Review of Rose Theatre performance, Edinburgh Festival Fringe:
Mon 28 Aug 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

"Mr McFall’s Chamber, one of the most precious and undervalued of Scotland’s musical assets, returned with a programme at the Rose Theatre on the last night of the Fringe that was as varied as it was satisfying.

The Soundhouse Organisation took over the Rose (put up for sale earlier this year) on a short-term and somewhat last-minute basis for the Fringe. The Rose still has immense potential as a venue, with the main theatre (hearteningly close to full on this occasion) just one of several useful performance spaces.

Soundhouse’s programme of 48 performances was a diverse and impressive mix of music, and it is fitting that Mr McFall’s Chamber were one of the artists on the last night. Robert McFall founded the group, with other players from the SCO and Scottish Ballet, in 1996. They started off in Edinburgh nightclubs, playing an eclectic selection of music not necessarily associated with classical performers. A traditional-looking string quartet (with additional double bass) supplemented by other musicians as necessary, they are more likely to play folk, jazz or Captain Beefheart than anything you would hear on Classic FM.

Which goes to explain how a programme – tango from Argentina, Poland and Finland, classical music from Cuba and Mexico, the Elizabethan lutenist John Dowland, and Raymond Scott (the bandleader and inventor whose work was used by Carl Stalling in the Merrie Melodies cartoons) – that would seem bizarrely eclectic by most standards actually contained few surprises for a McFalls audience.

The programme had something of a ‘greatest hits’ feel about it, but now that Mr McFall himself is not seen doing his shopping in the Morningside Road as often as he once was, it is wonderful to see them in Edinburgh at all.

The combination of refinement and informality, of being serious about the music but not remotely precious about it, made for thoroughly accessible entertainment. There was a feeling that things were a little crammed in – Robert McFall’s trademark announcements, completely lacking in self-importance but always informative, were uncharacteristically short.

The music, however, did have sufficient room to breathe. It is not always stressed just how accomplished an arranger McFall is. The music is always allowed to speak for itself, but there is a sharing-out of resources that is democratic without being artificial, and a sound to everything that is warm and inviting, yet still making sufficient demands on the listener.

There is never going to be anything stuffy about an ensemble that features cellist Su-a Lee, a member from the beginning, or violinist Gordon Bragg, seemingly often on the point of levitating out of his seat. Other than McFall, the group featured Rick Standley (bass) – in the Chamber since virtually the start – long-term associate Graeme McNaught (keyboards), Jessica Beeston (viola) and Stuart Semple (drums).

In such a varied programme, it is hard to pick out highlights, but as always, the work of nuevo tango maestro Astor Piazzolla, whether the dynamic Michelangelo 70 or the yearning Soledad stood out. Täysikuu by Toivo Kärki also came as something of a surprise to those who were not previously aware of Finland’s long-standing obsession with the tango.

A group who always seek to bring new audiences to the music are not above novelty, and the emergence of Lee’s musical saw for Raymond Scott’s Portofino (where it uncannily apes Scott’s original use of an early synthesiser) was a particular crowd-pleaser.

It is decidedly not a gimmick, however – the unannounced encore of the hymn from Finlandia, also featuring the saw, can bring a lump to the throat even to those with no emotional investment in Finland, chamber music or carpentry.

Which reflects what Mr McFall’s Chamber have always done. Many strive for eclecticism and it becomes a mess; Robert McFall and his cohorts instead always seem to bring excitement and beauty. More power to their elbows and let’s hope they are back in Edinburgh sooner next time." - All-Edinburgh-Theatre 30/8/23

Review of Guacamaya in The Guardian:
"With a longstanding devotion to the music of Latin America, the Scottish tenor Jamie MacDougall wanted to collaborate on a recording. He argues that the classic songs of turn-of-last-century Mexico equal the American songbook in importance. They certainly burst with charm and character. Some form the centrepiece of Guacamaya: Songs & Chamber Music from Mexico (Delphian), in which MacDougall is joined by his compatriots and fellow Latin music enthusiasts Mr McFall’s Chamber.

