By Rowena Smith
From The Guardian - Tuesday October 10, 2006
Like Paul Hindemith, that other violist-turned-composer before her, Sally Beamish has a special affinity for her instrument. Under the Wing of the Rock, commissioned by the Scottish Ensemble for Lawrence Power, is effectively her third viola concerto, though it differs from her previous works in being scored for a 12-strong string group instead of full orchestra.
Beamish's works tend to have a descriptive element and this new piece is no exception; here it is an old Gaelic lullaby that is said to date from the aftermath of the battle of Culloden. This, in turn, inspired Beamish to look to Celtic songs and psalms, an influence felt in the quasi-improvisatory opening viola solo, a melody with which Power demonstrated the full lyrical strength of his playing.
In contrast to the stillness of the outer sections, the central portion of the one-movement piece is a restless dance. The pastoral quality remains, however, especially when the energetic rhythms of the ensemble are counterpointed against the viola's rhapsody. Beamish is a lyrical composer, and this is gently affecting music, a quality shared with Hindemith's works and emphasised by the inclusion here of his Five Pieces For String Orchestra and Trauermusik flanking the new work.
Hindemith was in turn book-ended by Bach: a quietly stylish performance of the six-voice Ricercar from the Musical Offering and a lively Brandenburg Six, with Power and the ensemble's artistic director Jonathan Morton as opposing viola soloists indulging in some lively duels.
As a programme, it was a neatly conceived and satisfying whole; however, as the first half of a concert, it was considerable overkill. Appending Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence after the interval seemed a touch superfluous, though, unless it was to provide one of the ensemble's typically charismatic finales. In that respect it rather backfired, as this was not the strongest playing of what was an otherwise excellent performance.