Japan PO. Inkinen, Lill (Usher Hall 14 April ‘19)

“If the orchestra had been playing this piece as an exam they would have got 100%.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

 

A decade ago my wife treated me to a weekend in Vienna, and thoughtfully procured tickets for the Sunday morning concert at the Musikverein.  I remember musicians of the highest calibre drawn from the Vienna Philharmonic playing easy on the ear classics supremely well, and afterwards watching the respectable citizens of that city go off to the Imperial Hotel for lunch.  It could have been straight out of Luis Bunuel’s 1972 classic Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie.

 

Edinburgh offers the same kind of thing but with the concert in the afternoon, and with musicians sourced from all over the world.  The combination of well-known works played by orchestras from exotic places, the audience having lunched well, provides an attractive draw, although I am afraid post prandial snoring was evident in one or two places, and the informal dress code disgraced the locals compared to the Viennese, or the smartly turned out Japanese cohort present.

 

In addition to providing two works of easy familiarity, Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto and Sibelius’s Second Symphony, to their great credit and wisdom the band presented two accessible lesser known works, Rautavaara’s In the Beginning (referencing conductor Petari Inkinen’s Finnish nationality) and Takemitsu’s Requiem for Strings, for the Japanese.  Both works held their own in terms of seriousness, if not length, compared to the masterpieces.

 

Einojuhani Rautavaara’s In the Beginning, written as recently as 2015, his final work before his death in 2016, was very much in the Finnish idiom, plenty of close harmony and skilful orchestration of brass.  Enjoyable, not too austere, it showcased the orchestra’s talent across the entire instrumental bandwith in just seven minutes; a strong beginning.

 

Just as I am puzzled by the number of recordings available of well-known works so I find it hard to write something new about them when often performed.  All one can really write about is the interpretation.  It is perhaps helpful that I heard Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 just a month ago in the same hall with young Turkish pianist Can Cakmur with the RSNO.  The 21 year old Turk found new life in the piece and tore the opening phrases off the piano in the opening Allegro con brio, and gently coaxed the scales in the Largo.  The 75 year old Lill was more measured, and played an exemplary, much more classic interpretation that I expect hadn’t changed much in fifty years.  It found great favour amongst the many septua/octogenarians present, and was immaculate, considered, uber competent, but as if classical musical interpretation had stood still since the great recordings of the sixties and seventies under the baton of the likes of von Karajan and Klemperer.

 

Toru Takemitsu’s Requiem for Strings (1975) was a piece one could easily have mistaken for being of Western provenance, (the composer having been influenced by Western music for most of his life) and while I cannot agree with the comparison some make with Barber’s Adagio for Strings , the piece in my view being more reminiscent of Michael Tippett, it was a restful, well orchestrated example of the post war idiom, written but ten years after Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings.  Accessible, interesting and drawing one in, it faded into a beautiful ethereal ending.  The orchestra’s playing of their home piece was superb.

 

What to say of the finale, Sibelius’s Symphony No 2 in D minor, other than it is a glorious work and I don’t care how many times I listen to it?  The discipline, technique and intensely classical style of the orchestra ensured that we got a rendition that was free from schmaltz and true to the composer’s intentions.  It was a masterly performance, under the now obviously very talented baton of compatriot Finn Intiken, who drew everything out of the score from double bass, percussion and tubas to soaring strings, blaring brass and exquisite woodwind, notably the oboist.  If the orchestra had been playing this piece as an exam they would have got 100%.

 

It is a tribute to the Japan Philharmonic’s stamina that after this bravura rendition we were treated to seven minutes of peaceful wind down therapy with a beautifully played seven minutes of Sibelius’s Valse Triste as an encore. 

 

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 14 April)

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NYOS: Chan, Osborne (Usher Hall: 12 April ’19)

Image result for National Youth Orchestra of Scotland 

“I have never heard Pictures played so well.  Ever.  By anyone.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

 

There is much talk in educational, local political and musical circles about youth and classical music today and where it is going.  I have a slightly different take to those who wish instrument teaching to be free for all, who I think miss the point.  Musical appreciation for all certainly at the infant and possibly early primary stages, but nothing is more likely to put someone off its joys than to learn something because they have to rather than because they want to.  Instrumental technique requires commitment, dedication and practice.  Money that is freely spent on other leisure pursuits can usually be redirected if wanted.

