Concert review

THOMAS WILSON - SYMPHONY NO 5 (Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Joseph Swensen) Glasgow City Hall 9/10/98

Thomas Wilson's Fifth Symphony, commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to celebrate their 25th Anniversary in 1999, provided a memorably terse and trenchant vehicle for the talents of these fine musicians. A pithy one-movement Symphony of about twenty-five minutes' duration, Wilson's Fifth bears comparison with Sibelius's Seventh and Maxwell Davies's Fifth, and has too something of Havergal Brian's violent welding together of disparate material.

The Symphony utilises material from earlier works including the composer's Fourth String Quartet and "Mosaics" (1981) for chamber ensemble, including a synthesiser. Mosaics was episodic (as its title suggests) and its swift changes in mood persist in the Fifth Symphony which, far from being a rehash of other works, is a triumph of formal organisation. Soft timpani rolls create a sense of distant menace, above which a sinuous cor anglais melody unfolds, reminding us of the shepherd pipes and rumbling thunder in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique and establishing a similar mood of brooding unease. A fleeting, angular passage twice skews the progress of this first section, which recovers sufficiently to attempt an atmosphere of calm repose, however short-lived. At this point, the hitherto Spartan textures fill out and a range of harmonies are suggested which will be developed later in the Symphony. The second main section is derived from the faster jagged material already stated and the central section is predominantly slow, pedal points creating a feeling of becalmed stasis. Two sections, scored mostly for wind instruments, envelop an extended passage for strings, at the full-throated climax of which the troubled timpani motif from the opening of the work returns like the spectre at the feast. The fourth section's swift progress is haunted by panic and the weight of the previous conflicts. The music lurches towards breakdown and the final section returns to the slow tempo of the opening, appearing to suggest new avenues to explore. It fades away with disjointed reminders of the work's main materials before the timpani inexorably lead the music back to the disconsolate Celtic gloom of the opening, the Symphony ending as it began - on a disconcerting question mark. It requires virtuoso playing married to a keen sense of musicianship, demands undoubtedly met by the SCO under their Principal Conductor, Joseph Swensen. This Symphony deserves many more performances. It is one of the most powerful recent examples of the genre from a natural symphonist.


Paul Conway

see also review of Wilson Violin Concerto

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