Review: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Martyn Brabbins and Anthony Marwood

First published in The Herald on 16 September, 2013

BBC SSO/Brabbins
St Mary’s Church, Haddington

How to do justice to an orchestra in a church acoustic? It is possible, for sure, but the repertoire needs to be right and the playing needs to adjust accordingly. Where the Scottish Chamber Orchestra ricocheted around Dunbar Parish Church on Friday, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra blurred at the edges at St Mary’s Haddington the following night.

Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila probably wasn’t the ideal choice of opener, with its glittering string runs and Martyn Brabbins’s flash-fire tempo, but the boisterous atmosphere came across regardless. Britten’s Violin Concerto was haunting, though, in a superbly judged performance from Anthony Marwood. Britten wrote this concerto in 1939 during an exile of sorts in North America, and it’s a troubled score, full of conflicted, fitful emotion. Marwood captured the nervy tension as well as the longing: his sound was silvery and subtle, never imposing, his cadenza was plaintive and insistent and he intertwined with the orchestra beautifully.

A similar sense of restlessness underpinned Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Brabbins established anguish from the start, drawing swells of emotion in the opening clarinet theme where many conductors stick to buttoned-up stoicism. The honesty was touching: even radiant moments had a clenched-teeth quality that made them intriguing. The first movement ended abruptly and inconclusively; agitation at the start of the Andante made David Flack’s horn solo float all the more gloriously in contrast, and Brabbins accentuated the off-kilter lilt of the Valse so that trouble never seemed far off. Even the sunny finale was shot through with foreboding and an ironic twist.