 

Serious youth music is channelled by the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland, which is not so much an orchestra as a movement, comprising three orchestras and two jazz combos, with illustrious patrons such Sir James MacMillan and Nicola Benedetti.

 

It is greatly to the RSNO’s credit that they devote such commitment to youth music, the more so because they integrated the orchestra’s 40th season into their own along with the creation of a new partnership.   The young people had the privilege on the night of being under the baton of the RSNO’s Principal Guest Conductor, Elim Chan, and of accompanying the uber talented Steven Osborne in Rach3.

 

As the players came on stage and warmed up full of brio I knew we were going to be in for a fun evening, even if fuelled on enthusiasm alone.  I was dismayed that the house was only half to three quarters full, but of course every conceivable parent, grandparent and sibling was there.  Often youth orchestras are capable of the very highest standard of delivery.  We would see.

 

Accompanying a soloist requires a different type of playing than when it is an entirely orchestral piece, the dynamics are more accentuated, you have to play quieter than you would wish a lot of the time.  The NYOS clearly understood this under the accessible and supportive conducting of Elim Chan, but perhaps they hadn’t reckoned with the bravura playing of Steven Osborne in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3 In D minor, Op. 30To my utter astonishment, notwithstanding what I have said about Chan’s supportive style, she took the work really fast.  The tempo for the first movement is Allegro ma non tanto.  Clearly Chan forgot or chose to ignore the non tanto.  Boy!, it was fast, and Osborn played both fast and loud.  Very loud, it was an absolute virtuoso performance, but this meant the orchestra/soloist balance was often wrong with the orchestra playing too quietly apart from some confident solo instrumental passages.  As everybody settled in after the mammoth first movement the strings came into their own in the Intermezzo: Adagio with some exceptional pizzicato from the double basses (one of their proud parents was right in front of me and gladly pointed him out).  In the final movement Alla breve everyone had a good time as they brought this monumental, demanding work to a glorious conclusion.  Osborne rose from the piano stool, modestly took no bow alone and immediately referenced the orchestra.  He then treated us to something “quieter and slower”, one of Rachmaninov’s glorious preludes.

 

It transpired, after the interval, that this would be a “concert of two halves”, my slight reservations about some of the playing in Part One swept aside as the band was given their head in a full on performing, rather than accompanying role.  First up was Andrea Tarrodi’s (b. 1981) short orchestral piece Liguria, inspired by the composer’s 2011 visit to six of its small villages.  Dramatic from start to finish it showed off the orchestra’s credentials, enjoyable to listen to in the modern idiom, if somewhat derivative.  The waves depicting Onde reminded me of Debussy’s La Mer.

 

The final work in the programme was Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an ExhibitionThis is a work guaranteed to bring the house down, and what impressed me was the joy, yet discipline and sheer musical accomplishment that the young orchestra brought to it.  Not a hint of vulgarity, clear, taut delivery, and the full gamut of strings, wind, brass (including two bass tubas), percussion (including tubular bells and two harps) giving us the full big orchestra experience.  I slept on this before finally convincing myself of the veracity of the happy note that I wrote before leaving the auditorium:  “I have never heard Pictures played so well.  Ever.  By anyone.”  Well done NYOS, you are a testimony for youth music.

 

 

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 12 April)

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SCO: Leleux (Queen’s Hall: 29 Mar.’19)

Image result for lelaux oboist

Francois Leleux – Oboist and Conductor

“Leleux….. has an engaging conducting style relating to, rather than directing, the orchestra.”

