BBC SSO / Brabbins
City Halls, Glasgow
It’s over 25 years since the BBC SSO performed William Wallace’s “Creation” Symphony in C sharp minor. It was a studio session in Glasgow recorded for BBC Radio 3 and a Hyperion CD. So it’s not before time that conductor Martyn Brabbins included it in his “Sound of Scotland” matinee programme with the same orchestra last Thursday, a performance that sealed its aesthetic and technical worth, but equally pointed to a London-based Scots composer responding in the 1890s to a musical world still starstruck by Wagner, while living amidst the stirring potency of Elgar.
These are the overriding influences in this symphonic representation of the biblical creation story, its dark opening groping steadily and Parsifal-like towards successive peaks through which Wallace demonstrates a mastery of orchestration and structuring.
Such repertoire is right up Brabbins’ street, his relaxed, authoritative lead capturing the momentousness of the score, almost film-like in its epic ebbing and flowing. The SSO responded with infectious self-belief, going all the way with the first movement’s sugar-coated conclusion, the sunbursts that offer glimpses of character in the occasionally bland Andantino, a scherzo-like Allegro verging on jolly-hockey-sticks joie-de-vivre, and a finale oozing pride and pomp, as if Wallace was saying: “And God created the British Empire, and he saw that it was good”.
Such was the climax to a programme that began with Judith Weir’s tribute to the geometric Swiss painter Paul Klee, her Heroic Strokes of the Bow based on his musically-inspired “Heroische Bogenstriche”, but also mixed and matched a refreshing couple of viola duos with Iain Hamilton’s virile Clarinet Concerto.
Where Weir transforms Klee’s images into sparkling sonic gestures and whirlwind textures, all dramatically threaded through this pellucid performance, Hamilton’s early concerto proved an eye-opener for those more familiar with the acerbic rigour that dominates much of his later music. Soloist Richard Plane had the full measure of the piece, packing his delivery with physical vitality, athletic virtuosity, and where called for, sweet lyrical charisma.
Why the interspersed viola duos? It just seemed, Brabbins explained, an opportune moment to showcase the SSO’s front desk principals – Scott Dickinson and Andrew Berridge – who had used the restrictions during Covid to seek out new repertoire for themselves. Here were two of a still-growing collection: James MacMillan’s Canon for Two Violas; and the world premiere of Camino by none other than the unassuming Brabbins.
There was a satisfying complementarity between both works, the plaintive intimacy of MacMillan’s, with its wistful melodic charm and softly intermeshing complexities, countered by the sparkier interactions of Brabbins’ Camino, its more impulsive introspection inspired by his daughter’s solitary pilgrimage along the Camino Santiago de Compostela. In each case, Dickinson and Berridge brought accomplishment and poetic empathy to their performances.
Recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3