What a jolly good outing to St Andrews I was having. After spending the afternoon with the poets at StAnza international poetry festival, I took the opportunity to linger in that most beautiful of sea-girt towns in order to catch the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for their first performance of Beethoven’s 2nd. The gorgeous Younger Hall was the venue, a delectable piece of Victoriana perfect for such an occasion & situated directly next door to the university’s Beethoven Lodge. Before the 2nd, we were treated to two pieces; in his ‘Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge’ (1937), Britten pays tribute to his teacher with a tour de force of his early musical musings. A series of audio twangs bubbling up from the brooks of eternal youth – he composed them in his early 2os – Britten combines startling string-work with terrific melancholia that invoked in me a vision of walking with a damsel – in mid-relationship perhaps – discussing our prospects by a river in the city. She then leaves me in silence & I peer into solid waters gloomily. The blistering theatrical effectivity of the piece billows out in perfect unpretence, & the music wanders into the world like a freshly woken mountain lion stepping out of its dark cave in the early hours of the morning. I dearly loved the second movement – like a hurried march through the streets, caught in a rain shower – while the jagged aggressiveness of the third also pleased haughtily. The entire piece is a powerful panorama, & a tribute to a youthful composer gorged on too much red meat & brandy. Indeed, the sublime final movement rather felt like Britten composed it drunk in a chair, as his eyes were drooping into slumber.
The second support was a premiere of Sir James Macmillan’s ‘Concerto for Horn & Strings’ (2017), a free fantasia spectacle which begins with violins on the balcony & the horn hypnotising us from off stage with its hypnotic leibmotif. Slow & temperate at the start, the cellists bring in a deep & discordant gesticulatory bass, into which Alec Frank-Gemill suddenly strides with his horn – & we’re off. The violins setting the scene for a conversation with the horn, as if they were polite dilettantes in a conservatory off the main hall of a stately soiree.
Full of deadly flourishes & calm retrospectives, this concerto is an extremely asensual piece, that despite is dystopian harsheties, still convokes in the listener an exhilaration of some distinction. From jibber-jabber jauntiness to stoci fastidiousness, this is a piece that should redefine the contemporary soundscape. The finale is something special, as the horn drifts off stage at funeral pace, his leibmotif ever dwindling into the distance – when not even the mice of Younger Hall dared to scratch. The whole lot was performed with impeccable & quasi-theatrical splendor by the SCO, who are clearly enjoying the early choices of this year’s season. Masterminding it all was conductor Andrew Manze, whose inspirational giddiness locks into us all.
Then to the main event itself. According to Manze in his preamble, Beethoven had been a very naughty boy, with the critics balking violently against the extraordinary effect of his new music. Beethoven would go on to change the world, & listeners first coming to the 2nd must ask themselves if they can keep up with the primordial screamings of his fledgeling genius. After the laconic opening, it seems as if a phallic stallion has broken free of his field & charged off into the woods, before sinking into a trot awhile to reset its breath, then cantering & galloping off again into the misty distance. When in a lighter mood, & preaching from the pulpit Parnassus, Beethoven presents a musical synthesis between cosmological balance & frozen air, where globules of poetry string together woven elf-gems, which meander floatingly, to which is added a liberal sprinkling of prettiness as the flutes & bassoons pirouette into the skies. As Beethoven launches his stylistic attack against the senses & the establishment, it seems as if soldiers are bursting into a village on horseback – the menall terrified while the women admire their handsome uniforms. There is a golden authority to the cadence of ALL the notes, which were plucked out of the aether through an inspirational performance by the SCO, surpassing even their own natural brilliance. From cascading archipeggios to the bullying, egobursting finale – it was a triumph!
Reviewer : Damian Beeson Bullen