A concert programme can resemble a puzzle; searching for links and contrasts often results in a more enjoyable, unified experience. I therefore strove to arrive in sufficient time for a careful reading of the programme notes for this performance by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at Usher Hall, part of the Edinburgh International Festival.

Robin Ticciati © Marco Borggeve
Robin Ticciati
© Marco Borggeve

The first half’s brace of works shared one main feature: a reconsideration of forces. A pared down SCO opened with Benno Sachs’ 1920 arrangement of Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1891–94). In this one-to-a-part version, soft, lush textures were replaced by those where sense of line seemed crystal clear. The most prominent remained the flute part, exquisitely played by Alison Mitchell. The much less populated airwaves left a clear path for antique cymbals which added to the arrangement’s delicacy. Fuller textures were aided by Peter Evans’ piano and Simon Smith’s harmonium. I couldn’t say I preferred this version to the original which, of course, I’ve heard hundreds of times, but I really enjoyed its lean clarity and will seek it out again.

The following work pulled in equal and opposite directions: Schoenberg’s 1943 enlargement for string orchestra of his 1899 string sextet work, Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”). Its five sections correspond to the five stanzas of Richard Dehmel’s poem and outline a nocturnal walk in which a new couple discover, through their revelations, that love can conquer obstacles which would otherwise have seemed terminal. Oddly, the fuller texture did not result in a diminished sense of line; rather, I heard contrapuntal details previously missed and put much of this down to fine playing and direction. What I loved about Ticciati’s take on this were the tiny breaths between question and answer phrases, suggesting a couple really listening to one another in considered dialogue. The dynamic control of this hugely varied work about longing and moonlit resolution was very impressive.

Music by that prince of pairing, Anton Webern, opened the second half: his Five Pieces (1911–13). Drawn from a collection of 18 miniatures, these chamber pieces for orchestra are post-tonal but pre-serial. Their organising principle – the juxtaposition of often glassy timbres – seems not so far from Debussy’s intuitive writing heard earlier, although the sound worlds are very far apart. Scored for 20 players, including harmonium, mandolin and guitar, these are highly colourful works, whose pointillistic nature must surely present challenges for an ensemble. I’d never have guessed it from this performance. Were it not for their generally low volume, they might be considered a tour de force of ensemble skill. This performance featured the quietest side-drumming I’ve ever heard. In his fine programme notes, James M. Keller quotes Webern’s biographer, Malcolm Hayes, on the subject of the composer’s reductive mindset, describing works which are “distilled to a point from where [...] the next step would have been to boil away the last remaining notes and leave only silence”. In this regard I was struck by the SCO’s take on silence. At the end of each work, baton, bows, arms remained in place, the resulting tableau laying claim to the final notes’ wake, which the orchestra rightly regarded as part of the performance.

Seated behind the orchestra was the 118-strong National Youth Choir of Scotland (NYCOS) and I couldn’t help wondering what these young musicians made of this century-old music. The pyramid tip of the nation’s choral training programme (which owes its 17 years of existence to founding artistic director and conductor, Christopher Bell) featured in the evening’s closing work, Faure’s Requiem.

The bulk of the piece was composed in 1887, making it an unexpectedly close contemporary of the Debussy and the Schoenberg. Although not entirely free of the sombre or the foreboding, the work reflects Faure’s stated aim of comforting the bereaved. Fauré’s own take on death, quoted in Roger Nichols programme notes, strikes me as a kind of “Schopenhauer lite”: “This is how I see death: as a joyful deliverance, an aspiration towards a happiness beyond the grave, rather than a painful experience”. The In Paradisum’s organ figures might even be described as jaunty.

Oddly, one of the most terrifying moments appears in the otherwise peaceful Agnus Dei on the words “quia pius est” (“for Thou art good”). The choir really gave this moment their all. Not to denigrate the girls in any way, for they were truly excellent (especially in the Offertory’s “Amen”), but I was struck by the power of the boys’ contribution, particularly in the Sanctus’ closing Hosannas. In light of our small country’s crisis of post-industrial, young male identity and alienation, this was heart-warming. One young man may well have had a life-changing evening. Daniel Doolan’s serene “Pie Jesu”, thrilled a sold-out Usher Hall.

****1