United Kingdom Beethoven: Francesco Piemontesi (piano), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Olari Elts (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 3.12.2014 (SRT)
Piano Concerto No. 4
Symphony No. 4
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra divides its Edinburgh concerts between the Queen’s Hall and the (much larger) Usher Hall. Generally, they move to the Usher Hall when they expect a larger audience, and so it proved tonight. While the hall was far from full, it was still attracted more people than could have fitted into the Queen’s Hall across town. It has an inevitable effect on their sound too, though, and that really struck me as they rattled through the Coriolan Overture. There was more distance and resonance around the acoustic, and the distinctive rasp of the natural brass and timpani sounded even more militaristic and dangerous than usual. That was partly due to the direction of Olari Elts, a late stand-in for Robin Ticciati who had to withdraw due to illness. Elts is an old friend of the orchestra, and he shaped Coriolan with speed and passion.
He then did the same, even more dramatically, with the Fourth Symphony, with tempi always on the edge of danger, most dramatically in the finale, which was just about as fast as I imagine it’s possible to get! It made the whole symphony tremendously exciting, and worked only because these players are so well attuned to what he wants. Elsewhere, the trumpets and timps gave the slow movement that extra edge of the martial – no gentle comfort here! – and, having been a huge presence throughout the symphony, the timpani were truly explosive in the finale.
Most interesting of all, though, was hearing Francesco Piemontesi make his debut with the orchestra. I’ve come across him only by reputation so far, and what struck me most was the real air of sensitivity and responsiveness in his playing, no doubt helped by the nature of the work itself. His whole interpretation was characterised by a beautiful, silvery legato, which often seemed to change the character of a passage altogether. He all but ran together the chords of the opening, for example, letting barely any daylight in between the notes, and at the start of the recapitulation, when the piano forcefully presents the main them, the second half of that phrase tripped along so delicately as to undermine the piano’s assertiveness in a most alluring way. Throughout, this was a concerto as a partnership, most obviously in the finale when I think I spotted Piemontesi giving Elts a few cues as to whether he was ready, a sensible move considering that they can’t have had much rehearsal time. Between the two of them, they emphasised the hourglass structure of the second movement, the severity of the strings and the gentleness of the piano steadily taking one another’s place, and even in his first movement cadenza he seemed scarcely to break a sweat as he massaged the music into being. Let’s hope we have him back again soon.