Review: Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Manze / Frank-Gemmill

First published in the Guardian on 6 March, 2017

City Halls, Glasgow

James MacMillan’s new Concertino for Horn and Strings — I say new, but really it’s a souped-up version of his Horn Quintet (2007) — is like a doleful hunting trip played out in real-time theatrics. The soloist begins and ends nowhere to be seen: at the premiere, Alec Frank-Gemmill legged it from balcony to stage in time for his second entry then disappeared behind the back of the audience, repeating a sad little phrase until it was impossible to tell whether he was playing or not.

The Concertino amounts to more than clever stage directions. If the traditional concerto soloist is heroic and the traditional horn part rallies the troops, MacMillan has created an anti-hero whose hunting calls are regretful and ultimately thwarted. Slight and striking preludes have been added to the original work — an un-MacMillanian lesson in less is more — with the violas setting the tone in a whispered quartet then a blistering passage for cellos and the SCO’s formidable principal bassist Nikita Naumov. Technically the horn part doesn’t stretch Frank-Gemmill but he played with terrific control and nuance.

In the rest of the programme — Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Beethoven’s Second Symphony — the strings sounded notably good. Limber, alert, energised. Andrew Manze was conducting, a violinist himself, but it wasn’t just that. This was the first concert in my memory where the SCO string seats were all filled by players appointed to fill them. It was a solid section, and sounded it.