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The work is inspired by imagery in a ninth-century Anglo-Saxon poem entitled “The Seafarer”, in which a sea voyage becomes an allegory for life’s journey. Each of the concerto’s three movements is marked “Andante”, but their distinctive character avoids any lack of variety that might be implied by the identical tempi indications. The first movement is a sparkling seascape, incorporating birdcalls that are notated by the composer. The soloist begins with the work’s main theme, a rising, germinating melody of long-breathed beauty. The identity of the solo viola as the narrator of the poem is immediately established.
A two-note melodic cell first heard on bassoon provides the thematic basis of the following movement – a spectral flurry that is driven by sardonic energy; the nightmarish central scherzo from Mahler’s Seventh Symphony is a ghostly forebear. A delicate trio-like section briefly halts the danse macabre before the return of the opening material, which re-enters more savagely sneering than ever. The soloist’s seeping glissandi and sinking chromatic line drain away the mocking shadows.
The finale reviews ideas from the first two movements in a succession of impelling confessional cadenzas. A dreamlike passage where the soloist’s faltering harmonics duet with a solo viola from the orchestra playing the concerto’s opening theme is uniquely moving – the poignant impression is of a dying narrator looking back on a younger self. In the hushed conclusion, emotionally spent, the score is pared down to the bone, drifting into exhausted repose. A series of spare C minor chords signal the end of life’s journey with a perfectly judged economy of means to maximum emotional effect.
It helps having a soloist who is as charismatic and eloquent as Tabea Zimmermann, the concerto’s dedicatee, whose commanding presence and depth of tone – frequently in a cruelly exposed high register – contributed greatly to the work’s impact. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Joseph Swensen demonstrated an acute understanding of Sally Beamish’s distinctive soundworld, the players evidently savouring the imaginative orchestration of the piece.
Incandescent tutti climaxes had the silvery brilliance of Beamish’s recent orchestral work Whitescape. The percussionist was kept particularly busy with important contributions from tom toms, temple blocks and tubular bells, while the strings also frequently impressed with sensitive responses to the score, especially in the artless hymn-like closing pages.
There was no doubt that this concerto is a haunting masterpiece that will undoubtedly reveal more on subsequent hearings. The work marks a new peak of the repertoire and is one of Sally Beamish’s finest achievements so far.
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