SCO/Swensen – review

City Halls, Glasgow

Sally Beamish's Percussion Concerto Dance Variations, written for Colin Currie who gave the UK premiere with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Joseph Swensen, is a work of considerable brilliance and originality. The title, however, doesn't give us a full indication of its scope and richness.

Beamish's inspiration is the vision of the seven deadly sins in Langland's Piers Plowman. Each sin has its own dance, which draws its material from plainchant and open medieval harmony. So Gluttony gets a gurgling Estampie; Sloth a Pavan full of sagging glissandos. Envy is an insidious needling Tango, while Lechery seduces and cajoles with a Swing Dance at once alluring and depraved.

The dances are framed by a depiction of the landscape in which the vision takes place, which allows Beamish to contrast the beauty of nature with the dangers of urbanity; a subject she has tackled before. She's really good, though, at capturing the dirty wit of Langland's poetry with the result that the concerto is often funny as well as profound. Currie is tremendous, whether powering his way though the ferocious drumming of Anger's Galliard, or spinning out Beamish's beguiling marimba melodies. Swensen's conducting has plenty of point, bite and elegance. It deserves repeated hearings.

Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony were its companion pieces. Stravinskyan neo-classicism isn't quite Swensen's thing, despite the admirable clarity he brings to it, and Dumbarton Oaks took a while to exert its grip. You can't fault his Beethoven, though, which combines fire with spaciousness in ways that are well-nigh ideal. The Seventh was superbly controlled yet thrilling and ecstatic, above all in the tensions of the allegretto and the drama of the finale.

Contributor

Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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