Festival Music

Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce


A PHOTOGRAPH towards the end of Stephen Johnson’s fine note on the four symphonies of Johannes Brahms in the programme for the weekend’s concerts shows the composer as a striking young man with an extravagant coiffure. It is not how we usually picture him and might seem superficially irrelevant, as the first symphony was still 20 years away when it was taken and the fourth, which Johnson considers on the page opposite, a further ten beyond that.

However it does show Brahms at the age the departing principal conductor of the SCO, Robin Ticciati, took up his post. His last recording with the musicians, for Glasgow’s Linn label, is of those symphonies and this weekend saw him direct all four in two final Festival concerts, bringing his own fresh perspective to familiar works, and his tenure to an end. There should by rights have been rather fewer empty seats, and rather more promotional hoo-ha around the occasion, because the music more than justified that.

Ticciati has found new ways to approach the phrasing and tempo of these symphonies that produced surprises every step of the way. It was there in the edge-of-the-seat opening to the First on Saturday, and in the more measured way the magnificent Third began after the interval, teeing up what was a superbly structured account of the most beautifully-shaped of the four.

Perhaps the most exhilarating moment of these concerts, however, came at the finale of the Second, surely the most frequently played of the lot, when the balance of the sections leading up to the brass fanfares at the end was peerless, and, to my ears, perfect.

Although it was in the ensemble details that the quality of these performances lay, the orchestra also often seemed to be making a very muscular sound for its size (just 24 string players) and there were individual star turns all over the platform, especially from Alec Frank-Gemmill and his horn section and principal oboe Robin Williams. A top team on top form.