Is there any instrument more bittersweet than the viola? The violin does the acrobatics, the cello is more conventionally beautiful, but the viola sits in the middle of the orchestral palette like no other instrument. Neither high nor low, it’s perfectly placed to embody the contradictory and the conflicted, ideal for a sense of desire denied or of fulfilment deferred.

Robin Ticciati
© Giorgia Bertazzi

These thoughts bombarded me while listening to Martinů’s Viola Rhapsody, a work I hadn’t heard before tonight, but which left me very moved, especially when played as it was by this team. And team is the word. Soloist Jane Atkins is the SCO’s principal viola (she gamely stepped into her orchestral seat to play the rest of the programme too), and there is always a very special sense of collaboration when a soloist is drawn from the orchestra’s ranks. The SCO do that a lot, and the results are always memorable. Atkins made the viola sing like few I’ve ever heard, embodying perfectly the sense of lyrical longing at the heart of this work. Martinů wrote it while in the USA, far from his Czech homeland, but the musical material references the Moravia of his birth, and that sense of heartfelt melancholy surged through in Atkins’ performance. It’s not just that it was lyrical; it’s that the beauty had a tear in its eye, embodying to perfection that sense of wistful yearning right to the gorgeously warm ending. The orchestra responded beautifully too, with a warm bath of string sound at the beginning that sounded as though it might have come from Vaughan Williams.

Robin Ticciati is in his final spell as Principal Conductor of the SCO (after tonight he has only two more concerts left with them), and there’s a sense of him revisiting his triumphs. Playing a concerto with a soloist from the orchestra is one example, and his collaboration with Karen Cargill is another. They have worked together many times during his time in Scotland, and they produced magic for Dvořák’s Biblical Songs, too. Cargill is a marvellously versatile artist, and her voice could embody both the declamatory pictures of God in his majesty and the deep consolation of the soul who turns to God for comfort. The orchestral backdrop was super too, wonderfully supportive in the 23rd Psalm but also bright and folksy for the faster songs.

Haydn is also territory that Ticciati has trodden well with the SCO, and his account of the “Miracle” Symphony brought back memories of a Haydn season they did several years ago, and of their highly acclaimed Haydn CDs for Linn. There was a folksy chug to the first movement, culminating in the controlled chaos of the coda, and the suave slow movement seemed to have one eyebrow perpetually raised, as did the delicately light finale.

French Baroque, on the other hand, is pretty far from Ticciati’s bread-and-butter territory, but this team gave a highly successful account of Les Élemens at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival, so they knew what they were doing. The sound picture was marvellously juicy, with dancing piccolos, an earthy theorbo and dramatically thunderous percussion, not to mention the surprisingly big strings sound and, yes, a neatly adept sense of the French Baroque’s style and rhythm. And as if Rebel hadn’t put in enough special effects, we even had string players drumming their soundboards to act as percussion, and even the conductor spinning a dance with the principal viola during one of the Tambourins. Whatever next?