Ticciati conducts Berlioz, Beethoven and Neglected Brahms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berlioz, Beethoven, Brahms: Lars Vogt (piano), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 23.2.2012 (SRT)

Berlioz: Love scene from Romeo and Juliet
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1
Brahms: Serenade No. 1

While Brahms’ Serenades have been getting more coverage in recent years, they remain a neglected aspect of his output. Performances like this one show why they shouldn’t be. The 25 year old composer, working on his first piano concerto at the same time, was trying out the same techniques that would one day lead to his four great symphonies, and it really shows in the quality of the writing. The bucolic opening, all rustic suggestion, grows into something of real stature with large scale themes developed in a truly symphonic manner. The Adagio, the work’s beating heart, unfolds magnificently from the core of its lovely opening, undulating gently on the bassoons and middle strings, through a second subject beautifully presented on a solo horn. The work features not one, but two scherzos: the first is just a few steps away from the scherzo in the B flat piano concerto, while the second makes you wonder why Brahms was so reluctant to write a symphonic scherzo because he is so good at it, with its thrusting rhythms, cheeky brass and busy strings. Robin Ticciati knows this music well – he has recorded it in Bamberg – and he drew exquisite playing from the SCO, who are just the right size for it. Their wonderfully soulful playing opened up the gentler moments, but there was a fantastically full sound on the tuttis and gorgeous string tone throughout. The very end of the finale was as exhilarating as anything you’ll find in the symphonies or concertos.

A very different string sound was on offer in Berlioz’s “Love Scene”, still the most frequently performed element of his unwieldy Romeo et Juliette symphony. Played with minimal vibrato, the sound retained its sensuousness while opening up the inner textures. The interplay of the two lovers – Romeo on the horn and cellos, Juliet on the winds – was very successful, but the finest moments came with the full orchestra mirroring the rising passion of the scene, the violin line by turns beautiful or conversational.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 1 is often seen as the virile work of an excited young man, and that is what it is, but for me Ticciati managed to bring out the legato aspects of the string and wind playing, balanced by some fabulously martial trumpets and timpani. Lars Vogt’s playing style was inquisitive, almost exploratory as he allowed the music to unfold beneath his fingers, and he would often turn around to his neighbours in the violins, as if to confer with them. There was lots of playfulness in the Rondo finale but his first movement cadenza, drawing attention to itself in an occasionally bizarre manner, was on the self-indulgent side and, at times, just a tad absurd!

Simon Thompson