Russian State Symphony Orchestra. Uryupin, Douglas. (Usher Hall: 14 Oct.’18)

Image result for russian state symphony orchestra

“.. We had just experienced something magical”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars: Outstanding

 

Orchestras from foreign lands are always a pull, whether they be good, bad or indifferent, and so the Usher Hall’s annual Season of international classical orchestras, along with recognisable and highly accessible programmes, is a clever marketing tool. It pulls in not just the regulars but irregular concert goers as well, and is thus to be lauded. Unfortunately there are some downsides in terms of concert etiquette.

 

The Stalls and the Grand Circle were full and the Upper Circle pretty empty, symptomatic of the target demographic, relatively well off retirees, a sort of silver screen for music lovers, but without the coffee and biscuits. I was pleased to see evidence of champagne being taken at the interval. Dress code was pretty smart too. Many had been out to Sunday lunch, the opposite of what I have experienced in Vienna, where the well heeled visit the Brahms Halle in the morning for a recital from members of the Philharmonie before retiring to the Imperial Hotel for torte or wurst. 

However, such slightly patronising thoughts were brought up with a short, sharp shock as the players got going. Russian orchestras sound different, play differently, interpret very differently. The Russian State Symphony Orchestra (they change names so often it is hard to know who you are hearing: I remember booking to hear the Leningrad PO only to find because of political changes the programme on the night referred to them as the St Petersburg PO ), the RSSO, is officially known as the State Academic Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov” and is one of Russia’s older ensembles having debuted in Moscow in 1936 under the baton of Erich Kleiber and Alexander Gauk.

The orchestra’s take on Suite and national dances from Swan Lake (Tchaikovsky) almost blew me out of my seat. No gentle Sunday afternoon lollipops here. The collection was their own “cherry pick” from the ballet and covered the full gamut of well known sketches and dances, the ‘Black Swan’ being very much in evidence in the full on, almost clodhopping interpretation of all bar the opening “Scene” (Morecambe and Wise, anyone?”) as dance music as opposed to an orchestral suite, and of course this was portraying the music just as it was originally scored. For sugar plum fairies kindly look elsewhere. Aggressive almost brutal harshness with strong rhythmic intensity, incredibly strong tone, yet never harsh or crude. The Waltz, for example, was played as yearning and passionate rather than gentle and coy. Oh those Russians!

Somewhat taken out of myself I was pleased for the pause as the strings went off stage to bring on the Steinway. A couple of days ago it was in situ as the orchestra played before it was needed. Spoiled the view, and anyway, this is a big orchestra to stage.

Shostakovich is not guaranteed to bring in the casual concertgoer, but his second piano concerto is short, and an aural treat. The audience loved it. Barry Douglas, very much on form, dispatched the first movement in the composer’s tongue-in-cheek mode with easy precision, but as a movement it was unremarkable. It was in the second movement Andante that we began to drool. The strings’ opening bars are of such tangible emotion and the plaintive sadness of Douglas’s introduction and exposition got everything out of the music without overplaying. Real judgement and artistry. If you don’t know it, you can hear the composer play it himself on You Tube. In fact, you should.

The third movement by contrast is pure bravura. I was frankly amazed at Douglas’s technique, making as if nothing of these incredibly demanding Allegro passages in double time. It is to me quite extraordinary that Shostakovich thought so little of the work, notwithstanding writing it as a birthday present for his nineteen-year-old son. Perhaps composers are their own harshest critics, for this work, in microcosm, has much to commend it.

After the interval we were treated to Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, an hour-long treat that never palls unlike some of the extended passages we get in symphonies of similar duration from Bruckner or even Mahler. It was particularly interesting to me having heard the first symphony (written twelve years earlier and to general opprobrium) a couple of days earlier. Here was a fully developed work deploying every part of the orchestra to full effect. The interpretation of the orchestra was much more mainstream than in the Tchaikovsky and none the worse for that. From beginning to end it was a textbook example of how the work should be played compared to the more esoteric, but entirely valid Tchaikovsky interpretation.

