SCO / Swensen
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Swensen
Perth Concert Hall
Given his remarkably prodigious output, it is not so astonishing that French writer Jules Verne set his 1882 romantic novel The Green Ray in the West of Scotland. Over the course of his career he ran through a vast number of global locations in his work, as well as those that were out of this world.
Composer Gavin Bryars borrows the title of the book, and to some extent its subject matter, for his 1991 saxophone concerto, originally written for John Harle and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta. It was played here, at the centre of a concert conducted by Joseph Swensen, by Jess Gillam, the young virtuoso of soprano and alto saxes who has her own Saturday series on BBC Radio 3 and is the presentational face of this year’s BBC Young Musician finals, a competition in which she was a runner-up.
The was her debut with the SCO, and the work presented a side to her personality that contrasted with her engaging ebullience as a broadcaster. On an instrument, the soprano sax, that can be shrill, Gillam had a beautifully mellow tone throughout a score that is played as a continuous sequence and in which the soloist rarely has a break. It is not by any measure a virtuoso showpiece, however, with no flashy cadenzas or lightening fingerwork. Instead the sax has a lead role in the ensemble, perhaps depicting that rarely glimpsed, but ever-present, shaft of verdant sunlight seen at sunset in certain latitudes. The piece has a lovely arc to its construction, which Swensen clearly appreciated, underpinned by bass clarinet and contra-bassoon, with a significant orchestral piano part (played by Michael Bawtree, briefly credited on screen but mysteriously missing from the downloadable programme) and ending with an unmistakeable echo of the pipes.
It also shares some sonic elements with the work that preceded it, Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, most obviously the tubular bells but also in the string writing and deliberate pace. Part may never have met the English composer, but this is an exquisite eulogy, and also as perfect an encapsulation of the Estonian’s method: using the simplest materials to make the most profound music.
Arguably Beethoven was at something of the same game with his First Symphony. The opening bars of his symphonic odyssey can still sound startling 220 years on, and they did so here. With natural trumpets and baroque horns, there was a clear historically-informed approach from Swensen with brisk tempi and crisp playing across the orchestra. It was far from straight-laced, though, the brief third movement full of rhythmic playfulness, and clearly anticipating the finale of the Fifth and the dancing Seventh.
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