Knussen and the SCO in a Programme of Variable Interest

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Knussen, Grime, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Beethoven: Peter Serkin (piano), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Oliver Knussen (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 21.4.2012 (SRT)

Knussen: Two Organa
Helen Grime
: A Cold Spring
: Kammermusik No. 2
: Movements for Piano and Orchestra
: Symphony No. 8

When Oliver Knussen appears with the SCO he always brings interesting programmes which explore a range of styles and approaches, though I thought the most interesting work on tonight’s line-up was his own, his Two Organa.  Inspired by the principles of medieval polyphony, these pieces contrast sustained tones with wandering melismas.  Both date from 1994, the first as bright as a sunny morning with its eastern-inflected harmonies, while the second is busier and somewhat darker.  I found my ear being drawn to the quicker passages in the upper instruments, and they showed off Knussen’s ability as a colourist as well as a harmonist.  Next to this Helen Grime’s Cold Spring struck me as directionless and rather bland.  The first and third movements showed interesting use of the winds, though I couldn’t warm to the way she used the strings, sounding unfocused and rushed to me.  The second movement fared better with some properly beautiful horn playing from Alec Frank-Gemmill, but on the whole this work left me feeling cold (no pun intended).

The whole mood lifted with the arrival of Peter Serkin’s quickfire pianism.  He plays with boundless energy anchored in a rock-solid foundation, and in his hands Hindemith’s second Kammermusik sounded like an updating of a baroque dance suite.  He enjoyed the humorous interplay with the orchestra in the last two movements, but achieved something strangely beautiful in the still central section of the slow movement.  I couldn’t quite make up my mind about Stravinsky’s Movements, however.  The work dates from 1959 and Stravinsky’s Serial period when he was exploring more thoroughly the twelve-tone technique of the Second Viennese School, and it’s a reminder of how completely the composer could reinvent himself as his career progressed.  But isn’t Stravinsky being just a bit self-indulgent with a work like this?  Did he even mean for us to take it seriously?  Stravinsky said that “composers combine notes, that’s all”, but at times in the dense passagework of the Movements it seemed as if he was parodying his own style, and the terse ending felt almost like the composer thumbing his nose at his audience, as if to say “Fooled you!”  After all this Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony felt almost like an afterthought.  The playing and direction was big, bold, ebullient and sassy, qualities that came as a welcome relief after Stravinsky’s furious scurrying!

Simon Thompson