Few quotations have surprised, delighted and saddened me as much as this remark by Schoenberg: "There is nothing I long for more intensely than to be taken for a better sort of Tchaikovsky. People should know my tunes and whistle them." This was one of several anecdotes offered by Discovering Music's Stephen Johnson in the pre-concert talk on "The New Century". In the first of two concerts, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra presented a programme of works by Schoenberg, Berg and Schubert. Schubert? In the new century? Yes, arranged by Webern. Discovered only in 1931, the Deutsche Tänze, D.820 were published by Universal, who also commissioned Webern's orchestral arrangement. This strikes me as an inspired publishing decision, for who could oxygenate Schubert's piano original more than Webern? It was also an inspired piece of programming by the BBC SSO. In addition to the pleasure inherent in this fine performance, traces of Viennese dance could be more easily spotted throughout the evening, regardless of radical change in musical language. No. 4 teased the listener as to whether the metre was in two or three. Both Webern's elegant orchestration and the orchestra's fine playing were enhanced by the City Halls' wonderful acoustic which offers a rare mix of warmth and clarity. Let's hope that the Radio 3 recording captures this. The date of broadcast remains to be determined.

Portrait of Arnold Schoenberg by Egon Schiele
Portrait of Arnold Schoenberg by Egon Schiele

Ilya Gringolts joined the BBC SSO in Schoenberg's Violin Concerto, Op. 36 (1935-36). The technical demands of this work are such that Schoenberg had to stress that it had been written for a normal five-fingered hand. Technical difficulty can result in an uneasy experience for an audience. However, in the hands of a player of Gringolts' calibre, this dimension simply rendered the performance all the more thrilling. The dare-devilry of the cadenzas was matched by Gringolts' immense musicality. Even the quiet moments were electrifying, especially the opening of the final cadenza, which simultaneously features double-stopping and trills. The re-entry of the orchestra was so explosive that the gentleman to my right jumped. I saw in Gringolts' demeanour something I hadn't witnessed before in a concerto performance. In orchestral passages soloists can often be seen 'gathering themselves' in a variety of ways: releasing bodily tensions; listening for the point of re-entry; simply remaining still. Gringolts seemed as engaged in these moments as when in full flight. He really seemed to thrill to the orchestra's playing, and he clearly loves the work. This joy was reciprocated in the beaming faces of the BBC SSO, particularly the violinists. The audience, healthy in size but not really a capacity crowd, despite free entry, responded very warmly to this fine performance. If you ever needed to disabuse anyone of the notion that serial music is passionless academe, this work would be a good place to begin.

When I first came upon the Second Viennese School, I intuitively warmed to Berg more than the other members. His music seemed somehow to leave a door open for tonality's ghost. I was therefore surprised to discover that, in addition to serial calculations, his Lyric Suite (1925-26) contains an extra mathematical dimension. Years after its publication, the annotations of this five-movement string quartet, revealed musical cyphers relating to a romantic obsession with Hanna Fuchs, the wife of a friend. Berg arranged the central three movements for string orchestra in 1928-29 and it is this version which the strings of the BBC SSO played. With fewer sections to balance, Conductor Ilan Volkov's pleasing economy of technique was evident. A cue here and an indication of phrase-shaping there seemed all that was required. The strings benefited greatly from the warm acoustic and the sensitive ensemble playing was very impressive. The latter came to the fore particularly in the closing bars, which feature a haunting chord of quietly gripping ambiguity.

Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16, brought the concert to a close. The piece was written in 1909, and the composer reduced the work for normal-sized orchestra forty years later. These pieces shimmer with colour: particularly, and unsurprisingly, the central movement, "Farben" ("colour"). Inspired by sunlight on water, it features a five-note chord which feels neither static nor in need of resolution. Passed from section to section, the chord undulates with ever-changing hues. The delicacy and balance of the orchestra here were excellent. The harmonies in this movement, and the second "Vergangenes" ("The Past") were, in odd moments, not a million miles from the jazz arranger Gil Evans, particularly in the colourful use of E flat bass clarinet, wonderfully played by Simon Butterworth. Were I Schoenberg's ghost, I wouldn't worry too much about the lack of whistling. People transfixed by beauty, such as I was in these movements, rarely whistle, and their stillness is harder earned than the planting of a catchy tune.

The New Century: Schubert, Schoenberg and BergAlan Coady2012-05-30Alan Coady reviews the BBC SSO in The New Century: a programme of works by Schubert, Schoenberg and Berg in Glasgow's City Halls.4