Nicola Benedetti does James MacMillan’s new work proud, plus the best of September’s classical concerts

·16 min read
Nicola Benedetti with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Perth
Nicola Benedetti with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Perth

James Macmillan’s Second Violin Concerto, SCO/Benedetti, Perth Concert Hall  ★★★★☆

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s season-opening celebration was a substantial new piece from Scotland’s most prominent composer, written for the nation’s starriest soloist. Expectations were always going to be high, and there was understandably quite a buzz in a packed Perth Concert Hall.

Trust Sir James MacMillan, then, to defy those very expectations in a Second Violin Concerto – getting its first performance – that was serious rather than showy, sometimes sombre, always thoughtful and deeply engaging, often very moving as a result. The work’s opening seemed to set the piece’s somewhat understated tone right from the start, virtually concealing quiet pizzicatos from soloist Nicola Benedetti (for whom MacMillan wrote the piece) amid three lush, richly scored orchestral chords that went on to become the work’s signature motif. This clearly wasn’t going to be a conventional virtuoso showpiece – and even when more challenging, extrovert passages emerged, they were often intense, dark laments, as if distantly remembering MacMillan’s harrowing early Piper Alpha memorial Tuireadh.

Benedetti responded with rich, sometimes eloquently raw playing, lithe and agile when needed, but also fiercely focused – nowhere more so than in her rasping contributions to the Concerto’s bitter, aggressive march material that had more than a hint of Shostakovich-style sarcasm. A series of brief, increasingly Britten-like duets with individual SCO players guided the Concerto back towards its poignant lyricism, and took it to the surprisingly unadorned, luminous clarity of its final, major triad.

MacMillan himself has acknowledged a possible new direction in his music since his huge choral Fifth Symphony was unveiled at the 2019 Edinburgh International Festival. And while many of his signature elements were present and correct in his new Violin Concerto – the raw emotion, the abrupt swerves in direction, propulsive dance rhythms and folksy decorations – it nonetheless continued the Fifth Symphony’s light-infused directness, its unhurried pace, its elusive storytelling.

And it fitted its premiere performers like a glove: Benedetti offered remarkable insights and commitment, as though she’d been playing the piece for years, while the SCO under flamboyant principal conductor Maxim Emelyanychev conveyed the concerto’s strongly defined, shifting textures persuasively, even if its brutal climax felt rather underpowered.

It was somewhat risky, too, to attempt Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony with a chamber orchestra as the concert’s climax, and not always one that paid off: Emelyanychev achieved a wonderful lightness and buoyancy in a tripping second movement and, while there was a touching vulnerability to his outer movements, they nonetheless sounded pretty thin. His opener, however – John Adams’s The Chairman Dances – was a joy: driven, dazzling, and crisp to the point of brittleness. DK

Abel Selaocoe: Where Is Home, Southbank Centre ★★★★☆

Abel Selaocoe performs at the Southbank Centre - Mark Allan
Abel Selaocoe performs at the Southbank Centre - Mark Allan

South African cellist and vocalist Abel Selaocoe has impressively forged his place across varied classical, global and roots settings, such as his pan-African outfit Chesaba, work with Manchester Collective, and a memorable woodland gig for the Nest Collective. Last night's packed London headline show centred on Selaocoe’s just-released debut album Where Is Home (Hae Ke Kae): a collection of original compositions with Sesotho and Zoulou lyrics, alongside interpretations of European classics by Bach and Platti.

Selaocoe’s ensemble (comprising an array of strings and percussion) were already clustered onstage when he arrived to an elated welcome from the audience. He struck a genial and gracious figure, with cello in hand and headset mic; he flowed amiably around the repertoire and space, the eager fluidity of his playing and singing (from sweet croon to throaty growl) complemented by his versatile band. The opening number, Qhawe (Hero), was inspired by the unaffected curiosity and playfulness of children, and its impulsive rhythms took on a clubby energy, with viola and violins infusing the bassline thrum.

“Home” is both a universally emotive concept and a uniquely loaded one. Selaocoe told us that his album’s definition embraced “all the places that nurture you and empower you, and give you a reason to wake up in the morning.” He simultaneously came across as showman, storyteller and schoolteacher; the themes and range of the material reflected personal experience and musical expertise, including his conservatoire training from Sowetho to Manchester and beyond.