 

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

My mother spoke little of her life before her children were born, but it was clearly an interesting one.  The youngest of six children of a Northamptonshire shoe manufacturer and general bigwig, the first of her family to go to Oxford (and a woman to boot) and a wartime spent at Bletchley Park.  But what I remember most clearly, as we were both musical (at Oxford she sang in Ted Heath’s Bach Choir), was her telling me of her experience kissing an oboist whom she went out with for a while at University.  She told of his incredible muscular lips (by virtue of the necessary embouchure of blowing two reeds together) which made the embrace distinctly unusual.  As a result oboists – and the oboe (I love its clear, piercing tone, as did she) – have held a particular fascination for me, although I have never kissed one, reserving my affections quite by chance for the string section.

 

Consequently the SCO’s appointment of premier oboist Francois Leleux as an artist in residence for the 2018/19 season was a must-see.  I could not get to the first two gigs but enjoyed Thursday’s “Three Serenades” Concert enormously.

 

Generally, I have reservations about soloists who migrate into conductoring, even of the musical standard of Ashkenazy and Rostropovich, as it is a bit like film stars wanting to be directors: they rarely cut the mustard.  However, it has to be said that Leleux, either with baton or more restrained with instrument in mouth, has an engaging conducting style relating to, rather than directing, the orchestra.

 

Our first work was Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade, played in a splendidly happy rendition that clearly showed a bond between conductor and orchestra.  Good tempi, very together for so early on in the evening, a surprisingly enjoyable piece from this manic depressive composer written before the dark times took over his life.

 

Next up was Dvorak’s Serenade in D minor, Op.44. A wind ensemble of ten, including contrabassoon, accompanied by cello and bowed double bass, all standing save the latter two; this time with Leleux taking the oboe lead as well as directing.  Leleux’s tone was clear, fresh without being over bright, at times soaring over the rest of the ensemble.  In the third movement Andante con moto he engaged in charming interplay with the clarinettist opposite.  It was good to get our fix of the great man.

 

After the interval we heard by far the most substantive work of the evening, Brahms’s Serenade No 1 in D major, Op.11 with the full 40 strong orchestra on stage, quite an upgrade from its original conception as a nonet.  Albeit written earlier on in his career alongside the Piano Concerto No.1 this is a mature work with a great deal more roundedness and depth than the rustic Bohemian fare we received earlier.  In six varied movements ranging from close harmonies in the brass to full on orchestral romance, pretty little wind passages accompanied by the put-put of the bassoon and a mad rush to the finish, one was reminded of the near chaotic finish to the Academic Festival Overture.

 

Perhaps my only regret of the Leleux season was that he played only one concerto throughout, the Haydn.  One would have wished for the Mozart with its glorious third movement Rondo.  Never mind, it is always best to be left wanting more.

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 28 March)

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RSNO: Watanabe, Cakmur (Usher Hall: 8 Mar.’19)

“The Wheel of Fortune” from the original manuscript of the Carmina Burana , c.1230

“This is a wonderful time to be a concert goer in Edinburgh”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

There are considerable advantages to living in a city with such an enlightened and broad church approach to the performing arts.  And being – in global terms – for music a second city compared to, say, Berlin, New York, London or San Francisco, we tend to see up and coming artists before they get the bookings on the true world stage.  We thus look into the future.  And the future is bright.

 

Can you recognise the names in the headline?  I doubt it.  Kensho Watanabe hit the big time two years ago when, just appointed Assistant Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra aged 29, he stood in at the last minute for his mentor Yannick Nezet-Seguin to make his critically acclaimed subscription concert debut with the Philadelphia and pianist Daniil Trifanov.  On his debut with the RSNO on Thursday he showed masterly control and grasp of the complexities involved in conducting a major full length piano concerto, and an hour long Choral and Orchestral work.  One had complete confidence in him.

 

And Can Cakmur?  A Turkish pianist who won the 2017 Scottish International Piano Competition, 22 years old, and about to debut with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra.  We shall be seeing and hearing a great deal more from this highly educated, personable young man.

 

So I suspect the draw, with all due respect to the principals, was the programme: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor Op 37, and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. A mixture, perhaps, of the sacred and profane. A full house, bar the usual few leg-numbing seats in the gods.