Notwithstanding a two hour performance the orchestra generously gave us the tactfully chosen Elgar’s Menuet de Matin as an encore.

I cannot finish without complaining about the insensitive and self-indulgent coughing throughout much of the performance. It was particularly hard to bear in the beautiful Shostakovich Andante, and the unrestrained coughing so soon after the interval could, I assume, have been despatched beforehand. Holding a rolled handkerchief to the mouth and coughing into it can greatly limit the noise of unavoidable coughing, as the Royal Festival Hall advise in all their programmes. Also, but thankfully after leaving a few seconds silence after the Andante, there was a small outbreak of applause ( … Noooooo!). There has been talk of this at the Proms this year. On this particular occasion I could not find it in me to complain, for we had just experienced something magical.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 14 October)

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RSNO. Sondergard, Morison (Usher Hall: 12 Oct. ’18)

Illus. Vesper Stamper.
‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’

“Well played throughout. One has complete confidence in the RSNO’s craft.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

 

I have written before of the RSNO’s skill in programme selection. Often a short warm up piece, followed by a concerto, and after the interval a symphony. Last night we were completely spooked. For sure, we had the symphony after the interval, but we started with Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites Nos 1 and 2, a good 30 minutes worth, and finished the first half with Ravel’s Scheherazade. That’s right, Ravel’s Scheherazade, not Rimsky-Korsakov’s. I suspect that many people didn’t realise it wasn’t the one they knew until it was over, in about eighteen minutes as opposed to the better known version’s fifty.

 

Moreover, Thomas Sondergard in addressing the audience before the concert started, as is the RSNO custom, pointed out that he had moved the various movements of Peer Gynt around to make for a better musical flow, and it worked. We started, as we absolutely had to, with “Morning Mood”, commonly known as “Morning” and hijacked by virtually everyone from TV commercials to Monty Python. A confident opening with crystal clear flutes and oboes before the glorious strings took over. Following on such well-loved sketches as Solveig’s Song and Anitra’s Dance Sondergard rightly chose to end with the splendidly tub-thumping In the Hall of the Mountain King. The trolls seemed to be clambering all over the Usher Hall as we left for the interval. A much underrated work, I would suggest that the Peer Gynt Suite is one of the most gloriously lyrical orchestral pieces ever written, and the RSNO did more than justice to it.

 

Not unlike its counterpart, Ravel’s Sheherezade is an exotic, ethereal yet sensual piece, and the excellent 2017 first British winner of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Catriona Morison had less time to get us in the mood. The work comprises just three songs taken from Tristan Klingsor’s poem, Asie (Asia), La Flute Enchantee (The Enchanted Flute) and L’Indifferent (The Heedless One). At first a little arid in interpretation and finding balance with the orchestra, Morison wowed us with ‘La Flute Enchantee’ and began to develop some of the magic and mystery of this short piece. ‘L’Indifferent’ showed nuances of world-weariness of a woman watching a young man walk by, apparently indifferent to her charms. I detected in the music shades of the Pavane pour un infante defunte and also –  albeit arranged later –  Bailero from Joseph Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne. A pleasant interlude.

 

If anyone’s symphonic career got off to a terrible start it was surely Rachmaninov, the more extraordinary considering how popular his works are today. Poorly played and conducted by a supposedly inebriated Glazunov it was a critical and popular disaster, so much so that the composer retired from composition for three years and returned only after hypnosis therapy, (and to great acclaim) with his second piano concerto.

 

It is not difficult to see why. Rachmaninov’s 1st Symphony is clearly a nascent work and never published in his lifetime. “Bold as brass” is an appropriate description of the opening followed by the strings playing as if in marching order. Very little development of a melodic line, lots of noise not really going anywhere. The second movement was again striking but cannot be described as good music, although there was a definite promise of things to come by the time we came to the third and fourth – a lot of good stuff trying to get out. It is a courageous decision to programme this work (no faint praise intended): it is of considerable interest, and terrific if you like noise. The closing Tan Tam and Timpani were an audiophile’s delight! Well played throughout; one has complete confidence in the RSNO’s craft.

