I vividly remember eyebrows being raised when, back in 2011, Robin Ticciati, in one of his early seasons as the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Principal Conductor, opened the season with Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Could a chamber orchestra, even an engorged one, really pull off the embodiment of orchestral gigantism? It turns out they could, and that night became one of their most important concerts, because it set out Ticciati’s ambition for them as well as marking out the beginning of a new phase for the orchestra, not to mention showcasing their adaptability and skill. Their subsequent recording was a hit, and is probably now my first choice for the work, certainly if you want the inflections of period style.

Emmanuel Krivine © Julien Becker
Emmanuel Krivine
© Julien Becker

They haven’t touched the Fantastique since, and it’s a nice touch to return to it for the first time in Berlioz’s 150th anniversary year. I’m starting to worry that the Ticciati performance might have been a bit of a one-off though, because this performance under Emmanuel Krivine’s was distinctly below par. For one thing, it was far too rushed, particularly in the opening movement, so that the ensemble was rough and, in places, ran completely ragged. Different string sections stabbed their notes fractions apart from one another, and the Ball was so agitated and uncertain that I began to question how much rehearsal time they'd had.

Things finally settled down in the Scène aux champs, mainly because Krivine finally gave the music room to breathe, but the whole performance smacked of hurry, carelessness and the general impression that nothing like enough care had been lavished on it. Overwhelmingly, Krivine’s ostentatious flicks suggested that his heart just wasn’t in it, all, that is, until a Songe d'une nuit du sabbat that was brilliantly coloured, excitingly paced and uproariously lively. Finally you could see the old chemistry working, which made it such a crying shame that they couldn’t have produced it earlier.

So it took the other item to pull this programme back from the brink, with a Fauré Requiem that at times touched the sublime, to the extent that I wondered whether the two works were being performed by the same team. 

In one sense, of course, they weren’t, because Gregory Batsleer’s chorus were the extra element. He has done wonders with them, and they turned what is a fairly easy work to sing into a well refined beauty. Their opening moved from a genuine pianissimo to a spine-tingling climax, and the counterpoint was woven with beautiful subtlety at the start of the Offertoire. The Agnus Dei was moving, the Libera me dramatic, and the blissful In paradisum was a divine consummation.

The subtlety with which Krivine controlled the sound made the chorus and orchestra mirror images of one another, shading the endings of vocal phrases in the same manner that he managed with the orchestral strings. The use of period touches, like minimal vibrato and natural timps, produced a sound that was clean but still remarkably juicy, anchored in some honeyed double basses that mirrored the resonant men of the choir. The strings were a particular delight, rhapsodising beautifully around the Lux aeterna, and shimmering so convincingly in In paradisum that I wondered whether there was a harmonium on stage.

Brigitte Harrigan Lees sang the Pie Jesu beautifully, if with some fragility, and baritone Rudolf Rosen had a tendency to swallow his notes; but even with that I’d happily relive this performance. Not the Berlioz, though. I think it’s time to park that one for a few more years.

***11