Arts review of 2019: Ken Walton on the year in classical music

Sarah Champion as Daisy and Mark Le Brocq as Harry King'in Scottish Opera's Anthropocene
Sarah Champion as Daisy and Mark Le Brocq as Harry King'in Scottish Opera's Anthropocene
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Scotland’s foremost composer marked his 60th with an epic Fifth; opera-goers got heated over a cracking new opera set in the icy wastes of the Arctic; Mr Reliable saved the day for two festivals facing last minute call-offs; and a Russian whippersnapper made idiosyncratic waves as the new kid on the conducting block. These are just some of the classical music highlights of the last 12 months...

MacMillan at 60 Months before his actual 60th birthday in July, Scotland’s orchestras and ensembles were already celebrating a significant year for Sir James MacMillan. But the most anticipated event was the premiere in August of his new Fifth Symphony, performed at the Usher Hall by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, The Sixteen and its director Harry Christophers. Epic in scale, and subtitled “Le grand Inconnu” (the Great Unknown), MacMillan’s latest symphony was of pivotal significance, its musical signature drawing on the wealth of combustible resources from MacMillan’s musical past, yet simultaneously representative of the freer-flowing abstraction that is increasingly defining his outpouring of new work. Though strangely overwrought in sections, this symphony proved a powerful and appetising pointer to where his music is heading next.



Operatic highlights Stuart MacRae’s powerful new opera Anthropocene was another milestone moment, as much for MacRae himself – whose collaboration with librettist Louise Welsh elicited a lyrical softness in the composer previously only hinted at – as it was for Scottish Opera, who received an unexpectedly popular boost from this bold commission. In hindsight, it warranted more and wider performances than it got, but it was a landmark triumph nonetheless. There was unforeseen gold, too, in January’s glorious double bill at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where students mounted an all-action cartoonesque production of Poulenc’s surreal two-acter Les Mamelles de Tirésias as a madcap gender-challenging foil to Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.



Maxim Emelyanychev Back in January, the imminent arrival of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s new 30-year-old chief conductor, Maxim Emelyanychev was trailed in a Scotsman “one to watch” interview. He didn’t disappoint. After a jousting collaboration as pianist alongside some of his SCO principals in the Edinburgh International Festival’s chamber music series, Emelyanychev’s SCO season podium debut last month was a sizzler, particularly his highly idiosyncratic Mozart Jupiter Symphony. Still one to watch.



Osborne to the rescue You’d think Scots pianist Steven Osborne would have enough on his plate with a hectic international solo career and his new RSNO artist-in-residence post. But he was the hero who saved the day when artists cancelled appearances at two successive high profile festivals over the summer. The first was at the Edinburgh International Festival, where he was a last-minute replacement for the indisposed Beatrice Rana. The unshakeable Osborne stepped in at a day’s notice with an illuminating five-star performance of Schubert and Messiaen. Nobody was complaining then, nor several weeks later at the Cumnock Tryst where his probing mastery of Beethoven’s final three piano sonatas proved another unscheduled sensation.

Orchestras on tour The RSNO’s perfect marriage with music director Thomas Søndergård stepped up a gear in April with a massively successful tour of Arizona and South California, collaborating with the powerhouse pianism of Olga Kern and the extrovert balletic performance style of violinist Sandy Cameron, the latter in film composer Danny Elfman’s Violin Concerto, which attracted a posse of Hollywood royalty – Tim Burton among them – to one very glitzy concert. In October, the BBC SSO, under Thomas Dausgaard, headed to Japan as part of the BBC’s Proms franchise. Star of that tour was the redoubtable piano virtuoso Yulianna Avdeeva, whose turbo-charged Tchaikovsky had already wowed Glasgow audiences.



Ubiquitous Dunedin If there was a prize for the busiest ensemble this year, it would surely go to the Dunedin Consort, currently in tip-top form, and popping up at just about every major event at home and abroad. Within weeks over the summer, John Butt’s crack early music outfit had starred at the London Proms, pairing Bach’s four orchestral suites with four brand new commissions, at the St Cecila’s Hall series as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, and at the 10th Lammermuir Festival, with a three-concert romp through the Brandenburg Concertos.



Memorable recordings In the studio, three particular CD releases stand out: the RSNO’s richly-crafted Ein Heldenleben under Søndergård; a super cool Schubert’s Ninth Symphony from Emelyanychev and the SCO; and a wonderful exploration of Handel’s Samson from the Dunedin Consort.