Walking into the Queen's Hall on Saturday night there was a rather disconcerting sight: diggers and workmen loudly churning up the pavement owing to a suspected gas leak. Fortunately the only explosions were musical and the walls proved thick enough to keep out the din.
The programme was the first of three centred around some of Stravinsky's chamber ballets, in this case Jue de cartes. For the occasion the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's ranks were swelled to more or less their limit - I can't recall the last time they had three trombones on stage. Indeed, this, in the relative confines of the Queen's Hall, presented a potential problem in terms of excess volume. Yet Ticciati, while he sometimes sailed close to wind, judged things well and ensured we weren't swamped. It was given a good reading with some fine playing, the bass section (led by Nikita Naumov) on particularly fine form. Sadly the regular bassoon section of Peter Whelan and Alison Green were absent, and it was keenly felt with some prominent parts. John McDougal wasn't bad, there weren't wrong notes, but the difference in tone compared with what we have come to expect from Whelan nicely exemplified the difference between a good player and a great one.
Dance was very much the theme with the second half too, as exerts from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker took centre stage. They delivered a very well played and crisp reading. True, there were no great insights, but there was nothing to complain about either. If you were a fan of the piece, which I confess I am not, you would likely have enjoyed it immensely; and, to be honest, it was still pretty good fun even if you weren't. There were some fabulously entertaining moments along the way, such as the cello section pausing to furiously shake rattles and blow whistles during the Grandfather's Dance. More so than in the Stravinsky, volume was occasionally a problem, Ticciati getting a little too carried away in some of the climaxes. The selections were pretty well chosen, with some, such as the pine forest scene, which are not so over-played. In the more familiar territory of the Waltz of the Flowers, we were treated to a fine harp cadenza by Sharron Griffiths. It was, perhaps, a surprise that the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy was not among the exerts, but fans need not have worried, complete with Lynda Cochrane's fine celeste playing, we got it as an encore. And yet, as Hough, Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra showed with their recent recording of the concerti, it is possible to make Tchaikovsky's most well worn passages seem fresh and Ticciati and the SCO didn't quite manage that trick.
Not so with what, for me, was the evening's highlight, sandwiched between the ballets: Haydn's 83rd symphony, The Hen. It was nothing short of outstanding. There was great joy and a wonderful bouncing momentum from the outset, often a hallmark of great Haydn. What impressed most, though, was the sheer range on display - there was grandeur when needed, but then right back down for the most subtle delicacy or speeding up for a witty turn of phrase. In particular a lot of fun was had with the first movement's clucking theme, then in the sublime slow movement they made the most of the soft and heavy contrasts. It was the more remarkable because so much variety could easily lead to a sense of patchiness, yet under Ticciati's direction the SCO were able to turn on a dime without losing the flow. Best of all, it had that sense of freshness. And that's to say nothing of the fine solo contributions, such as from flautist Alison Mitchell or cellist David Watkin.
Haydn is one of the great classical symphonists and we don't see nearly enough of his output in the genre on concert programmes; it is great, therefore, that in both the other concerts, we are getting another (96, The Micacle, and 92, The Surprise). I don't know if Ticciati has yet made plans to get into the recording studio with the orchestra, but if they're open to suggestions, why not get together with Linn Records and set down either the Paris or London symphonies, or both.
Thanks to The Queen's Hall for providing the photos. Click on any of the photos to see the full size image or take a look at The Queen's Hall's entire Flickr stream.