Isabelle Faust Sprinkles Stardust on Berg’s Violin Concerto

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms & Berg: Isabelle Faust (violin), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 08.10.2015 (SRT)

Brahms: Academic Festival Overture
Symphony No. 1
Berg: Violin Concerto


“The Brahms Series” is Robin Ticciati’s big project with the SCO this season.  The composer’s enormous face glowers out from one of the external walls of the Usher Hall, and there is even a Brahms Booth set up in the Upper Circle.  In 2015-16, the SCO will play all the symphonies plus the German Requiem, and where better to begin the season than with Symphony No. 1?

Ticciati writes in his programme note that reason why the SCO has such an affinity for Brahms is that “they have a deep knowledge of the composers that came before him, providing some of the ingredients that go into an interpretation for our ears of today.”  It’s true that the SCO is deeply steeped in the late Baroque/early Classical world, and that knowledge makes a difference in Brahms.  Not only did Ticciati have a smaller orchestra than you often hear for this composer, but the strings played with minimal vibrato and the timpani (and horns?) were the sort that a late 19th century audience would recognise.  I often worry that this can diminish the power of that mighty C minor introduction to the first symphony, but there was no danger of that tonight.  Matthew Hardy pounded out that timpani rhythm with all the clarity of a malevolent march, while the vibrato-less violins lent a searing edge of drama to their wailing opening theme.  Their sighing effect in the main allegro showed how well graded the sound could be, as did their transformation into something warm and inviting for the slow movement.  They also managed to sound rich and bulky for the big theme of the finale, after a searching introduction, and that finale brought not only a knockout horn/flute solo, but also a beautiful (and audible!) shimmer on the violins, with an underpinning from the trombones that was ripe with expectation.

Ticciati has thought hard about how to approach this music with these musicians, and I liked his flair for the music’s drama, with carefully shaded sound and a brilliantly ominous end to the first movement’s development.  He lost me in the finale, though: the main theme felt rushed, giving it the feeling of a run-through rather than the main event, and that also meant that the coda’s increase in tempo felt like a mad dash towards the finish line.  Similarly, the Academic Festival Overture turned out OK in the end, with a lovely broad brass sound for the ‘Gaudeamus igitur’ theme, but the opening sounded indistinct and unbalanced, lacking sufficient string tone to balance the low winds and brass.  Minimal vibrato is fine in its way, but it needs to be deployed properly.

No such criticisms for the Berg Violin Concerto, however, which had Isabelle Faust on hand to sprinkle some stardust on it.  She is extraordinary to hear in the flesh, demonstrating a breathtaking affinity for her instrument; sometimes striking the strings, sometimes stroking them, sometimes gliding over them or barely touching them.  This was the most sensitive, tuned-in performance of this work I think I’ve ever heard, the opening line growing in power like a great arch, and the first appearance of the Bach chorale sounding deeply soulful, the orchestra hovering around it like ghosts.  This work’s sparse, crystalline textures, with lots of important solos, make it a perfect fit for this orchestra and, partnered with Faust, this seemed like a dream team for the piece.

For full details of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s 2015-16 season, click here.


Simon Thompson


NB Robin Ticciati is to become Principal Conductor and Music Director at Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin.


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