An Eclectic Programme from Scottish CO – Rautavaara, Vasks, Respighi, and Copland

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rautavaara, Vasks, Respighi, Copland: Maxim Rysanov (viola), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Olari Elts (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 02.11.2017. (SRT)

Rautavaara – Cantus Arcticus
Vasks – Viola Concerto (Scottish premiere)
RespighiThe Birds
Copland – Appalachian Spring

The SCO, for understandable reasons, promoted this concert primarily through Appalachian Spring, but it’s the two more recent pieces that stuck with me the most. That’s not to do down Copland’s ballet score, which got the biggest orchestral sound of the night. That suited it down to the ground, giving it a sense of constrained swagger, with frontier confidence bristling through in the faster sections and an airy sense of space around the music. Simple Gifts, when it appeared, stole in slowly and then took over the show, before a beautifully peaceful ending.

Rautavaara offered a much more raw picture of nature in his Cantus Arcitcus, however, blending his orchestra with the recorded sound of Arctic birds. It’s a new piece to me, but I found it thoughtful, coherent and in many places rather lovely. The opening, with pairs of flutes blending into each other to give an illusion of seamlessness, dissolved into the chilly sound of northern marsh birds, and the second and third movements feature, respectively, the lark and whooper swans, both electronically altered to make them lower, darker and deeper. The orchestra accompanied this with some extremely seductive harmonies and some brilliant orchestration, including the glimmer of the celesta, underpinned by a mahogany brown sound from the cellos and basses. It all gelled together superbly, and I loved the way the sounds of the orchestra and the birdsong tended to complement one another, the divided strings buoying up the larks, and the clarinets seeming to echo the migrating swans. It’s eerie and strange in places, but throughout it’s tonal, warm and other-worldly, particularly in the orchestra’s slow hymn of the last movement, with the recording swelling and ebbing in time with the score. Rautavaara makes a better stab at actual birdsong than any composer since Messiaen. After that, Respighi’s birds sounded like even more of a pantomime than usual, the prelude heavy and the chicken slightly aggressive, though I loved the wind solos for the dove and the nightingale.

I hadn’t come across the music of Pēteris Vasks before this evening, but I found his Viola Concerto really entrancing. He wrote it for Maxim Rysanov, who brings the stamp of authority to it, and he inhabited the works’ fiendish fast passages with as much brio as the slower outer sections. However, it was Vasks’ use of the orchestral texture that struck me most, a string ensemble used with a warm tonal palette that, in places, made me think of Vaughan Williams. That mostly came from the folk-inflected second section, with its rustic drone over which the viola does his acrobatics, but the slow outer movements cast a spell of exquisite beauty over the hall, with warm harmonies and a mysterious, almost narrative sense of expectation, out of which the soloist’s line grew organically. At times the work reminded me of a melancholy film score unfolding over an autumnal landscape, but that speaks of its approachability and its melodic nature, and I found it a sound to wallow in and relish. Vasks gives Rysanov two cadenzas in the piece, and while they’re both showy he plays the first one, in particular, in a predominantly thoughtful, reflective manner. How like a viola player!

Simon Thompson

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