Sunday, 21 October 2007

The SCO concert season finally catches fire - Frans Bruggen (who?) conducts Mendelssohn

Frans who, I hear you cry, or possibly not. Certainly the name was unknown to me prior to Thursday (or, at least, prior to my filling out the booking form). Which made it all the more surprising to see a stool on the podium, normally only there for conductors of advancing years, and the older a conductor the more likely it is that one has heard of them. However, as Wikipeida confirms, he is in his early 70s, though the page adds little else to the sum total of human knowledge, a better biography can be found here.

A very tall man, well over 6 feet, he fitted himself into the stool slightly awkwardly, given the space available, and launched into the all Mendelssohn programme with the Overture: The Fair Melusine. This was nice enough, and unknown to me, but didn't seem to stand out as one of Mendelssohn's finest works. What stood out immediately, though, was how much sharper and more disciplined the orchestral playing was than under Fischer last Saturday. However, at times, when the score really caught fire, it made fore a very entertaining performance. He further won me over when, after the overture, rather than swanning on and off milking the applause like some (Mr Tilson Thomas, I'm talking to you), he sat straight back down and switched over to the next score.

That score being the violin concerto. After a few moments he was joined onstage by the young and, it must be noted, very attractive German soloist Viviane Hagner. Actually, I'm not sure her attractiveness must be noted, that's probably rather chauvinistic, still, in her bright, flowered, I suppose oriental in its styling, dress, she was certainly easy on the eyes. All of which would be neither here nor there if she couldn't play well. But play well she certainly can. And with what incredible passion, so much so that strings were breaking on her bow left, right and centre (and she had to keep ripping them off whenever she got a pause). Indeed, it is possible this took its toll as to these ears, by the end of the piece, she seemed to have gone fractionally out of tune, but not so much as to be a problem. Beneath this, Bruggen provided superbly judged accompaniment and support. There was little pause between movements (something that actually works much better than the comparatively pronounced pauses on the CD I was listening to this afternoon). It was well received and she gave us an encore, which she actually introduced but all I caught was "Milstein" (a quick google indicates he was a violinist, but gives no indication as to what the piece might have been). It was pleasant enough, but I was firmly of the opinion it rather spoilt things. The ending of the Mendelssohn is so fine, nothing more needs to be said.

After the interval it was the turn of, perhaps predictably, given the location, the 3rd 'Scottish' symphony. If I'm honest, I'm no great fan of this work, much preferring both the 'Italian' 4th and the 'Reformation' 5th. But Bruggen won me over with a wonderful reading. An excellent precision to the playing of the SCO, such that it made its absence from Fischer's performance even more noticeable. Intensely passionate and yet light hearted when required, this was the SCO at their very best, and a reading that has fully won me over to the work.

I've been a little lukewarm about the concerts so far this season, even going so far as wonder whether block booking was a mistake, but this has reminded me why I did it. In contrast to Elts' Sibelius and Fischer's Beethoven, I might have passed this by, and that would have been a mistake. In truth, Bruggen did have it slightly easier than Fischer and Elts, as I know the repertoire far less well. And yet, I've heard plenty of 'Scottish' symphonies before without being won over.

It also answers the question posed at the start of this post: is Bruggen unfairly unknown? To which the answer must be an emphatic yes. Let's hope he returns.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Not really a fair comparision - Thierry Fischer and the SCO play Beethoven and Haydn

In my review of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra's concerts, I mentioned that it was unfair to have to follow the Bavarians as even the best ensembles would pale somewhat in comparison. Similarly, Thierry Fischer's programme contained material that we have heard (or heard similar) from one of its finest exponents in the last year or so, with the same orchestra. However, given that, one cannot but compare. I should say up front though, that last Saturday's was by far the finest concert so far of the SCO season.

The second thing I'll say, before I get onto the business of actually reviewing the concert is that it was utter nonsense that the opening concert of Sibelius couldn't have fitted into the Queen's Hall, given the scale of the forces we had for this one. It felt a little odd for the first few stalls rows to be missing and the orchestra sitting there instead.

