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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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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Hedda Gabler (Festival Theatre: 17-21 October ’17)

Photo. National Theatre, London

“Glistens with sparkling elements”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

I wonder if there is a word, other than bewilderment, for the reaction to a writer who receives praise despite mediocre work. This is what Patrick Marber’s writing stokes inside me. His re-writing of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is by far the most lamentable element of this National Theatre production, which sometimes glistens with sparkling elements, but includes far too many misjudgments at the head-in-hands level .

To name a few: Leonard Cohen’s lovely yet done-to-death “Hallelujah” plays over a somber transition. Pale blue lights shine intermittently on the assembled actors, for no apparent reason. Physicality is dishearteningly overplayed at times, making the performers appear more like wet marionettes than characters telling a story. And yet, Marber’s script outdoes them all.

The play concerns itself with a day and a night in the apartment of academic wet blanket Tesman and the eponymous Hedda, his new, unfulfilled wife. Friends and former lovers of theirs come and go to moan and wail about their various woes, from dead-end marriages to unrequited love to jealousy over academic rivals’ successes. There are intriguing elements to these episodic entrances and exits, most compellingly when Tesman’s semi-rival Lovborg lays out his plan for his next work. This is what most frustrates about this show: there are so many glimmers of intriguing theatre, many stemming from Ivo Van Hove’s smart (yet here unexceptional) direction, but they are all but snuffed out by Marber’s tone-deaf phrasing and (I hazard) self-importance.

Hedda, a groundbreaking and fresh character in 1891, is nowadays much less extraordinary. She is the daughter of a prestigious general, and a young woman with many suitors, yet lacks any real goals or interests in life. This “poverty of spirit” as the play decides to call it, leads her to seek out increasingly sadistic means of exerting some kind of power over something, whether it be tearing up flowers or firing her father’s pistols at unsuspecting guests, and eventually much worse. This kind of bourgeois-fetishizing story creates just the sort of middle-of-the-road tension and intrigue that should be right up Marber’s alley. Is Tesman going to get his professorship? Is Hedda fulfilled? What is that maid doing there? Yet Marber seems to think he doesn’t need to convince an audience to care about these central questions of the script. So he fails to.

Much like in his magnum opus, Closer, Marber’s word choices can prove unfortunate and even unpleasant. The storyline is treated with such carelessness that it is unclear whether it is satirizing its own pomposity or reveling in it. It looks like Ibsen’s text has suffered a form of quantitative easing and the original is struggling to get back into shape. Certain big monologues (that strain the runtime for no apparent reason) are answered by brief ironic retort: when one character loses the precious, handwritten single draft of his upcoming masterpiece, he waxes poetic for no less than five minutes about his loss — to which another character quietly quips: “It’s just a book.” Somehow, this self-awareness gets squashed and replaced with showiness and shiny things.

There are many shiny things. The set is the unfurnished apartment owned by Hedda and Tesman and is immaculately underdressed. Hedda’s costume is a shiny nightgown. The lights gleaming out of an impressive side window are shiny, as is the display Hedda creates as she plays with the blinds out of increasingly aggressive boredom. The two handguns on show in their upstage glass case  are shiny, and even shinier when they are — spoiler alert — fired at certain characters. But shiny objects do not tell good stories by themselves. We seem to have a production that thinks having a smooth set and glossy production values can make up for a certain percentage of the narrative. They cannot. Some more work on character dynamics and relationships and a little less time stapling roses to walls would have helped quite a lot.

That being said, there is still much to be appreciated in the production. For their stamina alone, the actors deserve some credit. Wading through these lines with such patience must have been hard. Lead actress Lizzy Watts gives Hedda some delightfully cruel ticks, from turning her back on anyone she finds unworthy, to consciously tormenting her guests with their worst vices. Her dynamic with Richard Pyros, playing Lovborg, was the most electric to watch, especially as she toys with his teetotalism in the most vicious way. Adam Best as corrupt judge Brack is the most bombastic onstage presence by far, and his was a refreshing performance. Annabel Bates is good at looking sad, that’s for sure. Abhin Galeya waves his hands around far too much, but otherwise is a solid Tesman — though the character seemed meant to be much more pathetic than the relatively proud man Galeya has created. Christine Kavanagh is a charming red herring at the beginning, as her Aunt Juliana character deftly introduces the audience to the show, then disappears — which is a shame, as Kavanagh’s energy was possibly the best-measured. Madlena Nedeva is a solemn and well-crafted presence as Berte, the maid, yet her character is so untapped that she quite literally becomes more a piece of furniture than a participant.

