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Spirit of Scotland
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
The Hebrides op.26 (1832) [10:16]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Waverley op.2 (1827) [10:21]
Rob Roy (1831) [13:03]
Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Tam O’Shanter op.51 [07:53]
Four Scottish Dances op.59 [08:31]*
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Macbeth: Ballet Music (1865) [10:10]
Hamish MaCUNN (1868-1916)
Land of the Mountain and Flood (1887) [09:56]
Scottish National Orchestra/Sir Alexander Gibson, Philharmonia Orchestra*/Bryden Thomson*
rec. 29-30 June 1981, Henry Wood Hall (SNO Centre), Glasgow, 7-8 February 1990*, St. Jude’s Church, Central Square, London*
CHANDOS CHAN10412X [71:15]

A highly attractive and colourful sequence, excellently performed.
In 1975 Sir Alexander Gibson set down for Classics for Pleasure a version of “The Hebrides” in which the cold Atlantic breakers roiled powerfully. In 1981 the waves lapped more gently at the beginning, with a slight yielding at the end of each one followed by a slight push as the next starts. His control over phrasing has become more refined while at the other end of the scale the storm music seethes more powerfully. What was already a fine performance now has a touch of greatness.
That was the trouble with Gibson. Having followed the then SNO seasons for four years in the early 1970s I can recall occasions when it really did seem that a great conductor and orchestra were emerging. But there were many occasions that were just rather ordinary and some where he didn’t seem to give a damn. There was a Rachmaninov Second Symphony that was the talk of the town. The recording that followed was good, but not that good. There was an Elgar 1 all aflame, followed by a rushed, lackadaisical shadow of itself a few months later. The recording was somewhere between the two. But still, when he was on form …
Berlioz had a considerable importance in his career. It was his Scottish Opera performance of “The Trojans” that put the opera on the map, ahead of Sir Colin Davis’s Covent Garden productions. It was a landmark for him, for Scottish Opera and for Janet Baker. I recall a concert performance of the “Royal Hunt and Storm” where, with the arrival of the storm, the whole orchestra suddenly caught fire. It was truly incandescent. He’s on pretty spiffing form here. In “Waverley” he makes no concessions to the orchestra with a main tempo that would have stretched Munch’s Bostonians. The SNO cope pretty well. In “Rob Roy” he allows no pomposity in the “Scots wha hae” sections while he dwells tenderly and lovingly on the “Harold in Italy” theme. Poetry wasn’t always his strong point but it’s not lacking here.
In between these “Tam O’Shanter” goes with tremendous panache. In a recent letter to “Gramophone” (February 2007) a reader recalled how, at the end of the first Scottish performance of this piece, in 1955, greeted with wild enthusiasm, Gibson turned to the public, said “Not bad for a Sassenach!” and repeated the finale. It doesn’t seem to have staled with time.
The Verdi is a pleasant reminder of Gibson’s work in the opera house, though I doubt if he included the ballet music in his Scottish Opera performances of Macbeth. Verdi would probably have agreed. Forced to provide ballets for the Paris productions of all his works he obliged like the professional he was, but it’s the least interesting music on the disc.
To eke out the original LP timing, we get Bryden Thomson’s recordings of Arnold’s “Scottish Dances”. These lively, sensible performances are OK until you get out Arnold’s own versions on Lyrita. With tempi that would raise eyebrows if he were not the composer thereof, he finds almost symphonic dimensions in these apparently innocent little pieces.
MacCunn’s overture, with its perky main theme and warmly romantic secondary theme both equally memorable, was a hit in its own day. For a while it became so again when the BBC chose the opening of Gibson’s first recording, from the 1960s (EMI) as the signature tune for “Sutherland’s Law”. I don’t have the earlier recording to hand and I heard him give an over-hasty performance of it in Edinburgh but all is well here.
With brilliant recording and highly informative notes by Andrew Keener, who would be unlikely to find time from record-producing for such writing today, this is a fine reminder that the Gibson legacy is worth another look – but only the best of it.
Christopher Howell


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