Music review: SCO & Karen Cargill, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

In a spellbinding account of Berlioz’s La mort de Cléopâtre, Karen Cargill brilliantly channelled the fury of the wronged Egyptian Queen, writes David Kettle

SCO & Karen Cargill, Usher Hall, Edinburgh *****

Less, as the cliché goes, is more. That was certainly the case among the somewhat disparate threads that wound together in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Franco-Scottish “Auld Alliance” concert under principal conductor Maxim Emelyanychev. Or at least in its two headline pieces: both smouldered with restrained emotion, and were all the more powerful for that.

Sir James MacMillan’s brand new Composed in August – getting its world-premiere performance – was a sumptuous, deeply lyrical setting of Burns’s “Now Westlin Winds” for chorus and orchestra that spun together the poet’s themes of autumnal richness and burgeoning love in some exquisitely conceived sounds and textures. The piece seemed to flow organically from one pregnant idea to another, from Messiaen-like birdsong to a duet between on-stage oboe and off-stage cor anglais playing the poem’s two lovers. Best of all, MacMillan dared to let his new work speak softly but eloquently, finding a luminous (even numinous) quality in a simple, two-chord progression, for example, or profundity in a gentle hummed conclusion. It was delivered with utter conviction by the SCO and Chorus in a beautifully judged account, with laser-like precision and depth from the singers, and Emelyanychev drawing telling detail from the SCO instrumentalists.

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Matching MacMillan’s new work for emotional richness, however, was mezzo Karen Cargill’s spellbinding account of Berlioz’s La mort de Cléopâtre, a rather overlooked oddity (it failed to win him the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1829), but a gripping and richly imagined creation nonetheless in Cargill and Emelyanychev’s hands. She was every inch the wronged Egyptian Queen, channelling frustrated fury and shattered honour, but with a deeply human sense of a woman wronged in love too, and Emelyanychev was alive to her every vocal nuance in his fluid direction.

More outspoken than those two images of restraint, however, were Emelyanychev’s bounding, dashing Berlioz Rob Roy Overture that opened the concert with bristling energy, and a wonderfully cinematic Maxwell Davies Orkney Wedding with Sunrise that closed the evening in shimmering radiance. A concert of riches.