The programme opened with Beethoven's 5th symphony, which Mackerras played so brilliantly in his revelatory cycle of the symphonies at the 2006 festival, and played with such sheer passion and joy the year before by Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Fischer gave us a fast and furious reading which in its way was quite exciting. But there were problems. When compared with the detail that Mackerras drew from the score, the wonderful surprises therein as well as the quality of the textures he produced, there was a lack of focus and precision to Fischer's reading. And while there was no shortage of pace, there was also not the kind of momentum that there should be to this symphony.

There were other problems too. I'm not sure where they had rehearsed, and clearly they had been in a more appropriately sized hall on Friday when in Glasgow's City Halls, but where I was in the stalls it was a little loud. I'm overly sensitive to this, but there wasn't the dynamic range that there ought to be, where were the quiet contrasts? The SCO's horns were once again a weak link, fluffing more than their share of notes. And, perhaps most crucially, Fischer didn't really build the tension. Take, for example, the transition into the finale: he didn't really slow up all that much. This should be a moment of unbearable anticipation, but Fischer seemed almost over-eager to leap into the finale. It wasn't a bad reading, but it was not in the same class as the two great ones mentioned above.

The second half comprised Haydn's Harmoniemesse, not a work I know. And yet the competition is stiff here too as Mackerras opened the last SCO season with a performance of the Creation. An immediate plus is that this means the SCO Chorus, who are always wonderful to listen to, and Saturday was no exception. Again, it was certainly an exciting reading, but seemed a little rushed. There is some great beauty in Haydn's choral writing, but Fischer didn't seem all that interested in slowing to take it in. Tempo alone is not a key to drama and excitement.

The soloists were a bit of mixed bag. Both soprano Joanne Lunn and mezzo Tove Dahlberg were good, but tenor James Gilchrist and bass Stephan Loges were rather poor, indeed when the latter sang his first notes, the first of any singers, I worried it could be a trying experience. Fortunately he was not isolated that often.

In fairness, I should point out that the orchestra and chorus seem to genuinely enjoy working with Fischer, and he's clearly a nice guy (from the way he was chatting with them enjoying a drink at the bar afterwards, as we were with a friend in the chorus), but that doesn't a great conductor make.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

"Plagiarise.....let no one else's work evade your eyes...

Only be sure always to call it, please, research". So said the great mathematician Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky. Okay, in fairness, and before he (or rather his heirs, since he himself has been dead for over one hundred and fifty years) sues me, I should point out that in fact it was American satirist Tom Lehrer who said it, and he used Lobachevsky's name for, in his own words, "purely prosodic reasons". However, in the best spirit of the song, and its guide to the secret of success in academia, the SCO have been inspired by one of the great innovations of McMaster's final festival in 2006: the short, single work, early evening concert. In that festival, they were Charles Mackerras's cycle of the Beethoven symphonies, also featuring the Philharmonia for the 9th. They have, however, made one sensible modification and shifted the time back from 5.30 to 6.00, no bad thing as they were always a little trickier to get to if your office wasn't in the west end.

The setting has moved too, though how much this was necessity due to the closure of the Usher Hall and how much a positive choice to be in St Cuthbert's is not clear. They obviously could have used their regular home in the Queen's Hall, but doubtless they wanted to be close the office district the surrounds the Lothian Road. St Cuthbert's is set very nicely at the west end of Princes Street Gardens, at a slightly lower level than the main road, making for a rather tranquil environment (and not one that is plagued by police sirens as can be heard inside the Usher Hall). It's a nice building inside too, in shape (particularly with regard to its galleries) not unlike the Queen's Hall, though rather larger. The main difference being that where the Queen's Hall has its rear wall (the one the performers sit with their backs to), completing its roughly shoebox shape, St Cuthbert's has a semi-circular and domed area (the religious name of which I do not know), which doubtless would accommodate a choir. Just before this, the performing area is rather hemmed in by the immovable (marble) font and pulpit on either side.

