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Battistelli, Berio, Harper, Britten: Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Susan Bickley (mezzo), Garry Walker (conductor), Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, 10.3.2011 (SRT)

Fair is foul, foul is fair

Berio: Folk Songs

Harper: Pastoral (Ed./Arr. Cresswell), SCO commission, world premiere

Britten: Suite on English Folk Tunes (A time there was)

New Romantics
has been one of the key themes of this year's SCO season. The four concerts have focused primarily on 20th and 21st century composers and have featured three premieres, but raging dissonances have been thin on the ground. Instead the melodic impulse of each work has enabled their creators to be labelled Romantic composers for our age. The same was true tonight: Britten's wonderful folk song suite sat next to Berio's charming Folk Songs and a world premiere from Edward Harper.

Berio's Folk Songs are wonderfully appealing and show this composer at his best. The main melodies are someone else's but the arrangements are utterly distinctive and contain prominent parts for solo instrumentalists. The opening song features a fantastic double viola part while a haunting nocturnal harp line turns up in a few songs. The reduced forces of the orchestra allowed the writing to come through well, but there was a clear sense of fun when all sections came together for the final Azerbaijani love song. Harper's Pastoral, on the other hand, was meant to the first movement of his Third Symphony but the composer died in 2009 before he could finish it so what we heard tonight was a realisation of the score from his friend and fellow composer Lyell Cresswell. It's poignant and beautiful at the same time, using a setting of Burns' Ye Banks and Braes as its centrepiece, surrounding it with lovely string writing and a mix of traditional as well as original tunes. Both these works featured the fulsome mezzo of Susan Bickley, standing in for an indisposed Karen Cargill. Her rich, lustrous voice was poignant and affecting in the Burns setting but wonderfully versatile for the Berio songs: the American settings which opened the cycle were straight and clear, while the Mediterranean songs were more reckless. She sounded positively coarse for the Sicilian A la femminisca, which was entirely appropriate, but in every song, even the unashamedly merry ones, it was the sultry intensity of her voice that made her interpretation special.

Britten's Folk Song suite, a world away from that of Vaughan Williams, sounded great in the hands of these musicians. A band like the SCO is perfect for Britten: their reduced forces mean that the composer's fantastically inventive instrumentation gleams like polished silver and every detail was clearly audible in radiant detail tonight. The gorgeous harp effects in The Bitter Withy and the stupendous cor anglais in Lord Melbourne are only two examples, but when this final movement rose to an astonishing climax the entire orchestra showed themselves capable of coming together brilliantly.

Battistelli's Fair is Foul left me a little cold, though. An Edinburgh International Festival commission from 2009, it takes its inspiration from the blasted heath in the opening scene of Macbeth and the 20-minute long piece is a spectral evocation of a dark world. Right from the opening, featuring icy strings, muted trumpets and electronic wind sounds, the composer is very skilful in evoking a landscape of physical and emotional devastation. The tone painting is masterly in the way surging strings portray the wildness of the wind (or is it Macbeth's emotional terror?) and it's a powerfully atmospheric piece. It's rather dependent on repetition, however, particularly in runs of scales and glissandi, and it struck me as moody rather than melodic so that, ultimately, there wasn't an awful lot to it. Conductor Garry Walker seemed least comfortable here, using anodyne gestures to mark time and entries but little else. He relaxed as the evening wore on, though, and he was at his most comfortable for the bumptious encore which the orchestra tore through.

As the final concert in this New Romantics season this one confirmed the importance of contemporary music in the SCO's repertoire and reassured me that this is an orchestra that continues to push boundaries and look for new things. Their new season will be announced at the end of the month. Watch this space for details.

Simon Thompson


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