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Borodin, Sibelius, Beethoven: Henning Kraggerud (violin), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Joseph Swensen (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 15.10.2009 (SRT)

Borodin: In the Steppes of Central Asia

Sibelius: Violin Concerto

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5

Joseph Swensen was the first conductor that I remember hearing with the SCO. He piloted the orchestra through a marvellous Beethoven cycle in 1999 and I had high hopes for his special guest appearance tonight as it included Beethoven’s fifth symphony. However he seems to have become much more excitable during the last ten years as he kept his foot on the gas for pretty much the whole work. This made the first movement exciting and pacy but it made the finale feel rushed, without the necessary breadth for the majesty to register. Consequently the effect when the extra instruments enter felt, if anything, a little breathless and the final pages were something of a scamper. Even the Andante was seemed bothered, though the final flowering of the string melody was lovely.

Swensen’s reading of the Sibelius Violin Concerto was fairly hard-driven too and to my ears it felt as though he focused on the climaxes (and what climaxes they were!) with little view to the wider architecture of the music. Sibelius’ seemless flow of music, where one melody can easily run into another, needs the long view more than most concertos and more than once I felt a bit at sea with this conductor’s view, except in the finale which buzzed along urgently. No complaints whatsoever about Henning Kraggerud’s playing, though. This young master is more than equal to Sibelius’ fiendish technical demands. His seamless runs and fiendish double-stops were fired off with aplomb but, significantly, without any of the dancing or jiving that often accompanies instrumental soloists. He held the audience spellbound and they rewarded him with a remarkable ovation.

So somewhat surprisingly the all round finest performance of the night was the light opener, a truly lovely account of Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia. True, it’s hard to go wrong with this piece, with its colourful instrumental textures and insistently buoyant rhythm. I was especially impressed with the particularly fruity cor anglais solo which introduced the second, more “oriental” theme, instantly transporting us to the plains of the East. The moment where both themes came together on full orchestra was impressively majestic and the fade into the distance was magical, with more than a tinge of regret. What a pity that this big view wasn’t applied to the bigger works!

Simon Thompson 

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