City Halls, Glasgow
For all the strength of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra across all departments, this programme conducted by John Wilson was a real showcase for the strings, from the huge ensemble sound that opened the evening with the first movement of George Enescu’s Suite No 1 – underscored only by Gordon Rigby’s rumbling timpani – to the solo by leader Laura Samuel in the Fairy Garden conclusion of Ravel’s Mother Goose.
Nicely lit and filmed, with plenty of well-chosen instrumental close-ups, for a live-stream that seems to have been a one-time event now absent from the BBC i-Player, it was clearly audible that the opening work was being performed in an empty hall, and that reverberant acoustic suited it well.
Some echoey page-turning noises sat less happily in the midst of Lennox Berkeley’s Serenade for Strings, initially a complete sonic contrast to the ominous Enescu but ultimately becoming more edgy than its lush opening. As was noted in the concert commentary, there is evident of Berkeley’s Parisian training in that development, as there is in Vaughan Williams’s orchestral scoring of his song-cycle On Wenlock Edge.
Tenor Benjamin Hulett was making his debut singing that version, as opposed to the piano-accompanied one, and perhaps he began a little uncertainly, but he warmed well to the task at hand. Houseman was reportedly less impressed by this than other settings of his work, and if the poet’s reservations are understandable, the musical arc of the work was given full expression here by Wilson and the SSO. Is My Team Ploughing? is much less bleak than the familiar Butterworth setting, and Hulett captured its ambiguity beautifully before giving full voice to the longest song, Bredon Hill.
The orchestral coup of the concert was another first, the world premiere of a new edition of the complete ballet music for Mother Goose, the fullest version of Ravel’s suite restored to his 1912 intention, replacing the hotch-potch published in the 1970s. I cannot pretend to have picked up the additions and omissions that Wilson alluded to, but it is true that Ravel was working in an era when the whole sphere of publication and proof-reading was becoming more complex and sophisticated. If he missed out on the benefits of modernism it is more than time amends are made.
The detail of his scoring certainly deserves to be as beautifully played as it was here, with the harp, winds and celesta complementing those strings, continuing to demonstrate that distinctive ensemble coherence alongside the front-desk solo virtuosity.
Available on BBC Sounds. Now also available on the BBC i-Player.