Suckling: Storm, rose, tiger; Schumann: Symphony No. 4; Beethoven: Violin Concerto

Viktoria Mullova, Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Ticciati

Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 26 October 20114 stars

Mullova An unusually elegant programme note certainly raised expectations for the world premiere of Martin Suckling's Storm, rose, tiger. The composer explained—if that's the right word—how the work emerged from an engagement with the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges. A phrase in the short story 'The circular ruins' prompted Suckling's title, but rather than being a simple tale of taking a narrative and translating it into music, Suckling described a more mysterious alchemy of creative process.

Magic realism is a literary genre, and I don’t know that anyone has attempted to create a musical equivalent, but if they were to do so then something along the lines of Storm, rose, tiger might very well be what it would sound like. The genre depends as much on the real as the magical. Given music's abstract nature, any ascription of 'reality' is bound to be arbitrary, but the diatonic tradition offers a reasonably convincing option. What Suckling does is use microtones in a quite different way from that of the likes of Boulez or Sariaaho: there is a clearly normative tonal feel, against which the microtonal is deployed to create the effects he seeks.

He does not share the high-modern hang-up about repetition (just as well, if you're going to be inspired by Borges). Backing that tonal feel, or furthering it, is a deployment of traditional rhetorical gestures. Indeed these might be said to create an illusion of tonality, because this is not tonic-dominant-style tonality, but rather a sense of internal logic.

Suckling's absorbing score called forth some intriguing associations: with Peter Maxwell Davies' Orkney Wedding and Sunrise, with the Sarabanda in George Crumb's Black Angels, and with Gavin Bryars' The Sinking of the Titanic. (Come to think of it, I guess you could call Crumb a magic realist.) The searing drive in Suckling's concluding passacaglia, though, led from the deep registers, asserts a distinctive voice that we’re likely to hear a good deal more of.

Schumann's Fourth Symphony has turned up a time or two lately, no doubt in part due to the bicentenary last year, and increasingly the trend seems to be to go for the original 1841 version. A snippet of information from last week's Genoveva overture was the evidently cordial relationship Schumann had at this time with Liszt. One tends to associate Schumann with the conservative, traditionalist strand of German music in the period, but the Fourth Symphony is progressive. Schumann shares Liszt's interest in the diverse-single-movement form, and adopts Berlioz's idée fixe, but with a distinctive Schumann touch it is as though this theme is a tussle between his Florestan and Eusebius characters.

Ticciati brought a bouncy liveliness to his reading (actually, since he was conducting from memory, 'reading' seems an odd way of putting it) which also marked his take on Berlioz last time out, but which he put to one side for the Beethoven which followed. In other words, he is evolving a historically-informed approach to the repertoire, with the result that Schumann's exploratory expressiveness is given its leash, while Beethoven's more orderly score receives a measured, graceful, and immaculately paced interpretation. In the solo role this seemed to suit Viktoria Mullova fine. An intense and serious musician, she endowed the concerto with the necessary gravitas while bringing out its lyricism, especially during the Larghetto.

By Peter Cudmore

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