Overall, an underwhelming and overwritten production of an important play. It is surprising and disappointing that others have eaten it up nonetheless.

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Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller  (Seen 17 October)

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Pleading (Traverse: 3 – 7 October ’17)

Kim Allan and Daniel Cameron
Photo: Oran Mor

““Everything is negotiable””

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Pleading is the first up of five plays in this season’s ‘A Play, A Pie and A Pint’. This is a spiky three-hander by Rob Drummond, surely a playwright on a roll; and there is something of a wrestling bout to its twists and holds. Heard as a radio drama on BBC4 in January, Pleading comes to the stage – but call it a mat – with a narrative thwack.

Michael (19) and Freya, his girl next door /one-time sweetheart, have been banged up in a foreign jail for three weeks now. They are brought together to talk to their assigned lawyer, Amelia Singh. Where exactly they are  is not given but they do face the death penalty for attempting to smuggle Class 1 drugs. That fate – and their flight itinerary: Singapore > Perth > Brisbane > prison – would suggest Malaysia or Thailand. No worries (really?), for Freya’s dad is a QC and in that part of the world “We’re not foreign, we’re British.” Er …? Cue Boris Johnson and the Road to Mandalay?

If ever a defence lawyer was gobsmacked and keeps talking, then it’s the calm and collected Amelia (Nicole Cooper). How to convince her jumpy clients to plead guilty and serve a prison sentence? Maybe then Daddy can come and flap his silk. “Everything is negotiable”, declares Amelia, but it helps if you keep your story straight and consistent. So, over 50 minutes, Freya and Michael ‘negotiate’ the possibilities of how heroin ended up in her backpack. It is conceivable that the truth is told at the end but who can tell? It’s always salutary to be reminded of our talent for lying.

It is an unsparing and sweaty tussle that is ably performed. Freya (Kim Allan) is more in control but her account is the more wayward. Michael (Daniel Cameron) is more fragile, even desperate. At the close they are hanging onto each other for support and the law is somewhere else entirely.

Director David Ian Neville has a good play for voices to work with. Movement is conspicuous and time parcelled out by Amelia’s visits to the remarkably quiet prison. There is credible tension and there is sympathy and anxiety but as a drama I felt it wanted more fear and a lawyer on the ropes.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 3 October)

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War in America (Former Royal High School/King’s Theatre: 24-27 May ’17)

Connor McLeod as Mr Slype. Photo by Greg Macvean

“Some fine performances from the young cast”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

War in America’s revival in the build-up to the current UK General Election is very apt – and almost feels as if it is written especially for this moment, though it is now over 20 years old. The narrative sees the rise of a female political leader (known only as “She”), who hides behind a variety of lies, disguises and games in order to get to the top. Meanwhile, in a pleasingly Orwellian set-up, our little man Mr Slype (a rather spineless MP) is bullied by rival parties to vote for a law he neither wants nor doesn’t want, and some rather underhand tactics see him inadvertently give his vote to She, handing her the reins of the country. What happens after gets a little confusing.

Given the setup and opening few scenes where the main characters and topics are introduced, the first fifteen minutes of this production really makes it feel like a cutting-edge, gripping political drama – not too dissimilar from Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, which I reviewed last year. Jo Clifford’s dialogue is cutting, intelligent and witty, Susan Worsfold’s direction is slick, and there’s palpable tension between rival factions to keep us on our toes. The production loses its way somewhat in the second half, however, and tries to cram in too much with too many characters and melodramatic revelations, that it becomes more of a slog to sit through.

That being said, there are some fine performances from the young cast, most notably Andrew Cameron as the cunningly-named and deftly acted Mr Fox, who is very charismatic and convincing and throughout. Scenes with him and his assistant Alfred (Mark O’Neill) were among the most compelling of the performance, and I could easily picture them on a bigger stage receiving great acclaim. Connor McLeod is also strong as Mr Slype, with great variation in swagger and guilt from scene to scene.

