Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Ticciati Debuts as Principal Conductor - The SCO plays Henze, Mahler and Brahms

It's been a long wait (Robin Ticciati's appointment was announced in October of last year), but finally I've had a chance to hear the my local orchestra with their new principal conductor. The signs are very promising indeed.

True, he's already appeared with them, and been well received, on their recent highland tours, but this weekend saw his first appearances in Edinburgh and Glasgow. As luck would have it, they clashed with Mariss Jansons' visit to the Barbican with the Concertgebouw, something I booked a while ago and which I wasn't going to miss even for this. It was a shame, as the programme was most interesting.

Fortunately, Radio 3 were kind enough to step in and tape it for me. In order to justify the outlay, they also broadcast the concert and you can hear it here (available until Monday 21st December). Actually, in truth, and in case someone from the Daily Mail is reading this and thinking that BBC resources have been abused to tape a concert solely for my benefit, I should categorically state that I don't have any reason to suspect my circumstances were a consideration here, I don't even know the BBC people who make these decisions - it's just a nice coincidence.

They began with Henze's Chamber Symphony. This is one of the good signs of Ticciati's tenure: he seems intent on mixing in new music. I don't know how well sold the Usher Hall was (let me know via the comments if you were there - Update: see Iain's comment below). However, normally the merest hint of new music is enough to decimate an Edinburgh audience. With luck, his star power can help redress this. I don't know the piece at all, but thoroughly enjoyed it and intend to get to know it better. It was pretty accessible as modern music goes and had some beautiful lyrical string and wind tones, moving and changing in a nicely organic way and well complimented by the brass. There was also some fine solo work. The evolution into the work's more chaotic and dramatic climax was particularly interesting and compelling, not least the fine brass work. What was immediately apparent was that Ticciati is able to draw a very good sound from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and playing of a high standard. It was, in other words, immediately clear why they hired him and that this was good thing.

Henze was followed by Mahler and a selection of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. For these he was joined by Magdalena Kožená. She has, of course, appeared with the orchestra before (in their 2005 Clemenza di Tito under Mackerras). However, it seems more likely that her presence was down to the influence of her husband, Ticciati's mentor, Simon Rattle (who was in the audience). Kožená has an impressive voice with a Lovely tone and delivered a well characterised performance, dramatic and without too much vibrato. It is a versatile voice too, at times serious, at times playful. Beneath her, Ticciati provided a beautifully coloured orchestral sound. Obviously this was radio, so one can't say for certain as things can be mucked around with, but he seemed to be supporting her voice well (one would expect no less from a conductor who has worked a lot in opera). Certainly, he never drowned her out. This was a fairly light take on Mahler, perhaps inevitably with a chamber orchestra, but more than that it was light interpretively: there was no Bernstein here. But then with all the voice was doing, I'm not sure you'd want much more going on below.

The second half was occupied by Brahms second symphony. Brahms with a chamber orchestra is nothing new (the composer himself did it) and the SCO are no strangers to it either, having recorded the symphonies very well for Telarc under Mackerras. As ever, it's risky for a conductor to take the orchestra into his territory as it invites comparison (Ticciati is doing so several times this season, which will make for interesting listening - true, Mackerras has done so much that it's hard to avoid this, but I'm thinking specifically of things he's done with the SCO). One inevitably gets a stripped down sound, and while Mackerras makes up for this by convincing with his thrilling excitement, Ticciati's take was more leisurely. There was not the yearning here that sometimes pervades Brahms. And yet there was something compelling and listenable instead. His reading did become more alive as it progressed, perhaps he was wary of letting go too much too soon. Certainly it felt a very fresh interpretation, there was something very beguiling about his way with it and in general he built the tension well. The closing chord to first moment was particularly sublime. By contrast, the opening of the second movement lacked the darkness and depth of the best readings. At the same time there was a lovely delicacy and lightness of touch on display. The third movement had a pleasant opening and was altogether nice enough. The trouble is, I'm not at all sure that that's what's required and, as it progressed, it didn't quite seem to have the required drama and energy. It was altogether too tame. There was, however, no shortage of drama and excitement to the finale. Indeed, to such an extent that he got me conducting along at home, always a good sign! In short, it was an interesting reading, with lots of fresh ideas knocking around. Yes, it didn't totally convince and doesn't stand with the very best interpretations, but it left me keen to see how his Brahms develops.

More crucially, it left me very much looking forward to his future concerts. Coming up on Thursday is a mix of Faure, Karen Cargill singing Brahms and Haydn's Clock symphony (one of my absolute favourites). I can hardly wait. If you're free, you should contact the Queen's Hall and see if there are tickets left.


  1. Audience was ok but not as big as I was expecting given the way tickets had been selling during the week. The stalls and grand circle were pretty much full but the upper circle only had a few of the seats in the front rows and the middle taken.