Rising Star Tom Poster Brings “Sunlit Delicacy” to Brahms’ Piano Concerto No 2

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Haydn, Ligeti, Brahms: Tom Poster (piano), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 26.1.2012 (SRT)

Haydn: Symphony No. 22 “Philosopher”
Ligeti: Chamber Concerto for 13 instruments
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2

You take it for granted that an orchestra can produce a “good” sound; after all, what else are they for? But how often do we sit back and actually think about what that means? It’s a testament to the quality of tonight’s concert that it made me pause and contemplate exactly what I expect when I go to hear an orchestra. The three works on tonight’s programme form a pretty diverse set, but the SCO, under their principal conductor Robin Ticciati, approached them all in a completely individual style so that, if your eyes had been closed, you might well have thought that there were three different orchestras playing. Even in the Haydn symphony, for example, the orchestra embraced a range of different approaches that suited the composer’s methods: period style, yes, but not as a formulaic practice; rather as a method of opening our minds as to how wonderful Haydn can sound. The gently plodding first movement was stark and a little ascetic in its string tone, but the two Presto movements had a classical buzz that stood in complete contrast to the baroque austerity of the opening. What’s more, the actual sound of the orchestra was wonderfully characterful, especially from the natural horns and delicious period oboes.

What a contrast between this and the world of 1970s Ligeti! The composer’s angular, often discordant approach is about as far from Haydn’s classicism as it’s possible to get, but when it’s taken seriously it can speak just as powerfully, if not even more so. The Chamber Concerto must be a terrifying piece to play as there is no hiding place for any of the 13 players. Furthermore, Ligeti finds a way of turning every instrument into a percussion instrument, most obviously in the “meccanico” third movement where each instrument hacks repeatedly at one note, or in the quickfire finale where the strings thwack against the neck and the winds play so quickly and quietly that the clicking of the keys is as important a part of the sound as the notes they play. It’s bizarre in places, but it’s exhilarating too as melody all but breaks down and is superseded by rhythm and texture. Ticciati clearly loves Ligeti’s music (see last week’s concert) and he argues a convincing case for it. Hats off, too, to all the players for their role in this astonishing tour-de-force, especially in the spidery scamperings of the finale.

It was a shame that Pierre-Laurent Aimard had to withdraw as pianist due to a finger injury, but Tom Poster proved a more than adequate replacement. Poster, whose star is definitely rising, has established himself as one of the most exciting young British pianists, and his Brahms is remarkably mature. He copes admirably with the fistfuls of notes in the first two movements, and he brought plenty of sunlit delicacy to the finale. But it was the quieter moments that stuck with me more. In the Andante, as he gently ambled up and down the keyboard, he got in touch with this work at its most conversational, and his finest moment – perhaps the finest of the whole evening – was the spellbinding transition to the recapitulation of the first movement, delicate and tender, heart-stoppingly beautiful. The orchestra, featuring a greater number of players, sounded muscular but avoided being simply beefy. It’s interesting to note how Ticciati’s Brahms has developed since his debut as the orchestra’s chief conductor. He controls the great spans of Brahms’ structure with masterful precision, most impressively in the scherzo, and the orchestral grandeur of the first two movements melted into gentle playfulness by the end of the finale. David Watkins’ cello solo in the Andante was predictably excellent, soulful and as expressive as could be. The SCO seems to be on the top of their form at the moment. Their choice of repertoire is varied and challenging but they continue to carry their audiences with them through delivering performances of outstanding quality and intellectual clarity. No matter what you think of Scottish politics at the moment, the nation’s musical life is as vibrant as it has been in a very long time.

Simon Thompson