Review: Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s 40th

First published in the Guardian on 7 February, 2014

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

There were bouquets and balloons for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s 40th birthday; a packed house, a warm home crowd and a rare (and very heartfelt) speech from the orchestra’s terrific young principal conductor Robin Ticciati. The celebrations steered clear of anything too flash, as befits an ensemble whose concern has always been their playing, not their image.

And it was the spirited freshness of that playing that came across so well here. New music opened the programme: a birthday commission called Six Speechless Songs by the orchestra’s recently-appointed associate composer Martin Suckling. The 32-year-old Glaswegian writes with an astonishingly clear hand. He cuts to the point, illuminates contrast like a Chiaroscuro painting and doesn’t hide behind clutter. These six fleeting movements are buoyant and shimmering. Among many striking moments are squalling strings, daringly sparse stretches and a yearning trumpet call that glows like a beacon through the haar. The orchestra played it all with brilliantly lithe attack.

In Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto, Ticciati delved into the wistful opening phrase like a series of restless breaths. The sound was searching and translucent, more Mozart than Chopin, and made for some revelatory colours in the orchestral score. Pianist Maria Joao Pires brought chilly poise to the solo part. Her ornaments were frosty, her slow movement never really thawed.

A superb account of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony came after the interval: vivid, exhilarating and full of surprises. Ticciati kept tempos crisp, articulation crystal-clear and textures feather-light. Fortes were little explosions of colour, never bombastic, and pianos were thrillingly whispered. A sense of optimism started brewing long before the triumphant finale – the Andante was radiant, and every small phrase in the scherzo bloomed exuberantly at its crest. How to sum up a proud 40-year legacy within a single concert? This Beethoven wasn’t far off the mark.