Dvorák: Five Legends ; Ligeti: Piano Concerto; Beethoven: Symphony no. 6

Poster, Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Ticciati

Queen's Hall, 28 April 2010 5 stars

Tom Poster

With the rival attraction of Scottish Opera's La Bohčme not ten minutes' walk down the road, it is a pleasure to see the Queen's Hall groaning full—especially with a forbiddingly unfamiliar concerto on the bill.

There is not much that needs to be said about the Dvorák. The Legends are lovely in the characteristic Dvorák manner: rich in easy melody, orchestrated in warm colours with plenty of opportunities for the woodwind in particular to shine, and enough rhythmic zip to lift the work a little above the comfort zone. Robin Ticciati's rapport with the orchestra was immediately apparent in the lilt imparted to the opening allegretto, setting a genial tone for the whole selection.

The Ligeti, on the other hand… Chatting with my neighbour before the performance began, she was saying that she hadn't heard any Ligeti. 'If you saw 2001: A Space Odyssey…', I replied; no, she hadn't. For myself, I saw Ligeti present some of his works with (if memory serves) the London Sinfonietta back in the 1970s. He spoke a great deal about time, but in an abstract way. The little Počme Symphonique that appeared in Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's Steve Reich Evening a couple of years ago was perfectly consistent with all that; amusing but not astonishing. And yet the Piano Concerto took me completely by surprise.

The fact that the scale of forces is nearer to Janácek's Concertino than to an orthodox concerto is the least of it. The orchestra comprises single winds, single strings, and masses of percussion (3 players). Unfortunately, owing to the raised piano lid, it was difficult to see.

No, the surprise came from Ligeti's departure from the dense and intense textures characteristic of his earlier work, where structure is often articulated by timbral contrast. The sense of 'departure' here is that of a base camp: the intensity is still here, but articulated now in a rhetorical style that one would be tempted to call 'conventional' were it not for the manic psychological edge he gives it. There is old-fashioned thematic material, clear in its melodic and rhythmic shape, which grants the unwary listener access to the sometimes bizarre, sometimes even traumatic treatment this material receives. Recurrently, Ligeti employs sounds that one might associate with 'toys': there's a slide whistle, a kazoo, a flexatone, and an ocarina.

But these toys play with the listener. There is a mordant wit guiding the composer's hand, and the listener's ear. It is Ligeti's success in harnessing this dimension that contributes to the surprise, because it is an exceptionally difficult thing to bring off successfully without descending into slapstick. For instance, the first movement begins in the piano's high register, and pushes higher, higher and higher, like a farmer obsessively trying to cultivate ever more stony soil. Against this there is a lyrical, sometimes painful eloquence. In the Lento, this includes a physically painful, very high, very loud, keen set against the background of an eerie nocturne.

Throughout, the virtuosity of the solo piano is complemented by the demanding contributions of the orchestral soloists, a challenge that soloist Tom Poster and the SCO's reduced ensemble met brilliantly under Ticciati's direction. This is a truly remarkable work—a widely shared reaction, judging by the interval buzz.

The last time I reviewed an SCO Beethoven, I remarked on the intimacy afforded by the smaller orchestra in the smaller space. Instead of the homogenous, puréed sound of a large string section—which is fine in its way, too—there is a richly detailed sonority in which every individual voice can be heard. This time out, the same qualities were evident—only more so. Guest leader Alexander Janiczek brings a large personality to the ensemble, not only adding conspicuously to the decibels but striking sparks off principal cello David Watkin—with Ticciati harnessing their energy and blending it with that of the larger ensemble.

The result was a tremendously vivid and committed account of a familiar favourite. Ticciati's tempos were impeccable, his phrasing well-judged, and his rapport with the players abundantly evident. All in all, a memorable evening.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Tom Poster


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