United Kingdom Schumann, Mozart: Paul Lewis (piano), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 21.11.2013 (SRT)
Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 25
Tonight was the first in a pair of concerts that features Robin Ticciati conducting his own orchestra in the complete Schumann symphonies (part two is next Thursday, November 28th). The SCO have gone out of their way to promote it as one of the highlights of the season (the publicity campaign has been pretty huge, literally so when you look at their poster on the side of the Usher Hall), but rightly so, and there are two good reasons for this being a special occasion. Firstly, it’s very rare to be able to take in the entire symphonic output of a major Romantic composer in the course of a week. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this is music that is very close to Robin Ticciati’s heart. I’ve heard him speak before about how he is “obsessed” with the music of Schumann and he has written that, for him, the music of Schumann contains the essence of what we understand by Romanticism.
The fuss was justified, as I thought the orchestra delivered an enormously satisfying journey through the composer’s first two symphonic works (most of the material for No. 4 predates No. 2, though Schumann revisited it in 1851). Like Brahms, Schumann’s symphonies are most notable for their sense of organic development, with themes emerging and transforming before our ears. That’s most true of No. 4 (probably my favourite of the set), and I liked the way Ticciati conducted with that eye to the long view and a flexible approach to texture. He is very good at building a climax and, by extension, at mastering a transformation. That’s especially important in No. 4, whose movements are most often run together with barely any break, and the transition from the third to the fourth movement was mightily impressive, as was the journey from the slow introduction to the turbulent first subject of the opening movement. The point in the development, where the main theme of the finale is first hinted at, emerged with a sharp sense of attack that pointed it up as significant without detracting from the overall texture, and each strand of the work seemed to stand in perfect relationship to the whole, creating a great sense of growth and development.Just over two years ago, I heard this same team in the fourth symphony’s original version and, impressed as I was by that performance, it’s interesting to note how Ticciati’s sense of architecture has deepened and matured in the interim.
The same was true in the Spring symphony, and that sense of transition was just as good in the passage moving from Andante to Allegro in the first movement. However, there is more of a sense of playfulness in this symphony, both in the (rather serious) Scherzo and, especially, in the finale, and Ticciati enjoyed pulling around the beat of the skittish main violin theme to illustrate its ability to grow and almost develop a character of its own. In both symphonies the orchestral playing was superb. The SCO are famed for the transparency of their ensemble and it paid rich dividends in these works, but as impressive was the distinctive quality of the sound. The strings, playing with minimal vibrato, sounded lean without being pinched, and were very impressive in the long, breathed-out main theme of the slow movement. The brass, meanwhile, had an excellent ring to them: two examples include the clarion clarity of the horns at the end of No. 4, and the trombones in the finale of No. 1.
Next to these, Mozart’s great C major piano concerto risked being a little overwhelmed, even with a poet like Paul Lewis at the keyboard. Lewis approached the piece with his trademark grace and lyricism, and this seemed to rub off on the rest of the orchestra. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the work played with less of a sense of ceremony and grandeur, though that’s not necessarily a criticism. The big climaxes of the outer movements were still impressive, helped by the slight edge of the natural brass and timpani, but it was the elegance of the approach that made it distinctive.
Part two of the Schumann cycle takes place next week. For more details, click here.