous music making.

As I left the auditorium I noticed that I was leaving at the remarkably early hour of ten past nine. We had, in fact, just one and a quarter hours of music making when on a good night one can expect nearer two hours. Yet it was a well-put together programme and hard to see how it could have been justifiably fleshed out. Some times good things come in small packages.

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 20 October)

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Love Song to Lavender Menace (Lyceum Studio: 12 – 21 October ’17)

16.(L-R) Matthew McVarish and Pierce Reid. Photo credit - Aly Wight

Matthew McVarish and Pierce Reid. Photo credit – Aly Wight

“A delightful gem of a show”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Bookshops, especially independent ones, often have a comforting and homey feel to them, providing a peaceful sanctuary and hidden paradise of worlds waiting to be explored. Indeed, that’s what Lavender Menace proved to be for many of those that visited it back in the 1980s, as Edinburgh’s foremost seller of LGBT and feminist literature – and that same feeling is what James Ley’s latest play captures in his moving and comical tribute not just to that shop, but to Edinburgh’s gay scene at the time, and the colourful characters that made it.

Set during the night after the shop’s final day’s trading, we meet two of its employees, Glen (Matthew McVarish) and Lewis (Pierce Reid) who spend the night packing away the books, while reminiscing and creating an homage about the place to perform for its founders the next morning. The pair recount how the bookshop came to be, the antics that occurred, and how their own friendship has developed during that time. It’s a simple setup, and while a little lacking in dramatic tension to really drive the piece forward, the stories themselves are easy to engage with, Ros Phillips’ direction keeps everything moving at a decent pace, and there are many laughs to be had throughout the various capers presented.

What’s most delightful about this performance is the vitality and honesty that oozes from its stars Reid and McVarish. The duo are instantly likeable storytellers, while their skill at multi-roling with speed and dexterity must also be applauded. Watching a full-length play with just two actors can sometimes be a bit of a slog, but this one flies by like an evening spent with good friends. Ley’s writing on the whole is very natural, providing some genuinely lovely snapshots of the shop’s history, but it’s Reid and McVarish who really bring those snapshots to life.

It’s a shame the structure of the play goes a little awry in the second half with various seemingly random changes in time, place and character. While such devices work smoothly early on in the production, seamlessly weaving together the different stories, it becomes much harder to follow as the piece progresses. Perhaps something around the hysteria of the characters, who have clearly been up most of the night by this point kicks in, but the tightness of Ley’s writing does unravel somewhat. For me, the love story between the two also seems a little shoe-horned in for dramatic effect, though its resolution is ultimately satisfying.

Overall, this is a delightful gem of a show, which, like a well-loved bookshop, might not be as glossy and polished as the more mainstream ones, but is definitely one I would be happy to visit again.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 13 October)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Cockpit (Lyceum: 6 – 28 October ’17)

Photo. Mihaela Bodlovic

“Director Wils Wilson goes all out to create predicament and danger”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Albert Camus’ La Peste was published in June 1947. The first Edinburgh International Festival was in August 1947. Bruno Walter conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in the closing concert and reckoned that “Here human relations have been renewed”. Bridget Boland’s Cockpit opened at the Playhouse, London, in February 1948 and mashed pestilence and optimism together. Now it’s back, thanks to David Greig, and fit for purpose: a raw and vehement history play, but without princes and kings.

London’s Cockpit theatre was on Drury Lane. It was probably another ‘Wooden O’, built around an actual cock pit. Boland’s play goes one better than Shakespeare’s Henry V, her ‘swelling [and vicious] scene’ holding not only ‘the vasty fields of France’ but the whole of Europe. Cockpit is actually set in a theatre. You get the immersive idea pretty quickly when you notice that the Lyceum has been commandeered by the ‘Allied Government’. It’s late 1945, it’s punishingly cold, and there’s still the reverberation of pulverising bombardment. We’re in the British Zone of Occupied Germany and a theatre is being used as an assembly centre for displaced persons (DPs), hundreds of them. They’re even huddled on the stage. Cast-off clothes are over the backs of the seats. There are ladders from boxes, screened by sacking, to the Stalls and – we’re told – German corpses in the boiler room. Transport is being arranged to take you home (whether you want to go back or not …).  You in the Dress Circle are going West. Those of you in the Stalls are going East. Jiri, on stage and silent, is from Lidice and has no home left. Willkommen im Umwelttheater!, as ingeniously constructed by designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita.

It is a babel of Slavic voices and trouble. But surely a British officer can sort this lot out, provided he has a desk and reason on his side. Young Captain Ridley has been detached from his regiment because he has School Certificate German. He does have his service revolver. His sergeant, Sergeant Barnes, has no German, just loud Geordie and a Sten gun. Between them they put on a brave ‘show’ – in the choice Army sense of the word – but there’s a limit to how long they can just ‘Carry on’.

