Scottish CO Entertain with a Programme of Beethoven, MacMillan and Harrold


Harrold, MacMillan, Beethoven: Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Joseph Swensen (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 23.11.2017. (SRT)

HarroldInto the Light
MacMillanMeditation on Iona
BeethovenSymphonies Nos. 1 & 2

Joseph Swensen was Principal Conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra when I first started going to hear them as an Edinburgh student in the 1990s. He’s now their Conductor Emeritus, which means he’s a guaranteed regular guest, and both the performers and the audiences always enjoy the bonhomie and vigour that surrounds their concerts.  One of the things I remember most about Swensen’s time in the ‘90s was a Beethoven symphony cycle, and so it brings back memories hearing him do Beethoven with the SCO today. It’s a lovely experience in its own right too, though, because of the energy and snap that Swensen brings to the performances. His Beethoven is a high energy experience; sometimes a little too much so, such as in the lovely Larghetto of No.2 that had a bit of a hard edge to it. That very quality really helped the Scherzo to take off, though, and the Second’s finale was as clipped and precise as it was fast and exciting. The opening movement moved forwards with electric energy, and No.1 was every bit as successful, Swensen pointing up the regular contrasts of dynamics, and articulating the scales of the finale with pinprick precision.

Back in the day, James MacMillan’s Meditation on Iona was one of the first pieces Swensen ever conducted with the SCO. With MacMillan’s deeply held Catholic faith and his special sense of Scottishness, I can see why a piece about Iona, the island from which St Columba brought Christianity to Scotland, would be an appealing subject for him to compose. Scored for strings and an array of metallic percussion, MacMillan’s sound world is beautiful in places, be it in the gently evolving chords or in the poignant solos for violin and viola. However, the primary sense I got from the composition was of Iona as a stark, hostile place that mustn’t have been particularly welcoming for the Saint. Shuddering string tremolos, and very inventive use of a thunder-sheet, created a forbidding sound picture which was, nevertheless, capable of evolving subtly. The clanging of the steel drums seemed to represent something fearful and dark, not dissimilar to the sound of a Chinese dragon dance, but the repetitive tolling of bells spoke of a more meditative spirituality.

That sense of forbidding darkness also came through in Tom Harrold’s Into the Light. Harrold is a new composer to me, but his piece made a strong impression on me, and I’m already looking forward to hearing it again. Into the Light played with contrasting textures as well as seemingly conflicted sound pictures, and I appreciated the clarity of the arch structure he uses to take the listener from the spare, etiolated textures of the opening, through an anguished middle, back to an uneasy return of the opening’s sounds. His solo cello had a powerful effect, as did the pairs of brass that called to one another in the opening. Then the strong, angular central section seemed to lay bare something dark in the soul, complete with wailing winds and Bartók pizzicati to underline the stress and point up the drama. The agonised climax brought a return to the opening that brought no reassurance but some hope of resolution in the final, unsettled major passage. Speaking from the podium, Swensen compared Harrold following MacMillan to Beethoven following on from Haydn. That’s a big comparison, and obviously it’s far too early to see if it’s apt. However, Harrold’s piece was striking and memorable, and he’s definitely a voice that I’d like to hear again.

Simon Thompson

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  1. With his move to Edinburgh let’s hope we see even more of Swensen in future. On this occasion his ability to draw our attention to Beethoven’s sudden, unexpected harmonic and tonal twists in the second symphony lifted the musical experience to a rare level indeed.

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