SCO / Swensen
City Halls, Glasgow
The light and melodic early Mahler that preceded it was not enough to attract anything but a small audience to the more difficult delights of Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto, dedicated to his teacher at the Second Viennese School, Arnold Schoenberg.
Still a radical work almost a century on from its composition, the Berg is open to all sorts of interpretation both in its meaning and in its performance (Pierre Boulez eschewed the long repeat in the last movement). That was clear even before the concert began, with the psychological interpretation favoured by the work’s conductor, Joseph Swensen, in a lengthy spoken preamble, very different from – if not entirely at odds with – the more personal gloss put on the work in the SCO’s online programme.
Swensen, whose long association with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is clearly very close to his heart, took a surprisingly laid back approach to the work at first, which meant it was rather less sharp-edged than is ideal, but his strategy made more sense as the work progressed and the roles for the unusual forces onstage unfolded.
The focus on the soloists, violinist Kolja Blacher and pianist Roman Rabinovich, is far from exclusive, and both – and indeed the conductor – have passages of idleness between bursts of challenging activity. Blacher’s plaintive solos were memorable, but so too were the contributions of every individual in the 13-strong ensemble of winds (and brass).
Trumpeter Peter Franks was the first in the spotlight earlier in the evening, for Mahler’s Blumine, the piece of incidental music he incorporated and then removed from his First Symphony. Far from as sickly as its earliest critics suggested, it also has a long sequence of solos for the wind players before the focus returns to the trumpet.
Continuing the floral theme, Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of What The Wild Flowers Tell Me from Mahler’s Symphony No 3 was the evening’s showcase for the strings. Guest-led by Sarah Kapustin and with a number of unfamiliar faces in their ranks, they were a wonderfully coherent unit just the same, and Kapustin’s brief solos sparkled.
With a full platform for the Mahler and spare instrumentation for the Berg, this was a curious but fascinating programme, and the performance history of the works made for a complex chronology as well. The quality of the playing, however, was consistently high from start to finish.