First published in the Guardian on 21 September, 2014
Emotions have been running fraught in Scotland whichever way you look at it, and the need for a collective unfurling is palpable. This Lammermuir Festival concert of fervent works by Wagner, Strauss and Elgar performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – an ensemble whose post-referendum future has been hotly debated – was never going to feel like business as usual. And considering the BBC’s contested neutrality through the referendum, a quip from conductor Martyn Brabbins (who introduced an encore from Elgar’s Serenade for Strings by saying that we could now have “sweet dreams of a happy future”) wasn’t hugely useful.
Brabbins isn’t one to be maudlin, though, and in musical terms he kept things brisk and understated. He opened with a clear, ungushy account of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll: the playing was light, the inner parts lucid, the strings beautifully soft and grainy. The programme closed with a sober, thoughtful account of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. There was no syrupy veneer; the sound was dark and gravelly, there was anguish to the opening theme and unusual weight in many of the variations. Nimrod was quietly emphatic; the finale was stately and cathartic.
The heart of the programme was the Strauss, with soprano Christine Brewer giving her 96th performance of the Four Last Songs. What is so wonderful about her deep-lodged interpretation is how unpushy it is. She embodies this music effortlessly, every phrase shaped without fuss, every interval subtly shaded. Her voice can be huge and occasionally steely in the upper register, but she wove it among the orchestra like one of the instruments. In Spring she surged and swept with the strings; in September she traded oily, seamless lines with the winds. The words weren’t audible in the high medieval nave of St Mary’s but it hardly mattered: her dignified gravitas spoke volumes.