Scottish Chamber Orchestra

City Halls, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

four stars

GLASGOW composer and SCO associate artist Martin Suckling’s commission for the orchestra’s Armistice centenary concerts took its inspiration from John Donne’s Meditation XVII, and specifically the passage that begins “No man is an island” and ends “for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Much of the content of the piece is derived from recordings of church bells submitted by the public, sampled, manipulated and triggered from a keyboard by timpanist Louise Goodwin. Where other contemporary compositions require a battery of percussion and musicians to strike them, speakers around the auditorium and sound engineer Mark Neal gave the composer this electronic cacophony. With the strings making a subtler microtonal contribution and the winds required to add hand percussion before the oboes added an Eastern call to worship to complement the bells summoning us to an act of Remembrance, the short work, Meditation (after Donne) has a broad and dynamic palette. At its conclusion the carillon dies away as only leader Stephanie Gonley was left playing and a single, tolling bell had the last word.

The premiere stood in stark contrast to the rest of cellist and conductor Nicholas Alstaedt’s romantic programme. It began with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, a birthday gift to his wife Cosima derived from his opera score, and here perhaps understated in comparison with some performances but no worse for that, Alstaedt meticulous in his attention to detail.

This season between principal conductors of the orchestra is a showcase for music’s multi-taskers, and Alstaedt’s direction as soloist in the Schumann concerto had him leaping to his feet and turning his back to the audience to cue the musicians with his right hand, before facing forward on the piano stool for the next passage of his gorgeous rich-toned playing. Plainly this made for a performance especially integrated with the orchestration that sat well with the seamless flow of its movements.

Beethoven’s Eighth has a claim to being the most romantic of his symphonies, setting aside the Sixth as a pictorial exception. After some very fine wind playing in the third movement, the strings sparkled at the start of the finale, and Alstaedt dealt very crisply with the climactic closing bars.