This versatile group – here, a string quartet with percussion, piano and double bass – have a strong sideline in South American music, so ensemble and singer are well matched. Eight composers are featured in a wide range of styles, from drawing room culture to folk, bolero and bordello, with compositions dating from 1912 to 1993. Instrumental music is interwoven, by Javier Álvarez, Joaquín Gutiérrez Heras, Arturo Márquez, Silvestre Revueltas and others. The songwriters to note are Manuel Ponce, María Grever (who had success in Hollywood) and Agustín Lara, whose Granada is the most familiar track: hot, passionate and with a lingering hint of the bullfight." - Fiona Maddocks, The Guardian 22/7/23

Review of Guacamaya (including excerpts) in Classical music Daily:

Album review in The Gramophone

concert review: Opening concert of Cumnock Tryst Festival

concert review: Opening concert of Cumnock Tryst Festival

Album review: Mr McFall’s Chamber, Born in Dirt an’ Din - Delphian

THIS latest album from the astonishingly versatile chamber group established by violinist Robert McFall nearly 25 years ago is another vibrant new direction, as is their way. Expanded to a nonet (mostly) with SCO principal clarinet Maximiliano Martin lead soloist on most of the music and Alec Frank-Gemmill’s horn on one track, Paul Harrison adds keyboards and Stuart Brown drums – both band-leaders in their own right in the jazz world.

Brown brings his expertise in the music of Raymond Scott, whose music sound-tracks cartoons and is here presented in new arrangements by McFall, interwoven between commissions for his group. Harrison provides the album’s opener, Consequences, as well as the hugely atmospheric title track, as funky an evocation of shipbuilding on the Clyde as you are ever likely to hear.

Mike Kearney, keyboard player in Edinburgh’s Katet, adds more funky stuff to the mix with his composition The Phoenix, while two saxophonists, Tim Garland and Martin Kershaw, add more atmosphere, with music that showcases those wind soloists from the classical side. Kershaw’s Far Vistas and Closing In are programmed three tracks apart, but very much cut from the same cloth, using the wide range of talent on hand to explore landscapes of sound, while Garland’s 15-minute suite ExtraPollination is a showcase for Martin that finds its inspiration in the London Underground, the Bell Rock lighthouse and flamenco guitar. His overall title, though, exactly describes what the McFalls do: this group is once again finding new strains of fruitfulness by seeding their music with remarkable imported ingredients. Forget which genre it might be filed under, this is one of the most fascinating and accomplished collections of music to appear this year. - Keith Bruce, The Herald, 7/9/19

||Classical CDs Weekly: Bach, Christophersen, Mr McFall's Chamber
Baroque keyboard suites and Norwegian brass virtuosi. Plus penguins and a musical saw||

Mr Chamber: Born in Dirt an’ Din (Delphian)

This disc's superb sleeve art is deceptive, and those hoping for an entire album of craggy industrial music will be disappointed. Though the title track was inspired by a 1961 poem describing shipyards on the Clyde, where “a ship is born in dirt an’ din,” but the “lumps o’ girder-cradled steel” are as beautiful as they are imposing. Paul Harrison’s music blends electronics and percussion to pleasing effect, an engaging depiction of busy, dirty industry. Mr McFall’s Chamber is at heart a string quartet, and this anthology adds a jazz trio, horn and clarinet in performances of pieces commissioned by the group. Clarinettist Maximiliano Martín is superb in several numbers, whooping and shrieking with incredible control, and there's a melancholy solo from hornist Alec Frank-Gemmill in Martin Kershaw’s Far Vistas. I also enjoyed Tim Garland’s four movement ExtraPollination, its sections evoking Spain, a Scottish lighthouse and a North London tube journey.
Best of all are four short arrangements of pieces by the great Raymond Scott, a legendary bandleader, inventor and composer whose music was used in Looney Tunes cartoon shorts. The Penguin really waddles, and Tobacco Auctioneer sounds, well, just like a fast-talking auctioneer. Portofino is a gorgeous bossa nova, replete with a nifty musical saw solo from cellist Su-a Lee. Great fun, and handsomely engineered to boot - Graham Rickson, The Arts Desk

Born in Dirt an' Din
Mr McFall’s Chamber: Born in Dirt an’ Din (Delphian)

Jazz? Classical? Somewhere in between? Don’t attempt to classify the stylistic flexibility that informs the repertoire choices of Mr McFalls’ Chamber. The title track, Paul Harrison’s Born in Dirt an’ Din, tells us all we need to know. Quirky electronic riffs, offset by a sassy drum groove, echo the work’s inspirational roots – the anonymous poem “Clydeside Shipyards” – to which a doleful piano and slithering strings eventually add their lugubrious comment. Harrison’s Consequences, as opener, is developed and substantial, as is Martin Kershaw’s Far Vistas, a tapestry of sparkly percussion ostinati and languid jazz piano, lifted by the lyrical intervention of horn and strings. The cartoon-like frivolity of Raymond Scott’s Curley Cue and the Penguin, meanwhile, takes us back to an earlier McFalls’ album, Upstart Jugglers. There’s brilliant playing, too, from clarinettist Maximilano Martin in Tim Garland’s ExtraPollination. - Ken Walton, The Scotsman, 2/9/19

Music From Poland

Mr McFall’s Chamber: Music From Poland, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh (five stars *)

THERE was a sombre thread running right through this enterprising, illuminating, all-Polish concert from Mr McFall’s Chamber, as violinist Robert McFall himself pointed out. And it wasn’t just in the knowledge that much of the evening’s music had been created in the heady days before Nazi invasion, or under the suffocating strictures of Soviet rule after the war.

