Canada's National Arts Centre Orchestra

Canada's National Arts Centre Orchestra

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Michael Tumelty

AT every stage of its concert on Thursday night in Edinburgh, the first stop on a 10-day UK tour, the National Arts Centre Orchestra of Canada, with its director and soloist Pinchas Zukerman, delivered performances that were never less than enthralling.

Zukerman made no attempt in Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia to distribute the svelte NAC string section spatially in the relative confines of the Usher Hall; instead, with the whole section tight together, the composer's spatial effects were achieved through scrupulously-terraced dynamics, a terrific success.

Equally successful, and immensely popular, was the thrilling Brio by Canadian composer John Estacio, whose Toccata was Adams-y and whose Fantasy was a sensational, wide-screen, colourfully- filmic extravaganza: a fabulous piece.

Centrepiece of the programme, of course, was the legendary violinist's performance of Bruch's First Violin Concerto, as rich and warm as you would expect from one of the great violinists of the era, though there were a few moments, notably in the finale, where balance between Zukerman and his splendid orchestra was slightly askew, often an issue where the soloist is the director.

But the coup de grace of the evening was the orchestra's meaty performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, which Zukerman and his brilliant troops delivered in a rock-solid, full-fat, classic style with no concessions to the contemporary sensitivities of historically informed performance.

The double bass section in the finale was a powerhouse in the engine room, and Zuckerman's decision to omit the exposition repeats in the first and last movements draws no criticism from this quarter: it just made it even tighter; and anyway, Beethoven's structure is armour-plated. Stunning.


Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Michael Tumelty

THE RSNO's Saturday night concert with its Danish principal guest conductor, Thomas Sondergard, threw up more questions than answers.

The issue about Sondergard is that we simply don't have enough of him here: only three main-season appearances, as I recall.

The RSNO nabbed him, but were they wrong-footed, allowing the BBC National Orchestra of Wales to pounce and seize him as their chief conductor?

Wales's gain is Scotland's loss. Sondergard is dynamic, organised, and has already proved himself in repertoire from Britten to Messiaen to Dvorak.

But something went wrong in the planning for his concert on Saturday, whose programme, having been shuffled in its order, was not entirely coherent.

There are too many issues here for a wee review, so let's focus on the show.

Sondergard opened with Strauss's Metamorphosen, the composer's shocked response to the destruction by Allied bombing of his country and his culture.

It was given in reduced lighting, with the upper strings playing on their feet.

They played passionately, but it was a grimly deep-end start, incongruously plunging us into the interval.

More incongruity followed, with the second-half opener of Beethoven's Fidelio Overture elbowing in before the main course.

That was Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, which was by and large delivered with colour and wit, if a little throwaway in the Game of Pairs.

But the Shades were out in force: Beethoven fuming at being hauled off the bench as a second-half opener, Bartok cursing at an aperitif being attached to his stand-alone cracker of a showpiece, and poor old Strauss bemused at his isolation in this clumsily-assembled orchestral landscape. Thin turnout. Upstairs closed.

Haydn's Harmony Mass

Scottish Chamber Orchestra

City Halls, Glasgow

Miranda Heggie

Opening with two short pieces by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, the chorus began proceedings with the ethereal Solfeggio.

Beginning with stark harmonies gradually layering to become more complex, the chorus expertly mastered the shifting dissonances in this a capella work, before handing over to the orchestra.

Pärt's Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, written as an elegy to the composer the year after his death and simply scored for string orchestra and bell, was played with a haunting gentless, with gossamer-like textures in the upper strings.

Haydn's symphony No 90 in C saw the orchestra display a robust, focused sound, with dramatic shifts in colour and mood. Estonian conductor Tõnu Kaljuste brought warmth and personality to the piece, although the final movement's musical "joke" could have been executed with a little more conviction for him to have really carried it off.

