Scottish Chamber Orchestra

City Halls, Glasgow

Keith Bruce, four stars

WORKING to an international co-commission from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, England’s Aurora Orchestra, and the concert hall in the Perth just sixty miles up the road where it had its world premiere on Wednesday, Sir James MacMillan’s new saxophone concerto is probably as near to a “commercial” piece of work as you are likely to hear from the composer. In view of the instrument’s ubiquity in popular music, it is arguably surprising that there are so few saxophone concertos (although the same might be said of the guitar, suggesting that could in fact be a reason). On first hearing I’d guess that this might prove a very popular addition to the repertoire, given the compact forces required and its recognisable ingredients (Scottish traditional music and slap bass), and perhaps especially for players more in tune with the folk elements of the music than was perhaps the case with the soloist here, Australian Amy Dickson. Whether it is a particularly significant addition to the MacMillan catalogue is another question altogether.

The new piece is written for soprano sax, mostly in its lower register, while Glazunov’s 1934 concerto is scored for alto and rather more enthralled by the possibilities of the instrument itself – as well as more suited to the lyrical style of Dickson’s playing. And although the MacMillan is evocative of the Scottish landscape in a very similar way to Maxwell Davies’s An Orkney Wedding (with Sunrise) – particularly the ethereal end of the second movement – Glazunov’s still sounds the more expansive work.

Bracketing the two concerti were the incidental music for Pelleas et Melisande by Sibelius and Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. The finesse of the SCO strings was matched by the poised cor anglais/oboe playing of Rosie Staniforth in the former, while conductor Joseph Swensen made the most persuasive case for his direct and compact reading of the symphony.