Classical review: RSNO/Susanna Mälkki, Edinburgh

IT WAS a canny move by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra – to lure in a healthy audience with the prospect of a well-loved favourite (Mussorgsky’s evergreen Pictures at an Exhibition) and then to inspire and provoke them with two pieces they’d know far less well.

Susanna Malkki

RSNO/Susanna Mälkki - Usher Hall, Edinburgh

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In fact, it was doubtful that anyone listening would have known the concert’s first piece. Circle Map, by contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, was an RSNO co-commission, and getting its first UK performance.

Based on poems by the Persian mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi (fragments of which murmured from speakers surrounding the audience), it was scored with an expert ear for exquisite sonority, and there was a gratifying inevitability to its organic-sounding structures.

Motifs circled (appropriately) around and around, and Saariaho cleverly balanced ethereal-sounding fragility with big, muscular climaxes. The composer could hardly have hoped for a more detailed, nuanced account than that conducted by her compatriot, Susanna Mälkki – she was precise yet never cold, and the RSNO responded with a generous, beautifully shaped performance.

Young British violinist Jack Liebeck was just as nuanced in a brittle yet passionate account of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto – his second-movement pizzicatos ricocheted like gunshots, and he soared to the stratospheric heights that close the outer movements with touching charm. But despite his fiddle fireworks, at times he struggled to project above even the smallish orchestra that Prokofiev calls for.

Mälkki’s handsomely crafted Pictures, though, were as vivid and colourful as you could have hoped for, and if they lacked a bit of rip-roaring power, they made up for that with spirit in abundance.

Seen on 21.03.14