Henze: Symphony no. 1; Mahler; songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn; Brahms: Symphony no. 2

Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Kožená/Ticciati

Usher Hall, 17 December 2009 5 stars

Robin Ticciati

It has been a whirlwind romance. Little more than a year ago, the SCO met the young conductor Robin Ticciati during a tour of the highlands & islands; evidently both parties were instantly and mutually smitten. Indeed, there was something about the weekend's concerts in Glasgow and Edinburgh that made me think in terms of the orchestra bringing its new boyfriend home.

Certainly Ticciati is an exciting talent. Whether he is the most exciting British talent to emerge since Simon Rattle would be a difficult matter to adjudicate, but the question is both worthwhile and pertinent. If the young man can do for Edinburgh what Rattle did for Birmingham during his period in charge of the CBSO, he will have left a considerable mark by the time he moves on. Obviously the cities and the situations are different, and the SCO's remit extends beyond Edinburgh to the whole of Scotland, but the challenge of making the classical orchestral repertoire relevant to contemporary lifestyles is common to both.

Certainly Ticciati has the ambition—and it would seem that the SCO is prepared to match it, going by the choice of repertoire for this début performance. Both the Mahler and the Brahms are works that are accustomed to the full orchestra treatment, and the SCO had to puff up like a shivering thrush in order to fill the auditorium. It will be interesting to watch his choice of repertoire as the relationship matures.

Certainly, though, Ticciati is very young. This is less obvious from the platform than it is in interview, as he spoke with Petroc Trelawny for the BBC broadcast. Mr Trelawny must share some of the responsibility for the banality of the questions asked, and the lack of critical inquiry into the answers received. All the same, if a depth of maturity is wanting at this stage, enthusiasm, and a profound passion for communicating through music in performance is there in abundance.

On stage, it was immediately apparent that the young man has a presence, an assurance, and a warmth that marks him out. To start with Henze's symphony was a statement both bold and complex, one that complements the theatre of arrival in a most attractive way. Bold because Henze is one of Europe's most significant high modernists; complex because of the dialogues he opens up.

The lush, vibrant textures align him most closely with Berg in the immediately prior tradition, but some of the angular rhythms are more akin to Webern, and these elements make for an intriguing blend. Again, Henze is as comfortable in the theatre as he is in the concert hall, and the ongoing dialogue between voice-led and purely instrumental texts underwrites the emotional charge. If ever there were such things as high-modernist show-tunes, this symphony might be near the ballpark—but here a comparison with Peter Maxwell Davies' symphonies suggests another aspect of dialogue. Near is the operative word; some sense of what he is not doing is present in a reflexive way that is perhaps a mark of the modern.

Orchestra and conductor brought off a fresh and shimmering performance; special mention must go to Jane Atkins' eloquent viola solo in the Notturno movement.

KozenaLike Henze's first symphony, Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn is the work of a young man, and like the Henze, not a snapshot but rather a reflection of a period of extended, recursive labour. Like Henze again, indicative, too of an ongoing dialogue between the lyric and formal rigour in the respective composers' outputs. An intelligent choice for the evening, then, although disappointingly tinged with compromise. There is such a broad emotional palette in the songs, from the elemental terror of 'Das Irdische Leben' to the icy sarcasm of 'Lob Des Hohen Verstands', and maybe it's just greedy to regret that several of the songs in the set weren't performed. After all, Magdalena Kožená—resplendent in her brass mermaid gown—gave a delicious interpretation, rich with nuance and expression. Hers is a magnificent instrument, but her musical intelligence is more than just a gift of nature, and it is a real pleasure to encounter it.

Whether the chamber scale of the SCO can quite do justice to the warmer densities of Mahler's score is another matter. There is a welcome clarity in place of sheer warmth, but after the previous week's encounter with Norrington's Schumann, I wonder whether it is just as gauche to take on the late romantic repertoire with a chamber orchestra as it is increasingly understood to be gauche to take on the classical repertoire with the full big band.

Brahms' second symphony, with its pretentions to classicism, makes for an interesting test case. The philosopher Roy Sorensen was talking recently about the semantic function of the leitmotif. Without getting into the whole 'is music a language?' debate, for a leitmotif to carry semantic content, it needs to remain recognizable, as it does in Liszt's hands in a work such as the étude Mazeppa (for better or worse). Given Brahms' and Hanslick's implacable opposition to Liszt's and Wagner's aesthetic, it is startling to notice how little Brahms does with his thematic material in the second symphony. One might say that episodes of sheer transcendental beauty float like croutons in a sort of harmonic soup; though unlike Wagner's episodes, which come around every half hour or so, at least Brahms' happen reasonably promptly.

Actually, under Ticciati's baton, they happen a little more promptly than they might elsewhere, his tempos being on the brisk side—in places, one might almost say 'gay', in the old-fashioned French sense. For a composer who sometimes seems to have been born old, this youthful twist makes for an attractive parataxis. With a few blemishes in intonation from the extended brass, the musicians turned in a characteristically insightful and lucid performance, although on this occasion somehow it didn’t quite fill the hall. That might be taken to be a defect, but a more positive outlook suggests a willingness to take chances—and not for a moment should anyone want to discourage that.

This performance will be available on the BBC iPlayer until the 21st of December.

By Peter Cudmore

Photos: Robin Ticciati and Magdalena Kožená


maxwell daviesRelated articles:

Concert Review: The SCO celebrate Maxwell Davies' 75th
Concert review: The RSNO celebrate Maxwell Davies
Concert Review: Roger Norrington leads the RSNO in Beethoven and Schumann

Join the debate: if you have any comments on this or any of our articles, visit our forum