Music review: SCO, Joseph Swensen, Kolja Blacher & Roman Rabinovich, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Joseph Swensen and the SCO made a compelling case for some demanding music at the Queen’s Hall, writes David Kettle

Joseph Swensen
Joseph Swensen

SCO, Joseph Swensen, Kolja Blacher & Roman Rabinovich, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh *****

With its unremitting dissonance and its arcane musical codes and ciphers, Berg’s Chamber Concerto is still a thorny, challenging listen almost a century after it was written – hence, no doubt, the slightly depleted audience for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s performance of it at the Queen’s Hall. But anyone who’d given it a wide berth had also missed a magnificent evening: it was demanding, often unsettling, but it teemed with life and kaleidoscopic colour in conductor Joseph Swensen’s arresting vision of the piece.

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In his heartfelt opening remarks – and in this paper last Saturday – Swensen described the Concerto as charting a descent into madness amid the trauma of the 20th century’s first decades. What really struck, ironically, were his account’s wit, its buoyancy and its clarity, as though Swensen had harnessed all the intensity of expression that this music demands for far brighter ends. His two soloists clearly shared his conviction: Roman Rabinovich delivered quite a percussive, sometimes clangorous piano part, but it was just what was needed to cut through Berg’s dense writing for his wind and brass orchestra, while violinist Kolja Blacher found captivating lyricism amid Berg’s angular writing in a bewitchingly agile, athletic performance.

The real stars, in many ways, were the SCO wind and brass players who made up Berg’s unconventional backing band: supple, vivid and thoroughly committed, they magically melded in radiant harmonies, only to split apart again into sharply differentiated personalities.

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Swensen began his concert a couple of decades earlier, with a bracingly brisk Mahler Blumine and a wonderfully restless What the Wild Flowers Tell Me in Britten’s chamber orchestra arrangement, whose fidgety collisions of material showed where Berg’s more unhinged creation came from. It was an energising evening, one whose deep sincerity and belief made a compelling case for some demanding music.

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