Conflict starts with ‘Who’s pinched my sauce pan?’ and very quickly turns serious, not least because the Poles hate the Jews ( – ouch!) and the Russians will kill the Poles and the Chetniks will kill anybody, especially socialist partisans. A French collaborator – but forced labour would qualify that – is certain that Marie, a Resistance fighter, will falsely denounce him. Add infectious disease and Capt. Ridley is in a desperate jam. There is some rallying round but a different kind of ‘show’ is needed to relieve the tension; after all, we’re in a playhouse. When it comes, two thirds through, we get an operatic cloth and a bravura performance from Sandra Kassman.

(L-R) Nebli Basani, Peter Hannah, Dylan Read (Bauer), Sandra Kassman (stairs), Kaisa Hammarlund (stairs) and Adam Tompa. Photo. Mihaela Bodlovic

This is Boland’s brilliant conceit. When the German stage manager, Bauer, says “You will need the theatre – afterwards”, you believe him. And when faced with the possibility that his theatre – probably one of the few buildings left standing in his flattened city – might be burnt down to halt contagion, the man is stricken with sadness. Bauer (Dylan Read), as comic denizen of his place, living in the flies, and true Propsmeister, is almost the only source of laughter in an otherwise sombre drama. Read also plays Duval, whose occasional spoken French, is so good that you appreciate the difficulties of staging a script that demands heavily accented English from several characters. Whatever ‘European’ means, this cast is it.

Director Wils Wilson goes all out to create predicament and danger. A chant is either angry or sorrowful and certainly incomprehensible (unless you’re Romanian). Rush and hurry can subordinate the personal stories. There is a stretch of choreographed movement for the whole company that would express the plight of the displaced anywhere, at any time. The excellent music by Aly Macrae is often discordant and broken, except for the quiet piano at the beginning of the second half. Capt. Ridley (sturdy by Peter Hannah) might be resolute, almost heroic, but it’s not enough. There is a passing mention of a major somewhere else but the chain of command appears well and truly absent, which will irritate Army types.

Cockpit is bold work, both then and now. It is theatrical but – more importantly – it’s humane. A Russian DP proclaims “20 million Russians died. It must not happen again”. That’s from the Stalls, going East. Primo Levi, after Auschwitz and going West, got it exactly right: ‘It happened, therefore it can happen again’.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 10 October)

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Jury Play (Traverse: 3-7 October ’17)

“The fourth wall isn’t so much broken as shattered”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Sometimes the power and excitement of a show begin long before you take your seat, and remain with you for several days after. For Jury Play, a detailed email briefing is circulated in advance of the performance/court appearance, creating intrigue into what the evening will entail: it’s worth saying at this point that this is in no way like your standard trip to the theatre. The excitement only builds as you go through “security”, enter the (optional) ballot to become a jury member, and start to leaf through your court information pack while taking in Emily James’s impressive and sizeable courtroom set.

Yet what, on the surface, appears to be conceived as an interactive courtroom drama, where the prosecution and defence present facts about a given crime and a resolution is reached by the audience/jury, what Jury Play peels away at is what effect the trial process has on individual members of the jury, specifically for trials that last for weeks.

At various points during the trial, voiceovers expressing jury members’ thoughts are overlaid with the action, which include worries about getting children to school, paying bills, what specific legal terms mean, and even staying awake. Snippets of video conversation between writers Dr Jenny Scott and Ben Harrison about the performance also add a pleasingly Brecthian feel and help break up some of the monotony of the trial itself. So far, so so. Everything changes in Act ii, however, when the formal trial is over and the power lies in the jury’s hands. I won’t give away all the spoilers, but I shall simply reveal that organised chaos ensues, and the meat of the piece really comes out as an intelligent, human, and common sense discussion into the way we conduct trials.

When it comes to the performance it is John Betts as Judge who commands the show, and with his hilarious doddery asides and sensitive chairing of the discussion in the second half of the piece, you feel like you’re in his space, and he decides at any given point how comfortable anyone is to feel. Helen Mackay is also excellent as the conscious “everyman” figure Janis, who just wants to do her duty, and the cast as a whole make the performance very accessible: the fourth wall isn’t so much broken as shattered, with a piece of it distributed to each and every person in the room.

For me, though perhaps a reflection on the subject matter it discusses, Scott and Harrison’s script is too laboured and lengthy at points – missing some crucial details to aid comprehension in the first half, and dragging out its point in the second. The ending, while interesting and fitting stylistically with the piece, also feels like a bit of a cop-out and rather abrupt – as if the ideas just ran out at that point and there was nowhere else to go.

Overall this is a fascinating insight into the legal system, what it’s like to be a jury member, and how seemingly unfit for purpose the whole setup is – especially for people like me who have very little knowledge of its intricacies. Jury Play is absolutely worth taking part in, if there’s any room left in the public gallery.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 5 October)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED