The Auld Alliance: SCO’s music from Scotland and France at Usher Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berlioz, MacMillan, Maxwell Davies – SCO’s The Auld Alliance: Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Robert Jordan (bagpipes), SCO Chorus (chorus director: Gregory Batsleer), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Maxim Emelyanychev (conductor). Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 21.3.2024. (SRT)

Karen Cargill

BerliozRob Roy; La mort de Cléopâtre
MacMillanComposed in August (world premiere)
Maxwell Davies – An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise

It is easy to forget just how tight a grip Scotland asserted over the nineteenth century artistic imagination. Its untamed landscape and Romantic past exerted an enormous influence on painting, literature and, of course, music: Rossini, Donizetti, Mendelssohn and many others wrote music set in or inspired by Scotland, so when Berlioz wrote his Rob Roy overture he was following a well-established trend.

In truth, Berlioz’s overture is one of the least successful examples: it is a bit of a hotch-potch, relying a lot on one Scots tune in a structure that is politely described as loose. It sounded great as performed in this Scottish Chamber Orchestra performance, though. They played using period brass and timpani, and the natural horns sounded terrific in the opening fanfares. The slightly squashed sound you get from those instruments gives them a slightly far off quality, but they grew in excitement as the music progressed, creating a terrific kick of adrenaline as it carried on. Avoiding vibrato gave a pungent tang to the string sound, and a juicy cor anglais solo added a real touch of class. Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev shaped the whole thing like a developing drama, in truth giving the piece a classier sheen than it perhaps deserved.

That string sound also added special colour to La mort de Cléopâtre, giving an edge of drama to the opening recitative and dying away remarkably convincingly in the final pages. There was never any doubt that the star was Karen Cargill, though, who sang the Queen of Egypt like a wounded heroine who decides of her own accord that death is her only way out. Cargill has a voice of such velvety richness that she would sound marvellous if she was singing the phone book. When she has a text of such dramatic richness as this she is completely compelling, singing with chocolaty warmth while inhabiting the power of the language and singing with terrific intensity of focus, a noticeable shadow falling over the voice when she invokes the spirits of her dead ancestors.

Maxim Emelyanychev conducts the SCO at the Usher Hall © Christopher Bowen

Two real life Scots made up the second half of the programme, one born (James MacMillan) and one adopted (Peter Maxwell Davies). Emelyanychev and the orchestra gave almost a semi-staged performance of Max’s Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, as a glass of whisky was brought in for the conductor and leader halfway through, and the orchestra yelped and whooped as they played the music for the wedding dance. Robert Jordan made the most of his big entrance on the bagpipes, and the whole piece had such an air of improvised jollity that the performers gave the impression they were making it up on the spot. I suspect Max would have approved.

And the other Scot? This concert saw the first performance of MacMillan’s Composed in August, a setting for chorus and orchestra of Robert Burns’s Now westlin’ winds. A deeper sense of lyricism seems to have settled over much of MacMillan’s recent music (that I have heard, at any rate), and that was true of this piece, too. His choral writing for the poem was consistently warm and lovely, grounded it in the humane warmth of folk music, but gathering in rising waves of excitement and intensity before ebbing gently into a lovely rock-a-bye ending. The SCO Chorus did a marvellous job of caressing it into life: some of the vocal harmonisation was knee-weakeningly lovely, and seemed to play games with the orchestral line that sometimes supported the choir and sometimes played its own games. There was a ceaseless vitality to the instrumental texture all the way through, sometimes coming close to Messianesque birdsong in the winds, but always with the pulse of life bubbling close to the surface, particularly with two trilling oboes singing to one another from different ends of the stage. I am sure he didn’t write it for Easter but, at this time of year as one season gives way to another and Christians around the world celebrate life triumphing over death, it felt beautifully appropriate.

The Glasgow performance of this programme will be available on BBC Sounds until 21st April

Simon Thompson

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