 

It resonated with me personally that the Beethoven was being performed fifty years after Radu Lupu’s astonishing and winning performance in the final of the Leeds International Piano Competition. In particular, his rendering of the second movement Largo demonstrated thoughtful restraint and tenderness and left me mesmerised.  Then we had a successor, twenty years on, to the other legendary Romanian pianist , Dinu Lipatti.  And now a Turk interprets the grand man, and an exhilarating interpretation it was.  After the lengthy orchestral introduction, brass and wind a little out of balance with the strings to start with, but soon settling down, Cakmur almost threw the opening scales off the piano in a brave, individualistic but convincing interpretation that proves the international piano competition world is not just throwing out sterile, technically competent clones.  This young man showed a grasp of the work way beyond his years.  Rightly pausing so the unfortunate plethora of uncontrolled audience coughing and sputtering finished, Cakmur created a sense of calm before the opening solo chords of the second movement Largo.  The pianist’s sensitivity of playing and interpretation pleased this disciple of Radu Lupu, taking one to a level of transcendence that almost, but not quite, extinguished the insensitive uncontrolled coughing of the audience, who should not have attended in those circumstances, and should learn to cover their mouth with a handkerchief.  If only the management could advise this at the beginning of the programme when they talk about mobile phones.

 

Without a break we rushed into the final movement Rondo: Allegro.  Could have been Presto.  Uplifting, joyous, fun.

 

Cakmur introduced his encore that was a melange of Liszt and Schumann overlaid by Bach.  Ingenious.  What stamina these professionals have, to play like that after thirty minutes of intense keyboard bashing!

 

There was much to enjoy in the second set’s Carmina Burana, and I always get more out of listening to works that I have performed, such as this, with the mighty Beckenham Chorale.  I counted at least 100 voices in the RSNO chorus who gave a very good account of themselves, a full on O Fortuna to open the proceedings, clear diction of the Latin text, great rhythmical singing in the jazz like Veni, Veni, Venias, glorious unrestrained joy in the Blanziflor et Helena.  The children’s choir performed clearly without words or music, showed exemplary discipline, and have clearly been very well trained.  Soloists Fflur Wyn, Adrian Dwyer and Stephen Gadd contributed well, if sparsely, giving in particular amusing renditions of a swan not enjoying about to be eaten and a drunken abbot.

 

This is a wonderful time to be a concert goer in Edinburgh.

 

 

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 8 March)

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SCO: Manze. Piemontesi (Queen’s Hall: 28 Feb.’19)

Image result for stenhammar serenade in f

Image result for stenhammar serenade in f

“A very well-known piece in Sweden……..which is not saying a lot”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

 

The Queen’s Hall claque are a cheerful bunch, if in the main somewhat elderly, and you know they will address almost anything put in front of them in a good spirit.  Thursday’s concert gave them such a challenge: obscure Stravinsky, even more obscure Stenhammar, with the reward of some straight down the line tinkly Mozart as the filling in the sandwich.

Guest conductor on the night was the personable Andrew Manze, Beckenham born (your writer’s home for 20 years) and Cambridge educated, his pedigree is just right for this type of music, which he interprets with considerable enthusiasm.  Formerly Associate Director of the Academy of Ancient Music and Artistic Director of the English Concert he has been since 2014 Chief Conductor of the NDR Radiophilharmomie Hannover and has just had his contract renewed until 2021.  England’s loss is Germany’s gain.

The Stravinsky that opened the programme, Concerto in D, was atypical of the composer’s style and perhaps could have been more properly described as a Sinfonia for Strings.  Bartok, Britten, Tippett and others have used the description Concerto when there is no solo instrument and I consider it misleading.  By no means a great work, it provided an entertaining start to the evening, with an exciting, taut, sparse start ending with pizzicato double bass.  The second movement Arioso-Andantino actually achieved a most un-Stravinsky like legato along with an uninterrupted melodic line.

