The sight of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra lorry parked up at the back of Perth Concert Hall normally anticipates a live event happening later in the day. With the public banned from venues since March in Scotland, it was a frustrating walk past the hall knowing that a live performance was happening inside, recorded as a stream for future launch. The SCO has built up an exciting relationship with violinist and conductor Pekka Kuusisto who invigorates the players with his infectious enthusiasm. Taking the Leader’s chair, he directed both pieces in this short intense program of two modern icons, Anna Clyne’s Within Her Arms and Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.

Pekka Kuusisto leads the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
© Ryan Buchanan

When Anna Clyne’s mother suddenly passed away in England, the composer was in America. Returning to the UK, her response was to write Within Her Arms in her memory. While the piece is deeply personal, it is a sombre elegy and a powerful meditation for strings on loss, love and life. Written for three players from each section, it begins with fragile fragments in the violins, other players adding to the tapestry, cellos initially barely dusting the strings before breaking out into yearning solos. Like anticipating the pedal line when it finally enters in a Bach fugue, we had to wait for the three double basses, their three parts richly underpinning the music with a luxuriant drone adding a magnificent resonance, a powerful feature of this piece. Kuusisto directed with his eyes and his slowly bobbing head, players keenly watching him as they soared into a beautiful, complex and powerful climax before dying away. Within Her Arms is one of Clyne’s most performed pieces, and I would expect programmers to reach out for it as an alternative to Barber’s Adagio. In this difficult year of disappointment and loss, hearing this piece with its glowing inner beauty was a soothing balm. I can’t wait to hear it live.

Britten’s Serenade is a modern icon, for many haunted by the recording with Denis Brain and Peter Pears. In an enlightening interval discussion, Kuusisto, tenor Allan Clayton, and former SCO principal horn player Alec Frank-Gemmill paid tribute to the artists but all decided that finding one’s own way was important in a piece that pushes the imagination around. Frank-Gemmill suggested that the appeal of the piece is that it goes beyond just being a clever transcription into music on the poetry.

Alec Frank-Gemmill
© Ryan Buchanan

Frank-Gemmill played the Prologue in a softly spotlit circle, Britten’s strange notes left deliberately in an almost in-tune fuzz, drawing us into the uncertainties of a dream-like world. Clayton, looking as if he had just walked in from a blowy walk on Aldeburgh beach, gave as commanding a performance as I have seen, with bell-clear diction, truly inhabiting every word. It was fascinating to watch this true partnership of giants as horn, tenor and players faced each other in a socially distant triangle. This Britten piece was unknown to the Finnish Kuusisto when he was growing up, but he guided his forces through eerie moods, the piercing excitement of the Nocturne, the Elegy's darkness and the terror of the Dirge with infectious freshness. The well-known Nocturne had Clayton’s gloriously rich voice commanding the bugle to blow, Frank-Gemmill responding with astonishing attack, letting the echoes fly. In a live performance with a hall full of people, the Epilogue with the horn offstage at a distance packs some punch, but even this stream caught the magic, the lights slowly fading as Frank-Gemmil bid his distant farewell.

After a series of chamber events, it was wonderful to see the strings performing as a group again, and with such gusto. Technical presentation by Stagecast was exemplary under Matt Parkin, with fabulous balanced sound from John Sharp and tastefully moody atmospheric lighting from Gary Ebdy, a highly skilled team.

This performance was reviewed from the SCO's video stream