Haydn's Harmoniemesse, nicknamed after the German term for wind ensemble due to the prominence of winds in the mass, was performed with spirited vigour, with warm, deep hues brought to Haydn's refined harmonies.

Steering the orchestra through the composer's richly varied soundscapes, Kaljuste gave an infectious jubilance to the joyous Gloria, while the more pensive Agnus Dei had a refined, measured elegance.

The chorus worked seamlessly in tandem with the orchestra, with remarkably precise enunciation, but their sound at times lacked the intensity needed to stand up to the orchestra.

Featuring a stunning quartet of soloists, all four voices were perfectly complemented to produce an effervescent yet elegant blend, with soprano soloist Andrea Lauren Brown's duets with mezzo Helen Lepalaan particularly sublime.

Erwan Keravec/Fulgor al Bies

Lemon Tree, Aberdeen

Kate Molleson

Erwan Keravec is a Breton bagpiper, improviser and potent performer. His music roams far from traditional pipe territory and he galvanises composers and other improvisers to confront an instrument that can, he suggests, be tethered by "cultural associations".

The project he brought to Sound festival was called Vox/Nu-piping #2 - a meeting of pipes and the classical voice, although there was little "classical" about the fearless singing of Donatienne Michel-Dansac and Vincent Bouchot.

In Oscar Bianchi's Fluente they unleashed squeaky-high undulations while Keravec's pipes whispered and crooned. In Jose Manuel Lopez's No Time, they used loudspeakers to enact a phone call between ex-lovers while the pipes spluttered.

There was a surprise appearance, too, from the astounding Basque vocalist Benat Achiary, whose improvised duets with Karavec encompassed gospel, bluesy scat, primal catharsis, vintage chanson and the poetry of Kenneth White. Throughout it all Karavec meddled with the pipe's drone tuning, shifting perametres, making anything seem possible.

The Argentinean sound-art quartet Fulgor al Bies specialises in experimental tango. "I want to kill Piazzolla," joked the group's bandoneonist Eliseo Tapia, though of course the great tango composer is long gone.

What Tapia meant is that Piazzola is a tough act to follow; that taking this music beyond homage is a tricky, risky business. Yet Fulgor forge a fascinating dialogue with their heritage. Live improvisations (on flute, bass clarinet, saxophone, piano, electronics and more) distil and refract tango elements then cut to archive recordings and Buenos Aires street sounds.

The interaction is fond, thoughtful and full of exciting noises. Tapia closed with a solo "tangito" on the bandoneon: virtuosic, fervent and tremendously sweet.


City Halls, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

There is, of course, no real reason why the BBC SSO should bother with any staging for Alban Berg's astonishing hundred minutes of music inspired by Georg Buchner's play, since the live recording to be heard on BBC Radio 3 at some point is their raison d'etre. But for the large, youthful attendance at Thursday's semi-staged performance, the colour and drama that Kenneth Richardson's direction and the animated performances of the cast brought to it made a rare treat really special, encapsulated in the moment when a huge blood-red moon was projected on the back wall at the climax of Act 3.

Even if there were moments when the orchestral sound overwhelmed the singers, the bonus of having the costumed principals in front of the band, a small bench the only "set", was in seeing the interaction between the vocal lines and instrumental soloists such as principal viola Scott Dickinson and contra-bassoonist Peter Wesley. Mostly conductor Donald Runnicles had the live balance just right, and when it came time for the band to cut loose I am sure I have never heard the SSO sound more dynamic and powerful. The players delivered Berg's wonderful meaty score - sounding nothing like its 90 years old - with sensitivity, control, power and brio. There is no argument that audiences should have the opportunity to hear this work more often.

The singers, including 21 of the BBC Singers, and young choristers from St Mary's in Edinburgh for the closing scene, also made decpetively light work of the tricky score, with particularly fine performances from Thomas Mayer in the title role, Elena Zhidkova in scarlet as Maria and Nathan Berg as the full-bass Doctor.