I would be surprised if, by the end of the evening, I'd been the only one to suspect a hidden pun in the programme's title, 'In The Steppes of Central Europe'. All three pieces shared a dance element. You would expect this from Kodály's Dances of Galánta. Commissioned in 1933 to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Society, this seamless suite features dance tunes from the town of Galánta (now in Slovakia), where Kodály spent seven years of his childhood. Odd as it may sound, I've never heard these pieces sounding so Slavic. The SCO really nailed this work. There was great freedom in the interpretation – never more so than in Maximiliano Martín's solo clarinet passages. Conductor Robin Ticciati's faith that the orchestra would follow him following Martín rendered these moments magically expressive. Contrastingly, the more rhythmic moments exuded great swagger and breadth and – most importantly – pace. The danger of the audience settling into a steady pulse and then switching off was simply not present. This was edge-of-the-seat enjoyment.

Robin Ticciati, © Chris Christodoulou
Robin Ticciati,
© Chris Christodoulou

There are many unusual elements in György Ligeti's seven-movement Hamburg Concerto for horn and chamber orchestra. Possibly the most significant of these is that the soloist works in conjunction with four natural (valveless) horns in the orchestra. The natural overtones of these horns do not align with the equal temperament our ears now erroneously regard as the 'natural order'. As a result of this, the piece is suffused with the tension between ancient and modern sound worlds. In its more still moments, one is drawn into beautifully shimmering, shape-shifting beats as held notes from the chorale of horns mingle in the air. These passages contrast dramatically with much more rhythmic, dance-like moments – into one of which a note of grooviness is injected by bongo drums.

The soloist, 26-year-old Alec Frank-Gemmill, was astonishing. This piece has moments of stratospheric virtuosity, particularly passages which begin on (rather than build towards) an extremely high note. In addition to this, the concerto required him to alternate between modern and natural horn. It seems a resonant fact that one of his teachers was Marie-Luise Neunecker, for whom the concerto was written.

I spent the following day in the company of Dr. Michael Searby (who also gave the excellent pre-concert talk), Alec Frank-Gemmill and Robin Ticciati at a related and fascinating 'Explore Ligeti' event. I would have been propelled into further exploration of this piece solely on the strength of the performance. However, hearing the musicians discuss the work and its composer will accelerate further investigation. It will probably come as no surprise that the quality of discussion and refection upon the artistry of those involved, and the work required to achieve it, was inspirational.

Honesty compels me to confess that I've never been mad about Dvořák. I really chose this concert for the Ligeti and Kodály. However, I heard a new side to this composer and have the SCO to thank for that. The beat-threatening syncopations and cross-rhythms in his Symphony no. 5 in F major (1875) were infectious and really made sense in the context of the evening's imaginative programming.

Contrasting optimistic, outdoor, major-key movements with much more contained, wistful, minor-key music, the symphony is both dramatic and dynamic – and also very inventive. For example, the light third movement opens by retaining the dark mood and material of the second. The sense of release and freedom is all the greater for the deferred unleashing of the expected tempo. More dramatically, the closing Allegro molto delivers the promised tempo at the outset – but in a minor key. The tension in the journey to the major finish, sensed as imminent yet somehow delayed, was gripping. This was an electrifying performance; all the more impressive when one thinks that an ensemble at one with Ligeti's idiosyncratic beauty could, twenty minutes later, cast such an energising light on Dvořák that his name will, for me, leap out of future programmes.

*****