RSNO returned with a concert that sought to do more than soothe, plus the best of January’s concerts

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Ivan Hewett
·15 min read
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Errollyn Wallen
Errollyn Wallen

Royal Scottish National Orchestra, RSNO Centre ★★★★☆

Small-scale, consoling, with a touch of escapism – that’s been the tone of a number of online orchestral concerts I’ve heard lately. You can see why orchestras would want to strike that tone during a lockdown, when we could all do with some soothing.

Still, it was good to hear a big-boned ambitious concert from the RSNO which was consoling only in the sense that it was perfectly “normal”, i.e. a programme one might hear in normal times. It launched off with a recent piece by 60-something British composer Errollyn Wallen that was substantial rather than a mere curtain-raiser, which the contemporary piece in an orchestral programme so often is. Titled Mighty River, it’s a piece from 2007 honouring the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, and the composer’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, who was probably a slave herself. That might have inspired an angry or stubbornly defiant piece, but Wallen never responds to a challenge in the way you’d expect. Instead she seized on the image of a river, as irresistible in its striving to reach the sea as the human urge to find freedom.

The opening was a surprise – the hymn Amazing Grace, intoned by a single horn. We heard much of that redemptive song, woven almost imperceptible with other scraps of hymns and spirituals into the music’s fabric. Around a steady, harmonically still rhythmic pulsation these tendrils of melody unfolded, like eddies in the water’s flow. Wallen very subtly evoked the sense of a river that is never in a hurry, in fact it often seemed to dawdle and digress on its course, but a sudden shift back to the opening harmony would restore a sense of purpose. As always, Wallen’s brilliantly clear orchestration and willingness to use simple, even naive, things was captivating. Did the river digress a bit too much? Possibly. But the piece was winning nonetheless.

After the uncomplicated brightness of Wallen’s piece the heavy romantic yearning of Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder came as a shock, but a pleasant one. The poems by Wagner’s one-time lover Mathilde Wesendonck are frankly poor stuff, full of conventional romantic yearning for night-time and oblivion. Conductor James Lowe chose to perform the songs in the prismatic, almost fractured orchestral arrangements by German modernist Hans Werner Henze. They certainly let some air into the songs’ foetid atmosphere, but were distractingly over-elaborate.

But it didn’t matter, because Scotland’s own tremendous Wagnerian mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill was on hand. She sustained Wagner’s enormously long lines with majestic gravity, her tone as strong as steel even when it faded to a near-whisper. Here as elsewhere, Lowe, standing in for Ryan Bancroft at very short notice, paced the music very intelligently, making it both flowing and spacious.

That quality was a boon in the final piece, Dvořák’s New World Symphony, where the long-winded tunes and repetitions can easily clog the music’s flow. Lowe kept tedium at bay so well with subtle dynamic and tempo inflections you could almost believe the symphony was a real masterpiece after all.

See this concert at RSNO online

Hallé Orchestra, online from Hallé St Peter’s, Manchester ★★★☆☆

Pity the poor orchestral manager. The government bail-outs for the arts have kept the wolf from the door, for the time being. But it’s a condition of receiving the cash that you have to continue to present work to your public. Simply hunkering down and waiting for things to return to normal isn’t an option.

But how to do that when lockdowns come and go with such alarming unpredictability? Some orchestras such as the London Symphony have taken a punt on eye-catching live events with expensive imported soloists, only to have to unpick them at the last minute. The Hallé in Manchester took what has turned out to be the wiser course: filming an entire spring season of nine concerts that will bring cheer to their audiences right up to the end of March.

We should salute their enterprise, but it must be said the third “episode” didn’t quite hit the nail on the head. You could see the aim was to craft something quietly uplifting, which would remind us of music’s power to console, and the tone was set by the venue for the event, Hallé St Peters, a beautiful deconsecrated church that is now the orchestra’s base for its community work. Carved in stone at the entrance to the hall is a poem about the mystery of music, written by Simon Armitage for the hall’s opening ceremony last year. Armitage was on hand to read the poem as a prelude to Thursday’s concert, and later on he read his poem “Evening”, which catches that bewilderment we feel at the passing of time, which seems to happen while our backs are turned.

It was touching, but I couldn’t help thinking that having brought the Poet Laureate all the way to Ancoats in the middle of a pandemic they could have made more use of him. In any case, the British poet of Ethiopian heritage Lemn Sissay would have made a better guest, as it was his poem Godsell that actually inspired the evening’s new piece. Where is the Chariot of Fire? by young black British composer Hannah Kendall took the anger and yearning for redemption in that poem and fashioned from it a taut, beautifully shaped piece, its tense sound-world shot through with tiny gleams of light from – of all things – musical boxes. It was a nicely judged image of the fragility of hope.

