BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

It’s a brave BBC SSO that puts on a programme unlikely to fill seats when the corporation is openly pleading poverty. Yet that’s what it did on Thursday. Besides a quick Beethoven overture, the menu before us was a Mark-Anthony Turnage concerto, an Unsuk Chin novelty piece and a Stravinsky ballet score notable for its steely restraint – an intriguing and challenging concoction, entirely palatable but highly dependant on the persuasiveness of its delivery.

Under chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, it was not without charm. Beethoven’s overture Leonore No 2, one of the composer’s multiple attempts to furnish his opera Fidelio with a suitable overture, is perhaps his most thrilling – a bombastic rhetoric within a sea of prophetic expansiveness, pregnant silences exaggerated for effect and a glimpse of the future through music anticipating the naturalism of the later Romantics and the obsessiveness of Berlioz or Bruckner. 

The most liberating moment in this performance was the time-stopping offstage solo trumpet, casting a momentary magic spell before the skirmish of the home straight. To that point Wigglesworth’s reading mostly attuned to the music’s impetuosity, even if periodically unnerved by a kind of clipped, scurrying, theatricality.

In the phlegmatic neoclassicism of Stravinsky’s Orpheus, he sourced bewitchment in many of its fluid scenes: the melancholic nostalgia of Orpheus’ Bachian Air de Dance, the muted chorale-like eeriness of the final Apotheosis. The narrative dimension was moodily enticing, neatly tempered, but just short of finding that necessary sheen, the detailed intensity, to offset Stravinsky’s emotional containment

Turnage’s Your Rockaby for soprano saxophone and orchestra, is a Samuel Beckett-inspired concerto written in the early 1990s and shortly afterwards given its Scottish premiere in Glasgow’s Tramway by the SSO, It was performed here by its original soloist, Martin Robertson.

There was no escaping the unctuous queasiness of the jazz idiom that commonly defines Turnage’s music – a seediness lurking throughout, those angry harmonies, sneering glissandi and a busy background percussion combining to create a kaleidoscopic whirlwind. Sometimes gorgeously sleazy, sometimes with ecstatically pungency, Robertson played the protagonist with charismatic obstinacy.

Opening the second half, Unsuk Chin’s Subito con forza provided a flip side to the opening Beethoven. Written in 2020 for the latter’s 250th anniversary year, the source material is recognisable – sporadic snatches of Beethoven, each subjected to instant obliteration, as if Chin is firing incendiaries at the originals, releasing instant showers of musical shrapnel. The point was well made in a straightforward, resolute performance. 

Ken Walton