Thursday 17 December 2009

Ticciati's Queen's Hall debut - Karen Cargill sings Berlioz with the SCO

I don't always agree with every decision made by the management of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (but now's not the time to talk about Cl@six again), but credit where it's due. When the appointment of Robin Ticciati as principal conductor was announced a little over a year ago, after a whirlwind romance on a highland tour, one couldn't help a niggle doubt that this appointment of a relatively unknown and very young conductor was rushed and whether it really was the right move. Any such doubts, however, were quickly erased in tonight's concert and, it has to be said, that this appointment is probably the best decision the management have taken during the four and a half years I've lived here.

During Berlioz's Overture, The Flight into Egypt (taken from L'Enfance du Christ, which Conrad Wilson patronisingly anglicised in his programme note) which opened the second half, there was a moment where just a quartet of flutes, oboe and cor anglais played and it felt like we were in a chamber recital. This, of course, is helped the Queen's Hall, which is an ideal chamber venue. Even when the strings came back in, Ticciati kept that chamber feel with the whole orchestra. It was beautiful. It is also important, because when you put a full orchestra in the hall it can easily overwhelm. Ticciati, though, seems to understand what makes the place special better than anyone I've heard there, he knows that less is more, that you do not need to be loud to fill it, and that with restraint come the most brilliant details, and while at many times in the evening there were big climaxes, they were never too big. He gave a clue to this when, before the finale piece, he turned to address the audience (thankfully very briefly, and informing us this wasn't the sort of thing he normally did) to thank Edinburgh for his reception and to say how nice it was to meet the real SCO audience up close and intimately. It bodes very well indeed.

He gave us a varied programme. The evening opened with Faure's Pelleas et Melisande. While this was a fairly subdued choice with which to start, they placed it beautiful and the orchestra's string sound was as fine as I've heard it. Similarly, Alison Mitchell's superb flute solos in the third movement were exemplary.

They were then joined by the evening's headline attraction: Karen Cargill. I'm a big fan, and have heard hear many times, especially with Runnicles. She was here to sing Berlioz's Le Mort de Cleopatre and did not disappoint, her voice wonderfully rich, yet also light when called for. Ticciati has plenty of experience in the opera house, and this was evident in the flair for the dramatic he showed with the score. He also balanced the orchestra well beneath her. Highlights included the wonderful atmosphere to the meditation, the superb trombone playing and the wonderfully played repeating bass motif leading up to the finale, driving things along, a deep and rich sound that belied the visual evidence that only two players were on stage. It was a cracking piece very well played and an excellent trail, if one were needed, for when they perform L'Enfance du Christ in full in February.

They finished up with Haydn's 101st symphony, The Clock, long a favourite of mine, and with period horns and trumpets on duty. After a nice slow opening, they settled into a suitably joyful reading of the first movement, one through which it was all I could do to sit still(ish), for all the right reasons. In the interval, a friend I spoke to mentioned she doesn't like the clock, as I listened to the name-giving second movement, I wondered if bassoonists are crestfallen when they learn they are to play it, but if they were, their playing didn't show it. Peter Whelan's solos were particularly fine and had a lovely tone to them. Jochum, possible my favourite interpreter of Haydn's symphonies, has a wonderful way of making them turn on the menuet. Ticciati didn't quite do this, but he certainly made something special of it, filling it with drama and holding his pauses to excellent effect. They rounded it off with a satisfying finale.

All in all, it was an evening of fine music. My first concert of the year was Paul Lewis playing some superb Mozart with the SCO in the Queen's Hall, it's nicely fitting that the same ensemble and hall have finished my year so well too.

However, if Ticciati or the orchestra are reading all this fulsome praise, don't let it go to your heads: Where's Runnicles expects lots more of the same. With luck this should be the start of a beautiful relationship.

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