Pre-concert talks need not brim with revelation to be rewarding. Another’s perspective can be enough to alter perception of a programme and resonance thereafter. Such was the case with Dr. Elaine Kelly's talk before this SCO concert entitled “The Pity of War”. Key to reflections on the relationship between war and music was diversity of approach. Unlike history, the music of war is not always written by (or about) winners. This was certainly the case with Sally Beamish's 2013 Flodden, commissioned by the SCO to commemorate the 500 year anniversary of this bloody battle between Scotland and England. Two instrumental Interludes, depicting pre-battle dawn and Scottish defeat, separate three vocal movements which relay the grief of those left behind. Shuna Scott Sendall's immensely powerful soprano voice was ideally placed to portray the full range of grief from heart-sore compassion for fellow sufferers to uncontrollable rage. Even when pitted against high woodwind lines she could be clearly heard. The musical language felt tonal, albeit angular and dissonant, as one would imagine the subject matter to require. Beamish, an ex-viola player for the SCO looked delighted both with the successful performance of her new work and the huge audience response which followed. During the talk Beamish recommended that we take the opportunity to view Iona Leishman's powerful paintings also commemorating the anniversary. I spent the interval looking at these, one of which shared the evening’s Wilfred Owen-inspired programme title.

Sally Beamish © Ashley Coombes
Sally Beamish
© Ashley Coombes

Pacifist Frank Bridge’s 1915 tone poem, Summer, which followed the interval, was composed with escape and solace in mind. Its pastoral character certainly sounded far from contemporary conflict in muddier French fields. While the directional feel of tonality was unmistakable, Bridge’s modal writing and dissonance ensured a hazy impressionism. SCO Conductor Emeritus, Joseph Swensen, conveyed the work’s airiness with very relaxed direction which suggested well rehearsed musical consensus. This is a beautifully orchestrated piece, oxygenated by contributions from harp and celeste. The balance of strings and wind was perfect and I especially enjoyed the lovely paired clarinet work of Nicholas Cox and Rebecca Whitener.

Following some stage management, SCO strings returned for a performance of Richard Strauss’ elegiac 1945 Metamorphosen. Last on, as one would expect, was Swensen, now bearing a violin from which he directed. Solo lines were shared with SCO Assistant Leader, Ruth Crouch. Direction was minimal which, in this darkly rhapsodic work for twenty-three solo strings, was testament to the wonderful musicianship of those present. This was as evident in observation of the work’s sometimes volatile dynamic contrasts as it was in the necessary absence of rigid pulse and the ensemble skill that requires. Avoiding excess must be tricky in this piece and I felt that the SCO managed this superbly. What was truly impressive was navigation of Strauss’ ambiguous harmonies, which convey the hollowing subsidence of grief while avoiding sentimentality.

The destruction of Germany's opera houses was clearly a major factor in Strauss’ bereavement. However, as Dr. Kelly suggested in her pre-concert talk, the score's simple and non-specific inscription, “In Memoriam” hints at additional possibilities: a farewell to a way of life; to culture; to a certain view of humanity. In this light the programme’s opening item seemed, to me at least, a matching bookend.

The title of Britten's 1973 Suite on English Folk Songs: A Time There Was contains the opening clause of Thomas Hardy’s poem, Before Life and After. Britten end-of-life title choice seems to resonate with Hardy’s nostalgia for a prelapsarian innocence – in Hardy’s words, “Before the birth of consciousness, When all went well”. The result is a suite of five very varied movements which wring maximum contrast from orchestral colour, largely by omission; only the outer movements use the entire orchestra. The first of these, Cakes and Ale, contains military music of the trumpets and drums variety. For a moment I was amazed at the strangely complex sounds being produced by only two trumpets until I noticed two horns on the opposite side of the stage contributing to this unusual combination. A Scot whose heart unaccountably swells with pride at the lushness of English string writing, I was moved by the excellent playing in “The Bitter Withy”, particularly when characteristic Britten darkness steered it as skilfully from sentimentality as these same excellent musicians were later to do in the Strauss. The wind players produced a menacingly dark slip-jig-like sound in “Hankin Booby”, before violins alone clinched the bucolically strident antiphonal cheer of “Hunt the Squirrel”. The plaintive “Lord Melbourne”, which featured beautiful clarinet and cor anglais solos from Nicholas Cox and Rosie Staniforth respectively, brought this excellent suite to a close – Britten the pacifist thus linking centenary compositional celebrations to quincentenary conflict commemoration. Fine programming.