sun 23/06/2024

Pires, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Ticciati, Usher Hall, Edinburgh | reviews, news & interviews

Pires, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Ticciati, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Pires, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Ticciati, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Fresh and horn-rich Beethoven triumphs in 40th birthday celebrations

Ticciati and the SCO in celebratory mood at the 40th birthday concertAll images by Colin Hattersley

This is more an excuse for celebration than a review. Six years after the Scottish Chamber Orchestra was founded in 1974 – the birth year we were marking last night – I rolled up in a foggy Edinburgh one February day and chose it as my alma mater on the strength especially of one concert which showed what musical life in the city might be like: trumpeter John Wilbraham playing Bach and Handel with the SCO under Roderick Brydon.

I fell in love with the venue, the Queen’s Hall, as much as the orchestra. In 1982 I proudly took on the role of the SCO’s student publicity officer. It’s a frightening thought that Robin Ticciati, who has led the players to new heights over the past five years, wasn’t even born then.

He’s certainly risen to one special challenge – that of emulating the lesson of his and the orchestra’s great master Sir Charles Mackerras in Mozart (my real high came years after graduating, when I returned to report on Mackerras’s Usher Hall recording sessions for Die Zauberflöte and Così fan tutte with the orchestra, and was even asked which of Felicity Lott’s alternative join-the-notes adornments for Fiordiligi’s "Per pieta" I liked best). Ticciati’s SCO Berlioz on disc remains the freshest: I don’t know which I love more, an astounding Symphonie fantastique or La mort de Cleopâtre with the stunning Scots mezzo and SCO Associate Artist Karen Cargill.

It was a bit of a shame, then, that last night’s 40th anniversary concert was not until its second half the fireworks display it should have been. I suppose that in the interests of accommodating a large audience – first-year SCO participants reportedly not among the invited – it had to be in the Usher rather than the Queen’s Hall. But why let Maria João Pires (pictured below with Ticciati and some of the players last night) choose a piano concerto which had nothing to offer the orchestra when Mozart or Schumann would have done so? And though it was right to offer the orchestra’s Associate Composer, Glasgow-born Martin Suckling, the first slot, his Six Speechless Songs were only fitfully celebratory.

SCO 40th birthday concert - Pires and TicciatiThey began vibrantly enough with an angular dance and Messiaenic woodwind bird calls, and the noisy audience seemed captured at last by the resonant bell chimes – achieved without that instrument – of the fourth movement. There was tight playing from the start, with only a touch of raggedy string ensemble. Credit, too, to Suckling for doing without the tongs and the bones so indiscriminately engaged by so many contemporary composers. But the rest felt pallid, and I don’t feel we heard an individual voice: these were more six pieces in search of an identity.

At first Pires’s Chopin made one sit up and listen: bigger-boned than I’d expected, with several runs dashed off so clearly and rapidly that it was as if the pianist had wound up her right hand to do the honours. But the romantic affectation which Pires eschewed could have wrought a little more magic in the slow movement, and by the exalted standards we expect from this artist, the performance was routine. No Nocturne or Mazurka encore, either, when one was longing for the mature rather than the precocious Chopin. At least Pires’s flexible rubato was matched by Ticciati’s, and bassoonist Peter Whelan actually made a case for a bit of original instrumental colour.

The two valveless horns were the stars of this lean and lovely Beethoven Fifth Symphony, making a virtue of the weak notes and slipping as one expects from the instrument only once towards the end; the sonorities always revealed in their parts made one understand why Berlioz still preferred four of these "old" horns in different crooks rather than the new valved variety in the "Queen Mab" Scherzo of his Romeo et Juliette Symphony.

SCO 40th anniversary concertIt was a performance, like Mackerras’s in his later years, taking advantage of lessons in authentic practice, eschewing string vibrato in favour of gutty bite, letting the fourth of the famous four notes that make up the motto die away. But Ticciati’s beautiful sense of legato kept the flow, and he dovetailed everything immaculately, not least the return to the first-movement exposition repeat – so subtly done that in the pub afterwards two of us had to argue the case against two other strong musicians that it had happened at all. Fortunately pint-downing players were to hand to prove us right.

The highest sign of mastery was the space given to the rumbustious lower strings in the scherzo "trio", a happening I was happy to hear twice. If only it didn’t all have to end in that over-assertive finale, which along with the second movement plays to a personal blind spot. But that’s my problem, so four stars for the best of the three performances anyway. And the pizzazz led on to an SCO viola player’s arrangement of “Happy Birthday” prefaced by a shy speech from Ticciati praising the audience’s complicity in the excitement of the music-making. Balloons were released (in the foreground of the picture above) and players embraced. Wonderful things are in store for the next few seasons, so there’s plenty to celebrate.


Glad you enjoyed it and the concert in EDI went smoothly. Alas Glasgow was a nightmare. A high pitched sound in the hall, which hall management presumed was a hearing aid, ruined the first half. Inept ushers (who seem trained to leave the hall once music starts!?) did nothing until after the Sucking piece (which sucked by the way - lots of heard before sound bites). Then several "staff" with badges left their seats before the Chopin to go "do something". The something was a useless British Rail type tannoy announcement asking people with hearing aids to turn them off !?? DUH! Unsure if either soloist or conductor could hear it - 2nd thoughts, he wouldnt he's deaf! But everyone did well for playing on ! We left at intermission; a. couldnt bear the thought of more noise from whatever the source, b. couldnt bear the sound of the zygote Ticchy making a mangle of yet another score ! Pires was astonishing - shame Tichy didnt let the orchestra play above ppp ! The idea of flowers and balloons being how to mark a 40th seems paltry and ever so, "ye've had yer tea?!"

Sorry for your troubles last night, Anon. But gosh, you're hard on Robin the boy wonder. The Beethoven might have drowned out the whistling and swept away your reservations, as it did mine. Anyway, the City Halls are a fine venue for the orchestra on a good day, more appropriate than the Usher. I've always had good experiences there - mostly with Runnicles conducting the BBCSSO.

You're right about the Morningsideish quality of the balloon release, though. Not quite the birthday spectacular.

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