SCO/Swensen – review

Town House, Hamilton
Sally Beamish's response to the Battle of Flodden made for a bold and candid work, performed alongside gutsy Beethoven

On 9 September 1513, the armies of Scotland and England fought at Flodden Field in Northumberland and between them racked up the heaviest single-battle death toll of British troops before the Somme. To mark 500 years since the Battle of Flodden, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra have commissioned a new work from Sally Beamish – a Quaker who was born in England and has lived in Scotland for more than two decades. Like Britten's pacifist War Requiem, her work is a searing emotional indictment on the human costs of war.

Called simply Flodden, it's a 25-minute setting for soprano and orchestra of gentle poems by RS Craig, Jean Elliot and JB Selkirk. No sabre-rattling or battle cries: war is viewed from the perspective of the women left behind, flushed with indignation and grief. The piece opens with bells and a wordless lament from Shuna Scott Sendall – a mesmerising young Scottish soprano whose voice is earthy, supple and immense. When the strings enter, they sigh and comfort; there are agitated orchestral interludes, tender pastorals and a final visceral scream that cuts to the heart. Hamilton's Town House is a risky venue for a premiere: at times the nuts and bolts of the score were more audible than the overall effect. But Beamish's stripped-down and direct writing can handle it; Flodden is a bold and candid work.

A gutsy, volatile performance of Beethoven's Coriolan Overture opened the concert, followed by a workaday reading of Kodály's Summer Evening. The SCO is an ensemble that can sound strikingly different under different conductors; under their former principal conductor Joseph Swensen the playing wasn't the tidiest or most nuanced, but his boisterous swagger was downright infectious in the rollicking final movements of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony.


Kate Molleson

The GuardianTramp

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