The Proms: The warmth of a Scottish winter evening

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The Independent Culture
LISA MILNE, BBC SCOTTISH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

ROYAL ALBERT HALL

A significant musical voice hailed from North of the Border at Sunday night's Prom when Thea Musgrave's Songs for a Winter's Evening - commissioned to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Robert Burn's death - received its London premiere.

Musgrave has herself reflected "how rarely, even in the late 20th century, we hear a song cycle about a girl created by a woman" but to hear soprano Lisa Milne conjure "a shrill and frosty wind", backed by a strongly motivated BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vanska, was to venture way beyond the issue of gender. Musgrave's style weaves filigree detail among strong thematic ideas, tensing the mood in the first song from unease to anguish, then sailing us to warmer climes for "Summer's pleasant times".

The "story-line', such as it is, traces the complex blossoming of a young girl's dawning sexuality, delicately shaded by Musgrave, with lashings of colour and a lone percussionist doing the rounds without as much as touching the timps. The third song, a breezy dance movement, features nifty work from the piccolo: you could sense the audience wanted to applaud, but perhaps they felt it inappropriate to do so.

Musgrave's winter girl followed Sibelius's ocean nymphs, the lean, dream- like spectres of The Oceanides, mostly quiet but with a Tepiola-like climax near the end. Vanska keeps Sibelius poised on a nerve's edge, charging the mood with real electricity, and a refreshing change from the sloppy "atmosphere-without-precision" approach favoured by certain of his forebears. Elgar's second Wand of Youth Suite isn't too far removed from Sibelius's own incidental music, though the cheeky little march that opens the Suite and the bracing "Wild Bears" that close it are fairly characteristic.

Beethoven's Seventh Symphony closed the programme, and what a perfomance it was. Like Sir Roger Norrington a week or so earlier, Vanska opts for a "classical" orchestral layout, so that when the two violin desks indulge in furious backchat towards the end of the symphony, you actually hear them answering each other The first movement's sustained introduction was powerfully stated, its "rum-ta-ti-tum" vivace delightfully buoyant, and the scherzo tore off at a hell of lick (even the hymn-like trio section was far faster than usual). The Scottish fiddles did their best to keep up the pace, but even when they didn't - which wasn't very often - the sense of excitement was so great that no one would have bothered.

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