Music review: BBC SSO Elisabeth Lutyens, City Halls, Glasgow

The BBC SSO is under visiting conductor Jac van Steen. Picture: Contributed

The BBC SSO is under visiting conductor Jac van Steen. Picture: Contributed

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DISCOVERING music hit the nail firmly on the head.

BBC SSO: Discovering Music - Elisabeth Lutyens

City Halls, Glasgow

Rating: ****

There can be few in the BBC SSO’s audience more than passingly familiar with the thorny music of 20th-century modernist composer Elisabeth Lutyens, except perhaps by reputation. So it was a brave – and rewarding – decision to devote an entire concert in the Orchestra’s Discovering Music series to exploring it.

Those musical discoveries came from two sources. First, from presenter Stephen Johnson’s informed, enthusiastic commentary, putting this uncompromising music in the context of its times and of the remarkable, single-minded woman who created it. She flaunted her notorious green nail polish in celebration of her success as queen of Hammer Horror soundtracks, we learnt, and channelled her childhood loneliness into her doggedly individualistic compositions. Johnson kept things brisk and engaging, but – gratifyingly – never shied away from the more challenging complexities of modernist musical thought.

The second source, though, was the music itself, in very fine performances from the BBC SSO under visiting conductor Jac van Steen – who was as enthusiastic as Johnson, determined in his gestures, and commanded bright, vivid, powerful playing from the musicians. Lutyens’s Rondel sounded as though it was chiselled from granite, slow-moving and angular, and van Steen brought a fine sense of line to her fragmented gestures. He melded together the wind solos, prominent piano and ringing percussion of her Music for Orchestra IV into something resembling a deranged jazz band, and he was touchingly restrained in the fragile coda to her rugged Music for Orchestra II. A concert of true discoveries, all round.

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