Music review: National Youth Choir & BBC SSO

The BBC SSO and National Youth Choir of Scotland were thrilling. Picture: Donald MacLeod
The BBC SSO and National Youth Choir of Scotland were thrilling. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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JOHN McLeod, now a sprightly 80, is still in full creative flow. His output in recent months has included a Fantasy on Themes from Britten’s Gloriana for solo guitar, and his fifth piano sonata with which Murray McLachlan is currently touring the world; his next major work, Out of the Silence, will be performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in January.

Prom 23: National Youth Choir of Scotland & BBC SSO

Royal Albert Hall, London

*****

And as his 2001 work The Sun Dances reminded us at its London premiere last week, he is first and foremost a tone-poet.

Southerner though I am, I too have seen the sun rise on the Isle of Mull, and could immediately click into what the music was evoking. McLeod’s starting point was folk history, and in particular Barbara Macphie’s climb there on Easter Sunday to watch the changing colours of nature; the climax of the work comes with a shadowy reference to the Scottish psalm-tune known as Martyrs. As played by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Donald Runnicles, that tune could be glimpsed through a shimmering chromatic haze; the translucent textures of this graceful and economical work were beautifully rendered throughout.

Next came a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No 4 in B flat major Opus 60 – the least-known of all Beethoven’s symphonies thanks to its placing between the better-known Third and Fifth, and to the fact that its echoes of Haydn suggest a more 18th century sound-world. Runnicles and his orchestra delivered the first movement with bounding energy and managed to give the Adagio an airborne grace; their playing was exemplary.

But the evening’s finale was one of the most thrilling performances of Mozart’s Requiem I have ever heard. Down in London we don’t get many chances to hear the National Youth Choir of Scotland, and the choirs we do hear simply aren’t a patch on them. They had the advantage of a first-class soloist line-up: bass Neal Davies, tenor Jeremy Ovenden, and in soprano Carolyn Sampson and mezzo Christine Rice, two female voices whose light-and-dark contrast was held in perfect balance, with Sampson’s sound possessing an angelic purity.

But the biggest thrill was the chorus. Runnicles conducted much of the work at a cracking pace, and the choral attack was electrifying; fury in the Dies irae, a massive shout for Rex tremendae majestatis, and conjuring up baleful force in the Lachrimosa; we went home with their glorious sound ringing in our ears.

MICHAEL CHURCH

Seen on 03.08.14