With the excitement of the Edinburgh Festival fading away, the Usher Hall was the chosen venue to launch the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s main season. This concert was the first of three Mahler programmes featuring the acclaimed Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill, and a chance for us to discover SCO’s principal conductor Robin Ticciati’s much anticipated interpretation of Mahler’s Fourth with only chamber orchestral forces.

In an intriguing musical pairing, the evening opened with Japanese composer Toshio Hosikawa’s newly arranged version of his 2001 harp concerto Aeolus, Re-Tuning III for Harp and Orchestra, specially commissioned by the SCO. A fabulous harpist, and champion of new repertoire for the instrument, Naoko Yoshino was our soloist, seated firmly centre stage behind a spectacularly large instrument. Hosikawa explains that his harp is the human with the orchestra representing all of nature, so that its song can be carried away on the breath of the wind. At first, this seemed a gentle piece, the strings shimmering with glissandi heading upwards into silences, and the harp’s broken chords intertwined with the orchestra, yet breaking free too with bolder single notes, flourishes and an extended solo with repeated notes sounding like flowing water. Yoshino at times reached her right hand over the top of her instrument to produce unusual effects. There were plenty of sinister undertones to be found too, with short strangled brass interjections, very high piercing percussion notes against a soft bass drum, and when the music drifted off at the end becoming barely audible, it was like far off wind chimes, or was it even further off police sirens? This was a beautiful piece capturing the balance of nature and man, but was ultimately a little thin as a season opener as it could get repetitive and I was longing for some more development of the music which so often seemed to be going somewhere, but frustratingly stopped short.

The theme of humanity continued with Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, written at the turn of the century in artistically turbulent times in Europe, and concerning not only man and nature, but life and death. Normally a Mahler symphony requires large forces to make it work, but the shorter Fourth, with no trombones or tuba, allowed Ticciati to nevertheless pull off an extremely enjoyable performance. The string sound was helped by his arrangement of the violins left and right at the front of the platform, with cellos and basses (right) and violas (left) in front of him.

From the sleigh bells opening to a “clear blue sky” Ticciati stretched into the orchestra and pulled out some passionate playing, the smaller forces allowing detail to shine through, like the contrasting tones in the cellos in the first movement’s theme and soaring restatement in the strings which was as if a jolt of electricity suddenly sparked into the hall. In the slower second movement, the woodwind trills and clarinet solos were nicely done, with the horns filling in the bass. The music calls for an additional violin tuned up a tone, to play a ‘dance of death’ which was stylishly executed by leader Sarah Oates. Ticciati kept the Adagio moving at a finely judged pace. It was fun to watch him tightly control the development from quiet beginnings in the basses and cellos right across the strings and then the whole orchestra, leaning into the climax with surprising power.    

Finally, Mahler’s moment of humanity many of us were anticipating all evening: the sleigh bells returned and Karen Cargill with her gloriously rich warm mezzo voice sang from Des Knaben Wunderhorn about the joys of heaven, the dancing, the gardens, the food and above all the angelic music. Although her diction could have been much clearer, it all sounded wonderful, balanced to perfection by Ticciati and his players. For us Mahler fans, it was an appetising opener, boding well for the coming season.