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Edinburgh International Festival 2010 (12) -  Rebel, Poulenc, Volans, Bizet: Katia and Marielle Labèque (pianos), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati (conductor). Usher Hall, 27.8.2010 (SRT)


Rebel: Les Elemens

Poulenc: Concerto for Two Pianos

Volans: Symphony: Daar Kom die Alabama (EIF Commission: world premiere)

Bizet: Symphony in C


The most abiding impression this concert left with me was to marvel at the sheer versatility of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra: from 18th century French Baroque through the 19th, 20th and even 21st centuries in the space of a couple of hours! The orchestra zipped its way through Les Elemens as if they were a crack period band, sounding as though they were an entirely different orchestra to the rest of the concert! The strings, lithe and vibrato-less for the most part, sounded transparent and open while managing to produce some incredible crashes in the famous dissonances of the opening movement. The rest of the ensemble felt pared down too, with some lovely instrumental solos in the birdsong movements. There was much bigger tone for the Bizet but they still sounded clipped and precise in the young composer’s quickfire outer movements. The slow movement sported a wonderfully graceful oboe solo followed by swelling Romantic strings.

Similar energy was stamped over Poulenc’s double piano concerto, with the Labèque sisters adding a touch of stardust to the proceedings. Their communication with the orchestra and with each other is legendary and the manic, even comic energy of the outer movements was superb, then even surpassed by the beautiful simplicity of the second movement’s opening. Two soloists bring double the pleasure not just for the audience, but also for each other as they bounced ideas and phrases off one another.

Recently the EIF has seen a series of world premieres commissioned by local philanthropists Donald and Louise MacDonald. Particularly closely associated with the SCO, their commission this year was from Kevin Volans, a South African-born composer now living in Ireland. His piece was inspired by a song of 1863 by the Malay community living in the British Cape of Good Hope. The song was about the arrival of a Confederate warship, the
Alabama, in the colony, though Volans says in his programme note that the work is not based in any way on the original song. Instead, Volans says, it is a meditation on the sea and the role of ships in our history. It’s a busy piece with an almost constant sense of movement in the rhythm. There is little melody to speak of; instead it is a juxtaposition of orchestral textures. It’s certainly atmospheric with lots of careful effects, such as the foghorn winds, and the impression is of a fairly ominous, perhaps doomed voyage. It’s fairly repetitious, though, coming dangerously close to minimalist chugging at times, and I found it difficult to get excited about it, not least because the composer admits that “there are no themes, no motifs, no development and no climaxes”!

The hero of the evening was Robin Ticciati, making his EIF debut, and showing himself remarkably adept at steering each of these pieces successfully. He showed a perhaps surprising ability to point Baroque dance rhythms in
Les Elemens and he controlled the unfurling of the Volans to an impressive degree. It was also thanks to him that the Poulenc and Bizet carried such bounce and energy. This sets the seal on a highly successful first season as the SCO’s Principal Conductor.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 5th
September in venues across the city. For full details and to book tickets go to


Simon Thompson

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