It is "Macmillan month" in Glasgow which is hosting an ambitious series of concerts and events celebrating local composer Sir James MacMillan’s works. Happily spilling over into the East of Scotland, this concert of all-British music from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Richard Farnes gave us a chance to hear his shattering 2013 Viola Concerto in an intense bravura performance by its dedicatee Lawrence Power.

Richard Farnes © Jack Liebeck
Richard Farnes
© Jack Liebeck

The balance of a traditional concerto usually sees the orchestra providing the backing to allow the soloist to take the limelight, but Macmillan’s Viola Concerto makes huge demands on all the players as well as the soloist. Constructed in three numbered movements, it began with brooding dissonances and tension, percussion used ever so lightly giving an ethereal texture to the orchestral sound. Woodwind jumped in with livelier fragments animating Lawrence Power who almost danced, leaning into the first violins to steal phrases. Passages for soloist and the front desks of the violas and cellos sounded like a consort of viols at times, a timbre well-suited to Power’s 400-year old instrument.

The central movement had cycles of cacophonous orchestral outbursts and beautiful serenity, Power’s viola beautifully singing a mellow tune with a few bendy notes subliminally intertwining with the orchestral strings. The outbursts were fierce with explosive brass and thunderous percussion, Farnes crystal clear and precise in his direction to the players. The final movement began joyous, energetic and fast yet underpinned with an edgy nervousness, but after almost too much brash exuberance and fun, some introspection returned. Power’s use of harmonics, glissandi and overbowing contributed a strangeness to the atmosphere and the return of the viola and cello front desks with added flute sounded almost eastern. Power was mesmerising to watch throughout this riveting performance whether deeply lyrical or more aggressive, entirely at one with the orchestra who brought this work so vividly to life. Power came back for an encore, asking the lead cello for a soft drone for Ravel’s ravishing Kaddish, his sweet solo viola mellow and utterly haunting in its simplicity.

Earlier, George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad wove folk tunes into the rural English landscape in an elegy to his settings of A.E. Housman’s poems. Beginning out of quiet stillness with plaintive texture from the cor anglais, Farnes brought control, balance and fluidity, letting the music breathe, his gentle sweep bringing the cherry tree (from Loveliest of Trees) to its all-white Easter climax. Housman’s poems were written in 1896 but are linked in the mind with the Great War that followed. The sombre piece and its funereal drumbeats near the end might have been prophetic, for Butterworth was killed by a sniper’s bullet in the Somme in 1916.

Elgar admitted to writing his soul into his Second Symphony, yet it had a difficult first performance and took many years to be truly appreciated as a major work by the composer. With spirited conducting, Farnes urged the orchestra into a performance of blistering intensity, capturing the turbulent ever changing musical moods of the piece. In a work of fluctuating streams of consciousness, Elgar’s magisterial sweeping string themes in the long opening Allegro were followed by muscular brass before the music settled and a moodiness took over. Farnes built the movement with minute attention to details in this complex score to a thrilling shattering climax with scampering strings and blazing brass. String playing was passionate and tender in the Larghetto, a noble funeral march perhaps for King Edward VII who died during the composition of the work, Farnes balancing his forces well in the big climaxes – it was a splendid evening for the brass. The rondo danced with lively woodwind, the whole orchestra going off like a galloping horse at one point. Finally, a noble theme in the last movement with underlying sorrow finished the work off with a dignified ending. There was a special chemistry between conductor and players who rode the waves of highs and lows, catching Elgar’s spirit perfectly.