Facing North

Music from Scotland, Finland, Norway and Russia

Susan Nickalls, The Scotsman, December 2010

Star rating: * * * *

Maverick ensemble Mr McFall's Chamber have the knack of taking audiences on insightful musical journeys and Facing North, which travelled to Norway and Finland, via Scotland and Russia, was no exception.

Grieg's Unfinished Piano Quintet in B flat major was a revelation, with its luscious surging melodies. The up-in-the-air ending, after Grieg put down his pen and decided he had better things to do, was tantalising.

One of the melodies is embedded in the glacial cool of James Clapperton's …den som ingen ser ("…that which no-one sees"). His artful juxtaposition of Norwegian folk tunes and the homely fifths of the hardanger fiddle with icy harmonics and unsettling seconds was like light refracting through a prism of broken mirrors.

The chill factor in Shostakovitch's Piano Quintet in G minor is generated more by fear than temperature, and Mr McFall's beautifully captured the unsettling disquiet and the sinister-edged humour. At the other extreme, Ollie Mustonen's zany Toccata for piano quintet and double bass was perfectly suited to the ensemble's sparky energy. Finally, Grieg's Four Pieces for Strings were an early Christmas treat, imbued these gorgeous with warm festive cheer.

Kate Molleson, The Herald, December 2010

Star rating: * * * *

The idea of north has long inspired the bold and the whimsical – “The Way North,” wrote the English poet Herbert Read, “is the Way into the Unknown”.

In music, northern landscapes often translate into sparse or epic scores; think of the romanticised north of Mendelssohn or Sibelius or Grieg.

But composer James Clapperton, who was born in Aberdeen and spent several years as part of Norway’s avant-garde community, does something altogether more subtle. His new work for piano quintet, den som inger ser, manages its starkness without ever becoming morbid, and folk-rooted harmonies are quietly, slowly beautiful.

The close drones of Norwegian Hardanger fiddle music are translucently layered to form the main fabric of the piece, while faintly-stated piano chorales drift by and simple rhythms shift under the surface. Snippets of Grieg fragment and die away; the effect is quite haunting.

McFall’s (and the Scottish Arts Council) commissioned Clapperton’s new piece as part of a programme of northern-inspired music that also included Grieg’s Unfinished Piano Quintet, four arrangements of Grieg songs, Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet and the surprising high-octane Toccata by Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen. The core members of the group are musicians from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra; their playing is for the most part first-rate. Pianist Graeme McNaught added a solid and energetic touch, especially in the Shostakovich.

But making music – any music – approachable is what McFall’s do best. Their concerts are brilliantly convivial, with easy on-stage introductions and extra-long intervals to allow audience and musicians time to chatter to each other. Look forward to their Petrarch and Edward Thomas programme in March.

Peter Cudmore, www.musicalcriticism.com, December 2010

Star rating: * * * *

If they have some way to go to match the 37 years' longevity of the fabled Kronos Quartet, Mr McFall's Chamber has been going for a good long time now. Over some fifteen years, the ensemble has fashioned a distinctive niche in Scotland's musical life, one that bears certain valuable similarities with the iconic Californians. They have built a rapport with their audience that transcends the repertoire chosen for any specific occasion—no mean feat for a group specializing in contemporary music. Further, they have developed a particular rapport with the working composers whose scores they perform, quietly building relationships in the way that Scottish Opera has recently been emulating with its 5:15 project.

Where Kronos have their ineffable cool, McFall's have an ineffable élan that is quite their own: a light touch blends with consummate musicianship and deep passion to engage and enchant their audience. Friday's performance was no exception. One could be forgiven for feeling that we've had quite enough facing north, thank you, with the severe weather outside, but the works selected between them reminded us of the human side of Baltic life, with its warmth and community spirit.

The first half focused on Grieg, with two of his own works and a recent quintet by James Clapperton which develops thematic material derived from fragments found in Grieg's notebooks—including the opening quintet fragment. I'm not sure that many ensembles would have brought this item off in quite the way McFall's did. It is a charming and absorbing piece, but it stops utterly abruptly, and the temptation to make some adjustment, or even simply to foreshadow the end by slowing up must be great, but here the music just cruised along until it vanished.

Having previewed ''…den som ingen ser'', it was pleasant, nevertheless, to be surprised on two counts by Clapperton's work, originally commissioned to mark the centenary of Grieg's death in 2007. The title ('…that which no one sees') refers to a folk melody whose text invokes deep, silent grief. Yet the score is far from bleak; in its opening phase, a strong, child-like skipping motif gives the music a considerable drive as the subtle and sensuous working out of ideas proceeds. The harmonic language is simple but unconventional, and thus distant from Grieg's; nevertheless, the quintet fragment impressed its presence on the large scale, with its sudden ending skilfully emulated in Clapperton's diaphanous conclusion. For all the talk of simplicity, though, the score is rich and challenging—a challenge met with superb sensitivity by the ensemble.

It is difficult to believe the stories told about Shostakovich's piano quintet—that it was discussed in the trams, and sung on the streets. Perhaps the tales are exaggerated, but Shostakovich's capacity to connect with a broad audience is real enough. It hadn't struck me before, but that certain familiarity in his thematic material—a familiarity that tends to recur even when he isn't using his signature DSCH motif—has an orality about it, making a context for communication not only with his audience, but with himself. When a scrap of melody from the fifth symphony appears in the first movement here, then, one is alert to potential significance, but what the allusions to the 24 Preludes and Fugues might mean… who knows? It's a work of broad range, from solemn intensity to sparkling bravado, which affords all the scope the ensemble needs to fill out the score with their appealing persona.

Rounding things off, Olli Mustonen's Toccata reminded me of Clint Mansell's Death is The Road to Awe, heard at the Kronos Quartet's Festival outing this summer. In a similar kind of way it was existentially satisfying without being at all challenging — a bit too easy on the ear for my taste.

'Making music – any music – approachable is what McFall’s do best. Their concerts are brilliantly convivial.'
Kate Molleson, The Herald

'Maverick ensemble Mr McFall's Chamber have the knack of taking audiences on insightful musical journeys.'
Susan Nickalls, The Scotsman

A fiennes.org site

Mr McFall’s Chamber is a registered charity: SC028348

Design by fogbank.co.uk