Music by Takemitsu, Kerry, Saint-Saëns and Shostakovich

Alison Mitchell, Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Elts

Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, 28 November 20113 and a half stars

MitchellSomething a bit different from the usual orchestral outing: no symphony, no overture, but a selection of film music from composers whose reputations were made in the concert hall. Music written by composers who specialize in the medium occasionally reaches the stage, and occasionally music from the silent era is performed beneath screenings. Charlie Chaplin, as a famous instance, composed scores for his major films, and cinemas were places of regular employment for performing musicians; one imagines that the talent would have been spread pretty thin.

How times have changed. There were no screenings at this Scottish Chamber Orchestra performance, just the music, exposed to the critical ear. Indeed, the Takemitsu selections with which the concert opened put me in mind of the composer answering the door in his dressing gown—not at all what one would expect. The first of the three, from a 1959 documentary, was syrupy in a late-romantic-Viennese kind of way; the third, a charming waltz whose understated, laconic humour gave it more of a marmalade tang. Between them, Funeral Music, from a film on the bombing of Hiroshima and its aftermath, was more like the familiar Takemitsu: complex and probing in its aural imagination, and with vestigial hints of later Shostakovich suggesting a shared suffering.

Although Captain Flinders' Musick was not composed for a film, Gordon Kerry's score follows the adventures of the eponymous sailor, who first circumnavigated Tasmania, and then charted mainland Australia. Returning to Britain, he was detained for seven years on Mauritius, where he played the flute in the company of members of the local French community. Kerry mentions that Ignaz Pleyel was one of the composers whose music Flinders played, prompting him both to cite a Pleyel sonata during the concerto, and to design the work along Enlightenment lines, with an orchestra of modest forces complementing the solo flute's timbre with pleasant, lucid textures. In the solo role, Alison Mitchell – one of the SCO's several brilliant principals – delivered a lively, sinewy elegance that stood out gracefully from the accompaniment.

One thing about Kerry's score was a curiously old-fashioned percussion department. A xylophone rather than the more fashionable marimba; clashed cymbals. In Saint-Saëns's score for L'Assassinat du duc de Guise, there is no percussion at all. The film dates from 1908 and lasts fifteen minutes, though an abbreviated selection was presented here. The commissioning of a dedicated score was innovative at the time, though one could not say that about the score itself. Certainly it is effective enough, but also somewhat anonymous.

Standing head and shoulders above the rest, Shostakovich's crackling score for New Babylon is a reminder that Soviet Russia had its own 'roaring 20s', with Narkompros (the People's Commissariat for Enlightening), promoting a (literally) far-reaching development programme that included building a network of 'Palaces of Culture' throughout the USSR. These housed a range of leisure activities including sports, collectors' clubs and hobbies as well as facilities for theatre, cinema and concerts, intended to build communities as well as to foster individual capacities.

Shostakovich's score was rather too ambitious for the average Palace orchestra to master, and it was Gennady Rozhdestvensky who resurrected it, after Shostakovich's death, in the form of an extended suite. The movie, set in the Paris commune of 1871, draws a sharp contrast between the decadent bourgeoisie and the hearty proletariat that Shostakovich gleefully matches with raucous parodies of the can-can and the Marseillaise contrasting with sentimental, even tender moments.

There was a bizarre (though effective) bit of theatre towards the end as someone came out of the audience and sat at the piano to play a wistful solo, before meandering off backstage. For the rest of the performance, though, theatricality was in the gift of the conductor, Olari Elts deploying an extraordinary range of gestures to conjure his interpretation – at one point, for instance, flexing his neck, chicken-like, to give the beat! Both he and the orchestra evidently revelled in Shostakovich’s ebullience.

Another time maybe it would be good to see as well as hear the films, but here’s a thought: when will music from the computer game world make it to the concert hall? Maybe it has already.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Toomas Volkmann