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Berlioz, Britten, Schumann:Scottish Chamber Orchestra, John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Robin Ticciati (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 13.1.2011 (SRT)

Overture, Beatrice and Benedict

Britten: Nocturne

Schumann: Symphony No. 4 (revised version, 1851)

Robin Ticciati has been Principal Conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for just over a year now and it is fascinating to reflect on how successful that year has been. His choice of repertoire has been intentionally eclectic ranging from Mozart and Beethoven to Ligeti and Henze, and the orchestra has developed very well under his leadership. When they play for him they sound even more confident and committed than usual, and that is saying something. His great gift is to colour an individual phrase without losing focus on overall structure. Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict overture, for example, jumped along with feathery lightness in its opening themes but moved easily into the weightier fortissimos without losing the bounce of the rhythm.

The performance of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony was remarkably impressive. Ticciati’s Brahms has shown that he has the ability to mould the big Romantic phrases with a convincing sense of architecture. The same was true here, right from the grandeur of the solemn opening. The first appearance of the finale’s main theme, in the first movement’s development section, was underlined with purpose, highlighting it without it becoming obtrusive; and the transition to the finale was expertly handled. I had a sense that Schumann’s most unified symphonic work was in safe hands: both the passion and the drama were skilfully conveyed from weighty opening to lightning coda.


The reduced orchestra were also on top form for Britten’s Nocturne. This outstanding suite sometimes suffers from comparison with the better known Serenade or Les Illuminations, but its depiction of sleep and dreams is utterly spellbinding. The string ensemble anchors the work and each of the six middle movements contains a virtuoso role for a solo instrument. The playing of the SCO strings was consistently excellent, passionate yet spectral at the same time, while each instrumental obbligato was played with seemingly effortless virtuosity, the highlight being the enchanting duet for clarinet and flute. Less convincing, for me, was the singing of John Mark Ainsley which at the beginning of the cycle sounded pinched and even a little strained. He grew into impressive interpretations of the darker songs and gave a thrillingly climactic performance of the final Shakespearean setting, but to me his voice seemed cold and remote. Of course, some would say that this is entirely appropriate for a work about the isolating power of sleep – Britten himself called it “strange and remote” – but I found it distancing and a little unsatisfying.

Simon Thompson


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