BBC SSO / Dvorak / MacMillan
City Halls, Glasgow
Sometimes the periphery of a programme outshines its intended core. There’s an element of that in this Radio 3 broadcast by the BBC SSO under Martyn Brabbins. For at its heart is a performance of Dvorak’s gloriously lyrical and substantial Cello Concerto featuring the highly popular Sheku Kanneh-Mason as soloist, the impact of which is lessened by moments of inconsistent tuning, particularly those high solo reaches towards the end of the opening movement.
That’s a pity, because otherwise there is much in Kanneh-Mason’s performance that shows sure signs of a maturing musical voice. Take the slow movement, where the young cellist colours Dvorak’s plangent lyricism with breathy sighs and yielding subtleties, dispelling the untypical shoddiness of the orchestral opening and finding a warmth and intensity that lingers into the finale.
It’s an unusual version of the concerto, George Morton’s slimmed-down 2018 arrangement distilling Dvorak’s opulent scoring to chamber orchestra size, much of it to great effect. There’s less tension in the mightiest tuttis, the cello sings through without need to force, all of which contributes to a more easeful appreciation of the music. Brabbins grasps that opportunity, minor skirmishes aside, but the key concern remains those frantic periodic intonation lapses by Kanneh-Mason.
Wrapped around this mighty concerto is a sublime opener from the pen of American composer Augusta Read Thomas, currently professor of composition at the University of Chicago, and an early seminal work from James MacMillan, Tryst, written for the1989 St Magnus Festival and premiered there by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
Thomas’ Plea for Peace – a short ruminating work commissioned four years ago to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Chicago Pile-1, the world’s first controlled nuclear reactor – is both questioning and reassuring. In this alternative version, which replaces the original vocalised soprano solo with a sinuous interchanging of solo flute, oboe and trumpet against a sumptuous backdrop of stings, an austere Coplandesque simplicity prevails, magically so in this haunting, atmospheric performance.
It’s easy to forget the starting point for MacMillan, given the 30 or so years that have passed since such launchpad works as Tryst or The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, and the sheer prolificacy of his output ever since. Here, in Tryst, is a vivid reminder of the rawer 30-year-old, tangible conflicting influences exploding in abundance, yet the distinctiveness that was to become MacMillan’s maturer style piercing through the underlying turmoil.
So yes, there is jagged-edged Messiaen, factory-like Stravinsky (or are those incessant repetitive rhythms more Kenneth Leighton, MacMillan’s university teacher?), and becalming Brittenesque acquiescence; but there is also a driving, defining intent that knits such discordant elements into a powerfully argued entity.
The point is well-made in this gripping performance, which Brabbins steers with brutal excitability, hushed tranquility and consequential theatricality. A cathartic complement to the earlier Thomas.
Available for 30 days on BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds