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Henze, Mahler, Brahms: Magdalena Kožená (mezzo), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 12.12.2009 (SRT)


Henze: Symphony No. 1

Mahler: Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Brahms: Symphony No. 2


This evening was perhaps the most important in Edinburgh’s musical calendar this year and should mark the start of an exciting new period for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, for tonight saw the debut of Robin Ticciati as the orchestra’s new Principal Conductor. Ticciati comes with a high pedigree, including a distinguished period in the National Youth Orchestra, successful debuts at Covent Garden and Salzburg and powerful mentors like Colin Davis and Simon Rattle. Indeed it is to Rattle that he has most often been compared with his youth (26 this year), energy and the fact that his name seems to be on everyone’s lips – the word “Wunderkind” has been associated with him more than once. His good looks have made him the poster-boy (literally: his face is on bus shelters all over Edinburgh!) for this year’s SCO season. He first conducted the SCO in July 2008 but it must have been love at first sight because this is a remarkably quick appointment by the standards of most performing arts organisations. Arguably they have taken a gamble by choosing such a young Principal Conductor, but equally it is something of a coup to secure someone with such popularity and promise. So, on the basis of his debut alone, has the hype been worth it?

In a word, yes. Ticciati’s ambition and range are clear from his choice of a debut programme: Brahms, Mahler and Henze. However, the sheer sense of energy and expectation in the Usher Hall for this concert was palpable and both orchestra and conductor rode it like a wave rather than being swamped by it. The most striking thing about Ticciati’s conducting style is his ear for transparency. Be it the dark brown textures of the Brahms or the spiky world of Henze, he laid bare every aspect of the music with a real sense of space. Henze’s First symphony was made to sound chamber-like and airy, with every strain audible from the perpetual motion in the strings to the many solos, especially the gorgeous viola of Jane Atkins. Meanwhile Brahms’ Second symphony, which in the wrong hands can sound heavy and thick, felt animated and pacy throughout, from the lilt of the opening theme to the fleet-footed rhythms of the finale. There was poise and lightness as the first movement unfolded but still power in the tuttis, and he coaxed gorgeous string playing for the second subject, as for the broad sweep of Adagio with its pleasing sense of ebb and flow. The finale crackled with exuberance without losing its sense of organic growth, and the adrenaline rush of the final pages was really exhilarating. What impressed me most was his ability to build a Brahmsian line, be it the masterful transition to the exposition repeat in the first movement or the cheeky pause which lightened the texture of the third. Importantly, though, he never lost the sense of space in between the notes: this Brahms was graceful, light and radiant.

It was another coup for the orchestra to secure Magdalena Kožená as the soloist to share his debut – the Rattle connection, perhaps?! This always interesting mezzo brought her own unique brand of artistry to a selection from Mahler’s every-young Wunderhorn cycle. The lower register of her voice was less clear, but the middle and top are rich and full and, importantly, she tapped into the humour of Verlorne Müh and Lob des hohen Verstands. She also knew the tragedy of Das Irdische Leben, her singing becoming increasingly strident and urgent as the child gets hungrier. Rightly, however, it was Ticciati’s contribution that was the most individual. There was a lovely lilt to the string figure at the opening of both Rheinlegendchen and Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?, while the nasty string accompaniment to Das Irdische Leben caught the mood perfectly. The finest song of the cycle, however, was Wo die Schönen Trompeten blasen. The opening fanfares were laden with poignancy and both conductor and singer conjured a half-lit, melancholy sound world which contrasted dramatically with the songs on either side.

As for the man himself, he conducts with gestures that are direct and clear without ever being showy and any time I caught a glimpse of his face it wore a broad smile. It was well merited and should justifiably be shared by every member of the orchestra and their supporting team. This was a most auspicious debut and bodes very well for an exciting future.

Ticciati conducts three more concerts this season. For full details go to


Simon Thompson

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