The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s concerts in St Andrews are usually full-house events in the University’s Younger Hall, with recent repertoire covering Mozart piano concertos and Haydn symphonies at some length. This evening’s programme promised something quite different: four works celebrating ‘words and music’, as part of the StAnza poetry festival. The first thing noticeable on arrival was the lack of audience, with the hall perhaps only two thirds full. Given the popularity of SCO concerts and relatively small size of the hall, this was a surprise, but perhaps explainable by the fact that, of the four composers featured in the programme, only one (Britten) is likely to be familiar to most.

The concert opened with Georgio Battistelli’s Fair is foul, four is fair (2009). The piece depicts the three witches on the heath in the opening scene of Macbeth. The composer writes of his composition: ‘Iniquitous intrigues, conspiratorial obsessions and an imposed violence are transformed into a sound that unveils... a landscape of symphonic theatre’. The work is very descriptive of the scene, from the opening flute flutter-tonguing to the wild strings and dissonant brass. The large percussion section gave aggressive tam-tam crescendos and some fine use of marimba and conga flourishes. A clear influence on the piece is Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bald Mountain, of which Fair is foul is highly reminiscent, but markedly more unhinged. Battistelli’s score portrays brilliantly the thunder, fear and scheming of the scene, and the SCO players achieved the perfect balance of precision in the obscure rhythms and passionate terror. Garry Walker’s conducting drew out every passion available, and the result was very successful.

Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs is a suite of eleven short movements for orchestra and mezzo-soprano, consisting of both genuine and inspired songs from, amongst others, the USA, Armenia, Sardinia and Azerbaijan. The songs discuss love (and attached practicalities), religion, nature and sorrow. Many of the songs are funny: La Donna Ideale instructs a man to verify before marriage a woman’s family, manners, figure and dowry, and in Lo Fiolaire (Auvergne), the singer recounts giving a shepherd a supplementary kiss.

The composer’s treatment of the music is superb. Despite the large orchestra, the music was often scored simply for voice and harp as in Rossignolet du Bois. The front desk viola players, in some wonderful writing for small groups of strings, played with the flair and passion required for folk songs. This was real chamber music, with much eye contact and interaction between players. The percussion section was divided, with tam-tam, tubular bells and side drums opposing each other on both sides of the stage, which added greatly to the conversational effect. The final movement, an upbeat Azerbaijani love song which ‘defies translation’, was clearly enjoyed by the performers. The melody and accompaniments flew around the stage, with a side-drum figure being passed across the space constantly. Karen Cargill is a singer perhaps more used to large operas symphonies; forthcoming performances include Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with the BBCSSO and No. 8 with the Berliner Philharmoniker. She sang this more unusual repertoire with a superb range of moods. The carefree, folky sounds (‘tralala’, ‘lirou la diri’ etc) were at times innocent, wise, cynical and, suggestive of Bizet’s Carmen, devious. As Walker drove the performers to a joyous close, I expected a large ovation, but a very reserved audience did not call Walker and Cargill back to the stage even once.

Edward Harper’s Pastoral, completed by Lyell Cresswell, is the first movement of what was intended to be his Third Symphony. It is distinctly Scottish, closing with a setting of Burns’ Ye Banks and Braes. This follows a fanfare, a vocal passage and a striking passage for two violas and violin. Cresswell’s orchestration is very effective; the desired atmospheres are clear and the timbres complemented Cargill’s soft treatment of Burns’ words. However, though the individual sections in themselves were successful, they seemed to lack connection, so that the work felt more like a suite of five short movements, rather than the first movement of a symphony. The second movement of Harper’s symphony was to be based on a fugal arrangement of a poem in which Sir Walter Scott and Burns discuss their reputations. It would have been very interesting to see where Harper, or indeed Cresswell, might have taken the remainder of the work. Despite the possible lack of cohesion, though, the closing setting of Ye Banks, on a bed of open fifths in the strings, was very moving: ‘Thou minds me o’ departed joys/ Departed, never to return.’ It is all the more poignant given Cresswell’s programme note: ‘Perhaps the most moving thing to see in these sketches is the way in which the handwriting becomes more and more frail as the manuscript progresses... [Harper] completed the first movement only five days before he died... Realising this score is the very least I could do for such a close friend’.

Benjamin Britten’s Suite on English Folk Tunes closed the programme. The music is unmistakeably the composer’s. ‘Cakes and Ale’, an excitable flash of woodwind, strings and percussion, does not, perhaps, portray what the title subject as might be expected, but was played with impressive coordination and rythmicity. A mediaeval scene is created by ‘Hankin Booby’, scored for wind ensemble above a tabor-like percussion feature. ‘Hunt the Squirrel’ is much like an American barn-dance, marking a return to excitability, before ‘Lord Melbourne’, a sombre close to the suite. The final movement featured wonderfully lyrical cor anglais playing, and a timpani figure reminiscent of the Mahler Wayfarer’s funeral march. Like the Harper’s Pastoral, Britten’s music is touching for being the work of a dying man. The composer complained of the exertion required to reach the top of the page, “so all the flutes and piccolos tend to get left out”.

The concert closed with a brief and far more cheery Bartok Romanian Dance as an encore, though the lacklustre applause barely deserved it. A small number of people had walked out during the dissonances of the first few minutes of the concert. This was a real shame, and I hope it will not cause the SCO to flee to the known formula of popular overture and Haydn symphony. The evening was moving and thrilling, and opened up a small genre of modern composition to an audience who were perhaps not ready for it. Walker, Cargill and the SCO played with supreme command of a wide range of emotions and retained the folk mood whilst employing a very impressive orchestral timbre.