sat 24/08/2019

SCO, Ticciati, Usher Hall, Edinburgh | reviews, news & interviews

SCO, Ticciati, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

SCO, Ticciati, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Joyful Brahms from Scotland's finest orchestra and its bracing principal conductor

Robin Ticciati: unequalled interaction with his playersMarco Borggreve

The justification for playing Brahms with a chamber orchestra is well rehearsed. In fact, I have on my desk a Telarc boxed set of the four symphonies “in the style of the original Meiningen performances”, recorded by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under the visionary Sir Charles Mackerras in 1997. Then, as now, the idea was to lighten the texture and give greater prominence to the woodwind. By drawing back the dense curtain of string sound, the light could shine through and Brahms’ contrapuntal delicacy be revealed.

That was 18 years ago: a long time in the history of an orchestra only just over 40 years old. Of the 60-odd players listed on the Mackerras recordings, only about 10 are still playing with the orchestra today. But there have been remarkably few changes at the top: only two principal conductors, the American violinist Joseph Swensen and today’s “boy wonder” Robin Ticciati, who started in 2009 and whose contract has been extended to 2018. Guiding them all has been the softly spoken authority of Roy McEwan, chief executive, who has just announced his retirement after 23 years in charge. For an orchestra of mercurial musicianship, it is the stability of McEwan’s custodianship that deserves credit for the continued upwards trajectory of Scotland’s finest orchestra.

In these two concerts, the first a week ago, Ticciati and the SCO played the first two Brahms symphonies, often seen as complementary – the softer, pastoral, second a foil to the full-bodied first, with its portentous opening and the Big Tune of the finale. Brahms made it clear that he preferred the sound of natural horns, so for both performances the horn section played a new set of instruments made by Andreas Jungwirth, hybrids that combine the lighter, rather plaintive sound of the natural horn with some of the convenience and chromatic ability of the modern instrument.

The horn call that introduces the main theme of the first’s finale was truly delicious. Principal horn Alec Frank-Gemmill cut across the orchestral sound with a spine tingling combination of delicacy and clarity. Not all his colleagues seemed quite so happy with the new instruments – slightly less than perfect entries suggested that like those placed at the wheel of a Formula 1 car they were taken by surprise by the responsiveness and immediacy of the new instruments.

Isablle FaustIn both symphonies, in particular in the second, the inner orchestral clarity was outstanding. Particularly praiseworthy, as ever, was the extraordinary playing of principal clarinet Maximiliano Martin (some lovely arpeggios in the "Allegretto" of the first) but in fact the entire woodwind section bubbled and fizzed in a way that you would never normally associate with the Brahms sound of a full symphony orchestra. Of course it is not all about size: a Scottish Chamber Orchestra of 60 is way bigger than the sort of numbers it would field for Haydn, and we have seen the BBC SSO and Royal Scottish National Orchestra pared down to a similar size for classical repertoire. It is much more to do with balance and texture: a deliberate lightening of the string sound, a sense of spaciousness and a flexibility of tempo that is all to do with the interaction of conductor and orchestra, in Ticciati’s case without equal.

Both concerts came with an overture and a concerto: the first had Berg’s dreamily tragic violin concerto, written in memory of Alma Mahler’s daughter Manon, who died at the age of 18. Isabelle Faust (pictured above by Detlev Schneider) was the most exquisite and sensitive interpreter imaginable. Her playing was fluid and otherworldly, undemonstrative and totally integrated into the orchestral sound. It would have been matter-of-fact had it not been so beautiful. For music supposedly written according to Schoenberg’s 12-note system, it was in places remarkably lush and harmonically satisfying.

The second concert was to have had Schoenberg’s piano concerto as the counterweight to the second symphony, a neat connection. But we were told in the programme note for the first concert that the Schoenberg was to be replaced by Schumann’s much more popular concerto. Supposedly the pianist Lars Vogt had not had time to prepare the lesser known work. Fellow pianist Mitsuko Uchida is recorded as saying that the work is very difficult.

If the Schumann was a disappointment in terms of programming, the performance was far from. Indeed it was scintillating. Vogt is an entertaining pianist, ending each flourish by swivelling his body to face the orchestra with an expansive gesture. Whereas some pianists keep their left foot quietly handy for the soft pedal, Vogt used his as an alternative means of expression, sometimes trying to trip up the orchestra leader, occasionally disappearing under the piano stool and more often than not dancing the cha-cha in the space in between. That is not to belittle the performance, which was featherweight, fast, and (like Faust’s Berg) very much integrated into the orchestra. Some lovely duetting moments between pianist and woodwind demonstrated that it is not just Brahms that works well with chamber forces. For this, incidentally, we had true natural horns.

The entire woodwind section bubbled and fizzed in a way that you would never normally associate with Brahms

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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