Powerful Sound from a Small Orchestra in Mahler

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Hosokawa, Mahler: Naoko Yoshino (harp), Karen Cargill (mezzo), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 09.10.2014 (SRT)

Hosokawa: Aeolus, Re-Turning III for Harp and Chamber Orchestra
Mahler: Symphony No. 4


Commissioning a new piece is always a risk for any performing arts organisation, but even more so when you choose to open your entire season with it.  I’ve come across Toshio Hosokawa’s work before and been impressed by his Blossoming in the 2011 EIF.  This harp concerto felt like a misfire, though, and began the SCO’s new season with a whimper (almost literally) rather than a bang.  Hosokawa draws deep on the Eastern inflections of the Japanese sound world in which he grew up, and some of the harp writing is very striking.  In the outer sections it struck me how often the harpist sounded only one or two notes at a time, refusing to add more texture until the central cadenza, which was very delicately worked and more richly harmonised.  The orchestral texture, on the other hand, was predominantly static but also fatally repetitive.  He used blocks of sound in a way that wasn’t necessarily uninteresting, but his refusal to do much with them led to a feeling of going round in circles.  A key feature was the repeated use of harmonic glissandi on the strings, which was effective enough in its own right but also a little bland, and the clangs from the wind, while helping to add to the ominous atmosphere, seemed to be seeking something to do without having much luck in finding anything.  It’s atmospheric, and mostly fairly ominous, but also, for me, rather dull.

More exciting, more interesting and, in some ways, every bit as new, was the orchestra’s take on Mahler.  Ticciati has repeatedly pulled out surprises for his opening nights, most notably his Symphonie Fantastique in 2011, which led to a stunningly good recording.  Mahler on a chamber orchestra should not work, but here it does, albeit, to be fair, this is probably the only Mahler symphony that an orchestra of this size could feasibly get away with playing.  Ticciati got from them a sound that is clean and fresh but not in the least bit miniature and in the big climaxes, most notably the summits of the first and third movements, they had all the power of much bigger bands.  Vibrato was stripped back so as to promote clarity, most notably in the cellos, who had a very different colour when they introduced the second subject of the first movement; but this brought notable contrast when that theme returned later in the movement, sounding gloriously rich on full strings.  It didn’t always bring gain – I’d have appreciated a little more richness to those same cellos when they introduced the glorious main theme of the slow movement – but it was always interesting and brought a new shade to Mahler that you seldom hear.  The winds were predominantly playful, in keeping with the symphony’s overall mood, and the Scherzo was rich with mocking detail, not least a very stylishly played violin solo from Sarah Oates.  Karen Cargill brought predictable richness in the finale, and it was great to hear it sung by a genuine mezzo, her voice sounding great at the top but shooting a bolt of electricity through the lower writing.

Simon Thompson

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