United Kingdom Dvořák, Schumann, Kurtág, Mendelssohn: Steven Isserlis (cello), Jane Atkins (viola), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 26.11.2015 (SRT)
Dvořák: Legends from Op. 59
Schumann: Cello Concerto
Kurtág: Movement for Viola and Orchestra
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 “Scottish”
This eclectic programme covered a century of central European music in all its varied glory. At one end, Dvořák’s selection of Legends showcased the SCO’s beautiful, bright string tone – very Bohemian! – made ever more present in the close acoustic of the Queen’s Hall. They sounded slightly austere in No. 1, then warmer and more inviting in No. 2, with the rich sound of four horns underpinning it. At the other end, Kurtág’s Movement ploughed its twisting, dramatic way through a world of angular melody that was very Bartókian in its way. Ticciati’s shaping of the piece made it sound sweeping and dramatic, while Jane Atkin, the SCO’s principal viola, played the solo line with intense concentration, occasionally (and irregularly) punctuated by her foot-stamping accompaniment.
One of tonight’s soloists came from the orchestra’s own ranks; the other was an international star. Steven Isserlis doesn’t give the impression of a shrinking violet on stage, but there’s something pleasingly old-fashioned about his old-school-virtuoso air, not least the way he often gazed into space rhapsodically, as though distracted… His cello sound was dark and richly poetic, most effectively so in the searching beginning of the last movement’s cadenza, and he never sounded less than involved. I liked the skittish, almost flighty way that he tackled the finale’s main theme, but even finer was the gentle motion of the slow movement’s theme, which felt almost like a lullaby at times.
The best was saved until last, though, with a performance of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony that made it sound like a dramatic tone poem. With Ticciati’s theatrical sense of pacing, and the clean, sometimes veiled sound of the strings, this was the most gripping performance of this symphony I’ve heard in years. The brooding, mysterious opening led into a main theme that was contained and almost nervous at its first appearance, leaving it the room and space to grow into an agitated development and a stormy conclusion. There followed a terrifically exciting Scherzo, a slow movement with a sense of threat in the martial fanfares, and a finale with tight ensemble, precise articulation, and a gloriously affirmative conclusion featuring horns that had been truly let off the leash. When the music is like this, you need neither scenery nor staging to tell your story.