Symphonies Nos 1-4
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Robin Ticciati
Linn Records CKD 601
These wonderfully fluid performances are a fitting testament to the highly productive nine-year partnership between conductor Robin Ticciati and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and they also draw our attention to the beauty and resourceful imagination of Brahms’s orchestration.
Eyebrows are no longer raised at the prospect of hearing Brahms performed by modestly-sized orchestras. After all, the composer specifically conceived his Third and Fourth Symphonies for the small forces of the Meiningen Court Orchestra, and the orchestra that premiered the First Symphony in Karlsruhe was made up of only 49 players. Even if you discount historical precedence, there are numerous musical reasons for justifying this approach. The most obvious is the resultant reduction in the number of strings from that of a full-scale symphony orchestra. Not only does this enable the wind and brass to assume a much more dominant role in the overall texture, but it also gives Brahms’s orchestration greater clarity, linearity and rhythmic tension as well as divesting the music of any lingering middle- aged spread.
There are also notable advantages in employing instruments with which Brahms would have been familiar. In this recording, the use of the more sharply defined Viennese horns and the smaller bored trombones, not to mention the harder sticks in the timpani, employed with incredibly powerful effect at the very opening of the First, is startling, transforming the overall orchestral sonority in so many subtle ways.
But perhaps one of the most striking aspects of these performances is the sheer variety of colours and timbres Robin Ticciati manages to extract from the outstanding strings of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Good examples occur in the slow movements of the Third and Fourth Symphonies where in the most intensely expressive passages, Ticciati encourages his players to project the greatest warmth, using a full-blooded vibrato and judicious use of portamento. In sharp contrast, the notable lack of vibrato in some of the quieter moments works wonders for enhancing the music’s sense of mystery.
Superbly recorded over an intensive fortnight in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, the interpretations communicate freshness, sensitivity, vigour and a real dedication to the music. Throughout
each work, Ticciati projects strongly defined phrase characterisation, coupled with a great sense of forward momentum, heard at its most exhilarating in the Finales of the First and Second Symphonies. There are one or two potentially controversial interpretative decisions, a good example being the sudden increase in tempo for the middle section of the third movement of the Third Symphony. And it’s a pity that fitting Nos 1 and 2 onto a single CD means sacrificing first movement exposition repeats.
But in the end, these are very minor issues when faced with such exciting, revelatory performances that make you listen afresh to this wonderful life-enhancing music.