Classical music: Symphonies for a thousand

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Classical: BBC Scottish SO

Glasgow City Hall

If you can't raise an audience, they say, put on a Beethoven cycle. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, currently giving all nine symphonies at Glasgow's City Hall, has never had any problem raising audiences. It has a strong following that is not deterred by its distinguished record for playing new music.

It is nervous, none the less. There have been a series of philistine attempts of late to liquidate the orchestra or to amalgamate it with quite unsuitable mates. Maybe Scotland's new-found political status will convince people that we cannot afford to lose our Xenakis festivals or Scottish premieres (like that of MacMillan's Confession of Isobel Gowdie, which put Scotland on the international map).

But let's get down to the orchestra itself. Like many busy broadcasting bands, its playing is variable. At Friday's second concert in the current cycle (a sell-out) they showed that they can play like angels; the Fourth Symphony was bright, diaphanous, directed with a kind of free-flying energy by the Finn, Osmo Vanska, their new chief conductor. A small ensemble in a small hall (it holds about 1,000), they proved that Beethoven was still writing chamber music in these early symphonies: the sweet, pastoral melody of the second movement glowed like a jewel, and Vanska's lilting tempo - andantino rather than adagio - was typical of his understated style. The scherzo, too, was not overdone, the trio attacked with very little change of speed. Even the finale's racing moto perpetuo was lucid and crisp; for once, the bassoonist almost - but not quite - had enough time to articulate all his notes at the beginning of the recapitulation.

The Fifth Symphony was less refined, more a matter of crude energy and unbuttoned brass. The arrival of trombones in symphonic literature, at the start of the finale, was on this occasion worthy of John Philip Sousa, and the earlier movements were not really thought through. Little thrills jumped out of the woodwork (a sudden jaunty episode in the slow movement) and there were lapses of concentration.

Alexei Lubimov was a clipped, sophisticated soloist in Stravinsky's Concerto for Piano and Wind. He conjured up the danses negres and blues of the Paris stage of the Twenties, but there were the usual balance problems in this piece (the big wind band was placed at the back on the tiers, with the piano alone on the main platform). You wondered if the accompanying players could hear the soloist for much of the time; they sounded viscous and literal.

As for Webern's miraculous Symphony, this was a distinctly human performance - one suspects that this piece can only really be performed in heaven. It was not quite focused, the note-attacks sounding fuzzy or mechanical, as though the players were puzzled as to what it was all about. But how many orchestras would ever give us this masterpiece at all?

Raymond Monelle

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