Review: Robin Ticciati’s Schumann cycle with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

First published in the Guardian on 23 November, 2013

SCO/Ticciati
Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Schumann’s symphonies don’t require any vast choral forces or orchestral overtime pay, but to underestimate their unique challenge is to deny the world of riches they contain. Schumann doesn’t always finish his sentences or dress up his impulses in formal rhetoric, and yet (or maybe therefore) these works reveal his entire experience of life – and something of our own in the process. How to do justice to his fantastic stream-of-consciousness in a way that hangs together and makes more than the sum of its extraordinary parts?

Robin Ticciati opened his Schumann cycle with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra by honing in as far as possible. He began with the Fourth, in its heftier 1851 version, and approached with forensic detail its sighing violin phrases, punchy brass chords and arced wind lines. Despite a few balance problems (winds too heavy for strings) and scrappy entries, this was an illuminating account that highlighted rare gems of orchestral colour. But did it hang together? Only sometimes. Ticciati loaded such meaning onto every fleeting detail that eventually he weighed himself down.

The First Symphony made more sense. Schumann wrote it in just four heady days: he was newly married to Clara and the music poured out trembling and giggling, brimming with chutzpah. The SCO brought it to life with lusty bombast in the Scherzo and giddy swagger in the finale. When Ticciati finds his stride with this orchestra, their energy takes on an irrepressible momentum.

Sandwiched between the two symphonies, Paul Lewis was soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 25, the great C-major. He made surprisingly banal work of it. His playing was ultra-smooth and rhapsodic at times – he found a gorgeous palette of impressionist colours in the Andante – but overall it felt long, a little laboured, and never quite lifted off.