Normally when I go to hear the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, they're kind enough to be playing at the Queen's Hall, a convenient two minutes or so from my front door. Sometimes I have to venture a little further when they present a bigger work at the Usher Hall, and very occasionally I'll make the trip over to Glasgow to hear them at City Halls. Since I can, and do, hear my local band all the time you might reasonably ask if it was worth coming all the way to Aldeburgh to do so. Of course, I haven't come to Aldeburgh just for them, but they were one of the items that made this first week appear the more compelling of the two when I was making my decision about when to visit. The Snape Maltings is one of my favourite concert halls in the world and its size and acoustic are an ideal fit for the SCO. Add to which, they were playing under the baton of Oliver Knussen, who conducts them regularly in Edinburgh and for whom they always play very well.
The concert did not disappoint. Well, leaving aside perhaps the slight regret that the Knussen premiere which should have been the centrepiece went unheard as it is unfinished at the time of writing - Aldeburgh will just have to get them back next year to play it! As Knussen himself noted in his witty and self-effacing acceptance speech when he was presented with the Critics' Circle award afterwards, he was "a little embarrassed that it takes place on the occasion of the non-delivery of another piece". But it would be wrong to dwell on that, since there was not the slightest sense that we had been musically short-changed.
The programme opened with Ives' Washington's Birthday, a piece whose wonderful lyric opening is perhaps not what you would instinctively expect. It provided a nice showcase of just what a superb and seductive string sound the orchestra has these days. It soon breaks into a lively and exuberant dance which Knussen and the players executed every bit as well. The quirky orchestration includes a prominent role for a jew's harp (explaining why the orchestra was tweeting pictures of one earlier in the week).
Ives was followed by Alexander Goehr, whose Marching to Carcassonne replaced Knussen's unfinished piano concerto. Goehr created an interesting sound world, though while it was generally compelling, there was perhaps not quite enough to sustain the full length of the piece. As is often the case with an unfamiliar work by an unfamiliar composer, one would ideally want to hear it a few more times to gain a better appreciation of it.
After the interval came Stravinsky and his Movements, for piano and orchestra. Here, for the only time in the evening, we got the full SCO, wind, brass and all. They, and indeed pianist Peter Serkin, who had also joined them for the Goehr, played it well. However, for me, it doesn't really hang together as a work and is not in the same league as Stravinsky's greater compositions.
No such criticism could be levelled against the three movements from Berg's Lyric Suite which closed the programme. If the Ives had displayed the SCO's fine string sound, the Berg put the point in bold type and highlighted it with a fluorescent marker, whether in the slower outer movements or in the frenetic and wonderfully textured middle movement. For me it packed the greatest emotional punch of the evening.
With the SCO, Knussen showed his skills as a conductor; the preceding night his talent for composition was demonstrated in the opera double bill. As such, the Critics' Circle award with which he was presented is well deserved and fitting as Aldeburgh this year celebrates his 60th birthday. Knussen, who judged his brief acceptance speech as well as the evening's more important notes, finishing by reminding us that we'd heard enough from him and called to mind another Aldeburgh concert where, after many curtain calls, he mimed the Philharmonia's need to get home and get to bed: "I'm very touched, very honoured, very surprised and very tired."
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