Overture, Le Roi Lear, Op.4
Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.25
Bach, arr. George Benjamin
The Art of Fugue – Canon and Fugue
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
Stephen Hough (piano)
Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: 19 August, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
In his concerts and recordings with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati has shown an affinity with the music of Berlioz. Here one of the composer’s more elusive but ultimately rewarding scores received a dramatic performance. King Lear may draw a little from Beethoven but it keenly anticipates the Shakespearean symphonic poems of Liszt, and this was evident from the broad opening strokes of the lower strings. With ‘natural’ horns and timpani, and very little vibrato from the strings, this was close to a ‘period’ performance, with a grainy quality to the sound that gave the faster music taut definition, bringing out the clever syncopations. At times the playing was daringly quiet, Ticciati hushing the strings to heighten the sense of uncertainty, before leaping forward into the allegro passages; only here was there a slight loss of definition in the violins.
With Mendelssohn’s G minor Piano Concerto we encountered a more foursquare approach, but this too was dramatically heightened. This is music that does not hang about, even less so in this performance that took the first movement (Molto allegro con fuoco) at a daring speed. This constricted and hurried some of the phrasing initially, but Stephen Hough’s natural agility informed us of every note, despite the virtuosic demands the young Mendelssohn had written out for himself to play. After such a busy opening the lyricism of the second subject was welcome, which pointed towards the wonderful Andante, which unfolded with David Watkin’s songful cello leading the reduced scoring of two cellos and two violas. Both this and Hough’s playing of the theme were beautifully phrased. The finale was a thrilling quickstep from Hough’s ivories, hyperactive but with quick bursts of lyricism, the musical equivalent to running in the wind!
After the interval, reduced forces (string sextet, two horns and flute) presented inventive arrangements by George Benjamin of two selections from J. S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue. The ‘Canon in hydodiapason’ enjoyed the profile of a gigue, though this was a slightly top-heavy dance with the orchestration used. These were clever workings though, using pizzicato strings as light percussion, and in ‘Contrapunctus VII’ (the Fugue, without the flute) getting the combination of soft horn and violin to sound like an unusual organ stop. As the ghostly lines were etched there was a strange mood of reverence and detachment.
Ticciati’s interpretation of the ‘Eroica’ was notable for its pointed, clean lines and lithe textures; slightly cool in expression initially but with the ‘natural’ horns adding a welcome rasp to the development section, once the exposition repeat had been observed. Here the hollow volleys of Matthew Hardy’s coarse timpani were an asset, as were the strings’ extra stress on Beethoven’s discords, with even less vibrato here than in the Berlioz, only the long notes getting a tweak. Ticciati therefore presented a first movement whose structure sat well, capped by an expert and emphatic snuffing out of the horn’s false recapitulation.
The ‘Funeral March’ was notable for maximum dynamic contrast, moving from initially spare textures, bass notes shrouded in the depths; though softened woodwinds took this early description to a brief but stunning blaze of light in the major key. Ticciati then sought the heart of the music with a burst of Sturm und Drang, rough strings and driving timpani securing music of the utmost strife. The sparse return of the minor key, its poignancy thankfully recognised by a previously restless audience, was topped by plaintive woodwind. The muffled woodwind chatter at the beginning of the scherzo broke out into excited shouts, with some lively syncopation, but this was not a jokey movement, pushing on purposefully. The three horns made a lovely, open-air sound in the trio, and then the finale made its dramatic entrance, the torrent surging as the string-players dug deep into their instruments. As the textures became more crowded Ticciati used the maximum depth of the string sound, the violins conjuring up big sweeping phrases over fugal inner workings, which gained a terrific intensity as they became increasingly twisted, before the thrilling and ultimate victory of the coda with the horns in full cry.
This was a very fine ‘Eroica’, one that revelled in Beethoven’s structural and harmonic innovations especially, powerfully continuous, but also finding deep and very human emotion within. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra played tremendously well and was acutely balanced. Special mention should go to the brass players (horns and trumpets); the continual maintenance of their instruments between turns ensured each contribution was meaningful and strongly characterised.