Music review: SCO, Joseph Swensen & Jane Atkins

Joseph Swensen conducted the SCO in the new  viola concerto Nordic Fire
Joseph Swensen conducted the SCO in the new viola concerto Nordic Fire
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RIGHT from its gruff, muscular, violist-against-the-world opening, Edinburgh composer John McLeod’s brand new viola concerto Nordic Fire – given a fiercely committed, galvanising premiere by dedicatee Jane Atkins and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Joseph Swensen – grabbed the ear and the mind, and never let go.

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh ****

It was a remarkable performance of an equally remarkable work: though inspired by the Northern Lights, if you’d been expecting fragile, ethereal delicacy, you’d have been shocked. There was plenty of acid, iridescent colour – not least from timpanist Alasdair Kelly pummelling the frames rather than the skins of his drums, as well as slaps and taps delivered to strings and horns alike. But McLeod seemed to focus more on the fire of his title, in gutsy, volatile writing for Atkins, and restless, surging music in the orchestra that seemed ready to catch flame any moment. There was just enough repetition – from a fierce, three-note call to attention through to plangent fragments of the Dies irae plainchant – for the work’s grand arch structure to be immediately discernable, and it found an expert (and seldom achieved) balance between uncompromising angularity and wonderfully accessible immediacy. Atkins herself seemed electrified with energy after her fearsomely focused performance, and so too was the audience, judging by the rapturous reception the work received.

It’s testament to Atkins’ commitment, too, that she was in her more usual seat as the SCO’s principal viola for the concert’s two remaining works. Swensen began with a bright, propulsive account of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, though his workmanlike string orchestra arrangement of Beethoven’s Op. 131 Quartet rather dissipated the work’s uncanny focus and intensity.

DAVID KETTLE