Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Olari Elts

Takemitsu, Brett Dean and Karin Rehnqvist

Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, 24 October 2008 3.5 stars

KarinRhnqvistContemporary music in Scotland is thriving thanks to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's generous programming of new works in their latest season.

Works by Takemitsu, Brett Dean and a world première by Swedish composer Karin Rehnqvist were a mixed bag, but were directed beautifully by conductor Olari Elts whose precise hand was needed for these demanding and exacting pieces.

By far the most successful work in the repertoire was 'Requiem aeternam' (2008) by Swedish composer Rehnqvist featuring the chorus of the SCO and two soprano soloists, Helena Ek and Maria Keohane. The arrangement of the soloists on either side of the stage (far right and far left) mirrored major parts of Rehnqvist's antiphonal writing, often sung in canon with one phrase beginning before the other had ended. Both sopranos had difficult, high entries to pitch but sang with full richness and quality. The SCO chorus also performed well, but at times were a bit thin in their dynamic range. Although the work was not a requiem in a technical sense (rather, it borrowed some of its standard features such as the Sanctus and Kyrie,) Rehnqvist set it in a new, complex and sophisticated way, employing the whole range of timbres, colour and orchestral effects. I really hope that this piece has further concerts in the international scene and throughout Europe - it deserves the attention.
Takemitsu's 'Requiem' (1957), by contrast, did not live up to its name. It never really moved away from the slow experimentation of contrasting tone colours with multiple dividing parts despite a comfortable performance by the strings of the SCO playing (including some excellent solos from violist Catherine Marwood). The same can be said of Takemitsu's other piece, 'Tree Line', which compositionally lacked substance and never really got going. However, the performance ending of this work does deserve special mention as the unison gesture from the horn and an offstage oboe was an excellent example of the gracefully clear direction from Elts and the standard of clean ensemble of the SCO.

The opening piece of the programme was the Scottish première of Dean's work 'Pastoral Symphony' (2000), named because of its affinity with nature - or in this case, detailing the destruction of nature. Electronic material (some evoking birds and nature) was played through speakers situated around throughout the hall and unfortunately felt extremely left-heavy. After a slow (and rather long) opening, employing all kinds of 'contemporary' effects such as playing the inside of the piano, extensive use of (rather nice) harp and percussion, the piece developed into its real substance. The minimal string setting of one desk each plus one bass did not detract from the heavy bass groove and great rhythmic qualities that entered towards the end of the piece, suggesting a military environment. Needless to say, this was an extremely difficult ensemble work which was well directed by Elts.

All in all, a mixed bag: excellent playing with an interesting selection of works. The SCO giving contemporary music a voice in Scotland is no bad thing.

By Mary Robb

Read recent concert reviews, including the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, here.