Review: RSNO with Susanna Mälkki and Jack Liebeck

First published in the Guardian on 24 March, 2014

Susanna Malkki has a knack for weightlessness. The Finnish conductor brings luminosity to the darkest score and somehow makes a sprawling symphony orchestra sound feather-light. In this concert she drew the most poised and delicate playing I’ve ever heard from the strings of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and a terrific all-round clarity. There wasn’t enough brawn for the programme’s Russian repertoire, but the sound was just right for the UK premiere of a finespun work by Malkki’s compatriot, Kaaija Saariaho.

The new piece is called Circle Map and contains six movements, each with its own potent atmosphere inspired by a Rumi poem. Fragments of the text are fed through speakers into the orchestral fabric; the words aren’t fully audible but the guttural rhythms of their Persian consonants definitely are. Saariaho’s writing is extremely refined, like a fine mist through which solo lines emerge and retreat. Occasionally the complex mesh feels dense, even claustrophobic; mostly the effect is magical.

The rest of the concert didn’t live up. Jack Liebeck was the soloist in a performance of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto that sounded like neither he nor the orchestra had spent much time with the piece. The whispered opening was gorgeous – again, that weightlessness – and there were flashes of Liebeck’s bold, burnished sound and feisty attack in the Scherzo. No doubt he’ll make a superb interpreter of this piece; here, though, he stuck too rigidly to the score and the orchestral playing was too bloodless to offer much support.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was similarly patchy. Malkki shaped the theme simply, gracefully, without an ounce of pomposity, and kept the subsequent promenades contemplative and fresh. But all-in-all it was a drab exhibition: there simply wasn’t enough orchestral colour or spark to bring the pictures to life.