Sitting down, this being a church, and the seats instead being pews, is uncomfortable, even for the relatively short duration of the performance. The ticket price is rather steep too, at £12. Mackerras and the SCO in Beethoven, frankly a bigger name than anything we are getting in this series was a flat £10 in the far more comfortable Usher Hall. Of course, if you're a senior then it's cheaper at £9 and for some reason students get in for just £5. I'm neither; so, if they're reading this, the SCO get a poor score in that regard. A flat rate price would be fairer. The more so since given the high average age of the audience, I had the distinct impression I was subsidising them.

The programme, if such it can be called was rather dear too at £1. Really more of a leaflet, the size of 3 A5 sheets, folded into a booklet. The most interesting information was contained on the back:

Everyone's A Critic

Welcome to pupils from Gracemount High School who are in the audience tonight. They've been working with Rowena Smith, music critic for The Herald and The Guardian newspapers, to learn about the skills needed for writing about music. To find out what they thought of the concert, visit to read their reivews!

Anybody can take part in Everyone's A Critic. Simply write a review and send it to You may see it on the SCO website!

If I was being cruel, I might question how well equipped Smith is tutor people in those skills, but I shall refrain. Foolishly, I'd managed to sit behind four of these aspiring writers and, very possibly Smith herself. Now, as an amateur who is passionate both about music and writing about it, I welcome encouraging the next generation in the same direction. But it strikes me that there is one skill which should be taught possibly above all others: invisibility. These four your aspiring critics sat constantly scribbling and even whispering to each other, and Smith (if, indeed, she it was) did nothing to admonish them. Now, I'll concede that it's difficult to remember all the things you want to about a performance, but I make a point of not taking notes during the playing, and then scribble them furiously during the applause (I usually now do so in the programme, though was prevented tonight as the paper was black). I've developed a few techniques for making sure I remember the things that I want to. But I feel that anything falling by the wayside is preferable to my marring someone else's enjoyment purely for a blog post. It's always easier to remember details the less good a performance is, but, to be honest, even with a notepad on hand, scribbling furiously, I think you'd still struggle to write in a truly inspiring reading.

So then, to the concert. And I realise I've nearly done something I hate in reviews: take up the vast majority not actually talking about the performance. In fairness, though, what irritates me about those reviews, and you see it a lot during the festival, is when you get a long, generic description of the work(s) on the programme that could easily have been written months before, followed by a sentence or two on the actual performance. And while that might appear to be what you're getting here, it is fair to say that this post couldn't have been written yesterday, well, the opening paragraph excepted.

Thirteen members of the SCO, the wind section, took to the stage under the baton, or rather fingers, of Thierry Fischer. As I overheard someone else question, it it worth asking whether a conductor was really necessary for Mozart's serenade for thirteen wind instruments, the Gran Partita. My theory is that since he is here for Saturday's concert of Beethoven's 5th symphony and Haydn's Harmoniemesse, they decided to get their money's worth. Right from the start it became clear what the biggest problem would be: the hall's acoustic. Perhaps the way they were crowded together didn't help, maybe it was the domed ceiling of the area behind them, maybe some other aspect of acoustic science that is beyond my grasp. Whatever the explanation, the hall, or rather church, was far too reverberant. It rather reminded me of the Giulini recording of Bach's B Minor mass that was playing on my iPod for most of yesterday. That was recorded in St Paul's Cathedral, and while the BBC's engineers worked miracles taming it, the problems can still be heard at the end of each track. Here they were omnipresent, and it made for what sounded much less clear playing than it doubtless was. There was some fine work, most notably from clarinetist Maximiliano Martin (when I saw the orchestra in Glasgow on Friday, I did wonder if he was still there, as I had heard rumours he was getting itchy feet, but as the diminutive musician swayed in his seat and played wonderfully, the explanation became clear: he has merely cut most of his hair off).

The other main fault lay with the conductor. As a reading it altogether lacked the sort of sparkle that someone like Mackerras brings to this combination of orchestra and composer. It was nice enough, but it didn't dance, there was never the urge to tape or conduct along. He seemed to plough a slightly unsatisfactory middle ground between that and a more rich and sedate reading. It only really fully caught fire in the allegretto section of the 5th movement. The variations felt a little rushed. It was certainly a perfectly fine, solid reading, and it wasn't as though it was littered with mistakes, but I just wanted something more taught, something with more punch. Something, for example, along the lines of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra's recording (showing, incidentally, that a conductor is not needed).