At the same time, the fusions and between-song chat did sometimes feel overly polite and mannered, evoking “world music” for consciously mature (and, ironically, largely monocultural) consumers, rather than a freely expansive contemporary form. The multi-layered Ancestral Affirmations invited audience harmonising. Ka Bohaleng’s spirited melody nodded to a traditional saying that “A woman holds the knife by the sharp side”, alongside an offbeat declaration about women’s capacity for love and pain.

The concert’s high points swept aside the “edutainment” overtones: an elegant 18th-century Platti sonata connected Selaocoe’s cello alongside kora, double bass and theorbo, allowing each instrument space to breathe. Ibuyile L’Africa (Africa Is Back) was originally performed for Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s birthday, and formed a gorgeously poignant encore here. Selaocoe is a powerful talent, and last night proved that he has established a warmly appreciative niche, but you also sensed that this enticingly restless creative spirit could take things much further. AH

Bach and Friends, various London venues ★★★★☆

Jean Sebastien Bach, whose unfinished 'Orgelbüchlein' has finally been completed - Rex
Jean Sebastien Bach, whose unfinished 'Orgelbüchlein' has finally been completed - Rex

The concert series Bach and Friends taking place in London churches and halls last weekend was the long-awaited result of what must be the most ambitious attempt ever to complete an unfinished masterwork. The work in question, the Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book) by the great J S Bach was designed as a set of short organ pieces, each based on a different German hymn or “chorale”. These “chorale preludes” as they’re called are fantastically artful and elaborate but Bach always made sure the sturdily simple tune is easy to spot, floating serenely on top of the complication, or striding mightily in the deep pedal notes.

The original hand-written Book survives so we know Bach intended to write 164 pieces, but he actually composed only 46. Seven years ago the organist William Whitehead had the audacious idea of filling in the blank pages by inviting composers all over the world to compose a new chorale prelude, each based on a different hymn tune. They answered the call, and last weekend he and a team of organists played all 118, plus Bach’s own 46.

I attended four of the Saturday concerts, and it was a wonderful experience to walk from one beautiful city church to another, listening to the honeyed voice of Zeb Soanes introducing the new pieces, and then being plunged into another individual take on something ancient and simple. Absorbing more than 40 new pieces across six hours was quite a challenge, as the variety of styles was enormously wide from near-pastiche of Bach’s own style (such as the lovely prelude based on Der Herr is mein Getreuer Hirt by Swiss organist Guy Bovet) to strange atmospheric noodlings that were like electronic music reconceived for the organ.

By the time I left the fourth concert one thing had become clear: the best pieces were by composers who understood that in a three-minute piece you can’t chop and change in mood, and that shrouding a 400 year-old hymn tune in fiddly atonal modernism is unlikely to work.

Unsurprisingly it wasn’t the “big names” but lesser-known composers who were organists themselves or experienced in writing church music, who understood the essential humility of the task.

My favourites were the surprisingly harmonically sultry piece by the ex-organist at Bach’s own church, David Matthews’ amazing contrapuntal tour-de-force, and the folk-like innocence of German film composer Enjott Schneider’s chorale prelude. But the real value of this wonderful project is the richness of the whole, which we will be exploring for years to come. IH

For details of Sunday’s concerts and more information on the Orgelbüchlein Project visit orgelbuechlein.co.uk

Philharmonia Orchestra, Southbank Centre ★★★☆☆

Orchestras are under pressure to launch their new seasons with a bang this year, as audiences are still below their pre-pandemic levels and need tempting back to the concert hall. Last night the Philharmonia did exactly that, without giving way to the temptation to be shamelessly populist. They offered one of Mahler’s grandiose, heart-shaking symphonies, the Fifth, that to be frank would probably fill the hall by itself, and as a nod to contemporary music we had star Icelandic pianist Vikingur Ólafsson in a recent concerto by the now venerable post-minimalist composer John Adams.

The Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali - Mark Allan
The Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali - Mark Allan

As a curtain-raiser to all this the orchestra, under its recently appointed principal conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali, played the five-minute Masquerade by Anna Clyne. The programme note told us this was meant to be an evocation of the uproarious masked dances at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, but to my ears seemed more like a very in-your-face soundtrack to an exciting car-racing video game – apart from a brief, incongruous moment of waltz-like elegance.

Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? was the encouraging title of John Adams’s concerto. Unfortunately the answer given by the piece was a resounding “yes”, as it was entirely innocent of tunes or indeed anything in the way of graspable musical material. Instead we heard a series of dour “funky” riffs, bolstered by trombones and bass guitar, which Ólafsson flung off with a somewhat dutiful energy. Not until the mournful descending patterns of the slow movement did we hear the beautifully soft, moulded touch that has made Ólafsson the hottest property among young pianists. But even he couldn’t disguise the disconcerting hollowness beneath the incessant rhythmic games.

As for Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, it got off to a very bad start with a performance of the first movement that was weirdly exaggerated, with huge pauses leading into every melody. Admittedly Rouvali’s overall strategy did eventually become clear. By making the opening so heavy, he aimed to make the long journey to the joy of the final movements more convincing. But the price he paid was that the first movement became an absurd parody of a tragic funeral march.

Fortunately the symphony recovered its dignity, thanks largely to fabulous playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra, above all from trumpeter Alan Thomas. But the performance as a whole was a reminder that in music-making, as in battles, a good strategy must be tempered by sound tactics. IH

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sept 27 and will then be available on BBC Sounds for 30 days

Proms 2022: Orchestre Révolutionnaire Et Romantique, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★☆

John Eliot Gardiner at the Proms - Chris Christodoulou
John Eliot Gardiner at the Proms - Chris Christodoulou

In this year’s Prom season, the heaven-storming choral-and-orchestral masterworks are back with a vengeance. Only five days after Beethoven’s mighty Ninth Symphony, John Eliot Gardiner appeared with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and Monteverdi Choir to perform the same composer's even mightier Missa Solemnis.

The two works are alike in wild jubilation, “starry heavens” hush and sudden intrusions of martial alarm – and in being monstrously difficult to sing. But while Beethoven’s final symphony exudes a faith that is more humanist than religious, and includes a tub-thumping popular tune, his final Mass expresses a fervent faith – or the anxious search for it –in a language permeated with ancient church music. Mingled with the abrupt changes of mood and tempo and the visionary harmonic surprises, you hear antique-sounding modes and sturdy old-fashioned counterpoint not so far from Handel.

That double-sided nature of the piece registered with gripping clarity in this performance, thanks partly to the grave, somehow “ancient” sound of the strings, which was so moving in the unfathomably deep introduction to the Benedictus. Interestingly, the use of old-fashioned “period” instruments also accentuated the moments of drama. The rasping trumpets and horns in those astonishing battlefield evocations in the final Agnus Dei were especially thrilling.

However, what really opened the door to the work’s depths was the masterly conducting of Gardiner. The constant switches of mood, such as the turn from fury for “God the Father Onmipotent” to lyrical tenderness for the “Son Jesus Christ” can seem startlingly abrupt, but Gardiner made these transitions seem not just intelligible but actually moving in themselves. We could share in Beethoven’s strivings and uncertainties, as well as his blazing affirmations.

With so many shouts of triumph or aspiration and so many top Bs for the sopranos, the piece is enormously taxing for the chorus, but the Monteverdi Choir rose magnificently over the orchestral tumult, and never seemed under strain. It was only in the moments for the four soloists that I felt a twinge of disappointment. They were beautifully blended, and Lucy Crowe floated her top notes seraphically, but it all felt a mite too tastefully restrained, as if Gardiner had reined them in. Tenor Giovanni Sala was so discreet, we caught barely a whiff of his rich tenor sound.

But this is only a small quibble. The music’s many-sided humanity shone so brightly it seemed almost divine, and filled our hearts and minds. IH

Hear this Prom for 30 days via the BBC iPlayer. The Proms continue until September 10, all broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and on the iPlayer. Proms tickets: 020 7070 4441; bbc.co.uk/proms

Proms 2022: Søndergård/Benedetti, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall ★★★☆☆

Nicola Benedetti - Mark Allan
Nicola Benedetti - Mark Allan

Nicola Benedetti's presence at the Proms always guarantees a full Albert Hall, and her fans got full value here in at least one sense: playing the longest violin concerto in her repertoire, she was on stage with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra for 45 minutes. But it felt like a very long 45 minutes, since the duration of Wynton Marsalis's Violin Concerto in D far exceeds its inspiration.

