Scottish Chamber Orchestra Premieres Compelling New Work By Martin Suckling

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Suckling, Schumann, Beethoven: Viktoria Mullova (violin), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati (conductor), Glasgow City Halls, 14.10.2011 (SRT)

Suckling: storm rose, tiger (World premiere)
Schumann: Symphony No. 4 (Original version)
Beethoven: Violin Concerto

The music of Beethoven features heavily in this year’s SCO season – they’re playing nearly all the concertos and symphonies – and with his music sharing the billing with Schumann’s you would expect a four-square evening of classics. It’s a testament to the vitality of this orchestra, and to its innovative programming, that they scheduled these two greats alongside a world premiere from a home-grown composer, Glasgow-born Martin Suckling. Suckling’s storm, rose, tiger took its inspiration from a short story by Borges, but it’s a stimulus rather than a re-telling. His main inspiration was “the idea of bringing something in and out of focus”, something he does very effectively with his use of the musical material. The string tune that opens the work is reminiscent of Britten or Bridge, icy yet melodious, accompanied by darting woodwinds. The piece uses melody strongly until Suckling blurs his material using what he calls “microtones”: he writes, “these are notes that lie outside our familiar western 12-note scale and, in my music, are derived from quarter-tone approximations of the harmonic series”. These tones blur and smudge the music chillingly, giving an impression of the notes almost melting before our ears. It can be profoundly unsettling, but I found it very compelling and exciting to listen to. The piece never lost its dynamic rhythm and managed to remain organic while still working through great blocks of contrasts.

Schumann’s Fourth Symphony was here given in Schumann’s original thoughts of 1841, shortly after he completed the first symphony and long before he revised the work that would be called his Fourth. After its difficult first century of life, this symphony is now recognised as one of Schumann’s most taut, dynamic creations, and it’s fascinating to hear how his instincts as a symphonist developed over this period. The structure of the two versions is very similar indeed, but in the original the orchestration is lighter and less muscular. Robin Ticciati, who has professed himself to be a lover of Schumann’s music, conducted a vigorous, energetic reading, especially in the thrust of the first and third movements, but was able to relax in the slow movement and third movement trio. The orchestra’s playing was beautifully transparent, as befits this version of the work, but they found plenty of scale and energy, especially in the final bars.

I had high expectations for hearing Viktoria Mullova playing the Beethoven concerto, but I found her infuriatingly inconsistent. She had a shaky start, seeming to take a few pages before tuning into the same spirit as the orchestra, and her playing was abrasive at times, often with little sense of line, most damagingly in the long-breathed subsidiary theme of the larghetto. Her cadenza was too wilful for my ears too, experimental and wide-ranging while paying little regard to the spirit of the rest of the movement. Again, the glories came from the orchestra, producing sound of a scaled beauty with Ticciati constantly pointing a key phrase or shading a colour in an unexpected way, such as the hurdy-gurdy strings that accompanied the second episode in the rondo. If the Larghetto was a touch too fast so as to miss the meditative aspect, then the sheer bounce of the finale brought its own rewards.

Simon Thompson