BBC SSO / Brabbins

City Halls, Glasgow

A big concert with two soloists and a well-loved conductor on the podium, the SSO’s live broadcast from Glasgow looked a terrific programme on paper, but did not quite cohere in performance, even if every part of it had something to enjoy.

The second half pairing of Ernest Chausson’s Poeme de l’amour et de la mer and Claude Debussy’s much better known La mer did serve to illustrate how two contemporaries of the same nation might approach the same broad subject in an entirely different way. As even those not familiar with the work of Martyn Brabbins might expect of the music director of English National Opera, the latter was full of drama, and built beautifully to the climactic third movement “Dialogue of the wind and the sea”, the unfolding orchestration a captivating use of the vast forces onstage.

Chausson’s songs, setting the poetry of Maurice Bouchor, also make for a piece of scale, but owe much to contemporary German Romanticism. Mezzo Dame Sarah Connolly did not really sing them like Mahler or Strauss, however, taking a rather more narrative approach, which was enhanced, rather than in any way diminished, by her reference to the score. With a bassoon-led instrumental interlude separating the two texts, the shape of the work was as clear as that of the Debussy, and first cello Rudi de Groot added a lovely solo to the second one. Although it was probably undetectable to radio listeners, there were a few moments in the hall where Connolly’s immaculate diction was a little swamped by the orchestra.

Why Debussy’s early March ecossaise sur un theme populaire, which opened the concert, is rarely heard, particularly from Scottish orchestras, is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it is a little Brigadoon, but as the Frenchman wrote it, to order, more than half a century before that movie, it is difficult to dismiss the piece as in any way kitsch. And as a celebration of the oft-cited, if historically dubious, “Auld Alliance”, it would surely be popular with local audiences. Again, it uses a big orchestra, and even the young Debussy knew well how to make the most of that.

The world premiere in the programme, the new Clarinet Concerto, “Sutra”, by Wim Henderickx for fellow Belgian Annelien van Wauwe, also contained some liquid noises, not only in the electronics that form a crucial element of its structure, but also in the playing required of the lower strings. There are a lot of different ingredients in the score, with many of the ideas coming from the soloist and dedicatee.

Like violinist Elena Urioste, she combines her musical practice with yoga tuition, and the disciplines of meditation and concentration are themes of the central two movements. Only in the third one did the work become at all virtuosic, with a step up in tempo, a speedy Balkan melody line and a big band sound from the orchestra.

Elsewhere the players were required to breathe audibly, both through and without their instruments, and there were a number of vocal exchanges between soloist and ensemble. It may be a box-fresh composition, but there was something very 1970s about much of this, as well as in the use of wine glasses among the percussion, and in Scott Dickinson’s viola solo toward the end. It was tempting to speculate that the composer may have drawn on his teenage prog and jazz listening.

He also gave van Wauwe plenty of opportunity to demonstrate the lower register of the basset clarinet, although the most attractive and exciting passages she had to play seemed to fall within the range of the regular instrument.

Keith Bruce

The concert is available to listen to on BBC Sounds for 30 days.