Review: SCO/Swensen

First published in the Guardian on 25 January, 2015

When Scotland’s politicians talk of a new Nordic nation, they’re only loudhailering what John McLeod’s music has been gently telling us for decades. Born in Aberdeen and 80 last year, McLeod has always found a common soundworld across the North Sea. His latest work was commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to mark the 150th anniversary of Danish composer Carl Nielsen and it does exactly that. Fragments of Nielsen’s music (the rat-a-tat rhythms of the Clarinet Concerto, chunky themes from the Fourth Symphony) are woven together diligently and unambiguously. As per the title, the score begins in silence and grows in an arch that’s unpretentiously easy to follow. The SCO played attentively under Joseph Swensen. It was a respectful tribute, if not enormously memorable.

McLeod conceived of his piece as a conversation with Nielsen, and the performance of Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto that followed had the spark of a full-on debate. The soloist was SCO principal Maximiliano Martin, clearly enjoying being out of the back benches and into centre-stage. His opening gambit was fresh and questioning; his cadenzas had the urgency of someone gripping your arm to emphasise an intent point. Nielsen wrote the piece for a close friend and Martin clinched the fond informality of the portraiture.

Turning to Sibelius, the SCO bulked up for the Fourth Symphony’s brooding bass lines and wide vistas. Not everything in Swensen’s interpretation was convincing and not everything the strings played was clean and focused. But they did muster a big sound when it mattered, especially in the third movement, and in this symphony the broad gestures are brief and thwarted anyway, all stutters and half-starts. It was the sparseness of the SCO performance that made it striking. There’s a desolation to this symphony, a chilly, lonely introspection, that I’ve never felt so keenly.