Alongside this was a miscellany of pieces in a completely different tone. Aaron Copland’s wonderful hymn to nocturnal urban mystery Quiet City was beautifully played, with trumpeter Gareth Small and cor anglais player Tom Davey the eloquent soloists. Even more eloquent was saxophonist Jess Gillam in the rarely heard saxophone concerto by Alexander Glazunov. By this late stage in his life, this ailing composer, now in exile from an increasingly uncongenial Soviet Union, was looking back fondly to the romantic ethos of his youth. Gillam, who really is a fine artist, made Glazunov’s beautifully crafted but not always inspired effusions seem like gold. The way she handled the transition from the reflective central section to the leaping finale was the evening’s best moment.

Less successful was the closing piece, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. Its delicate nostalgia needed a lighter, more flowing touch than the one conductor Jonathan Bloxham brought to it. In all, it was an intermittently moving evening, which struggled to absorb the rogue elephant of the new piece in its midst, but couldn’t quite. That’s the flip side of commissioning a new piece. The better it is – and this was certainly a good one – the more likely it is to disrupt an orchestra’s best-laid plans. IH

Available until 14 April at halle.co.uk

Baroque at the Edge, LSO St Luke's, London ★★★★☆
Sean Shibe performs in Baroque at the Edge
Sean Shibe performs in Baroque at the Edge

For many, the word Baroque evokes something grand, gorgeous, and not overly taxing on the brain. Like the sumptuous dresses in the smash-hit Netflix series Bridgerton, Baroque music is something we can just sit back and thrill to, in a purely escapist way.

The six-concert, filmed online series “Baroque at the Edge” just broadcast from LSO St Lukes – the beautiful converted church in Old Street, London – was the very opposite of grand and escapist. Not only was it small-scale, more importantly it stripped away the aristocratic aura of Baroque music, showing how it expresses feelings of ordinary folk, not just gods or abandoned queens. And by mingling old pieces with folk and contemporary music, it showed that far from being locked safely away in the past, Baroque music can speak as directly to our feelings as any other kind.

The concert from the young recorder player Eliza Haskins and percussionist Toril Azzalini-Machecler showed something else, which is that the busy patterns of Baroque music are surprisingly amenable to being clothed in new sounds. It didn’t always come off, but when it did, as in the unlikely combination of recorder and marimba in an Italian concerto once thought to be by Handel, the result was ideally clear and enjoyable.

An even bolder rearranging of old music for contemporary sounds came from the four performers of Bach’s Friends Electric, who played on Moog synthesisers. I wasn’t so taken with the movements from Bach cantatas, where the electronically-treated voices reminded me of the Teletubbies, but other pieces such as the Andante from Bach’s E minor Organ Trio Sonata took on a special charm, as if stern old Bach had been sprinkled with fairy dust.

More emotionally engaging were those events that used Baroque-era instruments, but put them to a new and surprising use. In the concert Cubaroque, tenor Nicholas Mulroy mingled rhetorically florid Baroque-era songs by Purcell and Monteverdi with gently romantic Latin American folk songs and pop song. In terms of feeling, the two things were really miles apart, but Mulroy sang both with such a winning, unforced ease, and the accompaniment from guitarists Elizabeth Kenny and Toby Carr had such an infectious rhythmic swing that you could almost believe they were genuinely close.

The Folk-Baroque concert from folk-fiddler Tom Moore, soprano Lucy Crowe and La Nuova Musica went in a different direction, juxtaposing lovely old folk tunes such as Danny Boy and The Flowers of Edinburgh with songs by Purcell and the German composer Andreas Hammerschmidt. Again, the performers sensitively bridged the gap between the simplicity of the folk songs and the more florid, rhetorical Baroque songs.

Talking of gaps, the one between violinist Rachel Podger and performance poet Abena-Essah Bediako was even wider — deliberately so, as the original idea was to have Bediako and another poet respond instantly in front of a live audience to something culturally distant: a performance of solo pieces by Bach. That couldn’t happen owing to the pandemic, which took one of the poets and the live audience out of the picture. But thanks to the ingenuity of film director Tom Guthrie, Bediako’s moving invocations of her Ghanaian heritage and the sorrows of the colonial era, together with her solo singing, momentarily came close to Rachel Podger’s gracefully dancing performances.

All this was rewarding, but the highlight of the festival came from the event that was also the simplest; just one man with a lute and a guitar. The Scottish/Japanese player Sean Shibe is one of the most riveting performers around, and his intense, many-coloured renditions of Baroque music alongside Satie, Ravel and folk-songs, were simply spell-binding.

Until 31 March at baroqueatthedge.co.uk

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Lighthouse, Poole ★★★★☆

Musical organisations that hoped for the best but prepared for the worst are the ones that are rising above disaster. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is a case in point. It has opted for an entirely online season of no fewer than 12 concerts, stretching right up to the end of March. So a weekly treat is in store for music-lovers, one they can actually rely on.

