Monday 3 May 2010

Elts and the SCO play Ligeti, Tüür and Sibelius to a half empty Queen's Hall

I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I wish Edinburgh audiences would be little more adventurous. True, the seats did fill up somewhat in the last five minutes before the concert started, avoiding a quite shocking level of attendance that I had thought might be occurring, but the hall still seemed a lot less than half full.

I myself had some doubts about attending. I've only been to one concert conducted by Olari Elts, in fact his first as principal guest conductor (actually, I think that may be incorrect, and it's possible I've also heard him in one of the Cl@six concerts). That was an all Sibelius programme, where he spoilt the 7th symphony by rushing it. However, this time Ligeti was on the billing too, as was a world premiere and, especially given the above paragraph, I'm always keen to support that. Not to mention it was a Saturday concert, which are usually much more convenient for me than the SCO's regular Thursday gigs. All in all, reason enough to give Mr Elts another shot.

Things started off splendidly with Ligeti's Concerto Romanesc. I've yet to hear a piece by the composer that failed to impress me and this didn't prove to be the exception. Once again I was struck by how much variety Ligeti seems to have in his work. The piece opened with a slow, gentle and lyrical first movement which was both rather nice and unexpected. Thereafter it built to something akin to frenzy. There was some absolutely cracking playing from the orchestra and a visceral energy and excitement, not to mention some superb solo work from guest leader Alexander Janiczek (on a side note, it's been ages since I've seen Christopher George in the leader's seat). Most of all, though, it was tremendous fun - I must seek out a recording. The eagle-eyed would have spotted a door at the end of the balcony opening just before it started and someone peeking through. This transpired to be for the offstage horn. He was placed to good effect, even going downstairs for some portions, but the effect didn't quite have the magic Runnicles would bring.

Elts certainly has a unique and rather different conducting style. For the first few minutes his left arm hung oddly limp by his side, and thereafter he only used it sparingly for much of the piece. He used it more elsewhere, though, suggesting this choice rather than any problem. He used no baton and often his full palms, holding his hands up almost as though he was waving. A number of gestures, such as a diver's okay signal or a roving pointing finger (both of which featured in the Sibelius that closed the concert) seemed to produce little effect. On the other hand, there was some stunning playing from the orchestra at times.

Ligeti was followed by a world Tüür and the world premiere of his 8th symphony. I had been thinking in the Ligeti that Elts had a good measure of the hall and wasn't washing it out with excessively loud playing, as too often happens. In the Tüür he proved this was not the case, and things were often too loud, sometimes much too loud. As a piece it didn't really grab me, seeming rather of the whirr-plonk school. It also seemed to employ a kitchen sink orchestration: here a rain stick (which never appeared again), there a drum kit (of the kind you'd find in a band), here some bells, and so on. This reinforced a generally cluttered feeling, something born out by the programme note which seemed to be overflowing with ideas. It very much felt that doing less better would have made for a much more rewarding listen.

This made the pairing of Sibelius's 3rd symphony all the more interesting, given his thoughts on "severity of form". The work has long been one of my favourites and is one which, through Colin Davis's superb recording on LSO Live, first hooked me into the composer. Sadly, this too disappointed. In the first movement, Elts often rushed things, leading to some scrappy playing at times. Generally it did not feel nearly as polished as the excellent playing in the first half. The second movement was unsatisfying too, feeling rather disjointed. Often, especially in the finale, the music felt as though it was being pulled about too much. Elts never seemed to find the beauty in the music, nor did he bring out the incredible vividness that is to be found in Sibelius's writing. Where was the epic sweep that I adore? Not even the superb playing of the cello section could save things (and absolutely superb it was). The orchestra was also often too loud. In short, it left me utterly cold and utterly mystified how he won a Sibelius competition. That said, I did appear to be in minority.

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