SCO: MacMillan / Currie
Perth Concert Hall
Two Scottish premieres provide the entrance and exit to this latest online SCO programme, once again recorded in Perth. In charge is conductor/composer Sir James MacMillan, opening with one of his own works. He’s later joined by Scots virtuoso Colin Currie in a concerto specially written for the percussionist in 2008 by the late Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara.
Both works possess an inner beauty, which gives this entire concert – Sibelius’ Suite No 2 from his characterful music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest provides a connecting bridge – a overarching aura of accessible warmth and glowing humanity.
Originally written for string quartet, MacMillan’s short opener, Ein Lämplein verlosch (“A little lamp went out”), takes its title from the first song in Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, but surely resonates as a deeply personal response to the early death several years ago of MacMillan’s own granddaughter. This enchanting performance certainly captures a spectral innocence radiating from ephemeral string harmonics, its questioning fragmentation, and a lingering sense that its feet never quite touch the ground.
When they do, briefly, there is a mixture of joy and pain, expressed with Brittenesque clarity and succinctness. MacMillan refers to it as an “instrumental distillation of this grief”, which rings very true in this nuanced performance by the SCO strings.
Nothing could be more contrasted than the huge, bulbous ripe tune that sets the ball rolling in Rautavaara’s concerto, a work subtitled Incantations. It’s as big and brassy as any west end musical signature hit, a surging wave of tonal extravagance deliberately soured by chippy dissonance. No sooner has it made its impressive presence felt than it subsidies, acting more as a blank canvas to which Currie adds spicy detail and characterisations.
Set traditionally in three movements, the opening Pesante lives up to its name, the various internal dialogues asserted by the soloist weighted by the gravitational pull of the orchestra. One brief moment, where the percussionist evokes a mood of utter serenity, forewarns of the ensuing Espressivo, a central movement whose Debussy-like opening heralds a feast of shamelessly indulgent easy listening.
If Rautavaara’s contribution to the finale appears minimal, to some extent padding, it’s because the dominating feature is Currie’s own mammoth cadenza, as if the composer has handed over the reins and said “show us what you can do”. What transpires is both mesmerising and seamlessly integrated within the prevailing style, and heralding Rautavaara’s eventual sign-off, which is an even more colossal statement of the opening theme. It’s big, bold and conclusive, which the SCO addresses with the required chutzpah.
As for the Sibelius, MacMillan displays an obvious affinity with the unpretentiousness of this theatrically-inspired suite, eliciting the gossamer-like delicacy of the wispy Intermezzo, Grieg-like chunkiness in the brief musical portrait of Prospero, and a gorgeous Palm Court snugness in Sibelius’ magical depiction of the kind-hearted Miranda. A tad more schmalz in the Dance of the Nymphs and less constraint in the final Dance Episode is all that was needed to satisfy the wilder side of this delightful score.