✶ ✶ ✶
I HAVE to tread carefully here. Months ago, when the SCO launched its new season brochure, my eye was caught by the programme the orchestra played on Friday night. My instinctive reaction was that the SCO was on to a total loser in terms of public appeal and box-office attractiveness.
And so it proved, in one of the smallest SCO audience attendances I have seen. And no wonder. Personally, I don't think that Benjamin Britten's Suite On English Folk Tunes is anything of a draw. And there was a blackness and a bleakness about much else in the programme that was unlikely to have folk clamouring for tickets. Sally Beamish's new work, Flodden, an extremely powerful and dramatic work on one of our most iconic Scottish disasters, though sung with incredible force and riveting focus by soprano Shuna Scott Sendall, was completely uncompromising in its lean, lucid orchestration and resolutely stood its ground as an impassioned comment, absolutely refusing to offer a softer ethos of reflection.
Similarly with Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen, in which the SCO, otherwise conducted by Joseph Swensen, was joined and led by Swensen as violinist in a gripping depiction of Strauss's abject desolation on being confronted in 1945 with the total destruction of his beloved Germany.
So, with little comfort afforded by Frank Bridge's unknown and wistful Summer, was the price paid by the SCO in acres of empty space worth paying? Time was I'd have been up on the ramparts, bellowing "Yes". Now, I wonder. It was awfully unremitting. As one wag commented bleakly, leaving the hall: "What a cheery night; let's all go kill ourselves now."
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
This concert kicked off Thomas Sondergard's second season as the Royal Scottish National Orchestra's principal guest conductor, and confirmed - once again - that his was an appointment well made. The Dane inspires superb playing from this orchestra. From a glowing, gracious opening of Haydn's Symphony No 99 to deft accompaniment in Mendelssohn's First Piano Concerto to a stirring account of Brahms's Fourth Symphony, I've rarely heard the RSNO in better form.
The Haydn was spacious, crisp and refined - stylish classical playing, especially from the strings. Sondergard kept the first movement's cheeky second subject deadpan and scaled the Adagio as a leisurely song. There's an operatic quality to his conducting that shone through in passages for unaccompanied winds here: intertwining flutes and clarinets sang like voices in an ensemble aria.
The dazzling Croatian pianist Dejan Lazic attacked Mendelssohn's concerto with the drama of a Hollywood thriller and the pearly lustre of a Scarlatti sonata. This was fresh, vivid stuff, full of percussive wit and ardent long lines. The orchestra made a brilliant partner, with beautiful hushed textures from the cello section.
After the interval Sondergard's Brahms was magnificent: not because of any overblown heft, but for its clarity and its brave, unguarded expressiveness. The opening was shy - hardly the bombast of a great romantic symphony, yet the movement grew to an irrepressible emotional outpouring. The Andante was touchingly stoic, the third movement almost giddy in contrast. The broad finale was shot through with moments of starkness, like the chilling trombone chorales. The effect wasn't sinister or morose, merely honest: Brahmsian jubilation never comes without an undercurrent of dark melancholy.
City Hall, Glasgow
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
THERE are not enough stars in the heavens to recognise adequately the calibre of the extraordinary musical experience slammed at its capacity audience on Thursday night by the BBC SSO, conductor Thomas Dausgaard and young Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin. So let's settle for five and let your imagination invade the firmament for more.
We in Scotland are no strangers to the greatness of Danish composer Carl Nielsen. We've had his symphonies from Thomson, Vanska and others, in concert and on record. I have never heard an account of the great Fourth Symphony, the Inextinguishable, so incendiary, so seismic and of such a consistently high voltage as that produced by Dausgaard, with SSO playing of an intensity it was both draining and shocking. The ferocity of that finale, with the antiphonal timpani knocking lumps out of our natural deflector shields, was overwhelming. Yet it wasn't a blunt instrument approach, reliant on physical force. It was more Dausgaard's forensic accumulation of detail, magnificently lucid detail, with all the myriad strands colliding and combining, forming a mix of explosive intensity that, allied to blistering SSO playing, resulted in such a devastating outcome.
Interestingly, Dausgaard, after doing what he could with Albert Schnelzer's very silly opus, A Freak In Burbank (no further comment required) furnished an equally detailed orchestral accompaniment to a glorious interpretation of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto by Kozhukhin that had everything, but with the slush, gush and mush excised. Wonderful: a thinking person's Rach Two; very economical on Kleenex abuse. Kozhukhin stayed on to play a life-enhancing version of Liszt's great Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude. Humbling beauty; now where's that firmament?
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
✶ ✶ ✶
The last time she'd stood on the Royal Concert Hall stage, Barbara Dickson noted, she was part of Celtic Connections' tribute to her old friend Gerry Rafferty. Keeping Rafferty's heritage alive has since become Dickson's passion. Her latest album, To Each And Everyone, is a collection of Rafferty's songs and having opened with his Where I Belong, sung to just her own Indian harmonium accompaniment, and continued with a full band version of Family Tree, she returned to his songbook frequently over two sets.
Dickson has led a varied career and this was reflected in a repertoire that referenced her folk roots, with her voice and guitar reading of The Norway Maid giving a strong reminder of her way with a traditional song, and moved hither and yon through her connections with musical theatre, a couple of Beatles songs, a hymn-like setting of Paul Verlaine's The Sky Above The Roof by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the unashamed, ooh-lah-lah-lahed pop of her old hit Answer Me.
She was well served by her musicians, not least Troy Donockley, who contributed acoustic and electric guitars, bouzouki, various whistles and uilleann pipes, and if the arrangements were occasionally a wee bit bombastic, Dickson moved from Bertold Brecht lyric to Iain Campbell folksong and from guitar to keyboard herself with practised professionalism. The Gerry Rafferty songs had to include Baker Street and Dickson and Donockley have fashioned their own, effective, soft pedalling interpretation, with whistle and Dickson's wordless vocal ultimately combining to take the famous saxophone line, although it was also good to hear the sometimes overlooked folk-pop realism of Steamboat Row.