Review: Scottish Chamber Orchestra with Joseph Swensen and Alec Frank-Gemmill

First published in The Herald on 16 September, 2013

Dunbar Parish Church

There’s a fine line-up at the Lammermuir Festival this year, with some classy chamber music and vocal ensembles still to come over the next seven days: haste ye to East Lothian if you can. What the four-year-old festival still lacks is a decent venue for orchestras. The opening weekend kicked off with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in the newly refurbished Dunbar Parish Church, whose boomy acoustics are yet to be broken in. You could count the several-second reverb in the pregnant pauses of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, and the sizzling bravado of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony blurred like fireworks in a fog.

But if any orchestra could sound crisp in swimming pool acoustics it’s the SCO. Joseph Swensen drew feisty playing in Coriolan and brought a light, shapely touch to Kodaly’s Summer Evening: here the space really suited the sultry strings and warm wind solos. Swensen is a master of headline atmosphere if not the detail in between: he couldn’t muster enough tension to carry the slow introduction of Beethoven’s Fourth and there was no serenity in the symphony’s Adagio – here his baton seemed hasty and clunky. But the rambunctious third and fourth movements were full of scintillating, punchy drama.

Strauss’s First Horn Concerto made an ideal showcase for Alec Frank-Gemmill, Lammermuir’s artist-in-residence and the SCO’s star principal horn. This was sparkling, charming playing, and technically pristine to boot. The barnstorming start of the concerto can easily sound pompous but Frank-Gemmill made it playful and adventurous. His knack of keeping phrases spacious then urging them on towards the ends added a sense of cheeky flourish, and he couldn’t suppress the odd smile during orchestral sections. Joyful stuff.