Classical review: Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Rory Macdonald, Edinburgh

IT WAS a brave move from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to mark 2014’s centenary remembrance commemorations with a brand new piece of music – and a big, bold, demanding one at that. Sally Beamish’s Equal Voices set unsettling poems on shell-shock by Andrew Motion, alongside lines on love from the Biblical Song of Solomon, for huge orchestra, choir and two solo singers.
Orchestra and chorus were committed under Rory Macdonalds batonOrchestra and chorus were committed under Rory Macdonalds baton
Orchestra and chorus were committed under Rory Macdonalds baton

Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Rory Macdonald - Usher Hall, Edinburgh

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It was enormously ambitious – in fact, almost too much to take in, with its fast-moving flow of vivid images contrasting conflict and connection that sometimes passed by before they could be appreciated – although that also meant the piece sounded far shorter than its 45-minute length. It was only in the hopeful final section, paralleling a soldier returning from the front with the advent of spring, that the pace slowed enough for Beamish’s rich lyricism to come fully to the fore.

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Baritone Marcus Farnsworth delivered the soldier’s tales crisply and convincingly, soprano Shuna Scott Sendall was beguiling in the love poetry, and the RSNO Chorus were impeccably drilled. The orchestra crackled with commitment in assured playing under Rory Macdonald’s urgent direction.

It was a brave move, and it proved the evening’s highlight. Before the interval, the story behind the sombre Cortège, written in the trenches by Scottish composer Cecil Coles, who was killed near the Somme in 1918, proved more arresting than its musical content, and Macdonald led a strangely undramatic account of Elgar’s Enigma Variations – although his ‘Nimrod’ was gratifyingly touching rather than tragic, the portrait of a beloved friend rather than a generic wail of anguish.

Seen on 07.11.14