Marsalis's work sets up an expectation it can never fulfil: that "in D" label comes loaded with associations of two of the greatest violin concertos, by Beethoven and Brahms. Maybe it is intended as a joke, but like much else in this distended and fitfully drawn out score it falls flat. Since it was premiered as long ago as 2015 by Benedetti (for whom it was written) and subsequently recorded, the Proms ought to have known better, though perhaps they need to keep onside with the enthusiasms of Benedetti, now director of the Edinburgh Festival.

She certainly poured her heart into this performance, making the most of those few promising ideas Marsalis never really develops. Long, lyrical lines give the opening a suspenseful, storytelling mood, yet the music spreads itself thinly as delicate violin phrases alternate with big-band climaxes. The four movements, likened by the composer to the four corners of the world, sound too much the same: a world as seen from transcontinental airport lounges.

Neither really a rondo nor burlesque, the second 'Rondo Burlesque' movement leads via a seemingly endless cadenza (in dialogue with drum kit) to a 'Blues' movement, which lives more languidly up to its title. In the 'Hootenanny' finale, barn dance meets cèilidh before the soloist eventually leaves the stage, still playing as the music fades.

The rest of this Anglo-American programme was made up of suites drawn from stage works, opening with Thomas Adès's Three-Piece Suite from Powder Her Face, his 1995 opera on the scandal-hit life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. Biting and brittle, all three movements are consistent in their heartlessness yet brilliantly orchestrated, and they were conducted with playful precision by Thomas Søndergård, the RSNO's music director recently announced to succeed Osma Vänskä at the Minnesota Orchestra.

Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes got a broad-brush treatment that missed some of their menacing chill, but the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein's West Side Story mixed hijinks with haunting beauty and finally revealed the concert's heart. JA

Hear this Prom for 30 days via the BBC iPlayer. The Proms continue until September 10, all broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and on the iPlayer. Proms tickets: 020 7070 4441; bbc.co.uk/proms

Proms 2022: BBC SO/Kanellakis, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★☆

Karina Kanellakis conducts the BBC SO at the Proms - Chris Christodoulou
Karina Kanellakis conducts the BBC SO at the Proms - Chris Christodoulou

Despite its reputation as a bastion of tradition, the Proms is actually super-keen to appear up-to-the-minute. Sometimes, as with the Gaming Prom some weeks back, it simply celebrates a new trend wholeheartedly. At Monday night’s Prom, there was a brand-new piece, bTunes, by Franco-American composer Betsy Jolas, which did something different, registering a new trend while holding it at a critical distance – as you’d expect from a composer who’s just turned 96 and has seen many trends come and go.

bTunes is a wry reflection on “playlist” culture and its horrible tendency to shrink our attention span, cast in the form of bite-sized fragments of piano pieces that Jolas has composed over the years, woven into a dialogue with orchestra. It begins with a moment of comedy, as the orchestral leader Stephen Bryant rose to his feet and reluctantly “conducted” a few throat-clearing cymbal crashes and peremptory plucked notes. Eventually, soloist Nicholas Hodges and conductor Karina Kanellakis stumbled in, miming embarrassment at being late, and took over.

There then followed a quick-fire series of musical-snapshots, none lasting more than about 20 seconds. We heard explosions of Lisztian/modernist heroics brilliantly despatched by Hodges, mock-pompous fanfares, mock-modernist plinks and plunks, and just occasionally a haunting moment of utter stillness.  It was amusingly self-deflating and eccentric in the way Erik Satie’s music might have been, if he had lived in the era of postwar modernism. Beneath the restlessness, you could dimly discern the presence of a guiding musical thread, and thanks to that the danger inherent in a piece commenting on the inconsequential nature of playlists – which is that it ends up being inconsequential itself – was just about kept at bay.

On either side of this piece of musical thistledown were two works of reassuring seriousness and solidity. First came Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus overture, launched with such explosive force under Kanellakis’s incisive baton I almost jumped out of my seat. After the interval came Mahler’s First Symphony, a piece so overplayed I always wonder how the next performance could possibly make it seem new. But I needn’t have worried. Kanellakis’s conducting reminded us this is a young man’s symphony by giving it a vernal freshness and urgency, and she clearly inspired the players to give their all. This was the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s 11th Prom, but they played with the same fire and delicacy as on the First Night. How do they do it? IH

Hear this Prom for 30 days via the BBC iPlayer. The Proms continue until September 10, all broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and on the iPlayer. Proms tickets: 020 7070 4441; bbc.co.uk/proms