Next up was the fabulous Francesco Piemontesi with Mozart’s Piano Concerto no 19 in F, K459.  This was the last of six piano concertos that Mozart wrote in 1784 and stands at the crossroads with the great works from No. 21 onwards.  Simple in construction and in particular in the opening movement, the final Allegro “is one of Mozart’s most miraculous movements – the balance between the extreme light-heartedness of the melodies and the formal complexity of the motifs and the counterpoint being simply astounding”. (I do not usually use Wikipedia as a source but cannot better their description on this occasion).  The orchestra opened with bright, clear intonation from the strings, soon supported by wind and brass with a strict tempo before the soloist entered.  This was a lively, free spirited performance with some lovely, beautifully expressed playing of great fluency; piano and orchestra alike.

For those of us who felt a little cheated from not hearing the more mature No. 27 in B flat K595, which the band had played at St Andrews the night before, we were mollified by an extended encore from both soloist and orchestra of a Mozart Rondo in A (partially orchestrated by Charles Mackerras) which sent us off into the interval with a joyful disposition.

Andrew Manze spoke to us as we reassembled for part two telling us, tongue in cheek, that the Stenhammar Serenade in F was “a very well-known piece in Sweden……..which is not saying a lot…. Enjoy it, because it might be the only time you hear it!  Mind you, how many of you had heard the Stravinsky?”  Not so, there is an excellent recording by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra that is also streamed by Tidal, and of the Stravinsky by the New Orchestral Symphony Orchestra of Boston, recorded in 1954.  How’s that for Reader Service?

But what of the music?  The opening reminded me of the sort of film music you hear for Ealing Comedies and ’50s British cinema, but later on the work developed into something more substantive.  It was a well-orchestrated 40-minute tableaux, well scored with plenty of scope for woodwind and brass, with just a touch of neighbour Sibelius.  Clearly a difficult piece to play, the orchestra are to be congratulated in portraying the work with such competence, fluency and enthusiasm.

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 28 February)

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RSNO, Sondergard, Benedetti. (Usher Hall: 8 Feb.’19)

Image: wyntonmarsalis.org

“…the RSNO, which since their return from China in January has been playing at world class standard. “

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

I have commended the RSNO on the creativity and intelligence of their programme planning since I started writing about them some three years ago, and on Friday there was a fine example of this.  For sure, Nicola Benedetti, the forces sweetheart of the Central Belt, will always fill the hall, and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is ever popular, but Thomas Ades and Wynton Marsalis?  Now that was a risk, but, boy, did it pay off.

 

Effectively this was Jazz Night at the Usher Hall, and, strangely enough it was the Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra by Wynton Marsalis that had the strongest classical nuances, not the Ades.

 

Powder Her Face by Thomas Ades was his first opera, based on a sex scandal involving the then Duchess of Argyll, and was a cut down work comprising just four singers and an ensemble of three clarinets, a brass trio and a string quintet with piano, harp, accordion and percussion.  Ades’ Dances, written later but for that same opera, is what we heard and was an eleven-minute full on full orchestra shebang which certainly expressed the Duchess’s hedonistic lifestyle.  To say it was played with wild abandon would be to criticise the orchestra.  It was played with controlled abandon.  But abandon there certainly was, a gorgeous, unrestrained, schmaltzy piece bordering on the burlesque.

 

More familiar was A Symphonic Picture of Porgy and Bess, a 23-minute composite of our favourite songs orchestrated by Fritz Reiner for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1943.  The work held together with remarkable integrity and was a joy to listen to.  Again, the RSNO didn’t hold back and we were treated to some rich, unrestrained playing in the jazz rather than classical orchestral tradition, showing the orchestra’s versatility under the guiding arm of Sondergard’s enlightened baton.

