Classical reviews: SCO | RSNO | BBC SSO: Hear and Now

Robert Cohen is the dedicatee of Beamish's Cello Concerto No 2 The Song Gatherer
Robert Cohen is the dedicatee of Beamish's Cello Concerto No 2 The Song Gatherer
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Placing the world premiere of Icelandic composer Haflidi Hallgrimsson’s Five Songs for Soprano and Orchestra – presumably without anyone knowing what they would sound like – between Elgar and Vaughan Williams was either uncannily astute programming or serendipity.

Scottish Chamber Orchestra | Rating: **** | Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Even if a combination of the two, it resulted in experiencing both of the classically English pieces in a way that was informed by the new score.

Similarly, the new piece was heard in a context that reflected its influences of British music of the last century, while very much a song cycle of its own time.

Selecting two poems each by William Blake and Christina Rosetti and opening with text from Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner, Hallgrimsson’s songs set sail on a voyage rich in imagination and colour.

Opening with the words sung by soprano Helena Juntunen in a sort of sprechstimme, the easily heard text and orchestral colouring worked well together. Dark, deep contra-bassoon was expertly teamed with high piccolo, with Juntunen’s own variously hued palette effectively characterising the different moods and emotions of the poetry.

Nevertheless, she couldn’t always be picked up through the orchestra, which at times was simply overpowering for her voice.

Under the super-clear, unfussy direction of conductor John Storgårds, the strings of the SCO flexed Elgar’s sonorous muscles to the full in the passion of his Introduction and Allegro.

Likewise, Storgård’s beautifully controlled interpretation of Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No 5 was a faithfully considered response to a significant piece of 20th century English repertoire. CAROL MAIN

BBC SSO: Hear and Now | Rating: **** | City Halls, Glasgow

As contemporary orchestral programmes go, this one by the BBC SSO was something of an easy listen. That’s not a criticism; more an observation that, in works by Sally Beamish, James MacMillan, Anthony Payne and the recently deceased John McCabe, arresting tunefulness, wit and charm – to varying degrees – were the surface messengers of deeper, more complex and abstract thoughts.

McCabe’s Joybox is both fun and affection: affection for the chattering energy of Steve Martland’s music – whose premature death in 2013 it pays tribute to; and fun in the way McCabe takes a busy, moto perpetuo idea, expressing it through his trademark play on syncopated motifs and piquant harmonies.

The SSO, under the secure baton of Martyn Brabbins, gave it hi-energy licks, in contrast to the ensuing sinewy, lyrical portrait that is Beamish’s Cello Concerto No 2 The Song Gatherer.

Played here by its dedicatee, Robert Cohen – Beamish reflects on the migration from Poland of Cohen’s grandfather, which mistakenly took him to South Africa rather than the USA – there was clearly a personal empathy in his solo performance, Cohen finding sublime nuances in writing that draws on folk song borrowings, echoed in Brabbin’s supple reading of the haunting orchestral score.

A small SSO ensemble was joined by the clean-cut Glasgow Chamber Choir in the mystical stasis of MacMillan’s motet Hodie Puer Nascitur. Payne’s extensive Time’s Arrow closed the programme, a shudderingly dense piece of musical cosmology which, for all its inspired craftsmanship, simply goes on a little too long. KEN WALTON

Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Carlos Miguel Prieto | Rating: **** | Usher Hall

Kicking off with the evening’s most ebullient, flamboyant music gave the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s concert under visiting conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto a bit of a topsy-turvy feel.

And there was certainly nothing understated about Rodion Shchedrin’s madcap First Concerto for Orchestra, nicknamed Naughty Limericks, with its cool jazz-meets-clattering castanets (and seemingly everything in between) excess, given an energetic if slightly po-faced account under Prieto’s athletic, precise direction.

After that, the rest of the evening struggled to live up to its devil-may-care vitality.

Even the two upbeat final movements of Prieto’s concluding Shostakovich Sixth Symphony found it hard to emerge from the weight and angst of its lengthy opening, which was intense and expertly paced, although also a bit matter-of-fact in Prieto’s hands.

The evening’s most serious utterance, however, came from pianist Boris Giltburg, who gave it his all as soloist in Rachmaninov’s monumental Third Piano Concerto, from a limpid, beautifully shaped opening melody to a tumultuous, fiery conclusion that threatened to snap a few strings.

It’s a pianistic showpiece, and Giltburg’s astonishing technique was more than a match for the Concerto’s fearsome demands, but he also seemed to revel in its showiness rather than always revealing the music beyond it.

Some admittedly fiendish piano accompaniments to solos in the orchestra came across more as forcefully projected solos in their own right, and sometimes Giltburg’s remarkable pianistic accomplishments felt hard-won rather than effortless.

Still, it was a remarkable, powerhouse performance all the same – and an abrupt change of mood after the concert’s outlandish opener.

DAVID KETTLE