Scottish Chamber Orchestra Takes On Challenge of Large-Scale Bruckner

United KingdomUnited Kingdom R. Strauss, Bruckner: Ramón Ortega Quero (oboe), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Robin Ticciati (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 3.11.2016. (SRT)

R. Strauss – Oboe Concerto
Bruckner – Symphony No.4 ‘Romantic’

The SCO playing a Bruckner symphony? …  They’ve undergone some expansions of their repertoire since Robin Ticciati took over as Principal Conductor, but this is surely the boldest; a chamber orchestra taking on a piece normally played by the grandest, most luxurious symphony orchestras. In a programme note, Ticciati said he wanted to “scrape back the veneer” and that, with the SCO, we can “see Bruckner in different clothes.”

Well, maybe.  There were some lovely things on offer in this performance, but I felt neither enlightened nor surprised by most of it.  Indeed, the famous opening suggested they were trying hard to find their feet, as though the balance of strings and solo horn hadn’t quite been calculated right and that (despite a typically excellent horn call from principal horn, Alec Frank-Gemmill) there was uncertainty whether they were preceding in the right direction.  The softness of that opening and its later growth then seemed to lurch into the first big tutti passage with little sense of gradation, and the big climax with the heavy brass didn’t, to my ears, sound much different to what you hear when a big symphony orchestra does it.  True, they used Waldhorns, valveless brass and calfskin timps, but it felt like a cosmetic rather than a fundamental change and, whether because they were more comfortable or because my ear had tuned into it, the orchestral texture of the last movement felt pretty regular to me.

Most of the good things came from Ticciati’s sense of pace and direction, which settled quickly after the shaky beginning, and the first movement’s recapitulation sounded a heck of a lot better than the introduction because the strings were more assertive and the texture better balanced.  There was genuine excitement to the Scherzo, mainly because of Ticciati’s sense of energy; but the highlight was the Andante with its specially coloured, carefully graded string sound, with middle strings using minimal vibrato, creating a colour that was similarly light and rich.

In fact, I enjoyed Strauss’ Oboe Concerto much more, as a whole.  There were no problems of orchestral balance here, with the small body of instrumentalists creating a see-through gossamer texture into which the glistening oboe of Ramón Ortega Quero could both weave and glide.  He gave a palpable sense of the soloist threading in and out of the orchestra, making both the unison and the contrapuntal elements sound utterly delightful, and the silky, smooth line of the opening felt so endless as to recall a bel canto singer.  Wistful, energetic, playful and fun, not once would you consider that this was the music of a world-weary 80-year old.

Simon Thompson

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