Hotfoot from conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony the night before, Alpesh Chauhan turned his attention to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for tonight’s Prom, the orchestra’s second outing here. 

Alpesh Chauhan
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Canadian composer Nicole Lizée’s percussion concerto, Blurr Is the Colour of My True Love’s Eyes, received its European premiere here, having been first performed in Ottawa in June – the work was co-commissioned by the BBC and Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra. An intriguing piece, running at around 30 minutes in tonight’s performance, it certainly maintains interest, and the sight of Colin Currie hastily moving between his numerous stations ranged across the front of the stage added visual drama to the performance. Sadly, from the side stalls, some of the action was obscured by the tubular bells, so I couldn’t always identify what particular box or gizmo Currie was shaking or hitting (was that spoons hitting the vibraphone?). 

Colin Currie
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

But no matter, from a gentle start of sliding strings and finger-clicking orchestral players, we were then treated to a kaleidoscope of slick effects and novel textures. With many stop-start moments, rapid speeding up and slowing down and jarring rhythmic complexities, the intended evocation of the trickery of stop-motion animation became clear. There was also some impressive whistling from the brass players as well as foot-stomping, clapping, finger-clicking, singing and shouts of ‘hey!’ from around the stage. In a showy climax, the lead cellist came forward to take up the purple cello lying centre stage, and whilst he played, Currie proceeded to drum and tap the instrument. By and large balance was fine, apart from an early passage on the marimba which was not really audible over the orchestra. Chauhan steered the orchestra with precision through the complexities of rhythm and rapid tempo shifts and Currie’s infectious dynamism made for an exciting performance.

Colin Currie and purple cello
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Bruckner’s Adagio from his String Quintet in F major, here in Skrowaczewski’s arrangement for strings, provided touching calm after the busyness of the Lisée. This was certainly a mood shift, and the BBC SSO strings gave us a demonstration of their warm tones and some incredibly quiet playing. Their extreme pianissimi left a few ends of phrases a little fragile in terms of ensemble, but the pay-off was an impressive intensity of emotion, with Chauhan weaving the string textures together with confident command.

The message (if there is one) of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5 is hard to pin down, obscured by multiple layers of deception – Shostakovich trying to placate the Soviet regime, self-justify and possible self-delude, in terms of what was or wasn’t “the truth”. But there is certainly darkness, mockery and, in the almost unbearable pain of the slow movement, surely an expression of psychological oppression. It therefore requires a level of bite and intensity in performance to really hit home. Tonight’s performance certainly wasn’t run of the mill, with everything in the right place and confident playing throughout, strong solo work from many, bright brass, and once again, some extremely quiet string playing. But was there enough discomfort in the second movement’s macabre dance, or enough searing pain in the otherwise exemplary slow movement, despite deeply mournful woodwind solos? Chauhan’s tempi were not slow as such, but occasionally the slightest notch down, and the final climax had the necessary weight but needed a touch extra drive. Highlights included the brave pianissimo first violins and the crazy string fugue in the opening movement, and the clarinet and bassoon quartet in the third movement. A highly assured performance that just didn’t quite reach the full height of intensity on the night.