 

Without doubt the draw of the evening was the newly honoured Nicola Benedetti (is she the youngest CBE in the country?) playing the Scottish premiere of the Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra by Wynton Marsalis, especially written for herIntroduced by Sondergard as a work as long as a symphony (50 minutes) it never palled.  I would describe the opening movement, Rhapsody, as a beautiful lyric piece yet in the jazz idiom, albeit classically constructed.  The second, Rondo Burlesque, was all over the place but a fun listen.  During the third movement, Blues, Benedetti showed us some beautiful solo playing with the support of the string section in some unusual and effective pizzicato.  Come the finale, Hootenanny, notwithstanding the Scottish title, I felt we were more likely in a barn dance, it was terrific, exciting, fun and to cap it all Benedetti concluded the piece by walking off the stage still playing the final refrain.

 

This is the third consecutive review that I have written in the past fortnight that has received our highest accolade, five stars, which shows the incredibly high standard of music available currently in Edinburgh. Two of these go to the RSNO, which since their return from China in January has been playing at world class standard.  Rather than give an encore Benedetti concluded the evening by thanking the generosity of the RSNO in giving free tickets to a number of Midlothian young musicians who had been taking a workshop that afternoon with the orchestra; obliquely referring to the current threat to axe instrumental tuition in Midlothian for schoolchildren below S4.  If the seniors in the audience want their children and grandchildren to continue to listen to home grown music of this quality, the answer lies in their pockets, though of course Nicola was too nice to say this.  But we knew what she meant.

 

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 8 February)

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RSNO, Sondergard. Mahler, Bruckner (Usher Hall: 1 Feb.’19)

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)

“… an object lesson in how to play Bruckner, and a testimony on a cold winter’s night to the glory that is music played live.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

It was a wretchedly cold Friday night in Edinburgh, and the rugby was on the telly.  Moreover the programme was Bruckner and Mahler, absolutely my favourite, but not everyone’s cup of tea.  Yet if the members of the RSNO could bus or drive in from Glasgow on a night such as this, so could I shuffle across Bruntsfield Links to a near capacity house.  Testimony to the RSNO, for sure, and we were amply rewarded by some fine playing.

 

Putting Bruckner and Mahler together on a programme is not untypical, and of course only one work can be a full symphony or the concert would go on too long.  Nonetheless I was puzzled why relatively early Bruckner (around 1880) and late Mahler (written c1910) should be conjoined.  The answer was found in the playing of Mahler’s Adagio from the unfinished Tenth Symphony, typically valedictory; and of  Bruckner’s Symphony No 4 (The Romantic), triumphant and life affirming.

 

The key point I want to put across in this review is the sheer quality of the orchestra’s playing on the night, and the incredible discipline of the baton of Thomas Sondergard that stopped the tendency of Bruckner symphonies to ‘wander’ or lose their way. The Bruckner can sometimes sound muddy with the high proportion of brass, but we experienced none of that, but just utter clarity.

 

Occasionally Sondergard addresses the audience at the beginning of a concert and I wondered if he was going to tonight, especially as it was quite a short bill with just 1 hour 25 minutes of music.  He chose not to, and was right, as the Mahler is a sombre piece and a stand alone work in itself.  I was astonished at how the orchestra immediately got into the piece – a desperately exposed violin and horn introduction played assuredly that swept us away into a rewarding exposition with some of the most complex Mahlerian harmonies that I have heard.  This included moments of real poignancy that at one stage found your reviewer wiping his eyes!

 

We returned after the interval to hear the Bruckner.  This was a taut, disciplined and expertly played piece that kept us on the edge of our seats for the entire 62 minutes.  All sections excelled themselves but my personal gold medal would go to the cellos – who were not asked to take a bow, probably because of the difficulty of all eight of them getting up at the same time with their cumbersome instruments.  Time and time again Sondergard’s stern but helpful baton stopped us losing the tempo or phrasing, so that we felt, and the orchestra sounded, as fresh at the end as at the beginning.  This was an object lesson in how to play Bruckner, and a testimony on a cold winter’s night to the glory that is music played live.

 

A footnote to compliment the audience on this cold and coldy night.  Not a single cough or splutter during the music and a patient, eternal, wait after the Mahler for the conductor to drop his baton. After the Bruckner we could not contain ourselves and the applause immediately followed the concluding note, along with several shouts of “Bravo”.  Quite rightly so.

 

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 2 February)

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