Review: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with James MacMillan and Danny Driver

First published in the Guardian on 11 March, 2014

City Halls, Glasgow

The occasion felt bureaucratic: a concert added to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s calendar to mark Commonwealth Day, the arbitrary figure of 135 days until the Commonwealth Games kick off in Glasgow and the orchestra’s upcoming diplomatic tour of India with James MacMillan conducting. I’ll take any excuse to hear a piano concerto by Erik Chisholm, though. The Scottish composer – nicknamed ‘MacBartok’ for his pioneering integration of folk idioms in the early 20th century – isn’t nearly as well known as he should be, even in his home country. Three years ago Danny Driver and the BBC SSO made a superb recording of his two piano concertos; here they returned to the Second, the Hindustani.

Written in 1949, it’s an elaborate, sometimes baffling but always dazzlingly vivid work. Chunks of mechanistic brawn butt up against lapping raga-infused passages and there’s real thrust and luminosity in the piano writing. Driver’s delivery was ideal: urgent, direct, unfussy, with touches of gentle eloquence and mysticism. On the recording the orchestra’s playing under Rory Macdonald matches his nuance and tight-sprung energy. MacMillan drew slushier textures and had trouble steering the orchestra around Chisholm’s nimble score.

The concert opened with Hamish MacCunn’s The Ship o’ the Fiend, a cartoonish romp of an orchestral ballad whose textures sounded hearty but blunt and whose brass was very loud indeed. Alasdair Spratt’s Obsess deserved and got more sensitive treatment: the haunting work, written in 2003, explores the trappings of introversion with instruments striking out alone or in fragile pairs but always tugged back to their starting point. The concert closed with a hammer-and-tongs performance of MacMillan’s own The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. 24 years after its premiere, this is still MacMillan at his most arresting and persuasive – a rush of energy and ideas that still pack a ferocious punch.