Scottish Chamber Orchestra: Barber Violin Concerto

City Halls, Glasgow

May 1st

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Joseph Swensen, who has a long and distinguished association with the SCO, gave us four compositions from the 1920’s and 30’s in a concert that brought out genuine enthusiasm in the audience, whoproduced a spirited response at the close. (‘This is not Edinburgh’ my companionsaid, as she sent a couple of piercing whistles across the length of City Halls – enoughto make the guy immediately in front duck down for cover.)

Stravinsky’s ‘Concerto in E-flat ‘Dumbarton Oaks’, with its links to the Brandenberg Concertos, made a good start: it has a nice sway and bounce initially, with the discordancies contributing to passages of cheerful progress, and the hinted baroque elements are modernised into similar positive advances and shifts in sonority. The fifteen players (flute, bassoon, clarinet, two horns, ten strings) chimed and combined on every requirement – from elegance to mischief – and always with warmth and lyrical ‘body’ too.

Benjamin Britten wrote ‘Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge’, to be performed by string orchestra, as a tribute to his former teacher, and each section was written to reflect and acknowledge elements of Bridge’s character – including integrity, charm, energy, humour, sympathy, skill – elements which in fact characterised not only this piece but the concert as a whole. The SCO pitched right into this, Swensen showing some neat Qi Gong flourishes to take it through all the necessary transitions; though, as we discovered in the second half, when he became solo violin, the discipline and responsiveness of the orchestra thoughout could only be down to clear and careful work in rehearsal.

I lost track a bit in following the proper order of Britten’s variations – there is a great thematic mix, what with marches, a ‘romance’, an aria, a bourrée (a speedy French dance), a waltz, a fugue, and so on – but this had no effect on my overall enjoyment of the piece. At each point the SCO responded with the skill and subtlety required. There were good, rumbling openings with double bass and cellos working hard; there were swelling violins and violas, with pizzicato too, and chittering, high energy.

Through headlong passages things tumbled and sliced or slowed to an end. At one point there was a lovely ‘wakening’ effect: almost like yawning and stretching, with a slow, careful mustering of energy that never quite breaks out, before the whole thing rolls over and goes back to sleep. In the ‘Fugue and finale’ there is a melodic line that builds with promise and moves into beautiful elegaic passage like the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th, then gradually diminishes before the brief flourish that ends the whole piece. Scintillating stuff, and it made for an exciting first half.

Joseph Swensen had himself orchestrated Prokofiev’s ‘Cinq Melodies, Op 35a’: they were originally ‘five wordless songs’, though Prokofiev transcribed them later for violin and piano. The commitment from all the players (considerably reinforced for the second half) was still there, and some of the elements that had already been on display were reinforced: rapid shifts in mood and tone, a variety of motifs and melodies, ‘eastern’ features adding interest, lyrical flourishes; but for me the mix in Prokofiev was not as attractive as in the earlier pieces, and my attention drifted a little about two thirds of the way through. Swensen was energetic in his playing and conducting – featuring some encouraging wafts with the bow, or a free bare hand – but this piece was less engaging for me than the other programme selections.

Differences in personal preference and some interference by a middle man, along with maybe a failure of imagination by those involved in its commission, meant that Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op 14 didn’t really have a happy start. But when it was premiered under different auspices in 1941 it was an immediate success. It was obviously a main piece for Swensen, and his presence was galvanising in centre stage. Freed from the score he had needed for the Prokofiev, his stance was more open to the audience, and in the expansive start to the composition we could see his relation to the orchestra was more potent too.

It was glorious to hear the full range and force of the SCO in some of the grand, dynamic passages – and to enjoy the more twinkling brio bits too. Though I didn’t relish the suggestion of a type of ‘Scotch’ melody that crept in from time to time towards the end of the first movement. The second movement, andante sostenuto, has an unexpected and beautiful opening theme established by solo oboe which is contrasted, then echoed, by the solo violin. A key feature was the way the strings and the woodwind and horns combined and offset each other; and Swensen’s playing, especially at the end of the movement, was very fine. The third movement, delivered as prescribed presto in moto perpetuo, guaranteed powerful darting energy from the outset, and was driven through with a clear onrush to its bravura conclusion. As I said earlier, the audience then came in promptly to convey how well, and with what satisfaction, they had been swept along.

Reviewer : Mr Scales

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