Review: Oliver Knussen conducts the SCO

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First published in the Guardian on 24 April, 2016

Oliver Knussen writes music that is luminous and honed and full of fine detail; same applies to the way he conducts. In his programmes with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra he always puts light between musical elements as if he wants us to marvel at each ingredient on its own and then appreciate how it all fits together. These concerts are like lecture-demonstrations without the words, analysis classes without the sermonising.

What struck me this time was his way with endings: chords that last as long as they need to then are gone, simple as that. It’s a sort of anti-pomp that suited Mendelssohn’s First Symphony — Knussen kept it crisp and kinetic but still paused for wondrous little moments like the shock arrival of a major chord within a minor key. And it suited Hans Werner Henze’s gossamer First Symphony. OK, maybe the strings could have given more teeth to the third movement, but elsewhere the sound was beautifully featherweight.

Two years ago Robin Ticciati conducted the premiere of Martin Suckling’s Six Speechless Songs. Then it sounded jubilant but wobbly-edged; now Knussen brought the score’s best ideas into sharper focus, with brass lines refusing to let go of shining chords and flutes fizzing into the stratosphere. SCO principal violist Jane Atkins — a player of tremendous muscle and charisma — gave an urgent, restless performance Britten’s Lachrymae. Her energy was ferocious, which made the graciousness of her final variation even more striking.