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Music reviews

RSNO Christmas Concert

RSNO Christmas Concert

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

OVER the years, and on numerous occasions, conductor Christopher Bell, the mastermind and genius presenter of the annual RSNO Christmas concert, who has made the occasion very much his own for more than a decade with the annual national tour, has agonised in various conversations about changing the format, particularly of the core element, Howard Blake's magical music to The Snowman.

He never has, "for fear of being lynched". At the same time, Bell has rationalised that at Christmas, of all times, people want the familiar: they do not want to be challenged; they do not want change. And apart from all that, as was demonstrated again on Saturday, The Snowman is a classic, an evergreen, even with the halting, stilted narration, this year, of Libby McArthur.

And as Christopher Bell, more than any conductor, knows full well, it is neither formulaic nor restrictive. Even within the regular pattern on Saturday, Bell worked in new arrangements of Christmas melodies, a first-time appearance of his youngest choir, a new or recent composition by a 14-year-old boy (not named in the programme: it might have been Paul Race) and sundry other novelties, not least the heavy brass of the RSNO in full penguin kit doing the extraordinary penguin dance to great hilarity all round.

And throughout all the fun and nonsense (including Bell sporting a camp red kilt, which he swung gaily, assuring us he had not "gone commando") his RSNO charges sang with all their beauty and purity through a broad Yuletide repertoire,including a complex and chromatic choral number from Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban.

Michael Tumelty

SCO/Christian Zacharias

City Hall, Glasgow

TIME was that a programme with a concerto by Mozart and a symphony by Haydn, perhaps with an overture featuring a bit of high-class fun and energy or drama before them, might have been considered too mainstream, too conservative, too formulaic and old-fashioned.

But with pianist and conductor Christian Zacharias at the helm of an SCO in magically responsive form on Friday night, and with the "fun" element transposed to the end of the concert, with Francis Poulenc's racy and charming Sinfonietta following provocative performances of Haydn's 85th symphony, La Reine, and Mozart's youthful but dazzlingly original Ninth Piano Concerto, whose structural intricacies alone deserve an essay, the entire concept of a classical concert programme was refreshed.

And the fact that the second half of the concert also featured a wonderfully transparent and completely unsentimental account of Ravel's Pavane For A Dead Infanta, which the composer begged his listeners not to over-interpret, only emphasised the point that if you get the context right you can create really interesting programmes with material that might not appear to adhere to any orthodox presentational philosophy.

The point is that these superb performances raised issues: why is Haydn, one of the greatest craftsmen and original thinkers in the history of Western music, so sidelined today in concert progranmes? Who has his style and his wit? And who else has Mozart's absolute genius at exploiting the level of interaction between a soloist and an orchestra? The Poulenc, true, I could take or leave: his broken structuring drives me up the wall. But what a thought-provoking concert, with the marvellous Zacharias raising serious questions.

Michael Tumelty

Messiah

Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

After years of annual attendance at the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union New Year Messiah, my first chamber choir one - the John Currie Singers - was an absolute revelation. Now, of course, we are all familiar with the strengths of a small performance by professional singers, and the effect that they have had on the style of singing in larger amateur choirs. The Dunedin Consort are absolutely in the vanguard of this, not just as the makers of one of the most acclaimed recent recordings of the piece, but also because of their programmes of workshops to induct enthusiastic amateurs into their practice.

While it is a very different social experience watching a dozen singers and a 15-piece ensemble, directed from the harpsichord by John Butt, than it is going to the Usher Hall with a picnic (standing for the Hallelujah chorus would have been weird here, and no-one in the audience made any such move), the remarkable narrative arc of Messiah and superb music and libretto are still what matters.

The soloists - soprano Mhairi Lawson, alto Alexandra Gibson, tenor James Oxley and bass Robert Davies - stepped out from the ensemble for recitatives and arias, and the benefit that has to the flow of the work is undoubted and accumulative. It was particularly noticeable at the start of Part Two, which had begun slightly shakily, but was swiftly rescued by the sequence of choruses up to All we, like sheep. That was a rare hiccup in an evening of consistent quality, instrumentally as well as vocally. For me, the male soloists had the edge, with Oxley's bold dramatic approach certainly eye-catching, but not distractingly so, but there was no weak link anywhere on stage.

Keith Bruce

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