This concert marks the opening of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s main 2017-17 season, and it's going to be an important year for them. They’re on the cusp of building a brand new home for themselves off St Andrew Square, including a 1000-seater concert hall that could transform their everyday working lives, as well as reinvigorate their sound. More immediately, this is their last season with Robin Ticciati as their Principal Conductor. He already has a bulging portfolio (Glyndebourne and the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin, to name only two) and it’s a shame that the SCO had to give, but they’ve been together for a long time, and it’s better to be grateful that he has been their chief for so long.

Robin Ticciati © Giorgia Bertazzi
Robin Ticciati
© Giorgia Bertazzi

Ticciati’s approach over the last few seasons has been to focus principally on one composer, and the biggest success of the lot, in my book, was his Berlioz, which brought revelatory performances (and recordings) of warhorses like the Symphonie fantastique or Les Nuits d’été. It’s a neat symmetry, therefore, to begin his final season with the Francs-Juges Overture, which was the composer’s first orchestral work, though it contains neat pre-echoes of things to come. The sighing strings of the opening, for example, look forward to the Rêveries section of the Symphonie fantastique, while the big, blocky brass writing seems to suggest the Requiem. Ticciati paced it like a psychological thriller and treated it with, bluntly, more seriousness than it probably deserves, but in doing so he and his players created a thrill-ride that was surprisingly satisfying.

If I loved Ticciati’s Berlioz series, then I had many more reservations about his later Romantic composers – his Brahms series was, to say the least, a mixed success, and I wasn’t at all convinced by his way with Bruckner 4 – so I was a bit wary of his choice of Dvořák as the focus for this season, and I approached his take on the Eighth Symphony with more caution than anticipation. I needn’t have worried, however, because the performance was a complete delight, the most life-affirming Dvořák 8 I’ve heard in years.

Ticciati’s stripped down approach spring-cleaned his Berlioz but hamstrung his Brahms and Bruckner. For the Dvořák, he got it just right, with an opening paragraph that was clean and carefree, bringing out the nuances of the cello line in a way you often lose with a full symphony orchestra, and feeding very naturally into the light-footed flute solo. This led into an airborne first movement that wore a broad smile, and a slow movement that was the heart of the whole symphony: cogent, impressively together, and almost operatic in its narrative flow. Perhaps I could have done with a little more richness in the opening wash from the strings, but they still provided a sound you could relax into, and I had no complaints about the breezy line of the third movement, together with its cheeky slurs and light-touch details. The finale emerged steadily from its chrysalis, but the ebullience of its big moments was thrilling, and it wore the weight of its symphonic argument refreshingly lightly.

The sparkle of this performance almost threatened to eclipse the memory of Mozart’s final piano concerto, but that lovely orchestral tone was put to its best use there too, with a beautiful singing quality to it that was helped by a dose of vibrato on the longer notes. Ticciati, whose Mozart I have always found convincing, showed that he has a magical ear for Mozart’s textures –  the interaction of the piano with the pizzicato section of the exposition was positively playful – and his partnership with Dame Mitsuko Uchida, an Edinburgh favourite, was clearly a meeting of musical minds. Uchida brought her customary poetic thoughtfulness to Mozart’s final work for piano and orchestra, though her tone struck me as rather recessed. I couldn’t tell whether it was down to the instrument, or her touch, or excessive use of the dampener, but to me the piano part sounded veiled, almost occluded, to an extent that can’t have been accidental. I wanted a bit more gleam, and nearly got it during the celestial slow movement, which seemed to hover in mid-air stillness. There was a pleasing, dance-like lightness to the finale too, despite a bizarrely heavy early cadenza, and I loved the way she and the orchestra seemed to bounce trippingly over the finishing line.

Still, this was a night to remember for the Dvořák, which bodes well for the upcoming season. The composer next appears on 7th December, when Ticciati will conduct the redoubtable András Schiff in the piano concerto.