It's been an age since I last got to hear the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in concert, nearly three months in fact. Not such a long time, you might think, but, when you consider they perform just a couple of minutes walk away, it's too long. In the first full week of January it was Paul Lewis in a fairly traditional programme. Saturday's concert was a little more adventurous.
In truth, the orchestra have played a few times in between, but Thursdays aren't a terribly good evening for me anymore, and one or two of my season tickets have fallen by the wayside, as they're wont to. Saturday's programme was part of the Adventurer strand of the season, meaning new music (and hence a Queen's Hall that was probably less than half full for what, frankly, wasn't a very challenging programme). Come on Edinburgh, if Aldeburgh can fill the Maltings for new music, surely we can fill the Queen's Hall (there are one or two more people living here, after all).
The orchestra were joined for the evening by their conductor emeritus Joseph Swensen, whose own work would close the concert. He began, though, with Respighi and Gli Uccelli (The Birds). And immediately I remembered what I'd been missing. The orchestra played superbly, and with a wonderfully rich sound, one larger than the modest (even by chamber orchestra standards) forces would suggest. It's true that I'm not the greatest fan of the composer, and certainly the depictions of such wildlife as the Dove and the Cuckoo aren't terribly vivid; they are not in the same league as Messiaen's avian works. Nonetheless, it is a perfectly pleasant piece, particularly when played so finely.
Better was to follow with some Sibelius. Now, I've had a little experience of Swensen and the SCO tackling the composer from their 2003 CD including a number of orchestral works including Pelleas and Melisande (listening to it again as I write this, I find it even more recommendable). Again, the playing was gloriously rich and Swensen's reading was full of drama and not lacking in sweep. Indeed, it's a mark of the uniformly high quality of the playing that I find myself struggling to single anyone out, well, except perhaps Rosie Staniforth's delightful cor anglais part.
After the interval came the new work The Fire and the Rose, a symphony for horn and orchestra, for which soloist Radovan Vlatkovic was on duty. I wish I'd snapped a picture as the array of percussion on display (from xylophones to tubular bells) was more than I can recall having seen in the hall before; indeed, the orchestration as a whole was interesting with its use of contrabassoon and bass and contrabass clarinet (which looked decidedly awkward for Alan Andrews to play, though he did it very well indeed). Swensen's placement of his forces was interesting too: the two non-solo horns on raised platforms at the rear corners, the trumpet on one in the middle. Comprised of five movements, but to some degree flowing into one another, and culminating in an aria that predates the rest in composition, and was originally scored for voice (using an Eliot poem from which the work derives its title). The two turbulent and furious scherzos, perhaps a little too loud and furious for the hall, at times, buttressed a beautiful central movement where leader Christopher George somewhat upstaged Vlatkovic with his fine solo. Similarly, percussionists Kate Openshaw and Tom Hunter moved between their many instruments with seeming effortlessness. Vlatkovic himself was fine, if not breathtaking. His part reminded me somewhat of the solo horn in Messiaen's Des Canyons aux Etoiles.... The closing aria itself seemed oddly subdued at first. Indeed, the opening stages of the work didn't quite seem to flow. And yet, come the subtle, fade away, ending, it seemed just right. As always, the highest praise for a new work is that I wanted to listen to it all over again, right away, for all the things I'm sure I missed.
It's been too long SCO, fortunately I'll be hearing them again this Thursday for a programme including Bizet, Stravinsky and Britten.