The Scottish Chamber Orchestra with Oliver Knussen

Mussorgsky/Knussen, Schumann, Debussy: Anssi Karttunen (cello), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Oliver Knussen (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 16.4.2011 (SRT)

Mussorgsky (orch. Knussen): La Couturière, Gopak from Sorochinsky Fair
Schumann: Cello Concerto
Debussy: La Boîte à Joujoux

Oliver Knussen is one of the most familiar and, yes, popular contemporary composers working in Britain and he has also carved a great reputation as a conductor.  Furthermore, even though he has lived most of his life south of the border, he was born in Glasgow and so he is always welcomed back in Scotland where his music has found receptive audiences.  With that in mind, where was the audience tonight?  Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall was barely half full, a crying shame in light of the tremendous riches to be had.

None of Knussen’s own music was on offer tonight: instead his arrangements of two Mussorgsky numbers opened the programme.  His arrangements, originally made for the Apollo Chamber Orchestra, were sparky and light, with particularly apt instrumentations, such as the rippling clarinet representing the spinning wheel of “The Seamstress”.  The work closest to his own heart, it seemed, was Debussy’s score for his ballet “The Toy Box.  Written by the composer in his difficult final years, and only fully scored by his friend André Caplet, the music was inspired by illustrations from André Hellé for a series of scenes about a girl who receives a toy box whose contents come to life.  Knussen’s supple reading of the score never lost sight of the dance rhythms and he conducted with an eye to the innate playfulness of the subject matter though, as with any fairy tale, he was open to the darker undercurrents at play.  The sparse, open orchestration left room for some lovely solos, particularly from the flute and cor anglais, and the score often displayed a gossamer lightness that played to the SCO’s strengths.  Throughout the feeling was of transparency combined with spotlit precision, even in the tutti passages.

Schumann’s Cello Concerto, on the other hand, is a work I struggle to love, and it’s not for want of trying.  It used to be dismissed as unplayable because it demonstrated signs of Schumann’s approaching madness: no-one seriously thinks that any more, but I still can’t find as much in it to appeal in the way that his earlier orchestral works do.  That said, I can’t deny that Anssi Karttunen was a convincing advocate for it.  He had an ability to make the cello sing in a way that almost won me over: the arc of melody in the slow movement sounded open and rich, and he even managed to draw out the lyricism of the first movement, though I couldn’t shake off the feeling that there was too much note-spinning in the finale.  Still, it also helped having a chamber orchestra to accompany him as, for the first time, I was able to pick up on details such as the violins’ pizzicato accompaniment to the cello’s solo in the second movement.  Maybe I’m just beyond being convinced by Schumann, but Karttunen is certainly someone I’ll look out for again.

This programme was performed in Glasgow on 15th April: this performance will be broadcast in two parts on BBC Radio 3’s Performance on 3 on Wednesday 27 and Thursday 28 April.

Simon Thompson