Classical: Ronald Stevenson Usher Hall, Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture
Ronald Stevenson is one of the great originals of the contemporary Scottish, and British, scenes, and the world premiere of a major piece of his is an occasion fraught with expectation. His new Cello Concerto, The Solitary Singer, has an extra and poignant significance, as the piece is dedicated to the memory of Jacqueline du Pre in what would have been the great cellist's 50th year.

Stevenson admired the "un-British" flamboyance of du Pre's playing, a quality reflected in the Concerto's many-faceted material - particularly in the central scherzo, with its imitations of the Hebrew "shofar" (ram's horn), and its unashamed use of a breezy Israeli Young Pioneers' hiking song, reminiscent of the no-nonsense briskness of one of Stevenson's mentors, the irrepressible Percy Grainger. (The Jewish flavour of this movement refers to du Pre's marriage to Daniel Barenboim). Another major influence was evident in the opening Nocturne heroique, with its Busoni-like blend of shadowed harmonies and classical gesture; here soloist Moray Welsh was trenchant in the rhythms of the slow "processional" and most expressive in the lyrical interludes. The real emotional centre of the concerto came, however, in the final Elegy. Here the composer's long-standing commitment to melody and line came to the fore, and the cello sang its way from the opening dreamlike, Gaelic-sounding, pentatonic tune in ever-ascending spirals to an ethereal conclusion, like some latter-day "lark ascending". The final melody, in fact, alludes to Stevenson's setting of a MacDiarmid poem on that most solitary of singers, the nightingale.

This was heart-warming music, played with a committed intensity by soloist Welsh, and supported in its many felicitous orchestral touches by an obviously empathising Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Stevenson's musical invention is almost overwhelmingly abundant; given his eclectic material and his attachment both to the variation principle and the idea of the One-ness of music, one wonders if some unifying structural device, such as the chaconne form used so memorably in the legendary Passacaglia on DSCH, might have helped hold the multifarious elements of the piece together. This is ungracious quibbling, though, in the face of a new concerto that does such justice to that great singer of string instruments, the cello, and to the memory of one of its greatest exponents. There are other Stevenson concertos - two for piano and one for violin - which, on the basis of this new work, surely deserve an airing.

A passacaglia we most certainly got in Brahms's 4th Symphony, which formed the second half of the concert. Walter Weller's sostenuto approach paid dividends here in terms of warmth and lusciousness of tone, while imparting an almost Brucknerian grandeur to the final brass perorations. Whereas a similar approach to the Siegfried Idyll succeeded in making Wagner sound surprisingly like Brahms - more soporific than idyllic, perhaps, but then all the more suitable for waking up to on a Christmas morning.

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