Stylish Berlioz Opens Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s 40th Anniversary Celebrations

United StatesUnited States Berlioz: Beatrice and Benedict – Soloists, Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus, Robin Ticciati (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 3.10.2013 (SRT)

Karen Cargill – Beatrice
Sally Matthews – Hero
Kathleen Wilkinson – Ursula
Kenneth Tarver – Benedict
Brindley Sherrat – Don Pedro
Lionel Llhote – Somarone
Ashley Riches – Claudio

The 2013-14 season sees the Scottish Chamber Orchestra reach their 40th anniversary and they have some special things planned to mark the occasion.  Their season opener kicks off the celebrations with a cracker.  Berlioz is a composer that Robin Ticciati has made his own during his tenure as the SCO’s Principal Conductor, most notably when he opened the 2011 season with the Symphonie Fantastique (which they later recorded), so it’s a delightful touch to begin the season with Berlioz’s final opera.  Perhaps they blaze less of a trail here: this is, after all, the work where Berlioz sounds least like himself, and of all of his large scale compositions this one, with its filigree textures and lack of bombast, is perhaps most suited to be done by a chamber orchestra.  That doesn’t make it any less effective, however, and the evening had plenty of revelations of its own.

Consequently, it came as no surprise to me that the orchestra was so good at playing this music.  That was apparent right from the overture (also on the Symphonie Fantastique disc) which benefited from an absolutely delightful orchestral timbre, especially the delicious winds that play a starring role in the early interlude.  The strings played on modern instruments but with minimal vibrato, thereby creating a soundworld that is unusual for 21st century ears but closer to what Berlioz might have heard.  The sound is, consequently, a little more spare, with more openness and transparency, but that lends itself perfectly to the delicacy of a score which Berlioz himself described as “a caprice written with the point of a needle.”

The cast of singers was every bit as good, led by a top-notch pair of lovers.  Scottish mezzo, and newly announced SCO Associate Artist, Karen Cargill used the full range of her voice to great effect as Beatrice, most effectively of all in her second act aria.  Cargill’s rich, luxurious voice has a touch of smokiness towards the bottom and her lustrous lower register helped make Beatrice’s dream sequence all the more compelling.  This contrasted beautifully with the more animated, higher outer sections of the aria and culminated in a finale full of the excitement of anticipation.  She was almost upstaged, however, by a sensational Benedict from Kenneth Tarver whose light, agile but lyrical tenor came as an absolute revelation.  He has all the flexibility required for the role but he sings with such glowing beauty that he was, for me, the star of the evening.  Sally Matthews made a lovely Hero, moving in her Act 1 aria and dazzlingly virtuosic in the cadenza which topped it off.  Her duet with Kathleen Wilkinson’s Ursula to end the first act, which is not that far away from Aeneas and Dido’s Nuit d’ivresse, was beautifully atmospheric.  The male support was super too, Brindley Sherrat and Ashley Riches making a very satisfying team for the Act 1 trio, and Lionel Llhote kept Somarone on just the right side of comedy.  Well done, too, to the SCO chorus, excellent as usual, but particularly so in the subtlety of the off-stage bridal chorus.

Ticciati himself kept the whole thing moving with plenty of zing so that the evening flew by, but he was happy to broaden out when necessary, most effectively at the end of the first act.  It’s a measure of his achievement that a few years ago it would have been laughable for the SCO to open its season with a Berlioz opera.  Now we take it for granted that they can not only pull it off but do so with style.

Simon Thompson