The trend for marking composer anniversaries continues, and this year will offer us plenty of opportunities to compare and contrast the two Nordic 150 year olds, Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen. To celebrate, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra commissioned Scottish composer John McLeod, many of whose works are vividly Nordic, to write a musical tribute, giving him the choice of either composer. Nielsen’s quirkiness and unpredictability immediately appealed to McLeod, and there was considerable excitement as the new work, Out of the Silence was receiving its world première at this performance in Perth.

Maximiliano Martín © Ken Dundas
Maximiliano Martín
© Ken Dundas

Orchestral forces were slightly reduced and with only two horns and trumpets, but were augmented by an array of assorted percussion. Conductor Joseph Swensen beat silent time for a few bars until a faint but piercing high bell introduced soft high violins, joined by the other strings, sometimes as solos but eventually weaving into a dense pattern. Restless woodwinds and then brass built up the music to a fanfare, with horns and trumpets calling to each other from across the stage. There were references to the theme from the Inextinguishable Symphony but an improvised pizzicato scrabble set off a spirited exchange of conversations round the orchestra against active percussion and rolling timpani. There were more lyrical moments from solo viola and a sinuously intertwining flute and clarinet.

A second pizzicato burst brought us back to the high strings and bells of the opening, but McLeod finished it off with some humour as two piccolos had a massive disagreement in a blazing unsynchronised duet which gradually faded away until all we heard was the clicking of keys and breaths of silent air. A piece which positively demanded the audience’s full attention was given a very warm reception as John McLeod, a pivotal figure for many years on the Perth musical scene, took his bows.

Carl Nielsen wrote his clarinet concerto at a difficult time of his life. He had suffered a heart attack, seen the ravages of a world at war, was disappointed that his music had not reached a wider audience, yet he was determined to try to complete his concertos for the individual members of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet. The work, described as “music from another planet” by his son-in-law, stretches the clarinet into the far reaches of possibility, throwing up substantial challenges for the soloist. The Orchestra’s principal clarinettist Maximiliano Martín gave a mesmerising account of this difficult and turbulent work. The orchestration was a strange mix of strings, two bassoons, two horns and a really important snare drum adding urgency and anger to this battle of the keys between E and F majors. This concerto is continuous piece of music yet Martín seemed completely at ease with both the lyrical moments and the more agitated when notes sometimes poured out so fast he seemed almost blown across the stage like a man fighting a gale as he took irregular steps to and fro.

Swensen brought a mix of sensitive playing to the Adagio sections and a bright sharp focus to the agitated passages, ratcheted up by the insistent tattoos from the snare drum. Martín really impressed with his performance, and amazed with whisper-quiet playing. His short unaccompanied encore Go to Sleep my Little Child by Teobaldo Power was so beautiful the entire audience seemed to hold its breath until the last soft notes died away.

The choice to compare the birthday boys at times of crisis was interesting. After the acclaim of three symphonies, the gloom and darkness of the Fourth must have come as a shock. Sibelius had undergone surgery to remove a tumour from his throat, so perhaps fear of its return and period of convalescence was an influence. There are big sweeping moments in this work, but they are all too brief, and shadows lurk at every turn. It is a frustrating listen as fragments of ideas are created and developed in the orchestra, but then merely left in the air; the second movement just stops, seemingly in the middle of the music. In an exciting beginning, Swensen marched determinedly to the podium and with no pause instantly brought the lower strings and bassoons straight into the signature motif for the work, adding more strings and muted horns producing some grinding dissonances. This seemed to be a symphony for cellos, grumbling away in the bleak Finnish landscape, yet bursting out into song with some lovely solos like welcome shafts of sunlight. The orchestra produced and explored the familiar Sibelian texture range, particularly stark at times with desolate woodwind over searching strings. It was a very good performance, yet even when the glockenspiel chimed in the final movement to urge a move to a major key and grandeur, the shadows quickly swept in and predominated in the end.   

It was interesting to highlight the works of two composers at challenging times of their lives, and a bold move away from the obvious.