The deceptively simple format of theme and variations is appealing as it challenges the listener to follow the twists and turns as the composer lets the imagination run loose. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra bookended the programme with variations from Brahms and Dvořák, but the indisposition of Martyn Brabbins meant that the Scottish premiere of Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for MCB, the centrepiece of this concert, will have to wait for another day. John Wilson, outgoing BBC SSO Associate Guest Conductor was happily able to step in at short notice.

John Wilson
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

The stately St Anthony Chorale on woodwind, brass and lower pizzicato strings opened Brahms Variations on a theme by Haydn, Wilson keeping the performance tight and measured as the variations arrived. The range of violin sound is a key to the piece, Wilson leaning over the sections and coaxing moods from lushly rich string resonance to lively and strident attack. The whole orchestra blended well through the variations, bright woodwind dancing along and the five horns adding exhilarating depth to the sound. The theme may not have been Haydn’s, but was certainly an earworm, fun to follow its development through to the finale which almost ran down like a clock before a final flourish.

Britten’s evocative Serenade for tenor, horn and strings was a respite from theme spotting, Principal Horn Alberto Menéndez Escribano and tenor Stuart Jackson joining a cut back string orchestra for this hauntingly theatrical piece. Escribano conjured the dreamy world of half-forgotten memories, casting a nocturnal spell with his natural horn, capturing Britten’s other worldliness perfectly in the Prologue’s brief bars. Jackson is an imposing Paul Bunyan of a figure, yet his tenor was light and thoughtful with perfect diction, drawing us into Charles Cotton’s world of brambles and tall cedars in Pastoral. The Nocturne was luminous, jabbing strings setting Tennyson’s echoes flying, Escribano’s beautifully played horn passages and Jackson’s bright tenor setting the evening scene brilliantly. Darkness deepened in Blake’s Elegy, the performers capturing its strangeness, but the strength of the strings and whooping horn overwhelmed the voice in the Dirge. Jackson’s tenor was moving in Keats’ final Sonnet summoning sleep to end the cares of the day, Escribano’s natural horn finding the final ethereal notes somewhere deeply offstage.

Dvořák’s Serenade for Wind Instruments replaced Pictured Within, which was ably conducted by the new RCS Conducting Fellow, Sergej Bolkhovets. Scored for pairs of oboes, clarinets and bassoons, contra bassoon and four horns with cello and double bass accompaniment, the sound was an intriguing mixture. Flowing conducting from Bolkhovets gave room for the music to breathe, oboes and clarinets getting the lion’s share of the limelight. A bright march and dynamic Menuetto was followed by the horns underpinning the andante. Descending major and minor scales in the woodwind featured in the finale before the march returned, wrapping up the work.

Finally, we were back to the full orchestra, trombones making their first appearance for Dvořák Symphonic Variations. The work is a theme with 27 variations, all running together like a single symphonic movement beginning with bold unison but developing into a folk dance, Wilson clearly enjoying the tunes. Bright flute work, soulful cellos, a lovely soaring solo violin from the Leader and a boisterous trombone variation were signposts along the way. The work was rather bland at the start, but interest developed and the final fugue was exciting and animated, the big brass holding off until the last bars.