Review: Scottish Chamber Orchestra with Oliver Knussen and Peter Serkin

First published in the Guardian on 12 November, 2013

SCO/Knussen
City Halls, Glasgow

Peter Maxwell Davies describes his latest work for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra as “a reaction to the Orkney climate and influenced by Orkney folk music”. Ebb of Winter – the name refers to a bizarrely mild period on the islands in early 2013 – isn’t an outright tone poem or a medley of traditional tunes, though. It’s a birthday commission for the SCO’s 40th anniversary but neither is it particularly celebratory. If anything, its atmosphere is reflective and wistful.

Most striking about the 15-minute work, whose premiere was conducted with care and clarity by Oliver Knussen, were the SCO’s vivid orchestral textures and the way that Maxwell Davies nimbly weaves material between instruments. The horns open with a gallant theme that soon echoes on a mournful oboe. There’s restlessness in the basses and frenetic, tangled winds that cut to hushed strings, as if a walker struggling through a fierce wind suddenly rounds a corner and finds peace. The work nearly ends in a blazing major triad but at the last minute a single note of close dissonance adds overtones that ring out defiantly. There’s nothing particularly new about the techniques of Ebb of Winter. But its impact is arresting and its haunting soundworld couldn’t be from the pen of any other composer.

In the rest of the programme, American pianist Peter Serkin brought poise and quiet intellect to Bartok’s shimmering Third Piano Concerto: the outer movements were playful, inquisitive; the Adagio was breathtakingly tender. Knussen sculpted Stravinsky’s Symphony in C with a gentle touch. He didn’t make a big deal of the quirky rhythmic shifts and generally kept things low-key – the fourth movement’s chipper Americana trumpet tune sounded almost shy. A bit more roguish energy might have spiced up the performance, but this was classy, elegant chamber playing.