Classical: A mix of energies

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The Independent Culture
THE BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra seem to have hit on a formula for their first two visits to this year's Proms: established orchestral work, new string concerto, oblique symphony. After Monday's mix of Sibelius, James MacMillan's two-years-new Cello Concerto and Nielsen's Sixth Symphony, their Tuesday concert, under Martyn Brabbins, led up to Elgar's Enigma Variations via Rachmaninov's equally enigmatic Third Symphony and Inside Story, an impressive new double concerto for violin and viola by Piers Hellawell.

The title is a bit of a tease: there's no hidden plot. The story is the material itself, but as the composer revealed in a pre-Prom talk, he wanted to avoid the associations that come with the label "concerto". But a concerto it was, and a very good one, which kept first-rate soloists, Clio Gould and Philip Dukes, ferociously busy for most of its 20 minutes.

Inside Story is cast in two movements. In the first, the orchestra generates a growing tide of energy, all bubbling, effortless rhythms, chirruping and chugging, on top of which the soloists' ceaseless dialogue surfs ever- onwards. The second movement telescopes three parts: an impassioned cadenza for the soloists, a calmer passacaglia-like section of evolving episodic strength, and coda. The marvellously inventive scoring, which requires a glittering array of percussion (including a bowl of chick peas stirred with a chopstick) and also offers the flugelhorn a rare spot in the limelight, calls to mind the sun-dappled, Mediterranean textures of Walton, with that same warm glow at the centre. And despite the busy surfaces, the harmonic direction was never in doubt: the music knew where it was going, and set about the journey with that rarest of qualities these days, good humour.

And the surprises weren't over. Martyn Brabbins' reading of the Enigma Variations was full of all sorts of interesting insight - phrases shaped slightly differently, little details often overlooked - that brought the work up fresh and fascinating. No Edwardian pomp, just the music, straight and sincere.

Sincerity oozes from Poulenc's opera Dialogues des Carmelites, which followed on Wednesday, in a touring, semi-staged production from the Opera National du Rhin under their English conductor Jan Latham-Koenig. Its harrowing, historically true, subject - a community of nuns in revolutionary France who go to the guillotine rather than renounce their faith - meant much to Poulenc, who had recently rediscovered his own Catholicism. But he lacked the self-discipline necessary to give the tale its full potential impact. The pace is slow, even static, and the orchestral fabric as unrelieved as sticky rice. Poulenc's rare big gestures frighten him back into inactivity. And there are odd lapses of taste: the final scene, for example, where the nuns walk to their deaths, is introduced by a jaunty, Prokofievan march.

But that ending, with 15 whumps from the guillotine gradually extinguishing the chorus, is undeniably moving - - it gets you in the gut. As the curate said of his egg, parts of it are very good indeed.

Tuesday's Prom will be rebroadcast today on Radio 3 at 2pm.