Scottish Chamber Orchestra

City Halls, Glasgow

four stars

WITH a family tale that drew warm applause, the SCO’s conductor emeritus Joseph Swensen announced on Friday evening that he and his wife had decided to relocate to Glasgow, where he also teaches at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. If that means more programmes as carefully constructed as this concert, it will be a bonus.

With Beethoven’s First and Second Symphonies given rich, musical performances that were little concerned that they have become in recent years the province of period performance, those familiar works were prefaced by a world premiere from young Scot Tom Harrold and I: A Meditation on Iona by Sir James MacMillan, an acknowledged influence on the younger composer.

Harrold has already been praised in these pages as an important new voice, and To the Light may turn out to be a very significant piece in spreading his reputation. Responding with discipline to the chamber orchestra challenge, he has produced a work that makes maximum use of the more limited instrumental palette, making each section’s input count as brass and tympani enter the score and with a very eloquent solo part for cello, played beautifully by guest principal Alice Neary.

Although the influence is audible in the work’s sonic impact and the use of thematic material, To the Light is more expansive than MacMillan’s vision of Iona, which is not a place of retreat and quiet, but an exporter of unambiguous message. Solo virtuosity here was in the hands of guest leader Bradley Creswick and guest principal viola Rebecca Jones.

As for Swensen’s Beethoven, the fluidity in the playing at the start of the Andante in the First Symphony was the conductor’s clear signal that he was having no truck with fashionable austerity.

His performance was a showcase for the basket of fine tunes that the composer had ready for his first symphonic statements, as well as the rhythmic playfulness (as in the finale of the First) that he would develop in the greater works to come.