“This was a genuinely fresh approach to the Bruckner symphony”
The publicity for Thursday’s SCO gig at the Usher Hall intrigued me. I am a junkie for late Romantic music and for me the period 1850-1950 is the most exciting in classical music. Richard Strauss and Anton Bruckner are among my favourite composers and the SCO under conductor Robin Ticciati is approaching world class status. But a Chamber Orchestra playing a Bruckner symphony? This was something that had to be experienced.
I was pretty certain the SCO could bring off the Oboe Concerto by Richard Strauss. It is a beautiful work that sits comfortably within the Chamber genre, completely in contrast with his earlier works or subsequent dramatic Four Last Songs; so it is a bit of a one-off. The whole piece sat together well, the orchestra demonstrating real fluency of playing in support of the very demanding solo part. Ramon Ortega Quero handled the extraordinarily long passages (no less than 57 solo bars in the opening sequence) with sub aquatic breathing skill and faultless phrasing, and coaxed a beautiful tone out of his difficult instrument. Forgive me, but I could not help but remember my mother telling a story of a young oboist she went out with at university. His lips, as demonstrated in his kissing, were of a muscular versatility not since experienced. One of the benefits no doubt of a super competent embouchure.
We were treated to a thoroughly polished, relaxed performance of a rather intimate work that in particular demonstrated fine string playing and a conductor getting all that he wanted from his band with minimal apparent effort.
But the real test was to come.
What happens when a chamber orchestra tackles an orchestral behemoth? Ticciati has gone on record as saying “We need to scrape back the veneers” and “reveal the work in new colours”. This they did, although I do concede that the orchestra was beefed up to maximum strength. What they brought to Bruckner’s 4th Symphony was an astonishing clarity along with a seemingly relaxed approach that allowed the music to speak for itself, rather than suffering the relentless drive of some other conductors. Ticciati’s body language and general demeanour suggested he could have been conducting Haydn or Mozart. So relaxed!
An eerie, breathtaking entry by the double basses in the Bewegt nicht zu schell followed by the winsome horn solo morphed into our first treat of full-on Bruckner brass. Ticciati, restrained, holding back, but not quite teasing, built the perfect climax. I have rarely heard such delicacy or clarity in orchestral Bruckner. Clever stuff!
The Andante, quasi allegretto gave us another very gentle pianissimo opening leading to the violas taking up the theme supported by pizzicato violins and cellos. We were being reminded of the SCO’s impeccable chamber orchestra credentials. There soon followed some of the best brass passages ever written and towards the end we were at last in “wild Bruckner” territory with the whole orchestra playing in apparent wilful abandon, but in fact right on the button, until we returned to a reflective pizzicato coda.
In the Sherzo; Bewegt haunting brass led us off with some very clean playing ending in a resounding conclusion.
Finally the Finale of the fourth movement: again, Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell. After another plaintive horn call there was no shortage of brass and then the full orchestra gave us everything we wanted and took us home. I am delighted to report that the Usher Hall audience did not burst into applause immediately but waited until Ticciati had lowered his hand after some ten seconds, and gave him four curtain calls.
So the experiment worked. This was a genuinely fresh approach to the Bruckner symphony. I got clarity, freshness and an unstrained, natural and not too over intense approach that let the music speak for itself. Now, perhaps, for the same approach to the more difficult 6th or 8th.
Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 3 November)
Go the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Visit Edinburgh49‘s Usher Hall archive.