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 12 October)

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Scottish Ensemble (St. Cecilia’s Hall 9 Oct.’18)

St Cecilia’s Hall, University of Edinburgh.

“I kept returning to my notes and underlining the words “Rich tone.” It was an aural joy”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

 

What do Edinburgh’s New Club, Cameo Cinema, and Usher, Queen’s and St. Cecilia’s Halls all have in common? They are all hosts to the most glorious live music, and this most fortunate of music writers has had the privilege of attending five concerts within just six days in these various venues. My conclusion after living here for approaching four years? Edinburgh is a world class music city, with some world-class music being performed here. We are very lucky.

 

There aren’t many new concert halls being built these days, although there are plans for one in Edinburgh, so the inspirational redevelopment of St Cecilia’s as a museum of musical instruments (you simply must see their fantastic harpsichord collection, many still playing) and enchanting, bijou oval 200 seater auditorium with central chair and perimeter soft bench seating is a delight. Only problem with the venue? No bar. However, the instrument showcases make for an adequate non-alcoholic distraction.

 

Notwithstanding the building’s eighteenth century origins (built for the Edinburgh Music Society in 1762) the concert style was modern. Ipads instead of music, standing instead of sitting in the custom of Chris Warren-Green and the LCO (all bar the cello!) and sleek modern tieless black rather than evening dress.

 

Four members of the Ensemble were playing on the evening, Music Director and first violin Jonathan Morton, Cheryl Crockett on second, the fabulously lively Jane Atkins, principal violist of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Alison Lawrence on cello. Star soloist on clarinet was Matthew Hunt guesting from the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie. The standard was remarkably high, and while it is a well-known adage that a string quartet can sound as loud as an orchestra, what struck me about tonight’s combo was not so much their volume but more their rich tone. Time again during the evening I kept returning to my notes and underlining the words “rich tone”. It was an aural joy.

 

We started with the Brahms Clarinet in B minor Op.115 (1891). Less easily accessible than the Mozart (being held back, one suspects, for a lollipop finish), the players brought a generosity of spirit and a refreshing lushness of tone, particularly in the second movement Adagio, to what is quite a dry, late Brahms work, making it one of the most enjoyable renditions that I have heard. The intensity of sound from the strings, with the clarinet (Clara Schumann described it as “wailing”) soaring above them in full, unforced tone. It never wavered.

 

After the interval we were treated to an extraordinary amuse-bouche, Mclaren Summit by contemporary composer John Luther Adams, written in Alaska some five years ago and played by the quartet alone. Entirely on open strings and harmonics it was a strangely melodious work that reminded me of near namesake John Adams.

 

The uber popular Mozart Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K.581 (1789), which one might have expected, because of its chronology, to be the concert opener, was held back until last, a bit like a rock star ending with their biggest hit. One felt almost a sense of reassurance by the familiar opening and the playing of first violin Jonathan Morton really came into its own. The second movement Larghetto, matched only perhaps by the Adagio from the Gran Partita as one of the most beautiful pieces of woodwind and string music ever written, more than met our expectations with a degree of perfection often found only on recordings, clarinet and first violin calling and answering each other with a breathtaking poignancy. The third and fourth movements took us on a joyous romp home. In the final movement I was surprised to be reminded of the final movement of Schubert’s Trout Quintet, the players almost teasing us with their phrasing, deliberate pauses, and changes of tempo.

All in all a delightful evening’s music. I have to confess it was the first time I have heard the Scottish Ensemble. I want to hear more.

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 9 October)

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Edinburgh Quartet (Queen’s Hall: 7 Oct.‘18)

Photograph by Cecil Beaton

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

“This work, [Britten’s String Quartet No 3] unknown to me, was the event of the evening”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

 

The Edinburgh Quartet, one of the country’s longest standing musical ensembles, has been through many changes, but perhaps none so great as in the three years past that I have been writing about them. Personnel changes, obviously, but changes in performance strategy as well. A move away from formal, evening concert giving to less formal lunchtime and afternoon recitals, working with makars and artists, educating, and, splendidly, offering internships to aspiring musicians to actually take a desk for a period of concerts with them. All this makes it difficult to achieve an enduring opinion of their actual playing together as a combo, and I have not written about them for almost a year.