No, a vein of deep melancholy seemed to run through the music itself, epitomised in the astonishing concluding Piano Sextet from Penderecki, which the players delivered in a white-hot, fiercely focused account of bristling conviction. They tackled the steadily mounting tension of its densely argued opening movement expertly, and in the long, slow second movement – which sent horn player Alec Frank-Gemmill up into the Queen’s Hall’s balcony for some nicely judged spatial effects – its sad, shifting harmonies ached with poignancy.

The Sextet was nothing short of a revelation – as was, in its own way, the Second Piano Quintet by Grazyna Bacewicz that opened the concert, all wacky switchback shifts, relentless rhythms and devil-may-care experimentalism. And it got just the flamboyant, incisive performance it needed, with pianist Simon Smith in particular relishing the work’s percussive figurations and thudding clusters.

In between came, as McFall quipped, six programmed encores, brief Polish tangos from the 1920s and 30s for which the ensemble transformed into a convincing dance band, suave and nonchalant in its crisp, exquisitely shaped playing, but brimming with heart-on-its-sleeve sadness too. It was as thought-provoking, enlightening and expertly conceived as all the best concerts should be. - DAVID KETTLE, THE SCOTSMAN

Solitudes at the Oxford Lieder Festival

\Mr McFall’s Chamber (above – Cyril Garac, Robert McFall (violins), Brian Schiele (viola), Su-a Lee (cello), Rick Standley (double bass), Maria Martinova (piano)
Sallinen Introduction and Tango Overture Op.74a (1997)
Pärt Für Alina (1976)
Tüür Dedication (1990)
Mustonen Toccata (1989)
Pēteris Vasks A Little Summer Music (1985)
Toivo Kärki Täysikuu (1953)
Sibelius Einsames Lied (arranged for piano sextet)
Unto Mononen Satumaa (1955)
Holywell Music Room, Oxford
Wednesday 17 October 2018 – 5:30pm
Written by Ben Hogwood

This recital, given in the intimate surrounds of the Holywell Music Room, was centred on Solitudes, a recent release of Baltic chamber music from Mr McFall’s Chamber, a group founded by violinist Robert McFall and centred around friends from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
This is surely how chamber music should be – a group of friends playing music that has mutual appeal – and the chemistry between the group was that of easy familiarity and affection. That affection spread to the audience, thanks to an easygoing set of introductions from McFall to put the music in context.
Over an hour’s concert we had seven very different and well-chosen pieces, linking nicely with the Oxford Lieder Festival’s theme of the Grand Tour and providing context of the Estonian music ahead of the evening concert from Kai Rüütel and Roger Vignoles.
Neighbouring Finland also got in on the act, and the Introduction and Tango Overture from Aulis Sallinen proved a bold opening piece once its persuasive rhythms and bold melodies got going. We heard more of the tango in Finland towards the end, with brilliantly swung versions of Toivo Kärki’s Täysikuu and Unto Mononen’s Satumaa.
Contrasting nicely with this was a brief but very poignant excerpt from Sibelius’ Belshazzar’s Feast, Einsames Lied (Song of Solitude, giving the concert its name), and a substantial Toccata by Olli Mustonen, which took Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos as its inspiration but used powerfully driven rhythms and motifs to make a punchy piece with full bodied Romantic harmonies. As with the tangos, these were performed with great character and verve by the sextet.
To balance the concert rather nicely there were pieces for reduced instrumental forces. The brief meditation of Für Alina from Arvo Pärt, Estonia’s favourite composer, left a lasting mark through the sustain applied by pianist Maria Martoniva. So too did the powerful Dedication for cello and piano by fellow Estonian Erkki-Sven Tüür, whose output falls under the influence of his time in progressive rock band In Spe. This blended catchy melodic riffs into a powerful call and response between cello and piano, with expressive cellist Su-a Lee and Martoniva quick to get to the heart of the piece.
Meanwhile A Little Summer Music, from Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, offered a sunny counterpart, its six short movements bursting with life and melody. Written as something of a pastiche, this did nonetheless work beautifully as six brief picture postcards of a Baltic summer, the violin imitating insects in the final movement while exploring attractive Latvian dances in the second, third and fifth. Cyril Garac played these with great dexterity and energy, helped with the fulsome accompaniment of Martoniva.
This was a hugely enjoyable concert, opening the door to a number of musical discoveries. Yet Mr McFall’s Chamber had one more trick up their sleeve, an encore of the hymn from Sibelius’ Finlandia, with the piece de resistance a solo role for Su-a Lee on musical saw. It was strangely moving as well as humorous – and capped a terrific concert.\

