Dazzling Horn Playing Characterises Ligeti Concerto in Scottish Chamber Orchestra Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Kodály, Ligeti, Dvořák: Alec Frank-Gemill (horn), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 21.1.2012 (SRT)

Kodály: Dances of Galanta
Ligeti: Hamburg Concerto
Dvořák: Symphony No. 5

This concert was subtitled In the Steppes of Central Europe and featured music from Bohemia (Dvořák) and Hungary (Ligeti) and kicked off with a cracking reading of Kodály’s Dances of Galanta (which is in Slovakia). Playing this piece with an orchestra of this size brings all the benefits of clarity, especially in the strings, but no loss of impact or exhilaration at the climaxes. It also gives the chance for some dazzling solo work, especially from the flutes and an alluringly played clarinet. Ticciati kneaded the texture in a way that leant it a surprisingly authentic Hungarian feel, playing around with the beat so as to give it a touch of gypsy fire and a rollicking conclusion.

Ligeti’s Hamburg Concerto poses more of a challenge. It dates from 1999 (and was revised in 2002) so dates squarely from the composer’s later period. It’s scored for horn and a small orchestra which includes a quartet of natural horns in addition to the soloist. It contains a lot of Ligeti’s trademark nervous energy, but the most striking thing for me was how fundamentally lyrical it is. The five horns together often created their own world of ghostly stasis against a jittery orchestral accompaniment and the interplay between them was bewitching, especially in the second movement. The work was by turns light-hearted, violent, jaunty or even frightening, but it was also beautiful in places, not least in the contrasting juxtaposition of the clean horn tone with the sparse orchestral sound. At 26 years old Frank-Gemmill, the orchestra’s principal horn, plays with astounding security and a touch of the star turn. He is confident in the more extrovert passages and played the quick sections with razor-sharp clarity; but what really impressed me was the way he could flip instantly between extremes of dynamics and he sustained some of Ligeti’s quiet high notes with remarkable purity and a genuine pianissimo. The SCO is lucky to have him as a member of its team.

There’s a feel-good quality to most of Dvořák’s Fifth Symphony, and the opening movement gleamed with a sunny sheen, while the slow movement had a convincing Bohemian lilt to it, especially in the central section. The Scherzo was almost impishly jovial, while Ticciati brought a well-paced sense of drama and resolution to the finale. This was a well planned programme which had a consistent theme but was varied enough to demonstrate the orchestra doing all the things they do best and provided a deeply satisfying experience.

Simon Thompson