It is, however in the more dramatic scenes where the tension and integrity of the piece slips. She’s relationship with her estranged daughter fails to ring true throughout the piece – distinctly missing the deep emotional connection needed to be convincing, and its climactic resolution is very sloppy compared to the polish evident in other areas. Indeed, many aspects of the show like this come across as rather rushed, when a more considered approach would be more powerful. While in general it’s a gutsy effort from the young cast (and great for them to be getting involved with works on important subjects like this), I think in some cases it would have been beneficial to have some more experienced actors to give the brutal narrative the necessary punch it needs.

And the “too controversial” content, which led the show’s initial production being cancelled 20 years ago? For me that must have been a lot of fuss over very little, as the more overt elements were perfectly pitched within the overall mood of the piece, never seeming gratuitous or unnecessary. Indeed, the scenes with sexual content were handled and incorporated very well, and while spawning a few titters, were powerful insights and metaphors into the darker side of politics. If anything, I think these elements could be pushed further.

Overall this is a show with fantastic potential, and with some more development could be very special indeed.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 26 May)

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Girl in the Machine (Traverse: 3 – 22 April ’17)

Rosalind Sydney as Polly.
Photos: Mihaela Bodlovic

“Galvanising”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Time was when wireless simply meant a radio and Mr Chips taught Latin and Greek. Now we’re practically Wi-Fi dependent and it’s definitely ‘Goodbye, Mr Chips’ and ‘Hello’ Citizen Chip. Soon enough you’ll be living beyond 120 and if you’re lucky the worst you’ll suffer physically is an itchy forearm when your chip is updated. Mentally, however, you might get fried.

That’s where Stef Smith’s galvanising new play has us: in the near enough future when ‘the gap is getting smaller between the human and the hardware’. ATMs now ask how you’re feeling and robots are cleaning up on the wards. Owen, a Charge Nurse, might be out of a job soon. The only ‘shit’ left to deal with is what his lawyer wife, Polly, does for a living, for the outside world is going down the pan big time. Stress is a plug-in on her iPad Pro. Polly is not in a happy place, although she does love Owen and he loves her. He’s just brought her a present in a black box to help her feel better, which it does, but she really should have just stayed with the nice hot bath, the scented candles and a glass or two of Merlot.

It’s a container load of a drama, ingeniously designed and neatly packaged. Owen and Polly inhabit a rectangular box, complete with geometric floor covering and modular seating. It’s a neutral, pastel space inside a post-industrial shell. It must have been tempting to put an Amazon Echo (or Samsung Smart TV) centre stage; as it is, Polly is freaked out by a data file eavesdropped from her memory of better days whilst Owen appreciates how ‘our house looks much bigger with no electricity in it’.

This must be the angst of a neo-Millennial generation – and not that of those who worry whether their passports should be blue or burgundy. Polly (Rosalind Sydney) and Owen (Michael Dylan) are in their 30s, see their neighbour as a man ‘whose face looks like a smashed circuit board’, and yet wonder at their growing inability to feel for each other. Polly is digitally hooked, ‘twitches’ for a connection and finally, fatally, makes one. Owen resists the circuitry. That this is a loving relationship in crisis is never in doubt – such is the quality of the performance – but that the destruction of an intelligent woman is caused by a gadget on speed is more of an ask. The script also suffers from some philosophical surges that are best characterised by Polly’s despairing repetition of ‘I can’t stop thinking’.

Michael Dylan as Owen.

The villain of the piece is the arch voice of the Black Box programme. It seduces indiscriminately and without mercy, because it’s a rogue bot. The hero is certainly Orla O’Loughlin whose sympathetic, human, direction moves her two actors every which way along a traverse stage, not least to the killing beat of Kylie’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ (!), and who also holds them together in still exchanges that in less capable hands could sound derivative and forced.

Back in 1934, in Mr Chips’ last days, Black Magic chocolates were a year old. He probably gave Mrs Chipping a box of them and didn’t worry a jot about their tantalising centres. And then came the digital age and a virtual Raspberry Heaven (or Caramel Caress).

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 5 April)

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