María de Buenos Aires CD

Reviewed in Gramophone, The Guardian, Presto Classical, and Music Web International

Solitudes CD 2015

Editor's Choice in Classical Music Magazine, and reviewed in Gramophone by Andrew Mellor, in the Scotsman by Ken Walton, and in The Classical Reviewer.

Celtic Connections 2015

Four stars from The Herald for the Further Distillations programme at this year's Celtic Connections, with special guests

On the Shore of the Mind

A brilliant four star review from Bachtrack for our performance at St John's Church, Edinburgh


Four star review from The Scotsman for this ambitious creative commissioning project, devised by Creative Producer Amble Skuse.

Viva Tango!

Four star review from the Edinburgh Reporter for our Viva Tango performance at the Jam House, Edinburgh

La Pasionaria CD

We're proud to receive such a positive review from Graham Rickson at for our recording with Valentina Montoya Martinez, La Pasionaria.

Freak Out

Four star review from the Scotsman alongside great reviews from The Herald and The Edinburgh Reporter for this completely unusual programme of music including arrangements 1960's rock legends Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, plus an epic George Crumb showpiece for French horn and three percussion and two new commissions by Paul Harrison and Martin Kershaw.

La Pasionaria - in concert

Four star review from The Herald for our appearance at Glasgow's West End Festival as part of the Cottier Chamber Project.

Maria de Buenos Aires

Four star reviews from Scotsman,The Annals of the Edinburgh Stage and Bachtrack. Performed at The Queen's Hall in Edinburgh on 16 May 2013 to a packed house, the McFall's strings were joined by a host of special guests: Valentina Montoya Martinez (vocals), Victor Villena (music director and bandoneon), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), Juanjo Lopez Vidal (El Duende), Cyril Garac (violin), Alison Mitchell (flute), Malcolm MacFarlane (guitar), Phil Alexander (piano), Iain Sandilands (percussion).

Gavin Bryars CD

Given a 5-star review by Norman Lebrecht, this was McFalls' first release on Delphian Records and is a recording of a piece which we commissioned from Gavin Bryars in 2007, 'The Church Closest to the Sea', alongside two other recent works. 'Eight Irish Madrigals' is a setting of poems by Petrarch in a translation by John Synge. 'Epilogue from Wonderlawn' is the final episode from music which Bryars wrote for a dance piece in 1994.

McFalls with Michael Marra

A long-awaited collaboration with Scottish singer Michael Marra took the group from Edinburgh to the Scottish Highlands and beyond for a string of dates in 2010. The group recorded all the gigs and released a live CD on Delphian Records later the same year.

Birds and Beasts CD

Praised by Folk Radio UK as 'one of the most innovative albums of the year', Birds and Beasts has attracted a lot of attention since its release in May 2010 on Delphian Records. A long-planned collaboration with Mr McFall’s Chamber was never realised during Martyn’s short lifetime. Here, Robert McFall has put together a programme of his own sympathetic arrangements of Martyn’s music alongside original works by Fraser Fifield.

Facing North

In December 2010 the group braved the arctic temperatures in Scotland to put on a series of concerts that looked north towards Scandinavia and Russia. Along with pianist Graeme McNaught, this programme showcased music by Olli Mustonen, James Clapperton, Edvard Grieg and Dmitri Shostakovich.

Garland / Kershaw Commissions

Mr McFall’s Chamber were joined in this programme by renowned clarinettist Maximiliano Martín, and jazz musicians Paul Harrison (piano) and Stuart Brown (drums). The concerts featured two world premieres from two of the UK’s most successful jazz composers Tim Garland (Chick Corea band) and Martin Kershaw (Trianglehead, Martin Kershaw Quartet). And in true McFalls style, this eclectic programme is completed with works by Frank Zappa, Astor Piazzolla and Raymond Scott.


The group has developed a long-standing collaboration with Chilean singer Valentina Montoya Martinez, and in 2010 toured a programme of her own songs, along with works by Piazzolla, across Scotland. McFalls was joined on this occasion by two tango players of world renown - bandoneon player Victor Villena and violinst Cyril Garac, both of Quinteto el Después in Paris.

A site

Mr McFall’s Chamber is a registered charity: SC028348

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