Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Glasgow

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The Independent Culture

Seeking northern lights rather than existing solely as a satellite of British musical life, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra enjoys fruitful links with a pan-nordic constellation of orchestras and composers. The latest collaboration, strengthening historic musical ties between Scotland and Scandinavia, was the joint commission between the SCO, Oslo Philharmonic and Icelandic Symphony Orchestra of a major new Cello Concerto by the leading Icelandic composer Haflidi Hallgrimsson.

Appropriately, since he is also well-known for his paintings and drawings, one of Hallgrimsson's canvases formed a lit backdrop to the concerto's UK premieres in Glasgow and Edinburgh, complementing its sonic diversity. First performed last autumn at Norway's Ultima Festival by Truls Mork, one of the most eloquent cellists around, the concerto makes an immediate impression as well written, imaginatively scored and rich in musical ideas. A cellist himself (formerly principal with the SCO, in fact) Hallgrimsson needed no lessons in how to breathe life into a cello line or how to bind together the sometimes erratic paths of soloist and orchestra. Against the powerful cello argument advocated by Mork, John Storgards encouraged a characterful orchestral response, notable for its subtle dynamic shading.

The kernel of a Grieg lullaby that crept into Hallgrimsson's subconscious while he worked on the concerto provides an invisible thread through its substantial single movement. But with its crepuscular colouring, especially the tuned percussion and skeletal orchestral textures, its menacing rhythmic tread and its growling, prowling, pouncing cello line, the concerto is more like a full-scale nightmare. Frighteningly intense at times, in the edgy brass and sinister drums, it seems to mask dark feelings that the subdued ending on the solo cello's low C string only confirms.

A string Cantabile by the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks was an effective concert-opener. If his stated intention here, "to tell in eight minutes how beautiful and harmonious the world is", didn't quite come off, that was no reflection on the lucid and concentrated playing of the SCO strings. Completing an evening that confirmed that encounters with our friends up north are well worth pursuing, the SCO players made a persuasive case for a Norwegian rarity. Grieg wrote on the score of his early C minor Symphony that it "must never be performed", perhaps because, in its Germanic echoes of Schumann and Mendelssohn, it is worlds away from the nationalistic voice he later established. In its robust reworking of structural, textural and motivic gestures popular at the time, it is not much more than a patchwork of romantic-symphonic clichés. But when played and conducted with such affection, it comes across as great fun, particularly the catchy Intermezzo.