Symphonies Nos 2 & 5
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Rory Macdonald
Linn Records CKD643 54:24 mins
Fifty-four minutes might seem rather short shrift for an album, but the Scottish composer Thomas Wilson, dubbed at his death in 2001 ‘a national treasure’, makes every second count. The two symphonies here, completing Linn’s recorded survey (missing only the suppressed No. 1), may have stylistic differences, but both are notably taut affairs, propelled by motivic cells more harmonic than melodic, nervously explored from every angle. The language in neither is particularly advanced, but nor are they works for sleepy heads. Both receive committed performances from Rory Macdonald’s orchestral forces, captured in a rather hard, unfriendly acoustic that might vaguely suit Wilson’s seriousness of purpose but doesn’t do full justice to his diverse, often lustrous instrumental colours.
The Second Symphony of 1965 is particularly tense, chewing over rhythms and intervallic relations in a manner both muscular and surly, with sustained notes dominating parts of its striking, shadow-strewn central adagio. Overall, the work’s pleasures closely resemble those obtained from a strenuous after-work run round the park.
Leaping over 30 years, we reach Wilson’s Fifth of 1998, comparatively mellow and reflective, and his last completed work. Here you can put your feet up a bit, thanks to greater lyricism and structural fluidity, plus cells of longer length. It’s as enjoyable as it is impressive; and Wilson’s orchestral palette continues to intrigue, right from the opening mix of ominous growling timpani and a sad, wriggling cor anglais.