To end the spring season of a splendid variety of streamed concerts, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra was back at full strength with Sir James MacMillan on the podium to perform a Finnish-dominated programme of Sibelius' SuiteThe Tempest and the Scottish premiere of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Percussion Concerto, “Incantations”, written for – and performed by – Colin Currie.

Colin Currie plays Rautavaara's Incantations
© Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Also receiving its first Scottish performance, MacMillan’s Ein Lämpein verlosch is a short powerful setting for string orchestra of Friedrich Rückert’s poem set by Mahler in Kindertotenleider on the death of a child. The poem sees a lamp going out, but embraces the sun’s light which continues to shine. The thin, keening strings over soft glissando harmonics set a bleak tone, but the piece picked up an inner strength after some silent pauses as if to gather its grief and move forward. Passionate strings reached a determined muscular unison in the sun’s bright rays, the strings scurrying back to a thin calm and ending on two simple chords, but leaving us with a soft dissonant final chord, a poignant and difficult memory.

Sixty year-old Sibelius was asked to write incidental music to a performance of The Tempest at Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre, the resulting suite, his penultimate large work, was a resounding success – after Tapiola, there was thirty years of silence. The original had 34 numbers and lush orchestral forces, but this more modest second version combines several of the themes into a more compact The Tempest Suite II. Instruments take on the play’s characters, notably the harp for Prospero, and the timpani, loudly crashing in as the storm but softly rumbling throughout. The music is filmic, harp and flutes conjuring a dreamy Chorus of the Winds before the storm breaks. A solemn Intermezzo with muted strings reflected Alonso’s misdeeds, but a light and airy waltz punctuated by harp glissandi for the nymphs lifted the mood to celebrate the engagement of Miranda and Ferdinand. A stately portrait of Prospero with slightly unsettling harmonies was followed by two songs, the horns and clarinet jauntily adding colour. Simple textures for Miranda and some stormy horns from the naiads brought us to the final dance with woodwinds and an insistent marching beat from the timpani, MacMillan building the players to a climax before dying away.

Sir James MacMillan conducts the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
© Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Rautavaara wrote Incantations for Colin Currie, the two men having a hugely productive meeting in Helsinki in 2007, the composer rather frail but greeting the percussionist warmly, Currie thrilled to shake the hand that in turn shook that of Sibelius. In three movements, the themes in this concerto are powerfully sweeping, passionate and expansive, the SCO players energetically painting a cinematic musical wash for Currie to ornament. Opening with a bold theme underpinned with dissonance, Currie took over with purposeful marimba and then vibraphone. Moving to drums and cup-chimes the music became uneasy with four-mallet chord sequences on the vibraphone before the theme returned in a thrilling climax, Currie deftly alternating between marimba and a set of tubular bells, a second set played by orchestral percussion only adding to the excitement. Strings and flutes wove a soft texture through the calmer espressivo centre movement, Currie adding vibraphone with nifty mallet changes varying the tone, the oboes and clarinet emerging to add depth. A rolling marimba in a jerky rhythmic dance introduced the final animato movement, MacMillan guiding the players as they created an urgent soundscape. Rautavaara gave the composition of the cadenza to Currie, a double bass note signalling the start of a physically exhilarating tour of the array of instruments before the climax of the first movement was revisited in grandiose style. You can see why Currie describes the piece as a wonderful adventure, as he was a picture of sheer enjoyment.

The entire SCO digital series has touched some new repertoire and offered a platform for players to introduce music and lead chamber ensembles. Taking the positives and looking across the full orchestra, faces are now more familiar and I feel that we have really come to know and build a relationship with the musicians making up the band.    

This performance was reviewed from the SCO's video stream