Sunday afternoon’s concert at the Queen’s Hall featured only one member of more than a year or so’s standing, 10 year veteran cellist Mark Bailey. Tijmen Huisingh has taken over the 1st Violin desk after a year of guests; with Tom Hankey and Catherine Marwood on 2nd violin and viola respectively.

A further unusual aspect of the quartet’s branding is choosing a theme for each season. This year it is ‘Exile’. These themes in my view have always been a little contrived and in his chat after the Beethoven Tijmen Huisingh did confess that they had to be “broadly interpreted”. Exile from deafness in the case of Beethoven, homesickness form England in the case of American based Britten, and yearning for Bohemia from Dvorak whilst in America. Hmmn.

The programme notes were sparse but learned. Deep analysis of the works in question, but with no mention of the players or their biographies. Pleasingly, no advertisements. A puzzling frontispiece titled “Death in Venice” and a reference to phrases quoted in the final movement of the quartet to Britten’s opera. Helpfully, there is an attractive and up to date website to provide further information. 

The Quartet, continuing their very pleasing custom of not fine tuning on stage but getting right down to it, kicked off with an early Beethoven Quartet, Op.18 No 3, a competently despatched if not especially inspiring rendition of an unspectacular early work.

There followed Britten’s String Quartet No 3, a more mature, introspective work, to which the players brought everything they could, from the desolate duets at the beginning between first violin and cello, some breathtaking first violin playing in the highest positions with barely a couple of inches of metal to derive a sound from, lively ensemble playing in the Burlesque finishing with bold pizzicato leading to a sublime conclusion in the final La Serenissima. This work, unknown to me, was the event of the evening.

Tijmen Huisingh had explained earlier that they were unable to play the published Dvorak String Quartet in E flat major, no 10 op.51, through lack of practice owing to illness. Instead we heard Dvorak’s String Quartet no 14 op.105, played in previous recitals. A melancholy opening in the first movement Adagio non troppo – the work was started in America and completed in Bohemia –  it grew livelier and more entertaining as it progressed. In the second movement Molto Vivace – Trio we were obviously back in Bohemia, there was some rich tonal playing in the lento e molto cantabile and in particular masterful cello playing in the final Allegro non tanto as the Quartet showed their evident bonding notwithstanding a relatively recent coming together.

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 8 October)

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RSNO: Sondergard, Piemontesi (Usher Hall: 5 Oct. ’18)

Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911)

“The RSNO just gets better and better”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars:Outstanding

 

The RSNO Supporters’ Hospitality Suite was packed, the dress code considerably upscale, the auditorium full, save a few seats in the very furthest reaches of The Gods. It was opening night in Edinburgh for the RSNO 2018/19 season, and the induction of long time Principal Guest Conductor, 49 year old Dane Thomas Sondergard, as Music Director, who had celebrated his birthday the previous evening with this same programme in the Caird Hall, Dundee.

 

Expectations were clearly high and were not disappointed. We experienced an evening of real musical craftsmanship, the thoroughness, depth and preparation of the music expressed though a mixture of strong technical accomplishment accompanied by restrained, contained emotion which in this age of hyperbole made it all the more effective. Not so much “Less is More”, for there was plenty, but “thoroughness is all” rather than showmanship, particularly in the Mahler, where hearts were not worn on sleeves, but beat resonantly from within.

 

As is the RSNO’s habit, we were welcomed with a few words by a member of the string section, which in my mind achieves a helpful bond between players and audience.

 

We started the evening with a warm up, Lotta Wennakoski’s aptly named Flounce, a five-minute escapade that reminded me of a fairground ride and premiered at last year’s Proms under the baton of fellow Finn Sakari Oramo. Result? Good mood all round.