Midway through the concert another issue became apparent, there is a drawback to the six o'clock start: it's teatime. It needs to be a better performance to overcome this. Perhaps November's effort, which eschews the single work formula for dances from Dvorak, Bartok and Kodaly will fair better.

Monday, 8 October 2007

A new beginning...?

Friday evening found me sitting on a train to Glasgow, sadly not to take advantage of Donald Runnicles' debut as music director of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, for which I will have to wait another two years. But for another debut, that of Olari Elts, the new Principle Guest Conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. This also marked the opening of the SCO's 2007/8 season and the start of a new series of posts dedicated to that season (since I've been foolish enough to buy a season ticket). Actually, though, that season ticket hadn't included this concert and I'm not sure I would have headed over to Glasgow, but for the fact this was an all-Sibelius programme. Elts is a young (36) Estonian conductor who should have good pedigree in this area, having won the International Sibelius Conductors' Competition in 2000.

The move to Glasgow and the nice City Halls venue had, apparently, been necessitated by the closure of the Usher Hall for refurbishment (which means all Edinburgh SCO concerts this season are being played in the smaller Queen's Hall). Apparently this programme required too great forces to be done there. If they say so, though apparently it will have no problems accommodating Mendelssohn's 3rd symphony or his and Tchaikovsky's violin concertos.

Elts opened the first piece, The Swan of Tuonela, very quietly. A novelty, for an SCO concert, was the sight of a timpanist in addition to Caroline Garden (who was playing the large bass drum - with which she produced a wonderful sound). He took a delicate, carefully sculpted approach, the orchestra's playing always very light and a little pretty. Indeed, it was rather too light much of the time, as was shown by the wonderful richness the orchestra was capable of on the rare occasions when he let them go. He brought a nice symmetry with the quiet end, and yet it would have been nice to have a little more edge to the playing.

This was followed by the violin concerto, with soloist Antje Weithaas standing in impressively at the last minute. Both soloist and orchestra produced a lovely string tone. Weithaas played with a real passion, accentuated by her angular bowing style. But this was in stark contrast to Elts' rather laid back accompaniment (though this did improve towards a rather exciting close). For the beautiful slow movement they seemed much more on the same page and Elts got a good balance between soloist and orchestra. One thing that begins to stand out is that he is clearly not one to go in for forte. The finale was good too, but Elts' passion didn't always match Weithaas's.

The second half opened with Valse Triste and Scene with Cranes from Kuolema. And he had tough competition since it is but a few weeks since Jansons gave the former in a wonderful encore, next to which this was very dull. The orchestra had a very thin sound, perhaps because Elts insisted on going rather slower and quieter than they could. His readings of both pieces seemed overly intellectual. The reception was decidedly lukewarm for a hall so full.

The concert closed with the 7th symphony. The start was horribly rushed, so much so that it took me a few moments to take it in. The orchestral sound was also rather nastily blurred and the big themes lacked emotion, although this improved somewhat after the cello theme. There were some annoyingly flouncing, Tilson Thomas-esque gestures. The first entry of the trombones, one of the wonders of this symphony, was spoilt by poor balance, managing, impressively, to overwhelm them with the rest of the ensemble. Frequently the music was garbled due to the speed and the reading hewed the work of the faster and slower contrasts its various sections usually provide. The lovely icy wind theme on the violins and other strings was devoid of any kind of chill. Again and again I found myself wishing Elts would slow down. Towards the end, as Elts built to one of the work's climaxes, he finally let the orchestra go for the first real forte of the evening, but the richness of the orchestra was transmuted into a musical cacophony. Again the trombones were drowned out, giving no sense of symmetry, but to some extent that didn't matter since the reading as a whole had none of the sense of journey that I find so key to this work. Funnily enough, though, the work's closing bars were well played and satisfying. What really crippled the reading was its tempo. It came in at less than 20 minutes. Bernstein's sluggish reading lasts just shy of 25 in comparison. But even compared with Oramo's 21.19, certainly not one to hang around, this is very quick.

