SCO/Benjamin – review

City Halls, Glasgow

George Benjamin's conducting is much like the music he composes: spruce, fastidious, bristling with compact energy and clean gestures, shot through with moments of arresting sensuality. Whatever he does, he does it with unwavering neatness. In this programme with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, he occasionally lacked the kind of spontaneity that can kick-start the band into top gear, but generally the playing he drew was streamlined and refined.

The impressive centrepiece was Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, with a fine pair of soloists in tenor John Mark Ainsley and the SCO's own principal horn Alec Frank-Gemmill, a player of rare composure and subtlety. Together they brought agile muscularity to the songs: the transition from Frank-Gemmill's bold and spacious Prologue to Ainsley's breezy Pastoral was a thrill, the Elegy was nicely laced with irony, and the spectral Dirge was hushed and macabre in Ainsley's plangent high register.

Benjamin closed the programme with an elegantly sculpted performance of Mozart's 40th Symphony – subdued in parts, but beautiful for its chiselled economy. Elsewhere it was fascinating to hear Martin Suckling's excellent SCO commission Storm, Rose, Tiger for a second time: the piece was premiered in 2011 under the orchestra's principal conductor, Robin Ticciati, who took a typically sensitive approach, and while some dreamy passages missed the softer touch, Benjamin (once Suckling's teacher) used his uncompromising sharp edges to reveal just how rigorously engineered and confidently executed the score is.

Harrison Birtwistle's 1978 Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum opened the programme with percussive attack, but here Benjamin's cool precision seemed to miss a trick. For under the jagged surface of Birtwistle's writing, the music should shift and swing to a lilting playfulness, and that only really started to swing in the final few bars.

Contributor

Kate Molleson

The GuardianTramp

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