Takemitsu: How Slow the Wind; Ravel: Piano concerto in G Major; Beethoven: Symphony No. 4

Collard, Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Ticciati

Queen's Hall, 12 December 2010 4.5 stars

Collard

With Edinburgh snowbound, it was a minor miracle to find the Queen's Hall open, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra fully assembled and ready to perform. And, having had occasion to whimper on a couple of occasions recently about half-empty concert halls, this was definitely a case of the hall being half-full. One has to acknowledge that the orchestral audience is perhaps more acutely challenged by severe weather conditions compared to the population at large, so the element that defied the elements deserves a word of congratulation.

In a normal progress of seasons, tonight's programming of Takemitsu would have found its match in the late autumnal climate outside. Instead, there was something curiously warming about this exquisitely-wrought piece of work. How Slow the Wind was commissioned for the SCO by the Hope Scott Trust, and premiered in 1991; both in this specific instance and in general it is gladdening to see the commission catalogue being reviewed and revisited in this way. Responding to a poem of Emily Dickenson, Takemitsu captures and translates with great sensitivity Dickenson's gently disconcerting narrative misdirections, using a sound palette rich in ochres and russets—autumnal colours that somehow resist melancholy. The warmth of Robin Ticciati's interpretation and the orchestra's performance quickly put the ice and snow out of mind.

Following that, a polished and urbane performance of Ravel's G major concerto found the estimable Jean-Philippe Collard creating a wonderful rapport with his accompanists. It was fascinating to compare and contrast that specific aspect with Imogen Cooper's equally striking performance of Mozart the other week. Whereas in the Mozart the relationship is straightforwardly antiphonal, Ravel's score is altogether denser, with multiple lines busy with their own business in the manner of citizens making their contributions to the life of a musical city. As befits one of Ravel's leading modern interpreters, Collard’s approach was unfussy and professional but supremely elegant and absorbing. In Ticciati and the SCO he found amply equipped partners, and it was noticeable at the end that he must have spent a good half a minute with his back to the audience expressing gratitude to the orchestra before turning and acknowledging the applause—which was not in any way diminished by the size of the crowd.

After the interval, Beethoven's fourth symphony. One has to concede, immediately, that rather as the comedian George Carlin notes that someone must be the world's worst doctor, so too must one of Beethoven’s symphonies be his least successful. Actually, in a way, this is a curiosity that few composers share, simply because the overall quality of his symphonic output is so extraordinarily high. Certainly, the fourth is touched in places by that same magic, but elsewhere it is perplexing to find familiar bones and sinews dressed in flabby and untoned muscle. Everything is going fine, for instance, in the first movement, until we reach the end of the exposition and pass on to the development. Suddenly there's a sense of Beethoven phoning it in—or whatever the period equivalent would have been; sending it in by messenger boy or something. The sequences and modulations just lumber somewhat distractedly towards the recapitulation. At the apex of the second movement, again, we have Beethoven at his imperious best, but again approached from uncharacteristically low-lying material. Still, Ticciati has the knack of setting immaculate tempi, and for drawing from his musicians a sonority that balances splendour and intimacy with unusual elan. If this is Beethoven's least memorable symphony, at least this was—in the best way possible—a memorable performance of it.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Jean-Philippe Collard

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