Music reviews: Simoon | James Ehnes and Steven Osborne

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REFERRING to Alban Berg’s 1920s masterpiece Wozzeck, Erik Chisholm once said of his own 1950s opera Simoon: “The music style is roughly Wosseck-ish”.

Simoon - Western Baths, Glasgow

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James Ehnes and Steven Osborne - Cottiers Theatre, Glasgow

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The point is immediately made in his gruesome 50-minute one-acter, its music bursting at the seams with expressionist angst, yet personalised by Chisholm’s skillful assimilation of exotic Asiatic musical twists and imaginative snatches of parody. Remarkably, 50 years after the composer’s death, this was its first ever fully orchestrated performance, by Music Co-OPERAtive, as part of this year’s Cottier Chamber Project.

It wasn’t a fully staged performance, for reasons of practicality and cost, but the ingenious use of black and white film by filmmaker Roddy Simpson, with dancers and actors playing out a visual backdrop, added a highly effective theatrical dimension to the concert-style cast and orchestra conducted by Ian Ryan.

It was the perfect solution for a venue that was, itself, a curiosity – the sports hall of Glasgow’s Western Baths – but which accommodated perfectly, besides the capacity audience, the sincerity and boldness of this operatic adventure.

Simoon is a psycholgical thriller, based on August Strindberg’s play, in which the haunting symbolism of the desert wind – the Simoon – embraces a story of sinister and chilling revenge. The heroine, Biskra, tantalises the French Legionnaire Grimaud to death as vengeance for the death of her lover, Yusuf.

The small cast delivered the hi-concentrate libretto with dark and devilish potency; Jane Irwin’s Biskra wild and seductive, Damian Thantrey portraying Guimard’s diminishing will with horrifying vocal conviction, and Philip Sheffield and Charlie Drummond chillingly effective in delivering the supporting roles.

It was a performance that did full justice to Chisholm’s score, its pungent colours and master craftsmanship. Well done Music Co-OPERAtive, for taking the leap into the unknown and making a powerful evening’s entertainment.

And well done to Cottier’s artistic director Andy Saunders, who pulled off a major coup on Wednesday by securing for his festival the debut duo performance by two of the most talented musicians on the planet: Canadian violinist James Ehnes and Scots pianist Steven Osborne.

It was, in effect, a warm-up for their London lunchtime concert the following day, but there was nothing in this exemplary coupling of Beethoven and Brahms sonatas to suggest they hadn’t been playing together all their lives.

Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No 10, his final one, calls for a subtle fusion of intellectual composure and fiery unpredictability. This performance had it all: exquisitely shaped phrasing illuminated by Ehnes’ silvery precision and Osborne’s ultra-sensitive tonal control, set alight by sudden moments of surprise and revelation, not least Beethoven’s final, unexpected flourish.

The same gravitas underpinned the duo’s deeply considered interpretation of Brahms’ Sonata No 3, and again, it glowed with impeccable synergy and compelling intent. The famous slow movement theme, surely one of Brahms’ most moving and passionate, was breathtaking in Ehnes’ hands; the gutsy finale a triumph of virtuosity and vision.

“We’re so new to playing together, we only know one other work,” said Ehnes as the full house demanded an encore. It was Dvorak’s Sonatina (second movement), which added airborne delicacy to the meatier delights of the main programme.

Ehnes and Osborne are a match made in heaven, and we can genuinely say we heard it here first.

Seen on 08.06.15 and 10.06.15