All in all, not an especially promising start and boding ill for the rest of the season. The performance raises three questions for me. Firstly, how on earth did Elts come to win the Sibelius competition in the first place, though it must be said that these things are to some extent a matter of taste? Secondly, why cannot the SCO attract a new top notch conductor? Mackerras is still affiliated, as is Swensen, but the music directorship has been vacant since he left. They are a top band, one of the finest chamber orchestras in the UK, finding a really good conductor to lead them shouldn't present the slightest difficulty (any more than finding the top notch section leaders they have presently was, I'm thinking particularly of cellist David Watkin and clarinetist Maximilian Martin). And, thirdly, was buying this season ticket a hideous mistake? Well, I've only heard Elts in one composer, granted one he claims expertise in, so it would be premature to judge, but if the rest of his concerts aren't better, they will be an endurance.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Fame and fortune await (or not)

In truth, I don't think this blog is read by terribly many people who aren't personally known to us. That's all right, though, since to be honest, we write it because it's fun. However, it showed that I, at any rate, am not entirely without an ego when it came to my attention that we had been noticed by someone else. We've had just three comments in the history of this blog since March (anyone reading this is most welcome to become number four), well, if you exclude the couple I've made to update a post. The first was from a friend of the family and the second anonymously agreed with Finn as far as the Tiger Lilies were concerned.

Today (or rather yesterday now), brought something else. Somehow we seem to have passed across the radar of the marketing manager of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra! Stephen Duffy was kind enough to write:

Delighted at your reaction to Donald’s appointment – we at the BBC SSO agree that he’s a very special musician.

Feel free to comment on this at the BBC SSO’s blog:

As for the BBC SSO not being in Edinburgh away from the Festival - we're working on that!

Oh, Smashing blog! Stephen, BBC SSO

Once the rush of giddiness had subsided and I'd remembered that this probably didn't mean the day job could be given up, I wondered how he'd stumbled across it and so quickly at that (on the off chance you're reading this again Stephen, I'd be curious to know). My best guess is Google News. The same technology that provides the updates about Donald Runnicles and the Edinburgh Festival on the right of the screen can also be set up to automatically e-mail you alters. I have one such set up for another artist I admire, Charles Mackerras, and many blog articles come my way as a result. Actually, I initially had it set up for just Mackerras, but that brought a great many stories about Australian political analyst (and relative to the great conductor) Malcolm Mackerras, but during times of high political drama in Australia the quantity of these actually outweighed those devoted to the musical Mackerras and they ceased to be quaint.

However, the best news wasn't anything he said about us. No, the news that the BBC SSO might be more regularly in Edinburgh would be the icing on the cake of the new appointment. Doubtless it will not be before the 2008/9 season, and not until midway through that, due to the Usher Hall's refurbishment and the lack of another suitable venue (the RSNO are decamping to the Festival Theatre), but if it comes to pass it will be worth the wait, not to mention the money saved in train fares.

Anyway, after such kind words it would seem rude not to return the favour, so a link to the BBC SSO Blog now joins our list to the right.

It also begs the question, if Mr Duffy has stumbled across us, has the man himself? Donald Runnicles, if you're reading, your most welcome and we'd love to hear from you. In the meantime, we'll have to make to with this rather interesting interview in the Herald.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Director's Notes (and coming attractions)

The king is dead, long live the king? Well, not quite. I liked a lot about this year's festival, in many ways more than I thought I would. But at the same time, the body of work I sampled was much reduced on previous years, in part due to ambivalence when the programme was released and in part to other commitments. I passed by the director's foray into early music and the near disaster that seems to have been the drama this year. I also didn't make a single one of the Queen's Hall concerts.

However, there was some very interesting programming: the Poulenc and a much more adventurous attitude to new music (Ades and Zimmermann being particular highlights). And while I didn't really engage with them this time, I do like the idea of stronger and more thematic programming. Brendel was magical, so too were the Bavarians.