 

Piano already in situ so no delay for the next piece, except for a brief address from Sondergard himself, full of Scandinavian modesty as he spoke of his pride at becoming Musical Director after those seven years as Principal Guest Conductor.

 

Our soloist on the night was Francesco Piemontesi, perhaps best known as a proponent of Mozart and so, given the Mozartian nature of Beethoven’s first two piano concertos, and also his first two symphonies, was a profoundly logical choice.

 

As in many of his concertos, in his Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat major Beethoven keeps you waiting for the soloist’s entry with a long introduction. When Piemontesi came in, it was a natural segue rather than grand opening, emphasising the synergy between soloist and orchestra that marks the best played concertos. With very strong cadenzas Piemontesi brought verve and precision to the music with the band in taut and timely response. There was a collective (but just about silent) “… aah” from the audience as the familiar third movement Molto Allegro brought us to the work’s conclusion. I would describe this performance as perfect.

 

We were treated to a thoughtful, unexaggerated interpretation of the well known Schubert Impromptu in A flat major before retiring for the interval, a work I suspect many of us have played in our time, but nowhere near as well as this.

 

The Mahler Symphony No 5 in C sharp minor was the work we had all been waiting for, a seventy-minute epic. And it was. One’s heart went out to the trumpet soloist opening the work whose first note had just a trace of uncertainty in its first moments but then delivered a masterly performance throughout the work. I suspect few noticed, and none cared, I certainly didn’t. This is all part of the bargain of live music. In fact the orchestra’s playing throughout this very long, demanding work, was exemplary. Huge contrasts in dynamics, avoidance of sensationalism (“It’s not as loud as you play it on the HiFi” my wife remarked), brilliant pianissimi between timpani and basses, joyous chucking of the theme from strings to brass, the orchestra never tiring through this musical and emotional marathon.

 

The fourth movement Adagiotto. Sehr langsam more commonly known as “The Adagio from Mahler’s Fifth” or, worse, “Theme from Death In Venice” deserves a paragraph to itself. It was a textbook example of how this movement should be played. First, it is an Adagietto, which means very slowly, and it was at a very slow pace –  indeed, the slowest I have heard – that Thomas Sondergard guided his players through an incredibly exposed piece of scoring, in which bow and breath control, depending on the instrument, are stretched to their physical limits. Abbado does it all in a couple of seconds over nine minutes, Rattle in nine and a half. I reckon Sondergard took us to nearer ten. The result was an achingly poignant, again understated but utterly compelling interpretation of this famous musical sketch.

 

The RSNO just gets better and better. If tonight is an example of what is in store for us in the coming winter and spring, we are in for a series of real treats.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 5 October)

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SCO. Mazzola, Frang. (Usher Hall: 27 Sept’18)

Vilde Frang
Photo: Marco Borggreve/Warner Classics

 

“It was a joyful, uplifting evening’s music.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

 

A braw Autumnal evening met me as I walked across the Meadows to the Usher Hall for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s 2018/19 Season Opening Concert. The programme contained Nielsen and Sibelius and I braced myself for an evening of bleak Scandinavian forests, folklore and darkness.

I could not have been more wrong. It was a joyful, uplifting evening’s music.

Of course, Robin Ticciati was not on the podium. His replacement, Maxim Emilyanychev, was not either (he comes back next week), but instead Enrique Mazzola, Artistic and Music Director of the Orchestre National d’Isle de France and Principal Guest Conductor of Deutsche Oper in Berlin returned to take up the baton. Essentially a bel canto and opera conductor, how would he cope with this Romantic and late Romantic fare? He did fine.

The more I thought about the evening’s programming the cleverer I thought it was. How many of you have heard Sibelius’s third symphony? Two and Five, of course, but this was an interesting choice. Moreover, Nielsen is known principally for his symphonies and concerti, but an overture? Cleverer still was the positioning of the star attraction, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, along with the soloist of the evening, Vilde Frang, in the second half. So often it’s a bit of a downer when the soloist goes home before the interval and the rest of the evening feels rather flat.

