Music review: SCO and Pekka Kuusisto, City Halls, Glasgow

Anna Clyne’s strikingly original new concerto Times and Tides seemed so precisely geared to violinist Pekka Kuusisto’s musical idiosyncrasies, you have to wonder who else could similarly master it, writes Ken Walton

The thread running through this bold, imaginative SCO programme was self-evident – music, much of it written recently, fundamentally dominated by lyrical inspiration. At its heart was the brilliantly versatile, not to say unorthodox, violinist/director Pekka Kuusisto leading the UK premieres of a bespoke, folk-inspired violin concerto by Anna Clyne, Times and Tides, and Helen Grimes’ captivating orchestral songs, It Will Be Spring Soon.

In broader terms, this outwardly-optimistic musical journey was often touched by shadowy, wafting melancholy. In Estonian Erkki-Sven Tüür’s strings-only opener The Lighthouse, for instance, pungent dissonance wrestled unnervingly with Tippett-like string cascades, a kind of grotesque, yet exhilarating, polyphonic neoclassicism.

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A neat transitional duo interlude – Kuusisto (doubling on harmonium) joined by Scots fiddler Aidan O’Rourke for an impromptu folk set, introduced songs that would immediately remerge in Clyne’s five-movement concerto. If the stagecraft was a little clumsy – O’Rourke’s explanatory words thwarted by a dead microphone – the playing was deeply touching.

Then to Clyne’s strikingly original concerto, so precisely geared to Kuusisto’s musical idiosyncrasies – at one point playing banjo-style – you do wonder who else could similarly master it. The ethereal opening, whistled and played simultaneously by the soloist above a submerged ensemble, inspired a stream of unfolding invention: the second movement like spooked Vivaldi full of sundry throwaway quotes; the third veiled by a pastoral glow; the fourth willowy and exotic; and a Finale requiring the SCO players also to sing, a denouement approaching Hollywood sentimentality.

Grimes’ songs were equally invigorating, three Britten-like settings delivered with ravishing intensity and definition by soprano Ruby Hughes. Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, an impressionistic instrumental soundscape from the 1970s shrouded in a cacophony of recorded birdsong, provided the perfect ending to a quirky evening.

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