But, this was no perfect year either, there some really turkeys: Tilson Thomas, the San Franciscans and Voigt being chief among them, but from what Finn says this was a poor year for staged opera and drama. But, awarding the benefit of the doubt, it is true that these are arguably the trickiest and most expensive areas. Mills had severe budget constraints, the festival having been over a million pounds in debt when he took it on, and if the rumours I have heard are accurate, next to nothing had been left on the slate. It is clearly the case both that McMaster behaved badly, in going out with such a glitzy and expensive programme and leaving the finances in such a state and, more crucially, that the Festival Council badly shirked their duty in the process of selecting an appointment. They should have done one of two things: appointed a director elect several years in advance or ensured the outgoing director had engaged much of the programming for a couple of years after his tenure. They chose not to choose and Mr Mills was left to pick up the mess.

Mr Mills has briefly given his own thoughts, and in particular highlighted the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. When the programme came out I deliberately elected to steer clear of this, apparently in the minority as it quickly sold out. I stayed away because I've heard two of his CDs, or at least exerts therefrom, on Radio 3's CD Review. Their disc of Beethoven's 7th symphony proved that I was wrong in thinking that the finale couldn't be taken too fast, though determining whether it was actually the absolute tempo or orchestra's inability to hold up to Dudamel's choice would require more comparative listening. The more recent attempt at Mahler's 5th symphony seemed fairly uninspired. Perhaps much of it is simply experiencing the passion live. The rave reviews would seem to bear this theory out. Then again, Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra manage to translate wonderfully to silver disc. If they return next year, I may have to sample them, if only to sate my curiosity on this matter.

There was a puzzling absence of top flight names: where was Mackerras, who achieved such acclaim with his Beethoven last year and has over the past few years built up an excellent relationship with both the festival and the SCO; brilliant though the Bavarians were, they were in a league of their own amongst the orchestras; and, of course, where was the eponymous Runnicles of whose recent performances with the BBC Scottish have shown wonderful chemistry and been a consistent highlight [in fairness to the director, it appears this will be rectified in future].

I'm therefore going to go for a fudge in so far as making any kind of overall assessment is concerned. Some promising signs, others less so, but judgement reserved for the 2008 and 2009 programmes. With time to prepare and without the debt burden bequeathed him, Mills will have a freer hand and the standards against which he shall be judged will be higher. We await next April with interest (and hope that unlike last year, we may get some preliminary information in November).

Until then, and more particularly, until the madness restarts next August (amidst hopes that the Usher Hall restoration plan doesn't fall apart, relying as it does on the hall being closed until August, reopening for the festival and then closing again, what could possibly go wrong!) what will we be doing? In truth, where's Runnicles may not be any quieter. For a start, I already have no fewer than three trips to London planned between now and Christmas, which will fold in the Salonen and the LA Philharmonic in Sibelius, Jansons and the Bavarians again, Haitink conducting Wagner's Parsifal and, a little off the beaten track so far as this blog's standard faire goes, the electronic stylings of Thomas Dolby.

The core of it all, though, is that in a moment of semi-madness I picked up a season ticket for the SCO this year. I found that last year I went to virtually none of their programme and decided the best solution was just to go to everything: chamber music, six o'clock concerts, the lot (including one or two in Glasgow, either because the Queen's Hall is too small or because I've managed to double book one against Donald Runnicles' return, and there was no way the SCO was going to win that one).

And when I can find a moment in amongst all that, I'll be trying to keep up with the odd CD review. My Sibelius project remains ongoing (I recently finished Ashkenazy's Philharmonia cycle, now all I have to is type it up) as does the Runnicles discography. Not to mention the one or two reviews from last season that I still haven't quite got round to. Suffice to say you needn't worry about my keeping busy. And that's just me, I'm sure Finn will have a thing or two to say.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Strauss and Schumann from Cologne and Poulenc from France (well, nearly)

Fresh from the experience of San Francisco, things could only get better. However, my expectations were not high for the Gurzenich Orchestra, after all, they are also the orchestra of Cologne Opera, whom Finn had not overly appreciated in Capriccio. Furthermore, Gabriele Fontana, who was joining the programme with the last minute addition of three Strauss songs, had come in for particular criticism.