First off was Nielsen’s Helios Overture. Nielsen himself said that the work needed no introduction and indeed it was a predictable (none the worse for that) evocation of sunrise somewhat in the classical genre. After the pianissimo double basses, four horns braved the introduction and were just a tiny bit shaky on their damnably difficult to play instruments, so exposed. The orchestra very quickly found its feet with all sections playing confidently with some magnificent strings, wind and brass before it drew to a close as it had started, with pianissimo basses again. It was a pleasant relief to experience the audience sitting on their hands as Mazzola held up his hand to restrain applause rather longer than one might have expected. When it came, it was enthusiastic.

On to Sibelius’s 3rd Symphony in C. Who would dream of calling a Sibelius symphony “jolly”? But it was, and none the worse for that. In the first movement there was calling woodwind, responding strings, melodious horns, all at each other’s beck and call, ending with shades of the horn call of the 5th symphony. In the second we heard melodious flutes and unalloyed joy yet in the Sibelian mode. Come the third and a darker, sombre theme with nuances of Finlandia. A useful, unusual addition to one’s knowledge of this fabulous composer.

After the interval Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D, written a hundred years earlier than the previous two works. Nielsen was of course a Dane, Sibelius a Finn and while Beethoven undoubtedly German his interpreter tonight was another Scandinavian, the Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang. Yet this was proving to be no Scandi Noir, Frang perhaps making the point by wearing a light coloured floaty dress rather than more conventional evening colours. The work has a long orchestral introduction and to be honest Frang looked a little spare as she awaited her entry, which she then executed extremely competently and was very much in charge for the rest of the performance as she drew a great deal of tone and volume out of her modern-ish 1864 Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. The work is so well known there is little new for the music writer to contribute, save to say the performance was fresh, committed, with gusto, a thoroughly enjoyable 45 minute’s worth from start to finish.

Throughout the performance conductor Enrique Mazzola showed quiet authority and got everything he could and should have out of the works and the players, who responded only too happily. All done with the minimum of podium histrionics.

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 27 September)

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The Flyboys: A Postmodern Swing Sensation (Gilded Balloon @ Rose Theatre: 1-24th Aug: 22:30: 60 mins)

“The Flyboys instantly ooze charm and fun”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

There’s been a huge rise in popularity of hybrid vintage/modern acts in recent years, with electro-swing becoming cool, and bands such as Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox selling out tours and racking up millions of hits on YouTube. Enter the Flyboys at the Fringe on the back of this trend, mixing up modern songs with a vintage 30s/40s twist.

Taking to the stage in coordinating waistcoats and spats, The Flyboys instantly ooze charm and fun as they launch into their cool rendition of Arctic Monkeys’ I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor. With a swinging beat and smooth, intricate harmonies the foursome have a real likeability and set the tone for a fun evening of music with a twist. And what follows is a string of popular, up-tempo songs performed in the band’s trademark style.

These are four great singers, and while none of them possess a spine-tingling unique voice to dazzle as a soloist, the blend and balance of voices as a group is what makes each arrangement special and entertaining. And they make it look so easy and fun at the same time, beaming with smiles, busting some daring kicks and flicks, it’s amazing to witness the control and accuracy with which this group performs.

At times it verges a little too close to holiday park singing for me – with some very obvious, crowd-pleasing song choices, cheesy choreography and a few dad jokes in between ditties, but they are a really fun bunch and perform with pizzazz so such flaws seem unimportant on the great scale of what the night is. I’d certainly prefer more variety in the set list and more depth in the artistry – the group’s mash-ups in the second half of the set go some way to achieving this, and the painfully short a capella rendition of Etta James’ At Last shows that this group do have the potential to elevate themselves into a really classy band of musicians, rather than being about entertainment for entertainment’s sake.

Overall, this is a good fun night with some fine singing, comedy and choreography, and even the sternest viewer will find it difficult not to indulge in at least a little toe-tapping. One to take your mum to.

 

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 21 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED