SCO / Kuusisto

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Vermont-born Sam Amidon, who is now settled in the UK with his singer wife Beth Orton, has impeccable taste in collaborators. His relationship with the contemporary classical world dates from early in his career when composer Nico Muhly supplied string arrangements for the American folk songs he recorded. His was the only male voice on the Kronos Quartet’s Folk Songs project, and his own albums have featured guitarist Bill Frisell and one of the last recordings by trumpeter Kenny Wheeler.

Partnership with the similarly-discerning Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra therefore makes perfect sense, even if their collective plan – mixing up four Appalachian folk songs featuring Muhly string arrangements with the four movements of Janacek’s “Kreutzer Sonata” Quartet in an arrangement for string ensemble – looked less than exciting on paper.

In fact it worked rather well, and any damage done to the Janacek was more in the expansion of the forces from the edgy abrasive sound of the quartet to the fuller strings, rather than the introduction of the songs into the mix. The dark tone of the Czech composer’s response to Tolstoy’s story was certainly matched by two murder ballads, a crucifixion hymn and slavery-era children’s game chant, even if the latter, and the concluding banjo-driven ballad were rhythmically comparatively up-beat.

Muhly’s music will be more thoroughly explored in the programme Kuusisto directs next week, but his arrangements – supplemented by some vocalising from the instrumentalists – were the bridge between Amidon’s archival trawl and the Janacek here and that set the theme for the whole evening.

Kuusisto directed the strings from the violin in the first half and had his own virtuoso solo turn immediately after the interval. Missy Mazzoli is best known in Edinburgh for her opera Breaking the Waves, seen in an acclaimed 2019 International Festival production by Scottish Opera. Her solo violin work Dissolve, O My Heart takes its title from an aria in Bach’s St John Passion and its inspiration from the famous Chaconne in his Partita in D Minor. While it swiftly departs from the music of the Partita, it never loses site of it in the rear-view mirror, even if its glissando techniques and use of muted strings are a long way from the 1720s. In much the same way that solo Bach is a staple of the violin soloist’s encore repertoire, this is a work regular concert-goers can surely expect to hear again.

Traditional music from Kuusisto’s homeland runs like a stream through the Third Symphony of Jean Sibelius, a work rarely heard outside of performances of the full cycle of symphonies. Not least because of the delicious melody in the slow movement, this is a shame. More compact in every way than other Sibelius symphonies, it suits the SCO well, even if its more expansive moments probably sounded much better in Friday’s performance at Glasgow’s City Halls. What was crucial in the context of this concert was how Kuusisto the conductor emphasised the folk elements in the opening movement and masterfully managed the finale’s incremental build-up to the final C major chord.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Sam Amidon