But, it's always as well to go in with low expectations, that way it's harder to be disappointed (though not impossible, as anyone who watched Star Wars, Episode Two: Attack of the Clones, can surely attest). I was further aided in that I came fresh from the pub as a colleague had just left, which can't have hurt.

They began with Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel. It was clear for the outset that this was not a first rate orchestra and there were a few too many fluffed notes. The reading too lacked variety, for much of the time too fast and too furious and not enough luxuriating in the richness of Strauss's orchestration. Better was to follow with some newish music: Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Photoptosis. Stenz (the conductor) turned to address the audience and gave us a passionate explanation of the piece that put the programme note to shame. Essentially, and I'm afraid I am not doing his explanation justice, the piece is all about rays of light. In the first section the music captures a vast blue canvas, in the second he shows it up close and in detail, littered with quotes from Beethoven, Bach, Wagner and much more (there are twelve apparently, of which I spotted both from Beethoven's 9th, the Wagner, from Parsifal, and I think possibly the Brandenburg). The third section gives what Stenz described as a moment of calm, based on the idea of light as a wave (sad particle physicists, or those with a smattering of knowledge such as myself, will know that the truth is more complicated and that it is both waves and particles, but the odds are you probably don't want to know that). It builds to a close and mesmerises in a rather Messiaenic way. A wonderfully fresh piece and well played, it clearly helped that the conductor had great enthusiasm for it, though I wonder whether it's the kind of work that doesn't transfer well to the silver disc. Either way it was something of a highlight.

The second half brought us Schumann's 3rd 'Rhenish' symphony. I'm not hugely familiar with Schumann's work, but the third is one of those pieces that is instantly familiar (a little like Mendelssohn's 4th in that regard). The orchestra's playing was somewhat ropey and there was a lack of focus both in comparison to the Bavarians but also to the San Franciscans. But that didn't really matter because they had something much better: passion. The orchestra was brimming over with enthusiasm (perhaps not quite so much so as, say, Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra of Arab and Israeli teenagers a couple of years ago but certainly an unusually impressive amount). This more than made up for the flaws in the playing, of which there were plenty, and resulted in a far more satisfying experience than anything delivered by Tilson Thomas.

The concert closed with an appearance by Gabriele Fontana, a late addition to the programme and fresh from her performances in Capriccio. She gave us 3 Strauss songs: Das Rosenband, Morgen! and Cacilie. Finn had warned me of the quality of her voice, which had been one of the many things that he had found lacking in Capriccio and having had my expectations of what a soprano could do suitably lowered by Deborah Voigt, I was forearmed as she took to the stage. On the plus side Stenz provided perfectly good accompaniment. But Fontana's voice was simply not very good. It was, however, fascinating to listen to: every now and again you would think 'oh, this is quite nice' and then suddenly it would go horribly off and sour. She is a singer best avoided.

Still, all in all it was an enjoyable evening in the concert hall. I'm very glad to have heard the Zimmermann, and may well have to seek out a recording, and I was thoroughly swept along in the Schumann. While not the greatest orchestra I've heard, and certainly comparing poorly against Scotland's three main ones, they were far from the worst.

Saturday 1st September brought the closing concert, not counting the fireworks, which I don't, and the realisation that this review isn't even vaguely timely. Deneve led the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in a celebration of Poulenc, about whose music I know next to nothing other than that he's French. I will confess that in the past I've been a little lukewarm about Deneve, his Bruckner 4th last year fell flat, for example, and in truth the evening's main draw was soprano Christine Brewer. However, it seems I may have been unfair to Deneve. Here, in French repertoire, he is clearly at home and very persuasive. He got some wonderful playing from the RSNO throughout, and really underscored how much they've closed the distance with the BBC Scottish in the last couple of years. But the star was Christine Brewer: her effortless power soaring over the orchestra, the sheer beauty of her voice. I would be interested to find out if she's recorded the work.

