Review: SCO/Hannikainen/Kuusisto

First published in the Guardian on 30 October, 2015

One of the major joys of this year’s Nielsen anniversary (the Danish composer was born in 1865, same year as Sibelius) has been the chance to hear plenty of the strange marvel that is his Violin Concerto. Grand melodies blazingly erupt then go crooked or plain awol. Nothing stands still — it’s a storm of rogue spontaneity, an erratic, very human stream-of-consciousness, and maybe that flawed honesty is what kept it from becoming core repertoire until now.

Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto gave us a rugged and intensely intimate blow-by-blow account with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and conductor Tuomas Hannikainen. Nielsen was a folk fiddler and Kuusisto made it show in the gorgeous looseness of his rhythms and stripped-back grit of his sound. There’s not an inch of formality to his playing: he might as well have wandered the hall and whispered, crooned, stomped directly into our ears. His encore was a pair of traditional polskas, full of spry ornamentation and raucous swing. What a thrill.

Composer anniversaries go both ways: an excuse to shine light on neglected works, or an excuse to get geeky to degrees not necessarily useful. The multiple empty seats suggested that an instrumental arrangement of Sibelius’s obscure one-act opera The Maiden in the Tower made the latter category for the SCO audience. Hannikainen’s orchestration had the same big-brush enthusiasm and slight lack of nuance that defined his conducting, though the orchestra responded with exactly the right brawn and feisty spirit. The concert opened with a short, absorbing new work called Verdigris by Finnish composer Lotta Wennakoski, a composer with play at the heart of her music: this is the woman who wrote a concerto for orchestra and juggler. Here the joke is fondly on Sibelius, with wit and gossamer textures wrapped around familiar snippets of his music.