The Scottish Chamber Orchestra made a welcome return to the Proms after two years’ absence (their last appearance was in the late night Prom in 2010), led by their youthful principal conductor Robin Ticciati, who has already been in the post for four years. They brought a programme showcasing the early 19th-century repertoire which Ticciati has recently been exploring with this orchestra. They have recently released two discs of Berlioz’s works, and it was with his King Lear Overture (1831) that they opened the concert.

Stephen Hough © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Stephen Hough
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

The overture is one of the early fruits of Berlioz’s fascination with the plays of Shakespeare. It is dramatic and rhetorical, beginning with the lower strings playing a long recitative portraying the old and solitary King Lear – Ticciati phrased the recitative with a strong sense of direction. In the main section which contrasts the stormy Allegro and the poignant second theme, the orchestra played with clarity of texture and tight ensemble, responding to Ticciati's every expressive gesture. Ticciati’s approach to Berlioz is more lyrical than that of his mentor, Berlioz specialist Colin Davis (who sadly passed away earlier this year), but his flowing and elegant approach suits the chamber forces of the SCO – although on this occasion the string section had been augmented for the Royal Albert Hall.

Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 followed the Berlioz overture – interestingly, the two works were composed in the same year, 1831 (was this intentional programming?). It is a brilliant and technically demanding work but not as naturally showy as other popular Romantic concertos by composers such as Chopin or Grieg, and it can be difficult to pull off. Who better than the inimitable Stephen Hough to give the work the necessary momentum? As soon as the orchestra set the tone, Hough plunged into the main theme with urgency and ferocious energy – at times the orchestra had to work hard to keep up with him – but it was certainly thrilling. He showed tender lyricism in the second theme, and the orchestra produced a fresh and transparent sonority. Structurally, too, it is an interesting work – the solo cadenza at the end of the first movement leads seamlessly into the second movement, and the transition was beautifully handled by Ticciati. After the reflective and poetic slow movement, the finale was full of joy and brilliance, and Hough and the orchestra responded to each other with enthusiasm.

After the turbulent romanticism of the first half, the second half began surprisingly with the austere Canon and Fugue from Bach’s Art of Fugue, in the arrangement by George Benjamin for an ensemble of nine players. It was played with precision and clarity, with the two horns adding colour to the string ensemble, but I felt that the delicate textures were lost in the vastness of the RAH. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of these pieces until I noticed the prominent use of fugues in the Eroica symphony that followed. Possibly Ticciati wanted to highlight the links to baroque forms in Beethoven.

Ticciati and the SCO’s Eroica was essentially lyrical, light and lively and they approached it more from the 18th-century side than the 19th century. After all, it was composed in 1803. In the first movement, perhaps they could have brought out the radical elements more strongly. But the mood of the second movement, the funeral march, was perfectly judged and the mostly vibrato-less strings created a poignant and sombre atmosphere. The scherzo was light and airy, although at times I wished for a little more bite. Here, the use of natural horns, trumpets and timpani proved highly effective: the three horns in particular deserve the highest praise for their magnificent playing in the Trio section.

Ticciati then led the orchestra without a pause into the final movement, which was performed with energy and grandeur and showed that the orchestra was in fine form. Each variation was finely articulated and after the Bach, I’m sure we all paid more attention to the fugal sections! In this sense, I felt the performance emphasised Beethoven’s classicism more than his radicalism.

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