Following the interval came the organ concerto and an appearance by Gillian Weir (and some welcome use of the hall's organ, which hasn't really got the use it ought since its restoration in 2003). She gave a wonderful reading, and again left me anxious to become better acquainted with the work. Finally we received exerts from his opera Dialogues des Carmelites. Wonderfully played and sung, and directed. The drama was heightened at the end as the nuns arranged themselves in a row at the front of the stage (in such a manner that the BBC didn't place nearly enough microphones to properly catch the event). As the percussion sound for the guillotine came down, from left to right they bowed their heads one at a time. Actually, it was until about the 4th of these before I realised what the sound was (rather than some infuriating noise off), but the effect was powerful. It was one of the finest pieces of concert staging I've seen. Indeed, it called to mind the fact that in the Proms Gotterdammerung (superbly conducted by one Donald Runnicles, review to follow) a director was credited, despite the fact that any work he might have done wasn't much in evidence. Contrast the festival where I've seen many concert operas, and never once have I noticed such a credit (though, in truth, this was the only occasion I can recall where it would have been merited).

All in all it was a wonderful evening of French music and a fine close to the 2007 festival.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Here's Runnicles! - is a name change required? (or 'Best News Ever')

Well, perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. World peace (or in the Middle-East, at least), cures for aids or cancer and an annulment of the Supreme Court's infamous decision of 2000 would all be better news. Even in the world of music I could imagine better (Runnicles to lead Ring cycle in revival of Scottish Opera's acclaimed production, the news following better funding and some decent management). Still, given our complaint that the eponymous Mr Runnicles has been too absent from the Scottish musical scene in recent years, indeed, the very name of this blog was a tongue in cheek jibe at the Festival for not engaging his services this year, it is hard to think of how the news of his return to Scotland could easily be topped.

True, it could be better. He could be joining an Orchestra on our side of the country (the BBC Scottish do not, sadly, do a joint programme, meaning I'll be contributing to increased revenues for train operators), but the RSNO seem very happy with Deneve and while the SCO are in need to a chief conductor, Runnicles has developed a very special relationship with the BBC Scottish over the last couple of years and it will be wonderful to hear this develop.

Of course, the real hole is at the top of Scottish Opera (the SCO seem to be humming along fine without a director). They have been leaderless since Richard Armstrong left. Actually, a check of the Scottish Opera website just now, shows that isn't quite true. Francesco Corti (who?) has been appointed, and apparently took up the post in August (though in quite what sense is a question worth asking since he will not actually conduct anything until the 2008/9 season). Unfortunately, given the current state and funding of the company and their failure to nurture young Scottish talent in recent years, without more substantial changes behind the scenes, a Runnicles directorship might well be wasted on it.

Runnicles will be spending a minimum of eight weeks a year with the orchestra and will both record and tour with them. Indeed, one of the great boons of this is that as many of the orchestra's concerts are broadcast on Radio 3, we will have a lot more of him on our airwaves. According to the BBC, the appointement will also mean engagements at the Edinburgh festival, the very lack or which this year gave us our name. He last appeared on 26th August 2006. Earlier that evening he was spied in the Grand Circle of the Usher Hall listening to Charles Mackerras's superb performance of Beethoven's 7th symphony (now available on Hyperion), sadly he was seated close enough to the door that he escaped harassment for an autograph. Three hours later he was standing before the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and leading a magical performance of Bruckner's 6th symphony (including an enchanting moment where he seemed almost to dance on the podium, and the orchestra with him). We stood at the end of that performance, in part because it was superb, in part to put our marker down to Mr Mills and impress upon him the importance of engaging Mr Runnicles in the future. To the extent that was our aim, we failed in so far as this year's programme was concerned. But from today's news we couldn't really have asked for more. The Scotsman and the Herald seem to agree.

Where's Runnicles? Well, over there in Glasgow (from 2009, at least). We'll be there to hear how it goes. Those who can't wait can catch him in April with Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde and MacMillan's 3rd symphony.