The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s live-streamed concert Echoes of Scotland showcased three pieces by enthusiastic visitors to Scotland. The works were interspersed by conversations between composer Sally Beamish, conductor Alpesh Chauhan and viola soloist Timothy Ridout which, though brief, made some illuminating points about the music which enriched the whole experience. A comment about the centrality of music to Scottish culture seemed especially pertinent.

Alpesh Chauhan conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra
© BBC/Barbican | Mark Allan

Mendelssohn visited Scotland in 1829 but completed his “Scottish” Symphony only some 13 years later. It is not always an easy work to pull off effectively but Chauhan clearly understands it and was able to communicate it to the online audience. He knew not to rush. The Scottish has to unfold at a measured pace and trying to force it can destroy its magic – Chauhan got it just right. As a result, the more dramatic episodes of the first movement contrasted more strongly with the reflective, contemplative parts. A burbling clarinet tune ushered in the cheerful second movement, hinting at Scottish folk tunes without actually quoting any. The third movement was smooth and flowing, Chauhan lovingly shaped the beautiful melodies. In the lively finale he enabled us to wonder at the subtlety of Mendelssohn’s orchestration, using a full orchestra with grace and transparency. The grand ending was remarkably effective.

Timothy Ridout and the BBC Symphony Orchestra
© BBC/Barbican | Mark Allan

Fascination with Scotland did not end with the 19th century, though. The remainder of the programme featured two English composers who made their homes north of the border. Virtuoso viola player Timothy Ridout played Sally Beamish’s third concerto for viola, Under the Wing of the Rock. This haunting work from 2006 was inspired by a Scottish ballad telling the tale of a soldier who, in the aftermath of the Glencoe massacre, was ordered to kill a crying child. He heard the child’s mother singing a lullaby and instead of killing the child, he gave them his cloak and killed an animal to show blood on his sword. As a result mother and child survived. They are said to have descendants still living. Ridout began with a long unaccompanied solo before he was joined by the strings of the BBC SO. The middle section was more animated until the piece returned to a slower conclusion for Ridout, with the gentlest of accompaniments from the rest of the orchestra. Ridout made the most of the rich timbre of his instrument in an intense piece which gave him scarcely a moment’s pause. This concerto surely deserves to be programmed more frequently.

Piper Robert Jordan in the Barbican stalls
© BBC/Barbican | Mark Allan

The concert concluded with Peter Maxwell Davies’ glorious Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, his “picture postcard” from the island of Hoy where he attended a friend’s wedding. The orchestra depicts the wedding guests battling with bad weather but that is put to the background as they enjoy the company, celebrations and generous amounts of whisky. Chauhan commented that it was a hoot to play, even in rehearsal, and listening to the performance I could not doubt it. The players revelled in their many solos and dislocated traditional tunes. Finally as proceedings were winding down a piper in ceremonial dress entered through the auditorium. In most performances this would elicit gasps from the audience. Today its effect was more poignant as, sadly, the Barbican is still closed to the public. Let us look forward to days when we can once again enjoy convivial social gatherings like weddings and live orchestral concerts as well.


This performance was reviewed from the Barbican's live video stream

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