Music review: The SCO & Andrew Manze

One true test of a living composer is how much he can avoid living on past glories. In his late 50s, James MacMillan's productivity has increased to the point of near mass production. There's evidence all around us this month, where assorted concerts by the SCO, BBC SSO and RCS students include World and Scottish Premieres of his latest music.

Conductor Andrew Manze
Conductor Andrew Manze

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra & Andrew Manze *****

City Halls, Glasgow

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Friday’s SCO programme, under Andrew Manze, opened this coincidental Mac-Fest with a powerfully moving re-composition of his 2007 Horn Quintet, entitled Concertino for Horn and Strings. The original music remains core, but with the horn soloist (the brilliantly flawless Alec Frank-Gemmill) now recast as front stage protagonist, supported by beefed-up strings, and dramatically opening and closing the performance offstage.

But the most poignant alteration is MacMillan’s addition of three brief introductory movements, driven by the memory of his infant granddaughter, whose death last year deeply touched the family, and whose name is etched literally in the fabric of the new music (a musical cryptogram E flat, A, D, A, which translates as “Sara”), and emotionally within the sequence of variously sad and happy memories, underpinned by a heart-tugging “keening” motif, evoked side-stage by a sighing quartet of violas and derived from the original score.

Manze drew gutsy, visceral playing from the SCO strings, just as he did in Britten’s iridescent Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, and then with the full SCO in a vital, sharply performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No 2.