Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

four stars

THE Scottish Chamber Orchestra is not short of eloquent musicians capable of stepping up to introduce their programmes as current fashion dictates, but none of them has the self-deprecating wit in their native tongue that Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto finds in his second language.

That is a crucial ingredient, alongside his impeccable taste in music, new and traditional, that guarantees a good house for his visits. For the first of his March programmes, he teamed up with UK-domiciled American folk singer Sam Amidon in a first half interleaving of Appalachian Folk Songs with movements from Janacek’s String Quartet No 1, “The Kreutzer Sonata”.

Such experiments in form often have their downsides as well as casting fresh light on a classical work. The string arrangements for the songs, made for Amidon by Nico Muhly, are gentler than the abrasive quality of playing the Czech composer calls for, but the string ensemble – directed by Kuusisto from the violin – softened the edges of the quartet anyway.

READ MORE KEITH BRUCE: Review: The star attraction was saxophonist Jess Gillam

If that gave a “choral” quality to the music, it was echoed in the backing vocals the players added to the songs, with Amidon’s guitar providing the rhythmic base. He switched to banjo for the last of them, the murder ballad How Come That Blood, and the contrast between its contradictory barn dance feel and the dark last movement of the Janacek was especially effective.

If Janacek only glancingly looks back to Beethoven in his work, Missy Mazzoli’s Dissolve, O My Heart is specifically focussed on Bach. A solo violin work commissioned by Jennifer Koh for her Bach & Beyond project, it starts with material from a Bach Partita and then goes its own specific road, without ever shaking off its inspiration. Just as the Bach solo works are rites of passage for virtuoso violinists, so Mazzoli’s piece is clearly becoming a favourite for soloists as skilled as Kuusisto.

He put down his instrument for the conductor’s baton for the final work, Sibelius Symphony No 3 in C. It is less often played than many of the others, and Kuusisto made a very persuasive case for it, particularly for a band of the SCO’s size. Bringing out the folk elements in the score from the start, the combination of some superb wind-playing and pizzicato strings made its sparer moments the highlights. When the whole orchestra was playing the sound was occasionally over-powering in the Queen’s Hall, but the melodious Andantino middle movement is surely as fine as anything in the Finnish composer’s symphonic output.