United Kingdom McLeod, Nielsen, Sibelius: Maximiliano Martín (clarinet), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Joseph Swensen (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 24.01.2015 (SRT)
McLeod: Out of the Silence (world premiere)
Nielsen: Clarinet Concerto
Sibelius: Symphony No. 4
Directly and indirectly, this was a concert for the big Nordic anniversary boys, Nielsen and Sibelius. Indirectly, because John McLeod’s Out of the Silence was composed as a tribute to Nielsen. It works partly through reference to the Dane’s works (the Inextinguishable Symphony is a big presence) but primarily as an engagement with Nielsen’s famously irascible personality. I found it very convincing. McLeod’s musical language is harmonic and broadly tonal, but it’s very much his own: while he adopts and responds to some of Nielsen’s idioms, the music is never merely derivative. As befits the name, the work begins with a silence, out of which emerges s sustained high A on the strings, which develops into a strangely beautiful opening passage. The string lines are angular and cold, but never forbidding, and when the Inextinguishable reference emerges the colour becomes much warmer and broader. It’s a testament to McLeod’s skill that he retains such a broad palette of colours while retaining the work’s coherence, something that’s particularly striking during the zany swoops and broad climax of the final section, and I particularly liked his stunningly kaleidoscopic use of the percussion.
It was a nice piece of programming to go straight from this into Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto, which was a declared influence on McLeod, and the two works are fairly similarly structured: one movement with many sections and huge swings of mood between them. It was a credit to Joseph Swensen that he held the whole thing together so convincingly, making the concerto sound like a coherent whole rather than a sequence of episodes. As he often does, SCO principal clarinettist Maximiliano Martín took the solo part and managed a genuinely amazing range of tones and moods, never less than virtuosic in his style and technique. He conjured up a beautifully mellow tone for the opening, switching without breaking a sweat into something sparky and assertive for the subsequent section. After this the clarinet was, by turns, velvety, sensuousness, sparky and angry, all as the composer required. The cadenzas were particularly impressive, not only for Martín’s finger work, but also for the sheer range of sounds he was able to draw out of the reed. In a touching gesture, he dedicated his encore (Stravinsky’s First Piece) to the late Judy Mackerras, not only the wife of Sir Charles, but a great friend of the SCO and a clarinettist herself; clearly also someone dear to Martín.
Most compelling of all, however, was a black, hoary performance of Sibelius’ fourth symphony, and I speak as one who is not overly fond of the Finnish composer. Swensen gave a darkly compelling reading of this work, steeped in nocturnal despair right from the outset. The opening bars reeked with Stygian gloom, almost impenetrable in their darkness, not just from the lower strings but also, remarkably, from the brass and violins who brought barely any light. The cellos were key to Swensen’s vision of the symphony, and they throbbed with grief and passion throughout, creating a vortex which touched every other section. A bit more fresh air surrounded the rhythmically unstable scherzo, but this was soon subsumed into the fragmentary darkness of the slow movement and, if the finale tried to put a brave face on things, then it never managed to convince itself of its own genuineness. Swensen cut a very commanding presence on the podium, as if willing each section to do his bidding, and his occasional groans of effort only enhanced the impression of titanic music making. This is the finest Sibelius I’ve heard from the SCO.