First published in the Guardian on 7 November, 2016
“Symphonic boa-constrictors” is how Brahms famously slated Bruckner’s symphonies. A century and a half of might-is-right Brucknerian performance practice taught us to brace for august cathedrals of sound if we’re lucky, bloated juggernauts of Teutonic stodge if we’re not. But does this music have to be unrelentingly hefty? Various conductor have asked the question. Robin Ticciati has made a habit of redressing big romantic orchestral works through the neat, lithe lens of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra — together they’ve unveiled ravishing colours in Berlioz and Brahms and now Bruckner, making his Fourth Symphony sound all sorts of unBrucknerian adjectives like limpid, refined, nimble, inquisitive.
Maybe it helped that the concert was inadvertently compact: the opening piece, Richard Strauss’s Oboe Concerto, was dropped at the last minute when the soloist was taken ill, leaving Bruckner 4 alone on the bill. Funny how a single-work programme works wonders for concentration spans. And it wasn’t that Ticciati took tempos any faster than normal or did novelty things with the overall architecture — in fact, he made the pacing fairly expansive from the outset and took his time unfolding themes with a sense of exploratory awe. What was revelatory was the subtle textural stuff. The strings opened with a light-refracting shimmer; the solo lines of the bittersweet Andante were tender and questioning, the Scherzo bounced along like pond skaters. In the finale the strings unleashed thick downbows for a moment, as though parodying classic Bruckner and reminding us what this performance was not.