The series got off a delightful, heart-warming start with Past Reflections, a concert that wafted us back to the French Baroque. It was an era of perfect refinement where an entire world-view could be encapsulated in a witty epigram or a graceful minuet. Two of the pieces looked back to that era fondly from the perspective of the early 20th century, a time that needed a comforting escape to the elegancies of a previous era – much as we do now. Sandwiched between these evocations of a past style was the real thing: François Couperin’s delicious suite of character pieces The Apotheosis of Lully, from 1725.

Orchestras have mostly ceded this kind of music to the “period” groups that specialise in it, a sign of the unfortunate ghettoisation that afflicts classical music. It took courage for the BSO to challenge them on this territory, and it must be said the decision paid off handsomely. Conductor Kirill Karabits forsook his usual place on the podium for a seat at the harpsichord, placed at the centre of a small group of oboes, three flutes, a few string players and a bass lute or theorbo. Together, they conjured a delicious sound, sensuous but rhythmically alive.

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Couperin’s piece conjures a vision of his great forebear Lully welcomed by the gods to the Elysian Fields and then Mount Parnassus, where he witnesses an ideal union of the only two musical styles that mattered to Couperin: the French and the Italian. That means an equal weight given to pliant French grace, vivid pictorialism (the doleful shades portrayed in the flutes was a particularly lovely example) and vigorous Italian counterpoint. The players carried this off with a terrific sense of style; only a slight caution in adding ornamentation showed this was a language the players have only recently learned.

Before that came Ravel’s tender Tombeau de Couperin, a suite of Baroque-style dances written in memory of friends killed in the First World War. Karabits and the players brought out the tender gravity of the dances, the Forlane in particular tripping along with a touchingly solemn, wide-eyed seriousness, as if the dancers were actually children (the child’s-eye view of the world is never far away in Ravel).

Strauss’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, a suite of dances written for Molière’s play of the same name, was by contrast thoroughly grown-up in its unbuttoned sensuousness. The players caught the new expansive tone, but they were also alert to the moments when Strauss attains an almost Ravel-like delicacy (oboist Edward Kay to the fore yet again – this was really his evening). In all, the concert was a delightful escape from an increasingly distraught world. IH

See this concert on demand at bsolive.com for 30 days

Ema Nikolovska, online from the Wigmore Hall ★★★★☆
Ema Nikolovska at the Wigmore Hall
Ema Nikolovska at the Wigmore Hall

Another year, another lockdown. The silence from musical venues under closure is becoming deafening. Yet the Wigmore Hall just keeps on going. This month, it’s presenting a programme of daily concerts, sometimes two or even three in a day, with no concessions in terms of quality of artist, or adventurous programming.

It got off to a storming start on Monday with a lunchtime recital from young Macedonian-born, Canadian-domiciled mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska. She packed the maximum variety of style and tone into her programme, which began with the most innocent little nature-lyrics from Schubert, and ended in series of hilariously satirical settings of American advertising slogans. Along the way she gave us songs in five languages, by no fewer than three 20th-century women composers, one Czech, one French and one Canadian/Serbian, plus songs by Dvořák and Benjamin Britten.

As well as brevity, the songs had themes in common. We heard a lot about the power of nature to soothe the soul and lull us off to sleep, and nurture the kind of romantic love that is tender and healthy rather than tormented and introspective. Nikolovska has exactly the right voice to catch that mood, agile and pearly but with an underlying richness and robustness.

She made good use of those qualities in the group of Schubert songs that began the concert. The poem of Die Knabe (the Lad) imagines a boy fancying himself in competition with the birds – an antiquated sentiment which could simply sound precious, but Nikolovska rescued the song from that fate simply by being robust and forthright, and not being overtly roguish.

That emotional intelligence was fully on display in what followed. In I had a Horse from Dvořák’s In Folk Style, she caught the change from sturdy humour to heartbreak in the last verse by not stressing it, because she knows that the matter-of-fact quality of folksongs is what makes them moving. The three songs by the tragically short-lived Polish composer Vítězslava Kaprálová were much more complex, beginning in an observation of something tiny – raindrops caught in a spider’s web – and ending with a meditation on the mysteriousness of God’s ways. Nikolovska traced that journey without any overt striving after depth, relying on her beautifully sustained pianissimo line to do the work – and also on pianist Malcolm Martineau, who here as in the other songs knew where to take the expressive lead and where to retreat into the background.

At the other end of the emotional scale was The Blue Star, a rapid-fire unaccompanied song by Canadian Ana Sokolović in which Nikolovska had to accompany herself with knee-slaps and clapping. Here, Sokolovska’s big personality, previously filtered through delicacy, suddenly burst out in full view. In Nicholas Slonimsky’s Five Advertising Songs, her triumphant ending to Make this a Day for Pluradent! would have brought the house down, had there been anybody in the house. Overall, the recital was too bitty to fully satisfy, like a meal of hors d’oeuvres, but there were wonderful things along the way. Sokolovska is clearly a talent to watch. IH

See this concert on the Wigmore Hall website at wigmore-hall.org.uk and hear it on BBC Sounds via the Radio 3 website for 30 days