Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

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If you can say something well, why sing it? It is a question that could be levelled at several composers, notably Benjamin Britten in the War Requiem, a work that contains much sublime music and a great deal of dreary note-mongering as good poetry is turned into musical prose.

It was certainly the main problem with Sally Beamish's Monster, a new work commissioned by the City of Glasgow and premiered last Wednesday in Glasgow and Thursday in Edinburgh. The librettist, Janice Galloway, has told the story of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, using the words of the Shelleys themselves, as well as Milton, Byron and others. Some of these texts are diary entries and sentences from Mary's novel, so they are a long way from poesia per musica.

Beamish fields a soprano (Lucy Shelton) and an actor (Catherine Russell), who share the narrative. This arrangement might have saved the work from the very fault that afflicted Britten: with Russell handling the narration, Shelton could have added the resources of music - lyric, obsessive, haunting, magical.

This, however, is not Beamish's choice. She writes in a neo-modernist atonal style, following the spirit of the words like a film composer and setting the soprano part largely in hysterical swoops across the registers. With all its acerbities, this kind of singing is really nothing more than recitative; since Galloway hands the singer deathless phrases like "He ordered the carriage for four o'clock", the effect is mainly prosaic and featureless. An air of synthetic profundity completes the impression of humbug.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, under Joseph Swensen, mastered the varying textures with much clarity and taste. Shelton, presumably chosen for her absolute pitch (necessary in music of this type), was a colourless singer, though bell-like in the high register. The best artist was Russell, who sounded direct, frank, angry, intimate in spite of her amplification. But the work's cliched seriousness often stumbled into unconscious humour. It was a good job the performers kept such straight faces.

The rest of the programme was an eloquent lesson in how to write for voice, how to write for piano, how to write for orchestra. The works were the Concert Aria "Ch'io mi scordi di te", the Symphony No 33 and the Piano Concerto in C minor, K 491; the pianist was David Golub and the composer was Mozartn

The SCO gives the premiere of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's Strathclyde Concerto No 10 at City Hall, Glasgow, on 30 Oct (0141-287 5511) and Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, on 31 Oct (0131-667 7776)

Raymond Monelle

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